|More than 40 years ago, Southern Nevada drag racers took to outlying areas such as the old Salt Lake Highway north of LVMS.
The NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals converges on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway April 5-7 with competitors traveling from all over the nation for the first of two events presented each year.
On the way to the track, there are probably few who will remember that 40 years ago drag racing was conducted several miles off I-15 on what was called the old Los Angeles Highway. With the closure of Stardust International raceway in 1970, drag racers were left without a home.
And drag racers don’t like being without a place to light up the tires, so their group finally started moving around the valley for informal events at sites like the old Salt Lake Highway north of Apex.
Nobody knows for sure where the original idea came from or who organized the gathering spot that became home to drag racers on any given weekend.
“There was some good street racing back in those days,” recalled Blaine Thomas, who owns Chevy Shop in Las Vegas with his father, Clarence. “There was a lot of money that changed hands, too.”
Thomas’s dad, Clarence, 70, also recalls the old days. He said two volunteers stood at the end of the strip with the winning driver getting the flag.
“We used to street race all over town,” said his dad. “Several guys had the homemade Christmas Tree lights. We used to go up on Spring Mountain Road by where the gravel pit is now.
“One time when we were racing by Whiskey Pete’s and a lot of us got arrested and they wanted us to go downtown. We drove our cars downtown and (big-time politician) got us out of trouble.”
Still another stop was Pahrump, according to Thompson.
“The Highway Patrol used to use their radar guns to time us to see how fast we were going,” he said. “At that time Pahrump was a little hole in the wall and everyone tried to help out.”
Long before the internet and social media, word spread rapidly throughout the valley. The keys racing on the old L.A. and Salt Lake highways were flash lights and headlights were necessary during events that drew huge crowds.
“We were all over the place,” recalled Chuck Swift, 67, and a 1964 graduate of Basic High School in Henderson who ran a car called “Mellow Yellow.”
“We had a group that included Kenny Black (now the owner of Anderson and Line Pro Stock drag race team), Garry Green, Clarence Thomas, Kenny Simpson (he had a car named Jesus Freak), Al Perkins, Harry Frank, Don Kruze (he had a car named Thunder Road).
“Back in 1964 or ’65, I used to keep my Castler slicks in the trunk of the car for the L.A. Highway. Some times we raced out where the South Point is now. We were far enough out that if we saw the lights of the cop cars, we had time to get out of there.
Cliff Findlay of Findlay Automotive Group, a graduate of Western High School, once said he recalled when the kids would throw the slicks into the back of their cars, go to the drive-in and go drag racing when the movies were done.
If you had a hot car, it was the perfect night out with the girlfriends.
At the old LA Highway, a makeshift Christmas tree built by some of the enthusiasts from Nellis Air Force Base signaled the starting line. Race machinery had names like “Oldsmoboogie” and some of the equipment was actually so sophisticated that it had to be brought to the strip on the backs of haulers.
From full-race ’56 Chevrolets to Pontiac GTOs and anything with a throttle, a steering wheel and a tank-full of gas, there was enough action to last until the wee morning hours.
However, God forbid anyone should blow an engine in a car that had been driven to the strip considering the long walk back to civilization.
Enthusiasts from all walks of life ranging from high school kids to even public servants attended and competed. Fords and Plymouths were there and so were Chevrolets and Dodges.
It was really something else. When someone would hear that the cops were going to stop the racing, everyone would move to another location like Rancho Road.
Interestingly, the cops were actually participating in race events in some cases with machinery as fierce as anything on the track; and when Rancho Road wasn’t available, Gibson Road in Henderson had a perfect straightaway alongside land that would eventually become the Valley Automall.
Indeed, those were the days when drag racers took their street cars on the road before The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway took drag racing to another level.
The Thomas family will be at the Strip competing in Comp Eliminator driving a 2004 Chevy Cavalier in an event that will draw thousands to LVMS.
The old-timers, though, will never forget racing in the outlying areas of Southern Nevada when a makeshift Christmas tree and two guys at the end of the strip with flags made do for the need for speed.