The next stop for NASCAR is Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which always sparks images of clanging slot machines, crowded roulette tables and cards flopping down repeatedly at blackjack tables.
Well, it does for me, anyway.
When the media learned prior to the 1998 Winston Cup (now NASCAR Cup Series) season that NASCAR was going to race at a new facility once called Las Vegas Speedway Park, it was somewhat incredulous. At that time, while stock car racing had indeed expanded to newer, more cosmopolitan venues, it was still a sport bred largely in the South.
Hey, the media was used to small hamlets like Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Talladega. There were no bright, flashing lights, four-star restaurants and gambling casinos.
Not that the media minded, understand. There were plenty of biscuits and gravy, fish camps, Junior’s or Enoch’s hooch and press box pools, including the $2, $5, $10 and $25 varieties.
So, the image of NASCAR mixing with Las Vegas was almost incomprehensible. This was going to be “going where no man has gone before.”
Well, not exactly. Several of us had been to Vegas — if not for work, then for a vacation. My first and only trip, at that time, came when indy Car Racing, a companion publication to Winston Cup Scene, covered an open-wheel event in the city, and I tagged along.
NASCAR was no stranger to Vegas, either. For years after the last race of the season was concluded at Riverside, many teams went straight to Sin City to blow off some steam and play the tables.
In 1980, a young Dale Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup championship. He was treated to a visit to Vegas, and while he didn’t know much about gambling, he certainly knew how to have a good time.
Being the champ meant Earnhardt was given the Presidential Suite at a major hotel. He had never seen anything like it. It was massive, with furniture, a whirlpool, full wet bar and stereo.
It also had a giant, round bed on which the giddy kid from Kannapolis stood and made repeated phone calls: “Guess where I am!? Guess where I am!?”
As March 1998 loomed and the first trip to Vegas was at hand, some of us took lessons from vets who had been to the city previously.
They gave such advice as “Drink only when you are gambling. That way, the drinks are free.” “Load up at the buffets. They are cheap.” “Don’t drive anywhere but to the track. You don’t need to.”
My longtime buddy, the late Tom Higgins, knew his way around a poker table or a horse track. I suspected he was watering at the mouth to get to Vegas. He was. But not for reasons I suspected.
“Boy when we get out there, we have to play the sports book,” he said.
I had no idea what a sports book was. Higgins explained to me that unlike individual Vegas games, it was a means to bet on any number of sports — from the NFL to the NBA, from college football to college basketball, Major League Baseball and ….
We would have an edge because we knew who was going to be strong and who was not when it came to NASCAR. We would have information the bookies wouldn’t have for the inaugural Vegas race.
“It’s gonna be like stealing,” Higgins said.
Our strategy was to bet on the Roush Racing (now Roush Fenway Racing) drivers. They had been strongest on the mile-and-a-half tracks, which Vegas was, for a number of months. If the bookies didn’t realize that, the odds would be in our favor.
We checked into our hotel, threw our bags in our rooms and ran to the casino. Sure enough, the board listed Mark Martin and Jeff Burton at 12-1 odds. Should have been much lower. I think I was salivating when I put my money down.
Sure enough, Martin won that inaugural Vegas race. My two-figure bet netted me a nice three-figure return.
Didn’t have it when I left, though. Reckon you know why.
I will admit I have no idea of how sports books have posted NASCAR odds this season. But I would have to think that Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, Ben Rhodes, Ty Gibbs, Myatt Snider and William Byron have not been listed as favorites by any one of them.
Which could mean someone who was either very lucky or very smart is considerably wealthier now.
Plenty of folks will be putting money down this weekend.