Down to the Nitty Gritty: Balkum, Nelson not Letting Bomber Points Chase Divide their Friendship


By Chuck Corder

Sometimes the sport of racing can be so cruel.

Established friendships can get ripped apart over championship desires. It would seem as though Five Flags Speedway has such a scenario on its hands with the Butler U-Pull-It Bombers class.

Close allies, current points leader Robert Balkum and reigning track champion Michael Nelson, are separated by six points with just two features left in the season.

Thankfully, Balkum and Nelson have made a pledge to not let a little thing like racing history stand in the way of the bond they’ve formed and nurtured in recent years.

“We’re both out here to have fun,” said the 23-year-old Nelson, who won one of two features Sept. 5 for his fourth victory of the season. “(Balkum has) always helped me out, from the very beginning of my career. And, since last year and through this year, he’s been basically my main help.”

The pair’s friendly rivalry continues Friday night at the famed half-mile asphalt oval. While the Bombers and Beef “O” Brady’s Sportsmen will crown track champions at next Saturday’s Night of Champions on Sept. 27, the race for the Faith Chapel Super Stocks title ends this week.

Todd Jones, who won the Modifieds track championship in 2011, leads defending Super Stocks champion Bubba Winslow by 3 points going in the Friday’s finale.

This Friday also marks the regular season finale for the southeast’s top Super Late Model drivers in the Buddy’s Home Furnishings Blizzard Series in conjunction with the Southern Super Series, a two-year-old SLM touring circuit that stops at the south’s most iconic short tracks.

The gates open at 4 p.m. Friday. Admission is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military and students; $5 for children ages 6 to 11; free for kids under age 5.

The SLMs hope Friday gives them one last chance to get their rides tuned up before the 47th annual Snowballl Derby, the most prestigious short-track race in the country, come December.

Nelson knows a thing or two about Snowball immortality.

Two years ago, at the tender age of 21, the Pine Forest graduate and current U.S. Marine Corps reservist won the Bombers version of the Snowball when the Gary Goodwin’s winning car was thrown out during post-race technical inspection.

“When we heard the news, we were yelling and going crazy,” remembered Nelson, who finished second at the checkered flag before the official ruling came down in the tech shed. “We had the car on a jack stand and it fell off. We didn’t care, though. We still took pictures.

“We didn’t get to finish first on the track, but we’re looking forward to doing that this year.”

First up for Nelson, though, is a chance to successfully defend his first career track title that he locked up last season.

Nelson boasts four wins and nine podium finishes in 2014. That kind of productivity should have him on top of the standings.

But, racing being racing, Nelson’s points sustained a sizeable dent when he blew a motor during the June 13 feature. And what driver was there to help Nelson repair his damage in time for the next feature?

Mr. Balkum himself.

“Robert was the one that helped me and my dad put the thing back together,” Nelson said. “He said he doesn’t regret it. And that’s what competition is all about. We’re making it great for the fans and great for us.”

The sport has also been great for Michael Nelson and Mike Nelson. Father and son used to sit in the stands and watch the races every Friday night when Michael was a kid.

Now, fathers and sons are watching them.

“It means the world to me,” Michael Nelson said of being able to share the racing experience with his old man. “That kinda put us together and made our relationship so much better. I’m making him proud, and it feels awesome.”

Like Nelson, Balkum has his dad in mind in his pursuit for his first career track championship at Five Flags.

He hopes hoisting a track title will ignite a wild celebration for his father, Rickie Balkum Sr.

“It probably means more to my dad than me, really, because we’ve been working at it for a long time,” Robert Balkum said. “We’ve been pretty consistent this year. We kinda want that championship bad.”

The great thing about Balkum and Nelson, though, is whoever comes out on top this Friday and at next weekend’s Night of Champions, the other will be right there to congratulate the victor.