By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
Ford Racing team owner Roger Penske has businesses scattered across the globe and an employee list that stretches into the tens of thousands.
The Penske style is polished. Starched white shirts and business suits. Professionalism to the nth degree.
In auto racing, as in business, Penske has built an empire marked by success of the highest order -- victories and championships across a broad landscape. Many of international motorsports’ greatest drivers have buckled seatbelts in Penske machines.
With all that goes on daily in the Team Penske shop in Mooresville, N.C., and on the road for 38 Sprint Cup weekends, it’s easy for teams to drop the ball, miss something or roll into a track without every I dotted and every T crossed. It’s Mike Nelson’s job, as one of Penske’s point men, to make sure those items don’t become issues.
Nelson, who has worked for Penske his entire career, is Team Penske’s vice president of operations. Such positions have different titles from team to team in Sprint Cup, but the basic plan is this -- everything that happens at the shop and on the road fits under the umbrella.
It’s a big responsibility, but, as Nelson points out, the successes of Team Penske depend on a big web of individuals, all working toward the same goal.
“One of the keys to being successful is to have a group of people who work together,” Nelson said. “You can have the best motors, the best downforce and all, but if the people can’t agree on a common direction and move that way, it’s not going to work.”
Nelson’s workplace stretches from the sprawling and spotless Penske shop to race sites north and south, east and west. He travels to most of the Cup weekends, but realizes that if the right level of work hasn’t been done at the shop before the road crew leaves, the task at the track becomes tougher.
“The sport has really changed over the years,” Nelson said. “We have a lot more people back home than we do on the road. It’s an interesting point that people don’t pick up on a lot.
“The team has a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot of preparation that’s needed to get the cars to the track every week – not only get them there but be competitive when you’re there. It really takes a lot of people.”
Nelson has been a frequent track visitor in the early part of the season as Team Penske has roared out of the gate in fine style. Drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been consistent, each scoring three top-five finishes in the first six races. Keselowski is seventh in points, and Logano is eighth, only one point behind his teammate. Keselowski already has notched a victory (at Las Vegas), virtually assuring him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I go to a majority of the races, and, especially at the beginning of the season I go a lot to get a good feel for the challenges we’re facing,” Nelson said. “Then I try to stand back a little. There are a lot of things that go on back at the shop that require my attention. I try to get the best balance.”
Good race teams are ready, not reactive, Nelson said.
“We hope we don’t have to be reactive,” he said. “We hope we’re prepared for most of the scenarios we have, but the reality is you might have a problem you don’t expect. Travis Geisler, our competition director, keeps the guys at the track moving in the right direction. We work closely to try to solve the problems we have.”
Nelson, 41, had no solid plans to move into motorsports as a professional when he was acquiring bachelor and masters degrees in mechanical engineering from Clemson University in the 1990s. But he signed on with Penske as a data acquisition engineer in 1998, beginning a run that saw him work for the team as a race engineer and crew chief before moving into his current position in 2008.
“I just wanted to compete,” Nelson said. “I raced motocross as a kid. I played football and baseball. I just wanted to beat everybody else at what I did.
“I never got interested in auto racing until I got into college. I figured out there that I possibly could use my engineering skills in racing and, in particular, NASCAR racing. I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity with Penske all those years ago.”