Back in the mid-1970s, I was a young sportswriter in my 20s having the time of my life at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. I had been named motorsports editor of the paper long before auto racing had hit the big-time in Southern Nevada.
Pretty much a novice at anything related to auto racing, I was asked to cover a closed-course off-road race at the Las Vegas Speedrome, where the Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts had decided to promote a weekend event. I knew absolutely nothing about off-road racing, but thought it was a good idea to journey out to the track for a look.
SNORE had created a nifty little short course with short straightaways, tight turns and its share of whoops and jumps. While I was attempting to get acclimated to the event, a fella with a crewcut and an obvious love for the sport walked up.
“Is your name Mike Henle?” asked the man, someone named Denny Selleck who also served as one of the founding members of SNORE.
“That’s me,” I said realizing that Selleck was the ultimate promoter.
“So would you like to go for a ride in an off-road car?,” Selleck asked in what sounded like a great opportunity.
Before I knew it, I was being sized for a racing uniform and a helmet for what would turn out to be a ride most people would never touch. Little did I know that Selleck was introducing me to the rough and rugged sport of off-road racing in a two-seat Class II Unlimited buggy driven by a wild man named Russell Job.
Selleck delivered me to Job, who poured concrete during the week and raced off-road events whenever he had spare time. Little did I know that Job and everyone else in the sport took off-road racing very serious and in fact, sometimes put up big money with the winner taking all when the checkered flag had been dropped.
On this particular day, Job was apparently one of the drivers who bet they’d be the first driver to roll thanks to one of the most wicked triple jumps on earth. It was winner-take-all and of course, it was all news to me and I had nothing to be concerned about.
That is until this field of off-road racers took the green flag hell-bent for election. About 50 yards past the start-finish line waited a triple-jump followed by an immediate right-hand turn in a field that reportedly included noted hotel executive/off-road racer Michael Gaughan along with several others who took the sport of off-road racing very serious.
Halfway to the triple jump, Job suddenly warned “Hang on because this son-of-a-bitch is going over” – and he wasn’t kidding. We launched off the dirt in such a wicked climb so drastic that I swore the air traffic control tower a short distance away at Nellis Air Force Base had undoubtedly picked us up on the radar screen.
I was too much of a novice to become too scared while flying through the air, but the landing to be followed by an incredible roll damned sure caught my attention. At last count, I think we rolled four or five times as my helmet bounced off the roll cage during a wicked succession of twists, turns and rolls.
Job’s two-seater finally sat upside down as I attempted to get my head together. The safety crew screamed to the scene of the accident and started rocking the car in an attempt to turn it right-side up.
Once the crew got the car turned over, it was then that I realized the impact related to turning the car right-side-up was damned near as rugged as the accident itself considering the impact. Just as I was attempting to get free from the seat belts before climbing from the buggy, Job immediately ordered me to sit still so that he could get the car started and get back on the course.
Selleck was the first to arrive at the rollover and when he saw the look on my face, all he could do was giggle. Meanwhile, Job got the buggy started again and before I knew it, I was about to once again be going Mach I through a series of whoops and jumps with no end in sight.
You have got to be kidding, I thought to myself. I have just escaped what felt like a 25 car accident on a busy Southern California freeway, and Russell Job wanted to keep going. Job kept shifting trying to find first gear when it was determined that the gear box was thankfully broken.
As luck would have it, a very talented photographer named Tom Ervin got five shots of the car rolling and the photos are carefully placed in frames on the wall of our living room. Every time I walk past the photos, I think back at my first introduction to the sport of off-road racing.
The rollover was so dramatic that it reminded me of the opening to each ABC Wild World of Sports segment when a skier would go into a huge accident after skiing down the ramp during the ski jump. Only, I am still thoroughly convinced that Job’s rollover was so violent that it could have easily replaced the failed ski jump to open ABC Wild World of Sports.
I climbed out of the car and thanked my lucky stars that every bone in my body seemed to be working fine although I was understandably sore. An epileptic who would eventually be cured of the disorder thanks to brain surgery, I still joke that I would never have gotten in Job’s car if I would have had the brain surgery before the infamous ride.
Nevertheless, I’m still addicted to the sport of off-road racing some 40 years after my introduction to the sport on the grounds of what is now Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s rough, it’s tough and besides, memories like the one on that day with Russell Job create memories that will last forever.
As I learned when riding shotgun with Job, hang on for dear life and remember that the guy behind the wheel is chasing a gold mine at the end of the rainbow. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it since Job’s car was the first to roll on that day, he also won the winner-take-all money in fitting fashion.
The only thing missing was the fact that I think I should have gotten half of the winnings in what turned out to be a priceless experience.