Las Vegas’ NASCAR Success Blessed By the Spirit of the Late Mel Larson
Las Vegas Motor Speedway seems one of the more successful of NASCAR’s current Monster/Cup venues (with the caveat that this is being written before the 2018 race), and at a time when the sport can use all the bright spots it can get, that’s indeed a good thing. With the brothers Busch in the top echelon of Cup drivers, the city also is well represented competitively.
It should be no surprise, though, that I like to think of elements of Vegas’ past, and at the head of that group is someone whose contributions to the sport are largely forgotten outside of the Nevada desert: the late Mel Larson.
Larson, who died late in 2016 at age 87, was part of the group responsible for the creation of LVMS, along with Bill Bennett, his long-time employer at Circus Circus Casino, Ralph Engelstad, also a gaming giant, and Richie Clyne, considered the primary founder. Bennett and Engelstad are also deceased. In 1998 the speedway was sold to Bruton Smith and remains part of Speedway Motorsports.
But the speedway came at the end of Larson’s motorsports career. When he was much younger, he had operated a drag strip in Phoenix, but he soon came to Las Vegas and joined Bennett at Circus Circus, where he was a marketing professional and executive for 20+ years. During that time, Larson also was a race driver.
(His racing activity in Vegas wasn’t limited to the speedway, either. Larson was long involved in drag racing there, as well as the Mint 400 off-road race.)
Here’s Larson, at left at the Mint 400. Having “Miss Mint 400” put her arm around is probably a good way of keeping your heart beating when you’re getting up there.
Between 1955 and 1978 RacingReference.info records Larson driving in 47 Grand National races, with his busiest seasons being 1957 (11 starts in a 53-race season) and 1973 (10 starts in 28 races). The earlier year was his best, with one top-five and six top-ten finishes, including one of his two career pole qualifying efforts.
On Sunday, March 3, at the old Concord (N.C.) Speedway, Larson set a fast time of 62.225 mph on the half-mile dirt track. Unfortunately, outside front-row starter Speedy Thompson beat Larson to the flagstand to lead the first lap, and Larson ended up fourth, 11 laps behind winner Jack Smith, Thompson’s teammate, in a Hugh Babb Chevy. Three Babb cars and a factory Ford finished ahead of Larson.
During this period, Larson apparently ran some Convertible Division races as well, although a quick, very incomplete survey of records on my part found only a last-place finish at Martinsville in 1957. Nevertheless, NASCAR thought enough of him to use his car in some publicity shots, including the close-up above and the shot below. In both, Larson is attired in a natty suit.
Larson’s best day at a Grand National track came in 1960, when he claimed another pole, this time at Phoenix’s one-mile dirt Arizona State Fairgrounds, led six laps, and finished second to Colorado’s John Rostek. Mel Larson may have not have been a full-time racer, but he was serious and more than competent.
Phoenix was one of only four starts that year, and Larson then took nearly a decade off, with his next GN appearance in 1970 at Riverside’s road course. Other than his 10 starts in ‘73, he would run only sporadically after that, with his last race coming at the end of the 1978 season at Ontario, Calif. By then he was 49, and racing had changed, making it more and more difficult for a part-timer to be competitive; his ninth-place at Riverside in 1970 had been his final top 10 finish.
The sad part about this brief retelling of Mel Larson’s racing history is that it couldn’t happen today. There was a time when a “gentleman” (or “gentlewoman”) driver - singer Marty Robbins was another - could enter a race and run competitively, but that was before the charter system and the virtually closed world of NASCAR today.
Remember that Phoenix fairgrounds race mentioned above? Winner John Rostek was another case of what can no longer happen. A Colorado short-track ace (see johnrostekracingmemories.blogspot.com), he ran only five GN races that season and one more three years later (he was a bit more active in USAC and ARCA stocks) but came away with a victory. Any chance of a “who’s that?” car showing up in a Monster/Cup garage today? Is that a good thing? I don’t think so.
Mel Larson at Michigan in 1972, where he finished 17th in a Don Robertson team car to Jabe Thomas. Note Larson’s sponsor, Astro Cycles, taped over Star City Body Shop. It was the latter that was located in Roanoke, Va.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
One of the reasons I think I can survive without televised races these days - my wife and I “cut the cord” on cable/dish nearly two years ago - is that I grew up with racing on the radio, so listening to MRN while watching a leaderboard online suits me pretty well; anything interesting will be available visually on YouTube later.
That thought came to me while writing this article because, back when Larson was competing in the 1970s and I was listening to races on Hank Schoolfield’s Universal Racing Network, ever-the-good-PR-guy Mel would make sure to make himself available for an interview on the air, even when he wasn’t racing that day. I guess these days racers have those “opportunities” programmed in advance by their PR/marketing people, but most of the time the content of their “sound bites” is so canned that I can repeat it before it’s said. Mel Larson would never have stood for such, and he was a pretty successful guy.
New Life for an Old Race Track?
In the sports car/road racing world, several tracks have been repositioned over the years as “clubs” (like country clubs), and Virginia International Raceway near Danville, the one with which I’m most familiar, seems to have been quite successful. Now there’s an effort to do something kind of similar with an oval.
Clearfield Speedway, also known at various times as Central Pennsylvania Speedway or most recently CNB Bank Raceway Park, has been purchased by UMI Performance, the manufacturer of high-end suspension products (available through Summit Racing, JEGS and elsewhere), which is based in nearly Philipsburg, Pa. UMI plans to use the facility for testing its products, but also sees it being available for racing and possibly what it called “ride and drive” events.
Clearfield is a nice facility that has the misfortune of being located in a sparsely populated area - “out in the middle of nowhere” might get complaints from local folks, but others might find the description appropriate. It’s been around for a long time, but its existence was made more difficult when a rival track was built about a mile away. That facility, originally Hidden Valley Speedway but called several things since then, also has struggled and has been closed for the past couple of years.
UMI had originally said it planned a “soft opening” for the what it is calling UMI Motorsports Park with an autocross and cruise-in event in August, but it has now scheduled a race for the late model Stock Car Super Series on July 21.
With the road racing facilities, it seems to have helped to have sources of income other than race-day receipts; maybe this new model will bring UMI Motorsports Park back to life as well. We need all the active tracks we can get, if we’re to attract new fans to (eventually) replace… well, us. Should be interesting.