When I was a young Las Vegas sports writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal in the late 1970s, I loved every minute of the beat simply because I’m a nut for motorsports.
No matter what the phase of motorsports, I covered the event. No matter, I was eager to tell the world about an auto racing event. Especially when it featured short track stock car racing at Craig Road Speedway in North Las Vegas.
CRS drew drivers from all over the nation. Colorado, California, Idaho, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, or North Dakota to name a few.
The Las Vegas track was operated by the husband and wife team of Bob and Gwen Van Norman, who had connections all over the country. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Van Normans owned short track racing, although there were numerous other short tracks on the West Coast.
Slowly-but-surely, the little track in the middle of nowhere started to lose its identity because developers were working late nights trying to figure out how to utilize the auto racing land for housing.
Little did anyone realize that strong friendships could be created through the creation of a paved oval track. Before anyone could realize it, CRS had collections of machinery that represented some of the best anywhere, especially when open comp events during the spring and the fall drew excellent competitors from states all over the nation and Canada in what became a well-followed group of fans and competitors.
Key, however, was that Craig Road officials had a balanced approach to the track’s lifespan. The ultimate circus hustler, Van Norman had good race cars, good people and a quarter-mile track that worked for every single event.
However, there are endless stories about CRS that illustrated its balance and showmanship. Van Norman’s gracious nature was met with open arms.
On one occasion, Van Norman was seen removing a receipt from the front pocket of competitor Jimmy Insolo, who responded by asking where Van was going with the bill to pay the tire company.
“We’re paying your tire bill,” said Van Norman. “We appreciate that you often come and see us.”
Veteran race driver, Ed Frambes lost control of his car, which was sent sailing over the Turn Two wall and into the desert. During the same period, Frambes took out the electrical box of the track that included the public address system, so the announcer (Yours Truly) couldn’t announce that all attendees needed to have their ticket stubs for entrance into the races a week later.
However, Van Norman backtracked on the order simply because ticket stubs were usually gone nearly as quickly as they had been purchased. With that in mind, Van Norman agreed to waive tickets the next week and instead let it be known that the next week was a fan appreciation evening and with free entry.
The following week, a capacity house crowd took advantage of Van Norman’s offer prompting Van Norman to say, “We’re going to do this again; I sold more beer tonight than ever before” and the promoter sold a record amount of beer.
Van Norman’s look at things was perfect for auto racing and Southern Nevada.
Evidence of Van Norman’s brilliant hustler-like mentality was evident the time racers Ray “the Stormin’ Mormon” Wulfenstein and Bob “Red Feather” Ruppert went flying through the fourth turn wall and into the parking lot where numerous passenger cars were battered by stock cars. Not long after the chaos started, a North Las Vegas police officer showed up threatening to shut down festivities.
The North Las Vegas cop was ordered to leave the premises when someone with the track allegedly stuck a gun in the cop’s stomach and ordered the cop to leave immediately.
The difference between short track operations today and those of yesterday is that the old-timers knew how to stir the pot. One such story had driver Tommy Montes getting into a beef with a North Las Vegas cop before handcuffing the officer to a toilet seat.
When the economy sank CRS in the 1980s, a glorious 30-year marriage collapsed and the Van Norman family eventually departed for Oregon. Gone, too, were the nicknames such as Jerry “The Mad Bumper” Green; Randy “Rich Kid” Swalwell; among others.
While Craig Road thrived until the early 1980s, fans and competitors held on until the final event was over.
Yep, Craig Road was different; a series of Soap Opera-like collection of episodes that started with a bang during the 1960s and left North Las Vegas brimming with hope.
In fact, CRS had so much character that I often times referred to the track as being a soap opera with the title “As the Wheels Turn.”
The real question is why Van Norman and his crew didn’t sit tight and continue on with one of the best damned short tracks in the country, considering the fact that the land wasn’t even utilized until this year.
Two-time champion Phil Hayes said the dwindling crowds are nothing new nowadays.
It’s just too bad that Van Norman could not have continued on with the short track that was undoubtedly one of the best short in the country.
Whether it was young kids sounding “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines (John Henle), Craig Road had action; and lots of it every year.
“The fans in the grandstand got a show, for sure,” said Hayes, now 74; a Las Vegan who moved here when he was four years of age. “I had some great times dating back to the Silver Slipper running go-karts in 1979 or later.”
Meanwhile, three-time CRS champion Jimmy Sanderson and his wife, Patti, moved to Duck Creek, Utah in May of 2018 where they now live year-round “It’s peaceful, and the people are very friendly,” said Jimmy, who is now 76. “During the winter, I jump on my snowmobile and go racing.”
At the same time, Kurt Busch and his dad, Tom, raced in the Dwarf Car Division in Pahrump as Mom, Gaye, cheered on the family.
A national television program recently announced that one network is about to feature a segment about the short tracks that have left the environment; and the timing couldn’t have been considering the timing of the loss of Craig Road Speedway.