A lot has changed in the last 100 years. Technology, society, and the way we spend our free time have all evolved, and so has the strip.
Even though the present-day Las Vegas Motor Speedway will celebrate its centennial next year, the first edition will feel nothing like today’s megastyre. Construction on the speedway began soon after the First World War, and it opened its doors in 1926.
The first cars to race at the speedway were stock cars driven by amateur drivers. A professional division was then added in the form of stock car racing on Sunday afternoons, and the weekly payouts helped spur growth within the city’s motor sports community.
The Great Depression hit the city hard, and the weekly payouts were stopped in 1931 as part of a federal government-mandated “save-the-economy” plan. It was closed for a few months, and when it reopened, it was reduced from 500 to 250 meters in length.
Las Vegas in the 1930s was a very different place from what it is today – fewer people lived there, and the majority of the buildings were constructed of wood or brick rather than concrete.
The Great Depression didn’t stop the city’s growth, however, and the speedway was used for high school graduation ceremonies and local sporting events until World War II interrupted its schedule.
After the war, the need for a city speedway became apparent, and a new building was constructed closer to the original location – the first section of Las Vegas Speedway opened in October 1947.
In its early years, the speedway was open Monday – Thursday and on Sunday afternoons, with gates opening at 10:00 a.m. and the first race at 11:00 a.m. The first winner was Wilbur Shaw, and the inaugural Grand National Championship was won by Jimmy Bryan.
From the very beginning, the racetrack’s management realized the importance of customer service and tried to accommodate the city’s residents as best they could. They constructed sidewalks on the inside of the track’s borders, laid out playground equipment, and even put in some artificial lakes. One of the more unusual additions to the track was the “Fountain of Youth”, built in 1962 and designed to look like a huge whirlpool that drains into a pool below. It’s still there today, and it was a sight to see all those years ago.
In terms of evolution, the speedway has gone through many transformations in both size and layout. The grandstands originally seated 6,000 people, but because of the location of the track next to the airport, the seating area was reduced to 4,500 in the 1970s. The track also shifted one turn in the opposite direction, and today, it starts at the far end of the airport runway.
One of the most significant changes occurred shortly after World War II when the track was reduced to its current length of 500 meters. The stadium’s maximum capacity tripled, and it served as the host of the 1971 National Championship. The track was also reconfigured to take advantage of the larger capacity, moving the grandstands and shortening the track’s turns. This caused some controversy because many local residents didn’t like the changes and felt that cutting the track in half was an unnecessary risk. The shortened version of the track is still used today.
Throughout its history, the track has always been a part of the city’s culture. Locals would often visit the stadium to cheer on their favorites, and many still consider it a part of their heritage. In fact, the track’s name – Las Vegas Motor Speedway – reflects this sense of pride.
How Do You Measure the “Heart” of a City?
If there is one thing that the Las Vegas community shares with the rest of the country, it’s our love for our city and its history. The centennial celebration of the speedway next year will mark the culmination of many months of planning, and the city is taking this opportunity to look back on the past century of racing and to celebrate the many achievements that the speedway represents.
The question is: How do you measure the “heart” of a city? For whatever reason, the phrase “city heart” has entered the public lexicon, and many people use it to describe the place that they call home. For Las Vegas, this means that the last century of motor sports has given the city a bond that transcends time. Every street, pool, and park that the speedway represents is a part of the city’s DNA, and no matter what happens in the future, the past will always be with us.