A Lesson In History: Vegas Indy Car Racing

Silver State Century race winner Jimmy Bryan. (Bill Hill collection)
Silver State Century race winner Jimmy Bryan. (Bill Hill collection)

LAS VEGAS — Dwight D. Eisenhower was the President of the United States when the cars and stars of the Indianapolis 500 raced in Las Vegas for the first time.

The track, cars, speeds and racing conditions were light years away from today’s IZOD IndyCar Series, which will hold its 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Oct. 16.

The 100-lap, 100-mile Silver State Century was held Nov. 14, 1954 at Las Vegas Park — a horse racing track. Home of the Las Vegas Jockey Club, the one-mile dirt track was located off Paradise Road and featured a pink stucco clubhouse and grandstand.

Constructed by a promoter from Brooklyn, N.Y., the expensive facility was doomed from the start. The new track did not open on time. When it finally did open, the ticket booths and tote boards failed. According to news reports, angry stockholders were fleeced, public officials were accused of taking bribes and a judge finally removed the promoter and installed a board of directors.

The $4.5 million track opened in September of 1953 and closed just one month later. Las Vegas Park reopened in 1954 but its season lasted only seven weeks due to poor attendance.

Enter what motorsports journalism icon (and co-announcer at the first Las Vegas Indy Car race) Chris Economaki refers to as “The Knights of the Roaring Road.” The American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned Indy Car racing during that era and selected Las Vegas as the final stop for its 13-race National Championship.

The AAA Champ Cars were used to racing on dirt fairgrounds ovals and horse tracks, since purpose-built motorsports facilities like Indianapolis were few and far between in those days.

Jimmy Bryan of Phoenix was on a roll when the series roared into Las Vegas. Bryan clinched the 1954 AAA championship with five races remaining on the schedule and had won the last three.

He had nothing to lose and drove like it, winning the pole with a lap of 37.67 sec. (95.92 miles per hour). According to historian Bill Hill, the 26-year-old Bryan won the race going away. His Dean Van Lines Special averaged 84.82 mph over the 100 miles and he nearly lapped the second-place car of Manuel Ayulo. Bryan lapped Jimmy Davies, who finished third, on lap 83.

Less than a handful of races were held at Las Vegas Park, including a NASCAR stock car race, a USAC stock car event and a motorcycle meet that claimed the life of one rider. The board of directors voted to demolish the track and divide the property among the Las Vegas Hilton, the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Las Vegas Country Club.

The Silver Century did have its Vegas moment, during a photo op at the Sands Hotel & Casino. Rat Pack ringleader Frank Sinatra was seated in the DA Lubricants Special and somehow disengaged the gears. The $30,000 race car rolled straight for the swimming pool. Driver Leroy Warriner courageously jumped onto the rolling car, yanked the hand brake and saved Sinatra from a watery embarrassment. Sinatra offered Warriner free tickets to his concert when he played the driver’s hometown.