The southeast corner of North Fifth Street and Craig Road in North Las Vegas is quiet nowadays. The 40-acre parcel has been dormant for more than 30 years.
However, beneath the surface of tumbleweeds, tin cans and an occasional coyote or lizard lies the sounds of stock cars and the evidence of Craig Road Speedway. Listen close enough and you can feel the rumble of stock cars that gathered for 17 years in what became some of the best damned short track auto racing in the country.
Only a few miles from the smell of a pig farm that still exists, the land of CRS is adjacent to an old golf course that has been replaced by a massive park allegedly intended to rival Central Park in New York.
A cyclone fence surrounds the acreage now. Homebuilders have invaded the area, but the land that housed CRS is barren.
Indeed, this is a graveyard without the headstones. However, if you grab a shovel and start digging, you’ll eventually find a quarter-mile paved oval that hosted some of auto racing’s top names from 1967-82. Each season began with a Spring Open Comp before ending each October with a Fall Open Comp that drew hundreds of competitors from all over the country and Canada, too. Among the bigger names to race the Fall Open Comp were Daytona 500 competitors Dick Trickle, Ernie Ervin, Derrick Cope and teenager Mark Martin, who would go on to win Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s inaugural NASCAR Winston Cup Las Vegas 400 in March of 1998.
CRS closed after the Dec. 4-5, 1982 running of “The Last Go-Round” won by long-time local competitor Randy Swalwell. Track owner Bob Van Norman closed the gates for good. A facility that was a great place for families was gone.
Van Norman owned Van’s Builder Supply on Western Avenue in downtown Las Vegas. He was self-taught and sincere and loved by fans and racers.
When CRS closed leaving a gaping hole in both short track racing and North Las Vegas, Van Norman and his family eventually moved to Oregon where he died. Van Norman’s business had been struggling and matters were made worse when the North Las Vegas City Council ordered him to spend $100,000 to pave the track’s parking lot.
Retired electrician Jimmy Sanderson, who won three track championships at CRS (1972-74-75), is among the many with memories that will last forever.
“Back in those days, Craig Road was a big thing,” said Sanderson, 71. “Everyone loved coming to Vegas. It was a very friendly town.”
Ray “the Stormin’ Mormon” Wulfenstein won the track title in 1969 and 1971.
“Van Norman was the best friend that racing had in those days,” recalled the 78 year-old Wulfenstein, who moved to Pahrump after winning his last CRS title and racing at Daytona the next year. “You don’t see anyone like him now. It (CRS) was just fun.”
The 61 year-old Swalwell grew up either attending racing events or working on the cars of other competitors. Considering that he won the last race ever run at CRS, he’s somewhat etched in the record books for getting the last trophy.
“I first visited Craig Road in 1967,” Swalwell said adding that he was in disbelief when leaving the track for the last time. “We used to go to drag races and I thought Craig Road was really cool because we got to go in circles.”
Like so many others, Swalwell didn’t hesitate when explaining the success of the track.
“It was because of Bob Van Norman,” Swalwell said. “He helped everyone and it didn’t matter who you were. Van made you feel like you were part of a family.”
Gus Newman, who turns 90 Oct. 24, was dubbed the “Arkansas traveler” by track announcer Gene Drew. Hearing that Bugsy Siegel was building a new hotel, Newman left Maryland and arrived in Las Vegas in late 1952, driving a new Lincoln while towing a 27-foot trailer.
A tireless competitor both as a painter and as a race car driver, Newman won the first-ever track championship in 1967 (the first official season although some say the track actually opened in 1965) after winning the last ever championship at the old Silver Slipper in Las Vegas and another in Barstow, Calif. “I raced for 12 years before Craig Road,” said Newman, who is also a U.S. Army World War II veteran. “Craig Road was promoted well and it also paid good purses back then.”
Two-time track champ Phil Hayes, 69, said auto racing was simpler in the old days.
“We’d race, we’d party and we’d go home,” recalled Hayes. “We didn’t spend hours tearing down engines after the race. In those days, we raced cars and not rule books and officials.”
Tom Busch, whose sons, Kurt and Kyle went on to become NASCAR Sprint Cup stars, was the track’s 1981-82 Sportsman Division Champion.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Craig Road,” said Busch, who now lives in North Carolina with wife, Gaye. “I think back at the driver’s meetings when everyone would complain. I’d used to say that if this place ever closed, they’d all miss it.
“I just knew that Craig Road was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. If you could duplicate the magic of the track, you’d be a billionaire.”
Dick Cobb, who won the track title in 1980 and 1982, might have said it best when he stated “We didn’t know how good we had it.”
Endless colorful stories remain including the night of Friday, Sept. 13, 1968. North Las Vegas police showed up wanting to close the track after Bob Ruppert and Wulfenstein flew through the fourth turn wall (it was actually plywood) and into the parking lot wrecking several cars. As the story goes, a CRS official waved a pistol at the surprised cop, who climbed into his patrol car and ran for his life.
Then, there was the time that Ruppert won a race before heading straight for the pits where he climbed the fence, hopped into a waiting getaway car and escaped officials of the Internal Review Service.
Indeed, the ghosts of Craig Road are still present in North Las Vegas. The pig farm lives on and when the wind is right, you can tell by the smell that the closing of Craig Road Speedway came way too early. +
Craig Road Speedway track champions:
1967 – Gus Newman
1968 – Bob Ruppert
1969 – Ray Wulfenstein
1970 – Bobby Clawson
1971 – Ray Wulfenstein
1972 Jimmy Sanderson
1973 – Romie Alderman
1974 Jimmy Sanderson
1975 Jimmy Sanderson
1976 Phil Hayes
1977 Phil Hayes
1978 – Bobby Ruppert Jr.
1979 – Dick Attisani
1980 – Dick Cobb
1981 – Dick Attisani
1982 – Dick Cobb