Mad Dog's thought for the day: Two things define you. Your patience when you have nothing, and your attitude when you have everything --- author unknown


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Long before auto racing went big-time in Southern Nevada, Craig Road Speedway was king 30 years ago
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More than 30 years ago, Craig Road Speedway in North Las Vegas drew some of the top short track racers in the country. Shown competing in an open competition event are, from left, Jimmy Insolo (38), Phil "The Mad Hatter" Hayes (22) and "Roarin" Oren Prosser.
  1. Editor’s Note: Over the years, North Las Vegas has lost a pair of prize recreation outlets including Craig Road Speedway and Craig Ranch Golf Course.

In this feature, I take a look back at CRS, which attracted some of the sport’s top competitors.

With all the history of motorsports in Southern Nevada, the remnants of a stock car track in North Las Vegas reflect countless memories even though the facility closed 30 years ago.

Craig Road Speedway was a ¼-mile paved oval that opened in 1965 before closing in 1982. In its day, some of the sport’s prominent names went pedal-to-the-metal on the track situated about two miles west of I-15 in North Las Vegas.

At one time or another, drivers like off-road racer Roger Mears, along with future NASCAR Winston Cup stars like Mark Martin, Ernie Ervin, Dick Trickle, Ray Elder, Hershel McGriff and Ron Hornaday would journey to Southern Nevada for a chance to race in what was then the middle of the desert.

Open wheelers Rodger Ward and Bill Cheeseberg, both Indy car drivers from the 1950s and 1960s, also competed at CRS.

Cheeseberg ran stock cars until he reached his 60s and had a best of 10th place in the Indy 500 in 1958 after starting 33rd. His best starting position at the Brickyard was ninth in 1961.

 Wayne Newton, left, congratulates 1998 Las Vegas 400 Winston Cup winner Mark Martin, who also competed at Craig Road Speedway in the late 1970s.

Martin was a teenager when he journeyed from Batesville, Ark., in about 1978. Today, he remains one of the favorite drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. While he didn’t have a very good day during the Fall Open Comp at CRS, he returned to win the inaugural Las Vegas 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race in 1998 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Elder was a farmer from Caruthers, Calif., who would be inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in its first class in 2002 while McGriff was a logger from Oregon who won four races in the Grand National Series in 1954; and also had 17 Top 10 finishes in 24 events.

Mears, the brother of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, won the Spring Open Comp at CRS in the late 1960s. The father of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Casey Mears, he would go on to participate in off-road racing.

Derrick Cope would race at CRS before winning the Daytona 500 and finally relegating himself to a start-and-park Cup regular. In fact, the Daytona 500 had as many as five starters from CRS for several years.

Local competitors looked forward to Craig Road’s races every week. Some would bring multiple cars to the track and race in different divisions and some even drove their cars on city streets to the track with the header open.

Owned by Las Vegas businessman Bob Van Norman, CRS drew big names in short track racing for open comp events each spring and fall; while recording huge crowds on a weekly basis from Easter Sunday in April to the last week of October.

 The end of Craig Road Speedway

The stories of CRS were endless. In a sense, the track served as a tremendous tourist attraction while also proving to be a huge economic boost to North Las Vegas. Most of the nicknames created by announcer Gene Drew included Phil “The Mad Hatter” Hayes, Bob "Red Feather" Ruppert, Ralph “Flipper” Atkins, Gus “the Arkansas Traveler” Newman, Jerry “The Mad Bumper” Green, Richard “The Ice Man” Alderman, Fearless Fred Alexander and “Terrible” Tommy Montes frequented the track to produce memorable storylines.

Hayes, a master at both driving and building race cars, collected two track titles second only to electrician Jimmy Sanderson, who headed all drivers with three championships.

“Craig Road was fun,” said Hayes, who now runs a machine and gun shop in Pahrump about 70 miles west of Las Vegas. “Racing was expensive but it wasn’t too expensive. Everyone from the fans to the officials and the competitors had fun. We had as many as 170 cars for the open comps all racing for the money in an 18-car feature.”

 Helmeted Geraldine "The Mad Bumper" Green at CRS.

Green was a character, too, and once balked that since women were moving into the men’s divisions, he should be allowed to enter the Powder Puffs for women.

Green showed up dressed like a woman in order to enter the Powder Puffs class.

On many occasions, drivers like Silver Slipper Fight of the Week promoter Bill Miller would pilot their cars with open headers to the track on city streets in what was a true version of the Wild, Wild West.

On one Friday, Sept. 13 evening in 1968, CRS erupted when rivals Bob “Red Feather” Ruppert and Ray “The Stormin’ Mormon” Wulfenstein tangled going into the fourth turn. The two plowed through a wall comprised of plywood, stormed into the parking lot and wiped out several cars owned by fans attending the event.

When Ruppert and Wulfenstein roared off the track and into the parking lot, the sound of street vehicles being mangled could be heard from the stands.

I know for a fact about the accident since my then-girlfriend (now my wife Carmen) and I were parked in Turn Four when Wulfenstein and Ruppert narrowly missed us en route to what might be have been considered a parking lot demolition derby. When a security guard showed up and suggested we leave, we hopped into my 1960 Plymouth Valiant and headed for safer grounds.

While Ruppert’s car was immediately impounded, Wulfenstein would leave the track and head for a local hospital to be with his wife, Irene, who was about to deliver a baby girl.

With all the excitement, Van Norman would later tell a story of how the North Las Vegas police department got wind of the chaos before reporting to the track to check on the collection of vehicles with bent sheet metal.

 CRS owner Bob Van Norman, center, toasts the last race at CRS in 1982 with track champion Dick Cobb, left, and an unidentified fan.

“A cop from North Las Vegas showed up and threatened to shut us down,” Van Norman said adding that one of the track’s part-owners responded by “sticking a gun in the cop’s stomach and telling him to leave immediately before someone got hurt.”

The cop reportedly could not wait to get back to his patrol car and Van Norman shrugged his shoulders during the latest version of “As the Wheels Roll.”

In the meantime, Ruppert – a renowned local plumber – proved to be the Yosemite Sam of the track outrunning the IRS after his victories; while reportedly handcuffing a cop to a toilet seat after a confrontation at a local watering hole.

Wulfenstein departed for Pahrump where he made a small fortune investing in real estate.

 Dick Cobb, right, tangles with GT Tallas at Craig Road Speedway.

Then on another evening a few years later, a transformer blew in the middle of the race leaving Van Norman befuddled as to what to do next. Rather than requiring fans to bring their ticket stubs for the following week’s event, he decided to offer a fan appreciation night with no admission charge.

Van Norman first balked at the idea, but when the cars were lined up for miles to get into the track the following week, he’d later admit to making more money on concessions than ever before.

However, with all the challenges of running a race track, Van Norman’s downfall came when the North Las Vegas City Council determined that the track’s parking lot had to be paved even though most tracks throughout the country didn’t even have paved parking.

A befuddled Van Norman would say “You know when these people need campaign money along with wood and paint for their signs, I was there for them.

“Then, they all turned on me in the end.”

After closing the track for the final time at what was called The Last Go Round won by Randy Swalwell, Van Norman  moved to Oregon and died a couple of years after CRS also died

 Craig Road Speedway sits barren 30 years after closing its doors.

In the meantime, the land on which CRS sat remains vacant although the ghosts of events of 30 years ago remain.

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Comments
September 07, 2015 Paul Stoddard wrote:
Great article. I just acquired Jerry Green's #33 1965 GTO that he raced there. It's exactly as it was parked 40 years ago. It's remarkable. I purchased it from his son. I'd love any pics or additional information anyone has!

December 17, 2014 RJ Evans wrote:
Your article was an awesome find! I grew up at that track. My father was Jim Evans. He announced with Gene Drew. And of course, I've never forgotten Jerry Green. No. 33 I believe. Thanks for a great article! Certainly brought back many memories.

June 10, 2015 JRodriguez wrote:
Good article. I remember when Craig Road closed. Bob Van Norman was one of the great pioneers of the Las Vegas area racing beginnings. My father was too like Bob Van Norman...a pioneer of racing in the Las Vegas area who isn't given much (if any) credit for keeping wheels turning...giving oval track racers a place to race after CRS closed...he was awarded promoter of the year, won most improved track by the NHRA at least a half a dozen times, hosted the Mint 400 and started the High School Drags (which gave high schoolers a safe place to race rather than dangerously on the city streets).Your Bob Van Norman quote of they all turned on him in the end does remind me of how the end came to be for my father running the Speedrome. Big name corporations and names always seem to get ALL the credit for humble fun family run places such as Craig Road Speedway and the Las Vegas International Speedrome. Thank you for writing the article and giving credit where needs be. Another lesser known fact to those who have not been in the old Vegas racing scene is that after Bob passed away, my father renamed the old oval track at the Speedrome the "Bob Van Norman Memorial Raceway."

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