From the Jockey Club to the Busch brothers, Las Vegas is part of NASCAR history

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 23: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Ford, leads a pack during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on February 23, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Viva Las Vegas!

The National Football League and National Hockey League were late to the party in Sin City.

Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association haven’t arrived yet, but they’ll get there eventually.

And NASCAR was and will be there to welcome them.

While the NFL Raiders and NHL Golden Knights are recent additions to the landscape, NASCAR has had a continuous and highly visible presence in the Las Vegas market since 1996, when Speedway Motorsports, Inc., headed by Bruton Smith, bought what is now Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Jack Sprague won the speedway’s inaugural NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race that year. The NASCAR Xfinity Series raced at the 1.5-mile track for the first time in 1997, with Jeff Green the winner.

And in 1998, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin won the first NASCAR Cup Series event held at the track located roughly 15 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip.

That wasn’t the first Cup race held in Las Vegas, though. NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and, surprisingly, the roots of NASCAR racing in Nevada extend almost to the date of the founding of the sanctioning body.

In 1953, a combination horse and one-mile dirt speedway opened as the Las Vegas Jockey Club on land now occupied by the Westgate Hotel, the Las Vegas Convention Center and part of Las Vegas Country Club.

By the time the Cup Series raced there for the only time on Oct. 16, 1955, the track was known as Las Vegas Park Speedway, because the horse racing ventures there had failed miserably.

Norm Nelson, a three-time USAC stock car champion, won the race, which was shortened from 200 to 111 laps because of darkness. Driving a 1955 Chrysler fielded by legendary owner Carl Kiekhaefer, Nelson led the final 106 laps to score his only NASCAR victory.

Johnny Mantz, whose only NASCAR Cup win came in the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington in 1950, ran seventh.

All told, Las Vegas Park Speedway held three motorsports events before it was demolished—the 1955 Cup race, a 1954 Champ Car race and a 1959 USAC Stock Car race won by NASCAR Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen.

If the relationship between auto racing and Las Vegas began tenuously, the current century has underscored NASCAR’s popularity in one of the world’s top destination markets.

And Las Vegas also has given rise to two of the foremost drivers to enter NASCAR’s premier division since the turn of the century—brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, who grew up racing on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring.

Kurt won the series championship in 2004, his fourth full year of Cup racing and the first season of NASCAR’s Playoff format, then known as the Chase.

Kyle won Cup titles in 2015 and 2019 and currently leads all other active drivers with 61 career victories. His win on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., achieved a significant milestone. Kyle and Kurt now have 95 victories between them, most by brothers in NASCAR history.

In his first year with Richard Childress Racing, Kyle expects to add to that total. Kurt was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms last year and currently serves as a consultant for 23XI Racing. Kurt was one of the first to come to Victory Lane to congratulate his brother.

“He’s left all the heavy lifting for me to do for the rest of my time here,” Kyle Busch quipped after Sunday’s win. “He took a break. But, no, it would have certainly meant a lot to have him in the field, but just him being here and being around, and still his role over at 23XI is really special. I know he’s got a lot of friends over there, a lot of great guys over there that really pull for him.

“It’s neat to have him be there. He was emotional. He’s getting soft in his old age. It was just cool to see him come up to the car and be a part of our celebration there for a quick moment. But it’s fun to set records always, and when you’re able to do it as a brother tandem, there’s nothing more special for our parents, I’m sure.”