A Little Vegas History and Long Trips to Races
There’s not much to say about NASCAR’s premier series’ history in Nevada, beyond this weekend’s destination of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Only one other GN/Cup/Monster race has been run in the state - but there’s a story to that event.
Las Vegas Park Speedway, which held its only Grand National event in 1955, was built as a horseracing track by a guy named Joseph M. Smoot, who later was indicted for embezzling a significant portion of the $2 million he raised for the project. He eventually turned up dead in his hotel room.
Norm Nelson, later champion of USAC’s old stock car division, won the NASCAR race, but this was one of times - as happened in the early days - when two Grand National races were hold on the same day in different parts of the country, and most of the familiar names like Petty, Flock, Weatherly and Herb Thomas were racing at Martinsville, Va., not Las Vegas.
Indy Cars also ran once at Las Vegas Park, as this 1954 race program shows
Although NASCAR never raced there again, the track survived a few more years, and USAC’s stockers raced at Vegas in 1959, with Fred Lorenzen taking the win. Johnny Mantz of Southern 500 fame finished 7th in both the 1955 NASCAR race and the 1959 USAC event.
No doubt it takes a lot of planning to get a race team from the East Coast to the Far West in just a few days, but at least today’s teams have pretty good resources to organize and execute that travel. Think about how much harder it would have been in the open trailer days, before Interstate highways… like in 1951, the first year NASCAR’s Grand National Series ventured west of the Mississippi.
On Sunday, April 15, 1951, 33 cars and drivers raced at Hillsboro, N.C. (The town changed the spelling to Hillsborough some years later.) On Sunday, April 22, they raced in Phoenix, Ariz., not at the current Phoenix International Speedway, but rather at the 1-mile dirt Arizona State Fairgrounds oval. That race also had 33 starters, and seven of them had been in the field at Hillsboro a week earlier.
The road warriors and their finishes were:
Fonty Flock (1st & 4th)
Tim Flock (4th & 3rd)
Bill Blair (3rd & 23rd)
Herb Thomas (7th & 22nd)
Bill Holland (31st & 8th)
Lee Petty (9th & 26th)
Walt Sprague (25th & 32nd)
Holland drove the two races for different car owners, but the others almost certainly hauled the Hillsboro car across the country and ran at Phoenix a week later.
In fact, the week after that, the series returned East for a race on Sunday, April 29, at North Wilkesboro, and six of the seven (all but Sprague) were there as well, with Fonty Flock winning over Tim Flock, Petty and Holland.
That round trip today - Hillsborough to Phoenix to North Wilkesboro - is more than 4,200 miles by the quickest (mostly interstate) route. Think what it would have been like mostly on two-lane roads in 1951.
Near the end of the 1951 season, there would be another coast-to-coast “triple,” this time from North Wilkesboro on October 21 to Marchbanks Speedway in Hanford, Calif. (then a half-mile dirt track; later, it became a superspeedway, one of NASCAR’s most forgotten tracks) on October 28 to Jacksonville, Fla., on November 4. That time only two racers ran in all three events, Fonty Flock and Herb Thomas. That road trip would have been well over 5,000 miles.
I think you’d be hard pressed to find members of today’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series community who would stay in the game if conditions were what Flock and Thomas endured in 1951.
But here’s one that’s even more bizarre. On Saturday, June 30, 1951, NASCAR’s finest raced at Carrell Speedway in Gardenia, Calif., and West Coast racer Lou Figaro took the win. (Don’t confuse Figaro with Lou Figari, the promoter who, with Larry Mendelsohn, ran the All-Star Racing League for northeastern modifieds in the 1960a and ‘70s.)
The next day, Sunday, July 1, the Grand Nationals ran at the Grand Rapids Speedrome in Michigan, and starting on the outside pole was none other than Lou Figaro. I haven’t researched this, but I have to think he had a second car ready in Michigan and flew in from the West Coast Saturday night. (The trip would have been well over 2,000 miles.)
Unfortunately, Figaro’s luck didn’t hold out, and he finished last in his effort to win a weekend double. Even more unfortunately, Figaro lost his life three years later in a wreck at North Wilkesboro.
Racing in NASCAR’s top circuits remains demanding, more so than most of us can imagine, but if the ghost of Fonty Flock or Herb Thomas could join a team heading out to Vegas next week, I have a feeling today’s crews would get tired of a certain phrase being repeated:
“You think THIS is bad!”
Most of the names from 1951 were at least vaguely familiar to me (a long-time NASCAR fan and admitted “old guy”), but Walt Sprague wasn’t, so I did a little checking, with the usual help of Racing-Reference.info and other sources.
Sprague was a New Yorker, 25 years old, who had raced locally at Wellsville Raceway and was making only his second Grand National Start at Hillsboro. Two weeks after Phoenix, he came home 7th in a race at Martinsville.
His last GN start was in Toledo, Ohio, on August 19. Five days later he died in a non-NASCAR race at the Monroe County Fairgrounds, not far from Rochester, N.Y. A lumberman by trade, he left a wife and two young children.