Racing cars trumps being a rock star

His father was Ricky Nelson, one of the first teen idols, the “Travelin’ Man” who went to a “Garden Party” and was nobody’s “Poor Little Fool.”

His mother, Kristin Harmon, played officer Jim Reed’s wife on “Adam-12” but made her living painting pictures, once selling one to Jacqueline Kennedy.

His paternal grandparents were Ozzie and Harriet. His other grandpa won the Heisman Trophy and flew jets for the 449th Fighter Squadron. Tom Harmon, ol’ No. 98, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. When Grandpa Tom got married to actress Elyse Knox, she wore a wedding dress made from one of his parachutes.

His uncle Mark — Mark Harmon — was UCLA’s starting quarterback and went on to star on this little thing on TV called “NCIS.” You may have heard of him, too.

One of his aunts was Mindy from “Mork &Mindy” (Mark Harmon has been married to actress Pam Dawber since 1987); one, Kelly, was the Tic Tac girl, and appeared on “Battlestar Galactica,” “CHiPS,” “One Day at a Time” and “T.J. Hooker.” She also was married for a brief time to John DeLorean.

Why couldn’t it have been Mario Andretti?

That’s the vibe one gets after chatting with Matthew Nelson, one of Rick Nelson and Kristin Harmon’s twin sons. Matthew and his brother Gunnar had the musical chops, too, and in 1990 they had a No. 1 hit of their own, “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.”

That was when the boys had long blond hair. They may not have gotten their picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone, but they were on the front of People magazine.

This weekend they’ll be at the South Point Showroom, singing their father’s hits in “Ricky Nelson Remembered.”

Tickets are reasonably priced, and it’s a good show; I saw it a couple of years ago when the boys were just putting it together at a classic car show on Water Street in downtown Henderson. You’ll be tapping your foot during “Hello Mary Lou,” and the old family film clips are awesome. As a woman standing behind me said of Matthew and Gunnar’s old man, “!@#%, he was good lookin’.”

But I chatted with Matthew Nelson for nearly an hour the other day, and he barely mentioned the show. All he wanted to talk about was cars, classic cars and muscle cars and racing cars. He started by describing the 1969 Chevelle SS 396, his preferred means of transportation. He described it in such a way you could almost hear the 325 ponies.

No, Mario Andretti wasn’t his uncle, but the legendary auto racing pioneer Carroll Shelby, who in his later years moved his operation to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was a friend of the family. That led to Matthew showing up at Willow Springs Raceway in the California desert at the crack of dawn on one glorious morning, racing helmet tucked under his arm.

Shelby had arranged for him to drive one of his Can-Am prototype sports cars. It was 118 degrees, and Matthew was wearing a balaclava and flame-resistant coveralls made of Nomex. Buzzards were circling on the backstretch.

And yet, “It was the coolest experience I’ve ever had in my life,” he said of driving the Can-Am car.

Remember, this is a guy who was once a rock star. I’m sure that when “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, he and Gunnar got a lot of girls.

Both of Rick Nelson’s boys liked to race cars, either illegally, late at night, up on serpentine Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica foothills overlooking Los Angeles where they grew up, or preferably on a racetrack, whenever they could get a ride.

“I took to it and so did Gunnar, although he’ll admit I’ve always been a little quicker,” Matthew Nelson, 47, said over the telephone.

He spoke of racing at the Long Beach Grand Prix against the legendary Parnelli Jones and his son P.J. — “one glorious lap” he said before his Toyota blew up in the annual Pro-Celebrity race — and of zipping around the LVMS Bullring in a Legends car belonging to one of the female regulars.

“I hammered the clutch at the green light and completely cooked it,” he said.

But when his car was fast and reliable, so was Matthew Nelson. Such as the time he won a big Legends race in Nashville, Tenn.

“I made just enough money to be dangerous,” he said of his racing talent.

And then we both mentioned Vince Neil driving an Indy Lights car in a real race at the Long Beach Grand Prix, and how the Motley Crue front man drove out of the pits and back onto the track after he hit something and the rear wing had fallen off.

Vince Neil made just enough money to be dangerous in a racecar, too.

Matthew Nelson is settling down now — he recently became a father — and so he mostly talks about racing cars instead of actually doing it.

His dad was a bit of a car guy, too, he said. Rick Nelson drove a Pantera. One night, Steve McQueen challenged him to a race on Mulholland. McQueen won.

You could sense the passion as he told that story, and then we both agreed “Le Mans,” starring the great Steve McQueen and the equally great (and awesome) Gulf Porsche 917, was the best movie about auto racing ever made.

Because it was mostly about auto racing, mostly about the cars. It did not co-star Ann-Margret.

Said Matthew Nelson: “It wasn’t an Elvis movie.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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