By Mike Henle
Back in late-1994, I arrived home in Las Vegas after eight days in bed following a stay that saw me undergo brain surgery (epilepsy) at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, Calif.
I was in no hurry to get back on my feet considering a brain surgery that took more than six hours as my doctors teamed up to erase epilepsy from my life.
After walking in the door, I noticed a feature story on KLAS TV-8 Sports that touted the construction of a super speedway in the northeast valley near Nellis Air Force Base. Just as I was supposed to be “chilling out,” I was eagerly listening to a breaking news story that got my attention.
My background as an auto racing writer suddenly had me primed to find out more about the story of the “Diamond in the Desert” which was to include short track stock car racing, drag racing and anything else that was motorsports-driven.
However, I was also reminded that these kinds of stories had come and gone numerous times before disappearing into the desert dust.
In this particular case, the promises of a super speedway were made by Richie Clyne, an East Coast businessman, whose talents had been noticed by hotelman Ralph Engelstad of the Imperial Palace on the Las Vegas Strip along with veteran hotel executive Bill Bennett.
Also part of the “team” was Las Vegas casino executive Mel Larson – who also just happened to be a helicopter pilot.
Larson flew the track executives all over the country to review similar racing facilities. Pink helicopter and all with colors representing his employer Circus Circus in Las Vegas, Larson was a showman, too, who also operated a race track in Phoenix.
Convinced that this was no pipedream, I headed for Clyne’s office at the Imperial Palace where I immediately shook his hand. Not long after the meeting, I was a member of the track’s public relations staff.
Brain surgery-be damned. I was going to see this happen.
The goal of the partners was to include a top-notch drag strip along with a 1.5 mile super speedway and most anything else that would fit on the vast racing facility.
Word of the track’s promise came to reality in September of 1996 when some 65,000 fans attended LVMS’ first-ever big-time auto racing event after Tony George of the Indy Racing League and Clyne agreed to host the event in September of 1996. The temperature soared to more than 100 degrees by race time; and the color guard was melting.
A long list of issues including the traffic plan weren’t completed; and track general manager Ray Wilkings joked that the traffic was backed up to Primm. Then, too, the event was met with high temperatures.
Construction on the drag race facility ended early when the National Hot Rod Association refused to guarantee a national event.
Things were materializing at LVMS in all ends of the facility of about 1,000 acres and it wouldn’t be long before a bombshell surfaced with great news for the facility.
NASCAR Winston Cup officials kept courting Clyne and Company. Then, out of the blue, Richard “the King” Petty told reporters that a NASCAR Winston Cup race would make its way to LVMS for the 1998 season.
Petty’s words undoubtedly drove up the value of LVMS in very short time as the media heard of the King’s claim that the track was about to land another big event.
Popular NASCAR star Rusty Wallace was flown to Las Vegas for a media tour that saw him interviewed by every conceivable media outlet in Southern Nevada. Mark Martin, a short-track kingpin from Bartlesville, Okla., who ran at Craig Road Speedway in the 1980s, captured the inaugural Las Vegas 400 in front of 106,000 fans at LVMS.
Martin ruled LVMS with his latest victory in 1998, and all of a sudden, NASCAR noticed that the “big-time” of auto racing loved spending a few days in Vegas, so the marriage was a natural.
“Richie is very talented and artistic,” recalled Wilkings, 68, now an executive of California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. “He has so much energy that it’s hard to corral the energy into one direction. It was interesting working for him. The experience was as difficult as it was challenging, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned a lot.
“The one thing I recall about Richie was that he had a heart of gold. He would do anything for kids.”
The track has progressed dramatically over the years especially as it relates to the economic impact of its existence. A slower economy was felt when the recession hit in 2007, but Las Vegas Motor Speedway continues as one of Southern Nevada’s biggest endeavors, second only to Hoover Dam.
The total economic impact on that first Race for The Chase NASCAR Monster Energy Weekend event in 2019 was $146 million; 86,000 in total attendance with 72,850 visiting the track from out-of-town.
However, it’s the overall impact that the track has generated that really tells the story. The owners of LVMS didn’t throw in the towel when the economy tanked and instead, they weathered the storm.
From 2002 to 2011, LVMS outlived a miserable economy while presenting 10 sellouts that generated 140,000 fans per event. However, the track also added to its income sheet with numerous special events thanks to its owner Bruton Smith, one of auto racing’s gurus.
It was in the late 1990s that both Smith and NASCAR executive Bill France scouted the facility hoping to get a chance at buying the track. Smith won the showdown and finished the drag strip while also updating the 1.5 mile super speedway.
The overall feeling was that the right man won the ownership rights to LVMS and Smith, the head of Speedway Motorsports Inc., went to work to finish the drag strip.
In the past few years, the speedway landed the expertise and respect of Michael Gaughan, a native Nevada hotelman who picked up the sponsorship rights to NASCAR’s Race for the Chase in 2018 and 2019.
The 10-race Monster Energy NASCAR Series is the sanctioning body’s season-ending “showdown.”
Landing Gaughan on board was a brilliant move considering his expertise and connections with promotions and special events all over the world. He’s also a kingpin of the elite as evidenced by the fact that he saved the National Finals Rodeo several years ago when it appeared that the event was headed to Texas.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway general manager Chris Powell is believed to be responsible for landing Gaughan in what turned out to be a brilliant marriage; thereby illustrating how the only thing better than one dynamo is two.
Through it all, Clyne will forever be known as the man who got the ball rolling at LVMS. The track now includes every conceivable form of racing along with the Electric Daisy Festival, among other events.
Mrs. PT Tausinga, who was among the first employees on the project, remembers well the chaos that was included with the construction of the track.
“Richie told me to get to Kmart and find some shorts,” said Tausinga, a native of Southern Minnesota who ram-rodded the construction of the track. “It was an unbelievable undertaking. “The facility was a disaster because it wasn’t ready for a race.”
“The retention basins alone cost us $40 million. There were at least three, possibly four, retention basins. I would compare it to Hoover Dam without the water.
“Ralph bank-rolled the whole thing. He brought me in and supported me. He knew what he was doing.”
Tausinga said Hoover Dam and LVMS are both works of art.
Clyne is still fascinated by the world of automotive, but his energy is now centered on classic cars, itself another high-dollar world of machinery. He also lives in the Worfeboro, N.H., during the summer months and in Las Vegas in the winter.
Clyne, at an auto auction when called for an interview, said the endeavor to purchase LVMS was worth “a couple hundred million dollars.”
In the background was an auctioneer’s fascinating voice.
“I’m just enjoying life,” said Clyne, who is now 65. “When I drive by the track, it’s a wonderful feeling. Bruton Smith and Chris Powell have done a remarkable job. This is proof that when you work hard, anything is possible.”
When Clyne met with Smith about possibly purchasing LVMS, the end result was a very simple handshake.
“The deal with Bruton went so smooth,” Clyne said. “I drove him around the track and the two of us made a deal. We shook hands and went to have a cup of coffee. It was the easiest deal I have ever done.”
In a city with big promises sometimes followed with failure, this is one story that had a great start, a few yellow flags and a never-ending checkered flag.
LVMS’s South Point Weekend now touts the NASCAR Race for the Chase, which heads for the track the weekend of Sept. 13-15. Heading the weekend will be the World of Westgate NGOTS truck race Friday; the Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300 NXS Race Saturday and the South Point 400 Mencs Race Sunday.
Editor’s Note: Mike Henle is a veteran freelance writer with a heavy concentration on automotive, auto racing and feature writing. His website is www.mikehenle.com.