By Mike Henle
Big-time drag racing is about to descend on Southern Nevada, but it wasn’t long ago when many of us made good with what we had at the time.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway has emerged to become one of the most respected facilities of its kind in the nation, but back in the late 1960s kids and adults were hot-rodding on the old I-15 highway to St. George, Utah.
The roster of those participating ranged from the teens to the gray-hairs of the period; and even included law enforcement officers who were also drag race fans.
On this particular Friday night before anyone had a cell phone, I heard on a land-line phone that drag racing at-its-best at hot-and-heavy Apex north of what is now “The Strip” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It was pitch-black outside and the only beams of light came from the headlights of participating drag racers. Staging lights were supplied by talented members of Nellis Air Force Base.
Long after the creation of drag strips in Henderson, Stardust International Raceway and Las Vegas Speedrome the only lighting was that of the headlights of race machinery. Nevada Highway Patrolmen cruising the “new” I-15 had to wonder about all of the headlights on Friday and Saturday nights.
The owners of funny cars were amongst the “entries” and so were 10-second street rods. Long before The Strip, Apex was king. Word was spreading that the best drag racing in the city was on a stretch of highway only a few miles north of town.
I distinctly recall that local police officers were at the gathering along with 10-second hot rods. There were no rules and the place was packed on this Friday night. On a track headed to the northeast valley, all we could see were headlights and high speeds in an area only known as “Apex.”
There were no rules; just deep-throated pieces of iron. Guys with ’56 Chevys and Pontiac GTOs were showing up all night long.
On an evening on the old I-15 highway headed for St. George, Utah, this was fun highlighted by the fact that the Christmas tree lights built by members of Nellis Air Force Base were the only difference between the “professionals” and Don “The Snake” Don Prudhomme.
And when word spread that there was money to be made in drag races, some of Las Vegas’ top guns took their dates to the drive in and threw their slicks in the back trunk for showdowns.
Outlaw drag racing was at its best on asphalt that formerly led to St. George, Utah.
When Ralph Engelstad and Richie Clyne first entered into a relationship to create Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 1990s, the NASCAR Cup series and the National Hot Rod Association were the important pieces of the equation.
Engelstad reportedly grew weary of the NHRA part of LVMS and ordered a stop to the project which sat unfinished just north of the administration building. The unfinished property sat dormant for an long period of time and you can bet that the wizard Bruton Smith was working the project in his mind long before Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchased the LVMS property.
When interested fans were taken on tours of LVMS, the drag strip was an eyesore. However, when Smith purchased the track in 1999, the dreary site changed as Smith ordered construction crews to head for ‘Vegas to get the drag strip finished un-pronto.
NHRA funny car champion king John Force was brought in to promote the National Hot Rod Association event in August of 1999 and the drag strip suddenly experienced a revival. The ultimate promoter, Force headlined the discussion of the drag strip and had everyone within miles of the facility excited long before the next shovel was driven into the ground.
Since then, track promoter Bruton Smith continued his magic by widening the drag strip to four lanes and drag racing has continued his colorful wisdom by leading the sport of drag racing to another level.
Among the nuances of the track were the adding two additional lanes to what is referred to as “The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.”
Indeed, “The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway” has erupted in popularity as only drag racing can and the record crowds are proof that Smith’s wisdom is unmatched in the world of motorsports.
A full field of entries is expected Oct. 25-28 at LVMS when the NHRA hosts the 18th annual Toyota Nationals Mellow Yellow Drag Racing Series.
Las Vegas always does things big, and Smith’s follow through with the half-done The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is certainly evidence of the belief.