Credit late casino owners Bill Bennett (Sahara) and Ralph Engelstad (Imperial Palace) for putting Las Vegas on the national racing map. They built Las Vegas Motor Speedway for $250 million and the Indy Racing League christened the 1.5-mile tri-oval in 1996.
When it comes to driver name recognition, it was the emergence of hot-rod brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch that gave Las Vegas credence among racing fans.
Older brother Kurt cracked the NASCAR lineup in 2001 at age 22, driving for the renowned Jack Roush Racing team. Three years later he won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
As a teenager, Busch dominated local competition at Las Vegas Speedway Park, the only asphalt track in Las Vegas at the time. After graduating with honors from Durango High School, Busch enrolled at University of Arizona. Call him “One and Done.” After his freshman year, he moved back to Las Vegas and raced on the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour, capturing rookie-of-year honors in 1998 and winning the tour championship the next year. Roush hired him for the NASCAR truck series and quickly promoted him to the Sprint Cup.
As tends to happen among competitive brothers, along comes the younger one, Kyle, looking to prove himself better than the older one. He established himself as a budding star by winning the Busch Series Rookie of the Year in 2004 at age 19 and the Nextel Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 2005. He won the Daimler-Chrysler 400 NASCAR race in Las Vegas in 2009 and has also finished second and third in the featured race.
Both Busch brothers have dealt with their share of controversy. Kurt Busch became known as a bit of a hot head and that’s exactly where he got punched by veteran driver Jimmy Spencer after a race in 2003. He also made news for a DUI arrest in Arizona.
Kyle Busch has come under fire this year for driving in the Camping World truck series and NaNionwide series, considered a training ground for the Sprint Cup. Critics say it’s not fair for top-notch NASCAR drivers to compete against drivers with less experience and skill. Kyle won the truck race at Daytona and the rain-shortened Nationwide race at Phoenix last weekend, his record 64th Nationwide victory.
The brothers got into a tangle on the track in the 2007 All-Star Race and didn’t speak to each other for six months. They’ll stoke their fraternal rivalry when they take the green flag at the Kobalt Tools 400 NASCAR race on March 9. Kyle enjoys a slight lead over Kurt in the Sprint Cup series after finishing ninth at Phoenix and 19th at Daytona. Kurt blew his engine at Phoenix and finished a disappointing in 39th place. He was 21st at Daytona.
Brendan Gaughan, son of South Point casino owner Michael Gaughan and grandson of Las Vegas gaming pioneer Jackie Gaughan, is off to a good start in the Nationwide series after spending several years racing trucks. He finished sixth in the season opener at Daytona and 16th last weekend at Phoenix.
The latest Las Vegas phenom is 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski, who captured the pole position in his Nationwide series debut at Daytona and finished eighth. He followed that with a 13th-place finish at Phoenix.
Speedweek in Las Vegas starts with the World of Outlaws sprint cars on the dirt track March 5-6, followed by Las Vegas Pole Day on March 7, Boyd Gaming 300 Nationwide race on March 8 and Kobalt Tools 400 on March 9.