|Chuck Norris, left, was kind enough to forgive me, second from right, for aggressive driving in a Frontier 500 media race. Also included in the event were my co-driver Paul Page, second from left, and an unidentified Norris co-driver.
When the call came to participate in a media off-road race for the Frontier 500, I jumped at the opportunity.
At the time, the Frontier 500 from Las Vegas to Reno was considered a true test and coverage of the event was a natural. The closer a journalist could get to the action, the better and as a sports writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I needed to get closer to the sport of off-road racing.
Mind you, my luck in media events has not been good. I rolled a go-kart at Craig Road Speedway in North Las Vegas in the 1970s in a wreck so ugly that Tom Busch, the father of NASCAR greats Kurt and Kyle Busch, stopped his kart in its tracks on a special course set up at the quarter-mile paved oval.
Years later, the elder Busch would tell me “Man, we thought you were dead. We all just stopped.”
Then, there has been the runaway go-kart on Fremont Street when I almost went to jail because a cop from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department would not believe that the kart I was driving (a) was participating in a media event and (b) had no brakes. While I was supposed to have stopped after one block, the swift kart with “Coors” down the cowling was seen dodging pedestrians until I was able to get it stopped three blocks late.
After receiving assistance from KJ Howe of the Mint Hotel and Bruce Aguilera from Caesars Palace, I was finally whisked away from the cop who was close to my nose as he screamed obscenities at me that I’d later refer to him as “Officer Bulldog Breath” in a column before an editor wisely removed what I thought was rather clever description.
Howe, the energetic former director of the Mint 400 off-road race, finally got my drivers license back from a cop he referred to as “having a size ten head and a size two brain.” Both he and Aguilera not to mention my friends and family had to be wondering what happened considering that I had not returned to the starting line after what was supposed be a one-on-one race with an opponent.
“Henle, I’m telling you,” Howe mused as we pushed the kart back to the starting line on Fremont Street near the old Union Plaza during a promotion for the Caesars Palace Grand Prix. “You could start a fight in the Sistine Chapel on Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sakes.”
So it goes without saying that I have walked a ragged line in my days of motorsports. Yet other episodes included needing 13 stitches over my right eye after being hurt in a demolition derby.
But participating in the media event for the Frontier 500 seemed like an easy assignment especially as we all gathered to drive or ride in new Nissan trucks. I was really pleased to learn that noted television auto racing commentator Paul Page would be riding shotgun in our truck.
Knowing my history, I thought it wise to take my time in the Nissan since yet one other off-road experience included a near rollover when legendary racers Walker Evans and Rod Hall left us in the dust south of Tonopah. Evans and Stewart were running at Mach I and I didn’t realize they turned right when I went straight.
The truck went airborne and I still remember co-rider Bobby Keyser of Coors of Las Vegas cussing as the truck went nose first into the desert after being in the air for what seemed like an eternity. We both escaped the mishap although the truck finally had to be babied to Reno on the highway because of severe front end damage.
However, it was on this day in Sloan that I discovered that Page was not only an aggressive announcer, but also a great motivator when it came to his sitting in the passenger seat.
I was cruising along just fine when Page suddenly ordered me to put my foot on the gas and move the truck in front of us out of our way. I accepted his order, fired up the adrenaline and started banging the back of the truck in front of us while holding down on the horn at the same time.
In off-road racing, the aggressor lightly taps the back of another vehicle before finally hitting the horn and providing yet another bump. When the vehicle in front doesn’t move out of the way, you continue in your pursuit of clear daylight.
Even though it was more than 30 years ago, I still remember Page in my right ear instructing me to “move that guy in front of you now!” Page continued encouraging me to step up and get the other truck out of my way for several miles.
All seemed to be going fine in the desert south of Las Vegas when we all found our way to the finish line. I don’t recall how we finished, but I was just glad we didn’t end up like the airborne truck south of Tonopah when Keyser’s beer went one way and his head the other as we landed with a thud.
I couldn’t tell who was in the truck that we had been attempting to move during the period of time and frankly, I appreciated the fact that Page had enough confidence in me to think I could get the truck in front of us out of our way.
I remember that we all started to get out of our trucks when I looked at the side of the truck I had been beating on for much of the day. I didn’t know who had been driving and when the name “Chuck Norris” appeared on the side of the truck, I immediately realized that I had been trying to bully a guy who was renowned for not only for being a movie and television star but an expert at martial arts, too.
Norris was known as the ultimate tough guy someone you wouldn’t want to start a fight with especially when driving an off-road truck. You might say that Page and I participated in a form of road rage long before there was such a thing.
I took one look at Norris and thought I’d be drop kicked back to Vegas as I glanced at Page as if to say “Gee, thanks for the encouragement, but we might have tried picking on someone else, you know.”
Norris was so cool about everything that we actually pictures taken after the media event. A devout Christian, he was gracious and eager to participate in the post race media gathering where there were seemingly no hard feelings over the rough housing in the desert.
It seems to me that we actually beat Norris and if we did win, I’d have to give Page credit for the effort. He wasn’t interested in going slow and he also didn’t like finishing first runner up.
For sure, a lesson learned although I’m not sure I would have followed Page’s orders had I know who was driving the truck in front of us.
Frankly, the “en do” Keyser and I experienced trying to catch Evans and Hall north of Las Vegas resulted in less pain than the whooping I could have received south of Las Vegas when Chuck Norris was kind enough to forgive me for my aggressive driving.