Las Vegas will play host to two NASCAR Cup weekends a year starting next season, which will bring more NASCAR culture to Sin City.
Whether fans believe the city has a strong NASCAR culture or not, a number of current NASCAR national series drivers who grew up in the area.
Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch, as well as South Point-ownership family member Brendan Gaughan are the most notable Vegas products competing in NASCAR on the national level. Add Xfinity driver Spencer Gallagher and Camping World Truck Series rookie Noah Gragson and that makes five drivers in national series from Las Vegas.
With the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway (built by Imperial Palace owner Richie Clyne in 1996) and the original 0.375-mile asphalt oval Bullring at Las Vegas, national series drivers return to the area where they planted at least some racing roots.
“You can’t say you don’t have NASCAR culture when you’ve got one of the nicest short-track facilities around,” Gallagher said. “There’s a small but very, very vibrant circle-track culture out there. … Everyone comes to Vegas [to race], so when you’re running a legend or a late model, you get to test your stuff against the best.”
For Gallagher, having LVMS around is all he has known. For the Busch brothers, they saw it being built.
“I watched Vegas being built from the ground up, and I remember when it wasn’t anything but a gleam in the eye of Richie Clyne [and] all those guys who made that place happen,” Kyle Busch said.
Gaughan was already 20 when the track was built. He said Las Vegas has a motorsports vibe but it is a variety of motorsports, from open-wheel to off-road to motorcycles.
“When you added that big track, I was 20 years old in 1995, it was really a big thing in their lives,” he said about the life of racers in the area. “It gave them the ability and visibility to go do what they wanted to do.”
Gragson, who is 18, didn’t start racing until he was 13 and he indicated that it’s not as if the Busch brothers’ success makes them a household name in Vegas.
“I was familiar with them a little bit, but I didn’t really know of them before I got into racing until I actually started getting into it — I watched YouTube videos about them,” Gragson said.
Gragson said his friends aren’t into racing much, and he admitted he wasn’t sure he could make it to the national level in NASCAR. He spent a couple of years racing at the Bullring, got connected with the right people to compete in the NASCAR K&N West Series and was able to land at Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“It definitely makes it harder being from the West Coast because racing isn’t as popular out there, but I knew I was surrounded with great people up through the [steps],” Gragson said. “I’m just very fortunate that it worked out this far.”
Gragson is still in high school. Kurt Busch was inducted Thursday into his high school Hall of Fame. The induction came after his Daytona 500 win, but the event was planned before February to honor the 2004 NASCAR Cup champion.
“I graduated 20 years ago,” Busch said last week. “That is good and bad, I guess. I am bringing a 2004 championship replica car, it is a Ford, and it will be in front of the gymnasium at my high school and we are doing a student assembly. … We will unveil my hood hanging in the rafters.
“It is the Sharpie 2004 championship hood. … It will be neat.”
Obviously the Las Vegas contingent is stoked for having a second Cup race at Las Vegas in 2018. Both weekends will be tripleheader weekends, which means they include Xfinity and Camping World Truck series races.
“Years ago when Richie Clyne had the vision to build Las Vegas Motor Speedway, [he did it] because he had a passion for cars, he had a passion for motorsports,” Kurt Busch said.
The addition of the second Cup weekend (at the expense of a weekend at New Hampshire) isn’t the only sports boost for the city in recent years. It will have an NHL team starting this fall, and the Oakland Raiders are looking for NFL approval for a move to the city.
The Las Vegas tourism board is paying $2.5 million a year for at least seven years for track operator Speedway Motorsports Inc. to have two Cup races at LVMS.
“[The city] started out as a family atmosphere it seemed like in the early ’90s, it seemed like there was a nightclub phase, it seemed like there was a restaurant phase — all along everything kept building,” Kurt Busch said. “Now we’re going through a big sports phase here in Las Vegas.”
Gaughan thinks the September race at Las Vegas might be better than the March race. The trucks have competed there as a stand-alone event for several years.
“One of the problems that has happened early in the season, one organization always figures something out faster than another, so it made that big gap,” Gaughan said. “The September race probably would be a better race. The racing there, except for the lead, where one guy gets out, we’re four-wide at Vegas nowadays. it’s definitely a fun place that you can race.”
Once they start to race, it is hard to think about being in their hometown.
“It’s just fun to come back and reminisce,” Kurt Busch said. “But ultimately you’ve got to strap on the helmet and focus on the task at hand.”