Las Vegas Sun

November 16, 2018

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Stardust memories

Standing at the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Rainbow Boulevard, you can still hear the engines roar.

Only today, it might be a Krispy Kremes truck, dropping off a load of donuts at 7-Eleven, or a gasoline tanker, filling the underground tanks at the Chevron station across the street.

Thirty-five years ago, long before there were Krispy Kremes and even 7-Elevens and Chevron still was known as Standard Oil, it might have been a Ford V8 or a 427 cubic-inch Chevrolet or even a throaty turbocharged Offenhauser that pierced the desert solitude at that very location.

Had you been standing in front of the grassy knoll that now marks the entrance to the Spanish Trail development, you might have seen Dan Gurney overtake Al Unser in a Champ car, as Indy-style cars were known then, or Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones dicing for position in their unbridled Can-Am sports cars.

For just a few yards from that very intersection of what was then Las Vegas' far west side was the apex to Turn 6 at Stardust International Raceway, a 3-mile road course that from 1966-68 was the scene of a veritable Who's Who from the world of motor sports.

Gurney. Andretti. Jones. Both Unsers, Al and Bobby.

A.J. Foyt, Bruce McLaren, Denis Hulme, Mark Donohue, Chris Amon, Peter Revson, Gordon Johncock and Johnny Rutherford.

George Follmer, Jim Hall, Sam Posey, Lloyd Ruby, Joe Leonard, Gary Bettenhausen, Roger McCluskey, Art Pollard and Swede Savage.

No one knew it at the time, but they could have opened an auto racing hall of fame in the Stardust paddock.

"Half the Formula One field was here on any given weekend," Hulme once told veteran auto racing writer Pete Lyons, recalling the stature and depth of American road racing in the late 1960s. "That was great."

In those days, the quality of the drivers and their cars usually surpassed the tracks on which they competed, and Stardust was no exception. The Stardust Hotel-Casino owned and operated the facility for most of its existence, using it to attract high-rollers in the manner that today's resorts might use a championship golf course or upscale shopping mall to perform the same function.

CAN-AM CHALLENGE, 1966: In Las Vegas for the sixth and last race, seven drivers still had a chance to be champion. Fearless John Surtees settled it in the first corner of the first lap, shouldering up from fourth grid position to the lead. And there he stayed for the rest of the 210-mile race, clear of the problems that dogged everybody else. Pete Lyons, in his book "Can-Am Photo History."

"A lot of stars used to come out -- Dan Blocker (Hoss on Bonanza) was always around, and James Garner owned a car," said Larry Horton, who helped run the track for the Stardust and later leased the dragstrip from the resort before the land on which it sat was sold to real estate developers. Pardee Homes eventually built the Spring Valley community on the racetrack property.

"Back then, road racing was the biggest thing happening. NASCAR was nothing at the time. It was a good-sized track for that time, and as good a track as there was."

Don Chase, a Las Vegas Sun copy editor and local auto racing enthusiast who covered four of the five major auto races at Stardust for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said he didn't recall the track being too expensive to build, probably because it opened before it was finished.

Watkins Glen, which for years hosted the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race, was considered a rudimentary circuit, but Stardust made it look like the Taj Mahal of motor sports.

"There weren't grandstands, just regular bleachers, and there wasn't a lot of paving," Chase recalled. "There were some really marginal restrooms. But back in those days, it really wasn't that bad for auto racing."

Chase said he remembered being chauffeured around the track by Swede Savage, Gurney's youthful protege who appeared headed for stardom before being killed in a crash at the 1973 Indianapolis 500.

"The biggest thing I remember is that if you got off the course, the gravel and the rocks really tore up the racecars," Chase said. "But the course itself seemed to be pretty popular with the drivers. I remember Stirling Moss (the former Formula One champion) saying he liked it."

CAN-AM 1967: The Bruce (McLaren) and Denny (Hulme) show duly moved to the season finale at Las Vegas. There, the McLaren luck turned sour. Bruce won pole but his engine gave out soon after the green flag. Denny had engine problems in both qualifying and the race. As Hulme coasted to the side of Stardust Raceway, Boss Bruce became Can-Am king. Pete Lyons.

As Gurney said, the rugged desert landscape from which the Stardust course was carved could make "the marbles," as drivers call the bits and pieces of tire rubber, stones and dust that accumulate outside the racing groove, look as big as boulders.

Yet he liked the course.

"I'd say it was pretty good," Gurney said during a recent telephone conservation. "I don't know if you'd call the ground surrounding the track beach, sand, gravel or whatever. I know if somebody starting cutting corners, the next thing you know you had a bunch of marbles."

Gurney speaks from experience. He started the only Indy-car race at Stardust from pole position, but his race ended before the first lap, as he spun out in gravel tossed up by Bobby Unser's car.

"But I don't blame the track," said Gurney, the only American to win a Formula One race in an American-built car (his own All-American Racers Eagle design). "Maybe today's drivers are a little pampered, but back then, we were just glad to have a track like that to run on."

The wrecking ball -- or in this case, the bulldozers -- leveled Stardust before it could develop any tradition or history. But if the track had a master, it would have to be Surtees, the Briton who won the first two Can-Am races in Las Vegas.

Like Gurney and others, he said the gravel could be a nuisance.

"Vegas was quite a tough race," Surtees said.

"Luckily, it was the sort of circuit where you could scratch 'round. Through the back there, it was quite quick."

In 1966, the Can-Am Challenge was just a six-race series, with Stardust serving as the season finale. Surtees bolted from fourth on the grid to take the lead before Turn 1 and drove away to an easy win.

By 1967, Can-Am had grown into the nation's marquee racing series, with Johnson Wax coming on board to put up a million-dollar point fund, which was huge in those days. By the time the powerful sports cars rolled into Las Vegas, McLaren already had clinched the championship, and all that was left to be decided was which of its drivers, patriarch Bruce McLaren or Denis Hulme, would win the driver's title.

McLaren started from pole but was an early out, as was Hulme. Parnelli Jones, Jim Hall and Gurney took turns at the front, but each was thwarted by a mechanical problem or faded from contention.

With a lap to go, Mark Donohue and his car owner, Roger Penske, appeared on the verge of Donohue's first major victory. But Donohue ran out of fuel, handing the win to Surtees.

TRANS-AM 1967: We got both Camaros to the Las Vegas race, only because we worked night and day. A win there reinforced our hopes somewhat -- but then everything went to hell again. After the race, we discovered that all four of our engines had a chronic valve-train problem and would have to be rebuilt. Mark Donohue, in his 1975 book "The Unfair Advantage."

Donohue, who would bring Penske the first of his record 12 Indy 500 victories in 1972, had a little better fortune in that fall's Trans-Am race, the only time the American muscle cars competed at Stardust. He drove his Camaro to an impressive win, lapping every car in the 41-car field with the exception of second-place finisher Ronnie Bucknum, who also would go on to compete at Indianapolis.

By then, Stardust's reputation was growing while few new tracks were being built. USAC was branching off into road racing for its premier champ car division and Stardust hosted the second race of the USAC national championship in 1968, which saw Bobby Unser inherit the lead and the win when Andretti ran out of fuel.

Unser, who ran out of fuel himself just after taking the checkered flag, would go on to win his first of three Indy 500s two months later, while the bad luck that would hound Andretti throughout his Indianapolis career (with the exception of 1969, when he claimed his only 500 win) had its genesis in the Las Vegas desert.

"Back then, fuel consumption was an inexact science," Chase said of auto racing's pre-laptop computer days. "But the night before the race, I remember talking to Mario at a dinner they had for some of the celebrities, and he told me they were running a different fuel mixture, that they had it all figured out.

"After the race, he was sitting on the pit wall all by himself, with his head down. I was standing off to the side -- I didn't have the nerve to say anything to him."

But then Andretti raised his head and saw Chase waiting with a pad and pencil.

"He just said, 'I guess I don't know (squat) about fuel mixture, do I?' " Chase said, recalling Andretti's first words. "I'll never forget it."

USAC CHAMP CARS, 1968: Mario Andretti showed the great speed of his car as he made a desperate charge on the leader Bobby Unser as the final laps were checked off. Andretti cut rapidly away at Unser's lead, lopping three seconds off the edge on the final lap alone. When Unser crossed the finish line, Andretti was just two seconds behind. Don Chase.

In the fall of '68, Stardust would host its last major race, another Can-Am finale. McLaren, Andretti and Hall tangled in the first turn of the first lap, and dust from the ensuing melee clogged the intake valves of Chris Amon's Ferrari, ending his race.

Hall and the others were able to continue, which proved to be near catastrophic for Hall, whose Chaparral a few laps later ran up and over Lothar Motschenbacher's car, which had suddenly slowed on the backstretch.

Hall's car was launched into the air and split in two upon crashing back to the track. He suffered devastating injuries to both legs that ended his driving career and overshadowed Hulme's race and championship victory.

It was the beginning of the end for Stardust, and it was the end as far as major road racing at the track.

CAN-AM 1968: Jim Hall was overtaking Lothar Motschenbacher when Motschenbacher's McLaren broke a suspension upright and all but stopped in front of Hall. The Chaparral rode up over the left rear of the McLaren, flew high into the air, then rolled and tumbled to the outside of the turn and came to rest upside down. James T. Crow, Road and Track magazine.

Although photographs from the 1968 Can-Am race show spectators lined up three-deep along the fences, auto racing didn't figure in the plans of the hotel's new ownership.

Horton was able to lease the track and kept the drag strip open for a couple of years. But it, too, would fall victim to the land barons.

"The only thing that saved the racetrack was drag racing," Horton recalled. "We didn't have one big NHRA race, but we had (regional) events that would draw 5,000 or 6,000 fans.

"We used to do promotion at Riverside (during the Can-Am weekend) where we would sell race and room ticket packages. We sold all of those packages but none of those people came out to the track," Horton said, sounding much like today's Las Vegas sports promoters.

Others said the track's remote location -- the only way to get there was via dirt roads -- hurt the crowds. But in those days, the success of auto racing didn't hinge on paid attendance, and the hard-core racing fans always managed to find their way to the track.

"For the size of the town back then, the crowds were very respectable," Chase recalled. "But the new (Stardust) owners didn't want to put the money into it to make it a high-class facility."

Norm Johnson, a local auto racing enthusiast and former racer who said he once drove Peter Revson around Stardust in an Oldsmobile Toronado on a recognizance run -- "You wouldn't have known he had a single penny" Johnson said of Revson, an heir to the Revlon cosmetics throne -- remembers making several dusty drives out to Stardust.

"It was never easy getting to the track," he said. "But the people went.

"There sure were a lot of great racers that drove out there."

A look back at the winners ...

Las Vegas' Stardust Raceway was the site of five major international auto races in the 1960s: