Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pioneering Mel Larson Helped Make Las Vegas a Safe Bet For NASCAR

After he won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship at the last race of the 1980 season at Ontario, Calif., Dale Earnhardt wanted to do something special.

He decided he wanted to go to Las Vegas and have some fun. He knew immediately where he wanted to stay – at a hotel/casino called Circus Circus.

Once there, he was given more than just a room. He settled into a massive suite, the kind the high-rollers always booked.

"Now this is a room for a champion," Earnhardt said as he stood on his huge bed with his arms outstretched.

It’s likely Earnhardt would never have heard of Circus Circus had it not been for Mel Larson.

At that time, Larson was the vice president of marketing for the hotel/casino. He had also been a NASCAR competitor for several years and was well-known and well-liked among the racing fraternity.

Inviting drivers, owners and crewmen to Circus Circus was, for him, a generous act of kindness extended to his racing friends – and certainly Earnhardt was one of them.

Today Larson is part of Las Vegas lore. The story of how he became so stretches the imagination. Throughout his improbable life, Larson has been a driver, race promoter, drag-strip owner, airplane pilot, helicopter pilot, entrepreneur and casino executive.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway might not exist had it not been for Larson.

It follows that NASCAR’s extensive presence in the city might not either.

Indeed, NASCAR’s presence has increased because LVMS has been part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit since 1998 and today plays host to the Shelby American.

Additionally, Vegas will be the site of the GRAND-AM Road Racing awards banquets on Sept. 12-13. On Dec. 3, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony – and all related events – will be held in the city for a second year.

The 6th Annual Mel Larson Night of Champions, which supports Speedway Children’s Charities, was held in April to honor NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch.

The seeds for all of this were planted and nurtured by Larson. He helped bring to life Bill France Sr.’s vision of establishing NASCAR in the West, a vision shared by his son Bill France Jr., who saw it happen.

Larson likely never thought it would come to this.

He left Michigan, where his father became airport manager at Detroit’s Wayne County Airport, at age 21 at the behest of the United States Air Force, which sent him to Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix.

Larson liked the warm climate and decided to stay. By this time he was already a pilot, but, as an admitted "hot rodder," he began racing and got opportunities to compete on the area’s short tracks, where, in his words, "I got halfway good."

Larson even ran the beach-road course event at Daytona, but recalls he didn’t finish well since he didn’t have factory backing.

While he was racing, Larson also began promoting stock car and open-wheel events at the one-mile Phoenix Fairgrounds dirt track. Promotion and marketing came easy to Larson, who has called himself a "hustler."

He met a young Bruton Smith, owner of the one-mile Charlotte Speedway dirt track, who also leased other speedways. Larson became an effective PR man for Smith, working on radio and television and in newspaper interviews.

Larson later went to work for NASCAR in marketing, but left because he missed Phoenix. When he returned, he bought a beat-up dragway which he converted into a viable entity. Larson sold the dragway and moved with wife Marilyn to Las Vegas. At the time, ABC did not provide same-day coverage of the Indianapolis 500. That didn’t happen until 1972. So Larson started doing closed coverage broadcasts of the race, shown in theaters. He had the markets in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Reno.

Del Webb, the developer, owner of the New York Yankees and The Mint casino in Las Vegas, lived in Phoenix and had an office in the same building as Larson. They often shared an elevator. One day, Webb told Larson that he was sponsoring a race in the desert surrounding Las Vegas. It was called the Mint 400. Webb asked if Larson would help with the event. Larson agreed and made a deal with Bill Bennett, the general manager. Larson also drove in the race for two years but decided he wasn’t good at off-road racing and should stick to pavement. It evolved that Larson became the promoter of the Mint 400, a task he performed at the same time he was doing the closed-circuit broadcasts of the Indy 500.

Bennett and a partner, Bill Pennington, took over operation of Circus Circus in 1974 and hired Larson as the vice president of marketing.

Throughout his entrepreneurial career, Larson never stopped racing in NASCAR – at least on a limited basis.

He made 30 starts from 1955-70. Then he made 17 more from 1972-78 on what was then the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, now called Sprint Cup.

During most of that time, he drove cars owned by Don Robertson and served as somewhat of a teammate to Jabe Thomas, who competed far more often.

The Larson-Thomas combination was unique. Larson was a flashy, wealthy businessman from glittering Las Vegas – far removed from the NASCAR stereotype of the time – and Thomas was a simple but witty country boy from Christiansburg, Va.

But they shared one trait: a marvelous sense of humor. Thomas, known as "The Clown Prince of Racing," loved jokes and pranks. His favorite stunt was to slip a chicken bone in an unsuspecting victim’s pocket.

Although not prone to practical jokes, Larson, most often seen with a wide and toothy smile, was as glib as Thomas.

Both of them knew their status as competitors – at best they were also-rans – but didn’t seem to care. It seemed that, to them, being a part of NASCAR was just fun.

They were media magnets because reporters knew they were going to come away with hilarious quotes and observations.

Both competed in NASCAR for the last time in 1978. Thomas made 322 starts in his career, Larson only 47.

But Larson was far from finished with NASCAR.

In 1989, casino operator Richie Clyne bought a track called Las Vegas Speedway Park. Larson had flown him out to the site in his helicopter. He helped Clyne acquire needed partnerships and a new speedway was built.

But, eventually, money became scarce. Again Larson stepped in. He called old friend Smith to see if he would care to become involved. Smith did, made a deal with Clyne and the track became Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which Smith has since converted into a virtual jewel in the desert.

There’s so much more that could be told about Larson – how he flew his helicopter to rescue people from the burning MGM Grand, how he acquired the old control tower from McCarron Airport and put it on top of his house on Larson Way in Henderson, Nev., how his four-bedroom guest home is the Vegas home to Ernest Borgnine and Dickie Smothers’ bass fiddle and Larson’s marvelous collection of cars and memorabilia.

But what’s most noteworthy is this:

The thread of racing, and of NASCAR, that runs through Las Vegas and has become so tightly knitted into what the city is today, likely would not have happened without Mel Larson.

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