#35 - Viva Las Vegas
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
This week's history column presents a bit of a problem. Because the upcoming Las Vegas race is the inaugural Winston Cup event at the facility, obviously there's no great Cup race memories to relate. Rather than dealing with epic races of yore, instead I'll concentrate on a bit of trivia, the first, and until this weekend only, top rank NASCAR event ever held in Las Vegas. That's correct. NASCAR ran a Grand National race in Las Vegas way back on October 16, 1955. Recall that Las Vegas was still a relatively new gambling Mecca back in 1955, with the first Las Vegas hotel-casino, the Flamingo, having opened in 1946. It was rather like Atlantic City back then, only with better weather and a higher class of mobsters, like the Flamingo's builder of record, Bugsy Siegel, who had a rather unfortunate high caliber retirement party at the hands of his rivals the very next year.
The Las Vegas race was held at the Las Vegas Park Speedway, a one mile dirt oval that had started out as a horse racing track. Prior to NASCAR's visit, the track had already played host to a Indy Car event in 1954. The Grand National race was won by Norman Nelson, who had a two lap lead over Bill Hyde, who in turn was two laps ahead of Bill West. Don't feel bad if none of these names are familiar to you. To be honest, I had never heard of them either. It was the only race Nelson ever won, but in light of the fact his career included only five races, that's not too bad a batting average. Hyde's career included 7 races, and West's 8. So how did these relative unknowns (known only to their relatives that is) beat out the heroes of the day, the Flock Brothers, Lee Petty, Joe Weatherly, Buck Baker and Herb Thomas? To be honest, they didn't. Those drivers and most of the other stars of racing from the Southeast were busy that day. NASCAR staged another Grand National race that same day at Martinsville, which is where all the big names were running. In those days Bill France often staged two races on the same day, one on the west coast and one on the east, with both awarding Grand National points towards the championship, as he tried to gain a foothold in the new markets in the west... which is exactly why the Winston Cup series is going back to Las Vegas as well.
The 1955 event in Las Vegas was scheduled to be a 200-mile affair. Unfortunately, there was a horrendous wreck on lap 74 that involved 12 of the 27 entries that day. The red flag had to be thrown to allow the wreckers to clear the mess and that took a while. Nelson, who had taken the lead from Lloyd Dane on the fifth lap, was still on the point when the action resumed and never gave up the lead again. At lap 111 darkness fell, and the race was ended. Norman Nelson won the event, at a blistering pace of 44.5 miles per hour in his Chrysler. 13 cars were still listed as running when the event ended, leaving one to speculate if any car would still have been running had the race gone the full distance. The first place check amounted to $1325, which incidentally is $225 more than Speedy Thompson got for winning at Martinsville that same afternoon.
Thompson and Nelson shared a few interesting things. Both drove the dominating Chrysler 300s, the two door version of the more sedate New Yorker, powered by 331 cubic inch Hemi engines. Both cars were white; not surprising, considering both entries were owned by the same man, Carl Kiekhaefer, who as part of his plan to dominate stock car racing quite often fielded teams at both east and west coast events. Of course, that meant both cars were also sponsored by Kiekhaefer's company, Mercury Marine Outboards. Exactly why Kiekhaefer decided that a race held out in the middle of the desert would be a good place to advertise boat engines is a bit of trivia lost to history.
NASCAR never returned to the Las Vegas Park Speedway, and the track was soon lost to the urban sprawl of Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Hilton now sits on the site that was once the scene of Norman Nelson's greatest NASCAR triumph.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks as always to Greg Fielden, whose excellent "Forty Years of Stock Car Racing” series provides the only account I have ever found of the less than momentous first NASCAR Las Vegas race.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.