by Ed Meyer

posted on February 28, 2009 in General Discussion | 1 Comment >>

The history books show that in 1955, Wisconsin’s Norm Nelson lapped the field twice in his Carl Keikhaefer-owned Chrysler to win the only race held at Las Vegas Park Speedway, in a race shortened to 111 laps because of darkness. But there’s a fascinating back story to the only Cup race held in Nevada, before construction began on the speedway that will host Sunday’s Shelby 427.

Back in NASCAR’s early days, many events were held on horse tracks, particularly on the West Coast. The series raced on the dirt miles at the Exposition Fairgrounds in Sacramento, Calif., Bay Meadows near San Francisco, and the Arizona Fairgrounds in Phoenix. That was the case with the Las Vegas track, which opened in 1953 amid great fanfare — and ended shortly thereafter in failure.

According to a well-researched and fascinating article by Rob Miech that appeared in last year’s Las Vegas Sun, the dream of a major horse-racing facility in Las Vegas was the brainchild of a former promoter (and con man) by the name of Joseph M. Smoot. He hitched a ride west from New York with a lawyer named Hank Greenspun — who went on to found the newspaper in 1950 — and immediately came up with big plans for a track south of town.

Smoot, who claimed to have had a hand in building tracks in Florida and California, was the very definition of a shyster. He talked about his grandiose plans to anyone who would listen, and found 8,000 gullible shareholders willing to pony up $2 million in capital. Greenspun later wrote in his biography that Smoot excelled at “elaborate promotional maneuvers.”

“Old Joe knew a track wouldn’t have a chance and he said so when he came here in 1946,” according to Greenspun.

Not surprisingly, there were a multitude of delays and the track failed to open as scheduled, prompting Smoot to write an apology that was printed in the Sun. Sen. Pat McCarran, who posed for promotional pictures with Smoot before a half-built grandstand, was accused of taking $8,000 from Smoot in a room at the Thunderbird. To top it all off, Smoot and two associates were charged with felony embezzlement when much of the investment money turned up missing.

Smoot pleaded not guilty to the charge. But when questioned about the missing $500,000 in a federal hearing, Smoot couldn’t produce receipts or canceled checks. In a bankruptcy hearing, the judge appointed a trustee to run the track, and Smoot remained under indictment until he died — penniless — in a Las Vegas hotel room two years later.

The Las Vegas Jockey Club finally opened on Sept. 4, 1953, in a less-than-sensational fashion. The Australian-built tote board and ticket machines malfunctioned. The track had only one entrance and exit, and fans sat for as much as an hour in traffic to reach the parking lots, and many gave up and headed home. Only 8,200 customers made it through the turnstiles for opening day and the crowd dwindled with each successive performance.  So after just three days, the racing board suspended operations for two weeks, mainly to install more efficient American-made equipment.

It made little difference. Within a month, attendance had been halved and the handle was a paltry $100,000. It was costing track officials more money to open the doors than to remain shuttered, so the rest of the meet was canceled after just 13 days.

The track reopened as Las Vegas Park in 1954 for quarter-horse racing, but that again lasted only seven weeks before poor attendance forced cancellation of the rest of the schedule.

In an final effort to recoup their losses, the board turned to NASCAR. After the race on Oct. 16, 1955 — which came eight months after Smoot’s death — the 480-acre facility was torn down and the land sold in four large parcels. The Las Vegas Hilton, the Las Vegas Convention Center and a portion of the Las Vegas Country Club are now located on the land once occupied by the track.