Everybody knows life in Las Vegas is tuned to nocturnal high rollers and gaudy shows in the casinos along The Strip—where the customers are the ones wearing tops. The town always plays dead in the cold light of day. But, despite the traditional odds, Las Vegas' hottest action this week was to be found on Sunday afternoon at a wind-whipped snaking racetrack out in the desert.
In two dusty hours while the town slept—except for about 9,500 insomniac racing buffs—33 of the world's leading drivers staged a wild run to settle the $350,000 Canadian-American Challenge Cup battle they had started nine weeks and five races before. Minsky's Burlesque and Frank Sinatra notwithstanding, it was the best show in Las Vegas.
By chill sundown, with the casino lights coming back on along the horizon, the fastest of them all was John Surtees, a 32-year-old tourist in town from England. He had come to the Stardust International Raceway with a red-and-white Lola-Chevrolet. He drove it at an average speed of 109.25 mph, and—in a day's quick work—picked up more money than any lucky plunger in the state.
By the time the town got out of bed, Surtees was on the road out of Nevada with $19,250 for winning the series, $7,500 for winning the day's race, more than $17,000 in tour winnings, roughly $5,000 more in accessory prizes, and a trophy that proclaimed him the boss driver in a state where there are no speed limits.
November 21, 1966
Since the series began in Canada in September the lead had switched around agonizingly, and as cars, drivers and crewmen hit Las Vegas in the middle of the week it was clear that they considered the last event to be racing's equivalent of the pro football supergame. The sponsors had figured the way to draw top talent was to post fat purses—you can't beat money with drivers who have grown tired of eating trophies. The sponsors had been right. The best came running. When word spreads that those crazy North Americans are throwing it around, more will run next year.
There was more than money. The Las Vegas Grand Prix shaped up as though Can-Am Commissioner Stirling Moss had written the script. Apart from the $58,200 riding on the race, there were six strong men in a showdown for the Can-Am championship. Las Vegas bookies will handicap such questions as your getting a table for Jack Benny's supper show (try 450 to 1), but they would not tackle the six-way Can-Am parlay. "Better get yourself a man-to-man bet somewhere else," counseled one oldtimer at the Santa Anita Book on Las Vegas Boulevard. "How can anybody figure a finish like this?"
Tied in points for first place were Surtees and California's Phil Hill, both of them former world driving champions. Four other drivers had a chance to win: Mark Donohue, a 28-year-old New York engineer and the surprise of the season; Bruce McLaren of New Zealand; Texas Driver-Designer Jim Hall; and Chris Amon, McLaren's New Zealand teammate. To add a further touch of motorized soap opera, America's Dan Gurney was in a position to tie for the title—providing gasoline fumes overcame all the leaders and they finished seventh or worse.
The first thing everybody did was to lose a ceremonial few dollars on the slot machines. Then they started driving to make those dollars back—driving fiercely and in due course wiping out the track records. Last year Hall set a mark of 110.2 mph for once around the track. By race day the first eight qualifiers were moving faster than that.
Stark and purposeful, the racers averaged 1,800 pounds—about 400 pounds lighter than the GT prototype cars of the Le Mans race—and were outfitted with engines averaging 500 horsepower. With push like this, most of them could loaf along at speeds close to 200 miles an hour on a straight strip of track.
But straight the Stardust course is not. Composed of blind corners and sweeping bends, it has 10 turns and requires adroit shifting and braking. From any viewing point, the cars flickered through the turns like darting waterbugs.
Some drivers assaulted the track with brute power, others fenced with it delicately. Chief among the power mongers was Gurney, who had put a pile of money into his Lola-Ford. When he unloaded the car people reached out to touch its shiny flanks—respectfully, as they might touch Cassius Clay's biceps.
That engine was so full of pizzazz that Gurney's chief mechanic had wrapped it in a special metal girdle to keep it from laying shrapnel on Reno if it blew. But in practice sessions Gurney discovered that he could not use all his power on the tight racecourse and qualified down in ninth starting position.
Those with a more subtle approach were doing better. Surtees was doing all right, but best of all in practice were Hall and Hill, in the winged Chaparrals. Hall brought along two of the wide, white racers, each weighing 1,500 pounds and boasting but 450 hp. It was Hall's notion that stability meant more than pure speed. The idea of adjustable spoiler wings was to keep the cars' tails down and the wheels driving on the straights and to help slow them for turns. Obviously, the wings worked. Some wondered, however, if too much foot on the operating pedal in the cockpit might make the spoiler turn upward, behave like a real airplane wing and put a Chaparral in the vicinity of Omaha. "Not a chance," said Hall. "The wing has a built-in, fail-safe device which keeps it from turning up."
To Hill, who had grown up in traditional cars like Ferraris and who was the first and only American to hold the world championship (for 1961), the Chaparral was the only way to fly.
"Greatest car I ever drove," said Hill. "Took to it right away." But what happens to an old Ferrari driver when he steps on that pedal? "On the curves, you don't feel a thing," said Hill. "It just gets more steady. And on the straightaways, I'll tell you what happens: the damn thing suddenly adds about five miles an hour, that's what happens. It snaps your head back and you go."
By Friday afternoon, when the qualifying trials were over, Hall and Hill had gone faster than anyone else—114.29 and 113.24 mph respectively—to take the lead-off spots on Sunday's starting grid. Qualifying just behind them were Amon at 113.09 mph and Surtees at 112.42 mph. Next came Scotland's Jackie Stewart, McLaren, George Follmer and Parnelli Jones. Donohue managed only 14th in his Lola-Chevrolet.
"I'll tell ya," said Parnelli Jones, "anybody could win this race. It's a shame nobody's going to see it. I know a whole gang—I mean, a big, big crowd—of California people came up here to watch. 'We're going up to the race,' they told me, but none of them will ever get to the track. If you went up to any of them at the crap table and said, 'It's time to leave for the track,' they would hit you in the head. Even sex runs second in this town and you can imagine where that puts racing."
Still the crews and racetrack hangers-on that came out made a crowd by themselves. Eighteen hundred people connected in one way or another with the race were registered at the Stardust Hotel. By day they trooped into the arid flats, past sandpits and sagebrush, out among scrapped cars whose skeletons lay rusting in the sun. On one hulk, turned on its side, was painted, WELCOME RACING FANS.
But there was no indication that the best race of the sports car season had touched the steely heart of Las Vegas. One of the drivers, wearing a dapper blue blazer whose embroidered pocket emblem read, "Canadian-American Challenge Cup," stepped up to a gaming table, and one of the high rollers looked him over. "All right, all right," snapped the gambler irritably. "What's your game with that insignia? Sailing? Bowling? Golf? Whatever it is, I'll lay you 6 to 5 you lose it, you bum."
Said Jones, who does not gamble now that he can afford it: "That's the way this town is. If one of our drivers lost his car at craps, the man who won it had damn well better be a good driver. Because he'll be in there with the real old high rollers."
Ahead of the drivers Sunday as the race began lay 70 laps around the three-mile course: 210 miles of tight cornering. For Surtees, who wears steel-gray hair and an expression of absolute serenity, the trip out to the track in the morning had to be tougher than the rest of his day. Starting in fourth position, he simply pulled out in front and stayed there, watching pursuers in his rear-view mirror and occasionally nodding icily to his pit men as he passed by.
But for the others, locked in one of racing's wilder struggles, there was a race within a race. Of the 33 starters, only 11 finished—and most of them were coughing irritably and spitting up various shades of mauve smoke at the end. The Chaparrals lay on the sidelines with broken wings, and other favorites had left a trail of mechanical ruins.
Behind Surtees on the first lap came Jim Hall, wing nicely depressed, and a field of challengers. Teammate Hill, who had started with nobody out in front of him, suddenly looked around and discovered he was in the fifth spot.
"It is apparent," the track's running wire commentary noted, "that the Chaparral strategy is to send Hall out as the rabbit with Hill holding a steady pace."
So much for strategy. The only strategic rabbits were the ones that decided to stay off the track. Around came Hill, with his right front fender humped up. He had glanced off another car in the close maneuvering on the corners. Then the other Chaparral whirred by, wagging a faltering wing, and it was clear that if the fail-safe device had managed to keep the car on the ground, nothing was going to keep it in the race. Hall drove into the pits and climbed out.
Altogether it was an afternoon of breaking hardware. Indy's Mario Andretti went out early. Stewart lost a gamble and spun into the dunes. Gurney charged into third spot and began a battle with Jones, but all the horses in Nevada—and Gurney had most of them—couldn't push him ahead. His horses all died on the 37th lap.
"Broken drive shaft," said Gurney, his deep dimples full of oily grime. "I heard it snap, and there was nothing else to do but pull out."
But there was one more element of drama to come. There came Phil Hill, winging—and wobbling—past the Chaparral pit. His wing, too, had broken and was flapping in the wind. But Team Captain Hall, who refused to give up, sent Hill out on the track again—wingless. Hill, driving slowly, finished three laps behind the winner. There was just no stopping Surtees.
When it was all over, seconds behind him was Bruce McLaren. In third place but one lap behind them came Mark Donohue, who had driven as calmly—if not as briskly—as Surtees.
"Well," said Surtees, his expression painted on his face by track grime, "so much for that." He kissed the trophy queen—which is as close as he ever got to any of the girls in the Lido Paris Revue during his stay in town, and drank champagne from a silver trophy bowl.
"The course is not as flat as this desert looks," he said. "In fact, there are some dips and rolls out there that sort of undulate like a ship at sea. At times I could feel my car bottoming on the suspension. At other times I was hanging by my shoulder straps, sort of floating in the cockpit. Almost made me seasick."
But it was worth a little nausea. "This money," he said, "will help us scratch through the winter."
And Parnelli Jones added the final philosophical touch of the day, applying an ancient axiom to a very real situation. "A lot of guys lost a lot of money driving here," he said. "And some of them are pretty broke. You know, Las Vegas is the only town in the world where you can arrive in a $4,000 car and go home in a $40,000 bus."