Original city of neon and glitz lights up for Winston Cup debut Entertainment capital expands horizons with first Las Vegas 400

March 01, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- Jeff Gordon is driving down the Las Vegas strip, looking at all the dazzling lights. He sees Siegfried and Roy on The Mirage Marquee. He sees Tom Jones' name blinking at him at the MGM Grand. He sees Sawyer Brown winking at him from the Stardust.

And then, he comes upon Bally's, and up there on the marquee is the name "Jeff Gordon."

"I told someone I always wanted to see my name on a marquee," he says, laughing. "I just didn't know that when it happened it would say, 'Jeff Gordon's Show Car.' But it is really so neat to see this city behind the sport -- and really supporting it. I don't know if we get this much support everywhere else we go."

Las Vegas, the city that parties all night, has not only acknowledged the existence of Winston Cup Stock Car racing, it has embraced it.

A stroll down Las Vegas Boulevard days before today's Las Vegas 400 at the new Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where 107,000 fans are expected to overwhelm the local highway system, reveals a city that appears to be enamored of the sport.

Casino marquees are promoting Gordon's show car, and a Rusty Wallace appearance, and a Richard Petty appearance and more.

Thursday evening, when Dale Earnhardt arrived unannounced in a black limo at Sahara's for the official announcement that a new NASCAR Cafe -- a 40,000-square foot cafe, at that -- will be opening there, fans began screaming.

Winston Cup fans and Winston Cup drivers have been spotted all over town.

Ernie Irvan was levitated by Las Vegas magician Lance Burton. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which has spent $1.5 million to be the name sponsor on this Winston Cup race and an Indy Racing League race here, had a 5-foot tiered cake baked in honor of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary season and served it at a block-party type celebration on Freemont Street.

"Las Vegas excels at big events," says John Griffin, NASCAR's director of communications, world wide. "Rodeo championships, heavy weight boxing championship. It's Title Town. It gets consumed by big-time events. We're here once this year and it's a chance to get absorbed into the thick of that."

In fact, today's race will be the biggest event in Nevada history. And Ed Crispell, president of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and general manager of the Imperial Palace Casino, says this event, more than any other, sets Las Vegas apart.

"We held the Rodeo Championships, but we can only seat 18,000 per performance," he said. "This is going to see more than 107,000 people at one event We haven't been a race town, but we're becoming a race town.

"If you listen to the radio in the mornings, all you hear is this driver is here, that driver is there, this race car is somewhere else. It's an unbelievably happy, upbeat scene. Tuesday, in this hotel, you couldn't walk in the casino, it was packed. NASCAR racing being in town is responsible for that and it's that way all over town and has been for a solid week."

Sports books in various casinos are posting odds on this race and the race for the Winston Cup championship. More than $1.5 million is expected to be wagered. Taxi drivers strike up conversations, "Are you here for the race?" At least 75,000 people are.

When tickets went on sale last year, the entire event was sold out in 30 hours. Yesterday, tickets were being scalped for more than twice their face value, ranging from $50 to more than $400 for a seat at the start-finish line.

"It's indicative of the overall growth of the sport, that we can come so far from the roots in the southeast and come into the entertainment capital of the world and be so well received," says Winston spokesman Chis Powell.

Las Vegas Mayor pro tem Michael McDonald, 32 and a Las Vegas native, says the city has caught Winston Cup fever and that the track is having a "profound impact" on the city that is becoming more and more diversified and popular with Fortune 500 businesses.

And none of this has come as a surprise to Richie Clyne, LVMS chairman, or the track's co-owners Ralph Engelstad, owner of the Imperial Palace, and William Bennett, owner of the Sahara Hotel and Casino, who have anted up $200 million to build the place.

"This was not a risk," Clyne says. "This was a sure winner. This city draws over 32 million tourists a year. We have more hotel rooms in this city than the total available elsewhere on the entire Winston Cup circuit.

"I was told up front that there was no guarantee of getting this Winston Cup race, but I just felt if I built the finest facility in the world, we'd get a date eventually. It just came a few years earlier than I anticipated."

And as for the fact that Las Vegas residents seem genuinely excited about this event, well, Clyne says, what did you expect?

"It's the buzz of town," says Clyne, 44. "Why? Because the motorsport people are exciting people. They go out. They have fun. They're great ambassadors for their sport and they're here, bringing everyone new business they've never had before."

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