Riding open road across small-town America rejuvenates Gary Nelson entering the Rolex 24

Rolex 24 Gary Nelson
Richard Dole/LAT Photo USA
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Gary Nelson had the arrival date, the distance and the destination but no direct route.

That’s how the team manager for Action Express rolls with two wheels on the open road.

And that’s how Nelson likes to bring his Twitter following along while exploring America on a motorcycle – most recently on a leisurely weeklong jaunt around Florida, from Daytona Beach to the Everglades to Key West.

“I knew I wanted to be in the Keys at New Year’s, and that’s all I knew,” Nelson told NBC Sports with a laugh during a recent interview. “I had time, so I checked with people, and they’d offer suggestions of places to go or see, and I kind of just wandered.

“My life is so structured year-round, it’s kind of nice to not have a plan other than try not to get into cold weather.”

Nelson fell in love with dirt bikes while growing up in the warmth of Southern California, where he also became an ace short-track mechanic working with the legendary Ivan Baldwin in a career that led to NASCAR’s premier series.

“As soon as I was old enough to mow enough lawns to get one of my own, I started riding dirt bikes, and I stayed with bikes all the way into my NASCAR career,” Nelson said. “When I moved to the South, I sold my bikes to be able to start the NASCAR career. I didn’t ride from the 1970s until the mid-1980s, and then I picked it back up again. So I’ve got most of my life on some kind of motorcycle.”

After a successful career as a NASCAR crew chief (winning the 1982 Daytona 500 and the 1983 Cup championship with Bobby Allison at DiGard Racing), Nelson, 67, moved to Cup Series director for more than a decade. He then helped drive safety advancements while overseeing the R&D Center through 2006. He transitioned to sports cars a few years later, overseeing Action Express in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship Series.

The No. 48 Cadillac, which will be driven by Jimmie Johnson, Simon Pagenaud, Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller, tests last month at Daytona International Speedway for the Rolex 24 at Daytona (Brian Cleary/bcpix.com).

The team, which will field the Cadillacs that will feature Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, has become a perennial championship contender (including a 2014 Rolex victory), and Nelson sometimes rides between races and tests.

He is a member of the Iron Butt Association for endurance motorcycle racing, which requires riding 1,500 miles in 36 hours — Nelson did it with a round trip from the Charlotte, North Carolina, area to Springfield, Illinois, to watch the American Flat Track Series, a frequent off-weekend pleasure.

“One of my favorite things to start in the morning is find a town that I’ve never heard of that’s in the middle of the map somewhere that’s obviously going to be a very small town,” he said.

“I’ll put that in my GPS with no toll roads, no interstates, and it’ll take me back roads to these towns. It may only be 100 miles, but along the way if I see something, I’ll stop and explore it, whether restaurant, monument, old building or river. That’s my way of navigating, and I’ll sometimes take dirt roads to get to them.”

That works well with his primary ground rule of staying off the highway.

“Because you’ve got to concentrate so much with all the threats coming at you from all directions,” he said. “But on the back roads, you can kind of take your eye off the road a little bit and look around.”

He has ridden a Kawasaki 1400 on trips to the Midwest, but he took his Yamaha FJR 1300 to Florida after Christmas because of its cruise control on the long, straight back roads.

His favorite part of Florida was the Everglades, where he landed for a two-night stay at Chokoloskee Island after following a road down the west coast of the state to its terminus.

“I was really surprised how nice and relaxed everything was,” Nelson said. “It was a way of knowing you’re at the end of the road.

“That was my most pleasant surprise. But then I road down through the Keys and did the east coast of Florida to the end of the road, which is Mile 0 down in Key West. I’d have to say it was equally enjoyable but for different reasons.”

The trip included sightings of a brown panther and alligators, stops at many local restaurants (he tries to avoid chains aside from Waffle House) and several nights in a tent.

He tolerates spartan conditions “as long as the place has a warm shower and clean accommodations, I’m kind of OK with it.”

Nelson’s Twitter feed can be entertaining even when he isn’t on the motorcycle, serving as a quasi-travelogue of charming and hidden landmarks.

While it’s a treat for his followers, it also serves the practical purposes of keeping in touch with five sisters and two brothers who all live on the West Coast.

“My family is quite large, and they all felt like I wasn’t telling them what I was doing,” he said. “It’s a week’s worth of calls to talk to them all. I just said, ‘Follow me on Twitter. I won’t do any political stuff. I’ll do very little of my work stuff, but when I get away from work, you’ll know what I’m doing.’

“Then they all started replying that they like my back roads and all the out-of-the-way places that I find, and I realized that I really enjoy that.”

His ultimate plan is a loop of a few thousand miles around the United States, going west on roads farther north and returning on a southern path that probably would include Route 66.

It’s a route that of course won’t have a definitive route.

“I want to do it all the way with those small-town backroads,” he said. “It probably will be 2,000 to 3,000 miles with no plan, no reservation anywhere.”