“As qualifying drivers became accustomed to the track, they set records faster than what a croupier gathers in the night! … The Stardust Grand Prix will be a Las Vegas extravaganza!” — Announcer Les Keiter’s pre-race commentary at Stardust International Raceway, Nov. 13, 1966
“I just assumed a lot of people are intrigued about the old Stardust Raceway. There were organized crime figures and racketeers involved. It’s got this mob backstory. This is connected to the golden age of Las Vegas.” — Randall Cannon, co-author of Stardust International Raceway: Motorsports Meets the Mob in Vegas, 1965-1971
Speed demons behind the wheel. Dubious dealings behind the scenes. And a lost history, found.
“I set out to document a motorsports history and by the end I felt like a forensic detective,” says Randall Cannon, a Henderson-based freelance journalist, lifelong racing enthusiast and co-author of Stardust (McFarland, $49.95, 429 pages), his meticulously researched new book with Michael Gerry.
Uniquely an early-Vegas tale in its contours of under-the-table machinations and over-the-top characters, the story of Stardust International Raceway features a larger-than-life cast including: Moe Dalitz, Irwin Molasky, Howard Hughes, E. Parry Thomas, J. Edgar Hoover, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, Sam Giancana, the Cleveland crime family and the Kansas City mob. Throughout the chapters, they comingle with marquee auto-racing names including: Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, John Surtees, Bruce McLaren, Jackie “Flying Scot” Stewart, Phil Hill, Jim Hall and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.
“I felt I represented what Stardust International Raceway was — what it hosted, how the racing unfolded and everything behind the scenes that I don’t think anyone knew before,” Cannon says.
We’ll learn even more about how an inside-sports chronicle shines a spotlight on outside-the-law profiteers when Cannon appears at the Clark County Library on Jan. 15 as part of its “Mob Month” presentation.
“The drivers took a few more (practice) rounds than usual to acclimate themselves to … the demands of high-speed cornering without reference points. Thundering down a 170-mile-per-hour straightaway, the corners are a bit difficult to unravel. It was a matter of committing the 10-turn, 3-mile course to memory.” — Les Keiter
“It’s not just a car book, it’s not just a mob book, it’s not just a Las Vegas book,” says Cannon. “I tried to write at the convergence of those three circles of influence and the sweet spot is right in that overlap. Once people suspend their need to just see pictures of cars, Las Vegas readers, the ones I’ve heard from, are intrigued that the raceway ever existed, and that it had all these connections.”
“Thirty-three speedsters poised on the Stardust grid. And there’s the checkered!”
Our city’s first major motorsports showcase, the raceway was created by the Stardust Hotel-Casino. Designed to attract high rollers, it sprang up in 1965 at what’s now Spring Valley township, on a stretch of land between Tropicana Avenue and Flamingo Road, bordered by Rainbow Boulevard. Yet, when the hotel was sold in 1969, the track languished, finally sputtering to closure in 1971, when Pardee Homes purchased the land.
“Surtees, McLaren and Stewart make a bold play for the lead. They are four abreast heading for turn one. And it’s Surtees squeezing by Hall at the corner to take the lead from the third row starting position, Hall in second coming out of that first turn!”
Tracing Vegas’ auto racing lineage — including Stardust’s predecessor, Henderson’s Thunderbird Speedway, and through the Las Vegas Speedrome that morphed into the current Las Vegas Motor Speedway — Cannon and Gerry anchor their narrative on the Stardust’s “intricate and sometimes byzantine workings of gamblers, gravel-barons and government.”
As the authors describe: “The primary influencers of the race track properties appeared to be drawn from the alleged members of the ‘vast empire of interstate racketeers’ that Sen. Estes Kefauver had sought so eagerly to uncover.”
“Surtees is the point man, following that magnificent maneuver at the start. Jim Hall in pursuit with the rest of the pack in single file through these tricky turns!
Unearthing revelations that the raceway was a convenient concealment of racketeering, casino skimming, money laundering and shadowy transactions — even touching on early intrigues that would evolve into the Watergate scandal — the book reads as both a compelling narrative and a fresh history primer.
“My goal was not dollars, I just wanted to see this piece of Valley history memorialized,” Cannon says. “But there wasn’t much to find. Pretty much everything said the Stardust Hotel developed the racetrack, then sold it to developers. The track is long gone and it was lost and forgotten. But as soon as I dug into the history of the property, I realized there’s something here.”
“Hall’s flipper has gone berserk! Hydraulically operated flippers stabilize the Chaparral at high speeds. That ailing flipper makes his car unmanageable. That’s the end of it for Hall!”
Magazine, newspaper and website articles, personal correspondence, casino newsletters, track programs, auto-racing publications and — as hidden layers are peeled away — FBI files and SEC documents breathe life into a short-lived but vivid Vegas chapter of sports/mob elbow-rubbing. Beyond the book’s document dives, it’s in-person interviews that create its most authentic voice.
“My first interview was Mario Andretti, probably the most recognized name in motorsports history and it went pretty well from there,” Cannon says. “I got to interview Irwin Molasky. He was a little gruff with me, especially when I mentioned the name Moe Dalitz. What he gave me at the time was a little bit superficial, some things he claimed not to remember that I think he probably did. But what he did give me literally helped me write the last part of the book.”
“Stewart’s off the track and on the moonscape, sending clouds of desert into the air! The fires are quickly quenched and Stewart disappears into the science fiction movie mist!”
Perhaps Cannon can be grateful that mere gruffness was the only blowback he encountered. “Three people told me, ‘You don’t really want to go there with this book,’” he says. “I couldn’t tell whether they were tongue in cheek or serious. With most of the organized crime or related personalities, I’m careful with the terms I use. Their larger stories have been told. I’ve just drilled a little deeper into the checkbook.”
“Hill brings the wounded Chaparral to the pit. This time it’s determined surgery is warranted. The damaged body work is cleaned up and the faulty wing is removed and a brace inserted to buttress the upright support. Hill will be able to return to the fray!”
While chasing historical threads that kept unspooling into larger revelations, Cannon came across information about late-1970s/early-1980s FBI wiretaps of Kansas City wiseguys — several chronicled in the book and movie Casino, that were the fact-based trigger for mob rub-outs depicted in the film’s final act.
“As I was researching one of the motorsports threads, I found myself dropped right into that framework of Kansas City and those indictments, and as sometimes happens, it magically comes back to Vegas.”
“Everyone else might as well be chasing the long afternoon shadows as Surtees is the runaway, quietly averaging more than 110 miles per hour! McLaren is on the same lap but unable to close!”
Drawn to motorsports since childhood, Cannon indulged in motorcross racing in the Las Vegas Valley in the 1960s and ’70s, drove slot cars and was an avid reader of Hot Rod and Road & Track magazines. “My dad, my brother and I went (to Stardust Raceway) for local drag races and a fair amount of the more prominent races,” Cannon recalls.
“My favorite was the 1968 NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) Open. Tom McEwen won the Top Fuel Final — Tom McEwen from the magazine! I’m 11 years old. To see someone like that in action, literally from the pages of Hot Rod, it was one of those memories I carried to the point where I wanted to do something about it by way of the book.”
“There’s the checkered! Stardust Grand Prix and Can Am title to John Surtees. He led from wire to wire. He wins some $40,000 for less than two hours at the wheel!”
Everyone grows up, though, to realize that life is rife with truths that temper our childhood perceptions. “I look at motorsports a little differently now than before I did my research,” he says.
“A few of the rabbit trails I headed down during the book led me to a team owner or two. I always thought of them as the most noble of team owners that dispatched their teams and drivers. But behind the scenes? I learned about a bit of the mush underneath the rock.”
“The Can Am series was judged an immediate success. There was no more fitting setting for the finale than the Stardust Grand Prix.”
Inevitably, the book lands squarely in the duality of early Las Vegas, its fascinating story a contribution to our evolution filtered through a colorful lens of criminality.
Vegas history, baby!
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