[Editor’s note: Given its location, one would expect no less than mob ties, gambling, and showgirls to figure into the story of Las Vegas’ Stardust International Raceway. Oh, and plenty of world-class racers, of course. In this excerpt from Randall Cannon and Michael Gerry’s hot-off-the-presses history of the track, Stardust International Raceway: Motorsports Meets the Mob in Vegas, 1965-1971, we get a little bit of all of the above as the track prepares for its opening season.
Professional motorsports found their way to Las Vegas in the mid-1950s at a bankrupt horse track swarmed by gamblers—and soon became enmeshed with the government and organized crime. By 1965, the Vegas racing game moved to Stardust International Raceway, constructed with real grandstands, sanitary facilities, and air-conditioned timing towers. Stardust would host the biggest racing names of the era—Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, John Surtees, Bobby Unser, Dan Gurney, and Don Garlits among them.
Established by a notorious racketeer, the track stood at the confluence of shadowy elements—secret wiretaps, casino skimming, Howard Hughes, and the beginnings of Watergate. The author traces the Stardust’s colorful history through the auto racing monthlies, national newspapers, and the files of the FBI.]
Early national reporting in 1965 about Stardust International Raceway not only announced construction of the racing plant and the scheduled California Sports Car Club opener in October, they also teased a larger professional event in November. Las Vegas press chose its words very carefully, “The sponsoring group, which includes officers of the Stardust Hotel, has scheduled a…major professional event with prize money of $30,000 November 14.” Officers of the Stardust Hotel was as close as the unsuspecting public would get to what really transpired in the executive offices and casino count rooms of the Desert Inn and the Stardust Hotel-Casinos.
Scheduled for November 12-14, the three-day inaugural Stardust Grand Prix was organized as the final round of the 1965 CPA, the Competition Press & Autoweek Championship. The events of the CPA series also served as the effective precursor to the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series to commence in fall of 1966.
The Chaparral team of Jim Hall and Hap Sharp headlined the Stardust bill. Jim Hall was extremely competitive in 1965, alternating between his self-designed Chaparral 2A and his upgraded 2C. Together, Hap Sharp and Jim Hall won the Sebring 12-hour, the race at which the Stardust Raceway plan was allegedly discussed between New Yorker Harold Jason and Stirling Moss. Hap Sharp then had to be the betting line favorite heading into Las Vegas, winning the Riverside Grand Prix of the CPA series just two weeks before.
Parnelli Jones and Walt Hansgen – both attendees for the Stardust Raceway ribbon cutting — were entered by John Mecom in a pair of Lola T-70s. Peter Revson, heir to the Revlon cosmetics fortune, would race a Lotus 23. George Follmer, the 1965 USRRC champion, was entered in his Lotus. Other drivers included Bob Bondurant in a Lola, Jerry Titus in an Elva-Porsche, Chuck Parsons with a Genie, Jerry Grant driving a Lotus, Formula 1 driver Ronnie Bucknum with a Lola, Lothar Motschenbacher in a Cooper, and Augie Pabst in a lone Scarab.
As the pace car pulled away and down the pit lane, the rolling start turned into a drag race to the first turn. Parnelli Jones led around the sweeping right as some 15,000-accumulated horsepower fell in behind him. Parnelli Jones would hold point for five laps before he trailed off. Jerry Grant then took his turn at the front. Grant held on until lap eight when he too experienced trouble. Jerry Grant’s retirement left fourth qualifier Charlie Hayes in in the lead. Hayes enjoyed the clear track out front for exactly one lap before his powerplant expired. Jim Hall came by Hayes just as they hit the line on lap ten.
Jim Hall and Hap Sharp ran one-two on track for over an hour until Hall’s Chaparral finally sputtered on lap sixty-three. “My fuel pressure dropped on lap 62, but I thought it would go back up again,” reported Hall, “I watched it a little longer and the engine just quit.” Jim Hall coasted his thirsty Chaparral to the pit entrance and took on a splash of fuel. By the time Hall rejoined, Hap Sharp was long gone, taking the win of the inaugural Stardust Grand Prix. Walt Hansgen followed Hap Sharp through in second place. Jim Hall came home third, right where he rejoined.
“I had no idea I won until I pulled into the pit and a guy stuck a microphone in my face and said ‘Congratulations’,” beamed the triumphant Hap Sharp, “I thought Jim had pulled into victory lane and then I saw him pull out again.” The microphone was held by Jim Simpson, sports broadcaster for NBC. NBC would televise the event in mid-December on their “Sports in Action” compilation program. As Sharp stood in the cockpit he was greeted by Margaret White, Grand Prix race queen and Stardust showgirl. Allard Roen — Desert Inn and Stardust partner and Stardust Racing Association officer — was in the wings to represent the house. Moe Dalitz was reported in attendance as well. “Moe Dalitz was a good guy,” raceway constructor Irwin Molasky recalled wistfully of his lifelong friend and controversial business partner, “He actually walked the six miles or so out to the track just because he wanted to sit in the stands.” There were no reported sightings of New Yorker Harold Jason, but he just had to be in there somewhere.
Motorsports in Las Vegas had never experienced this sort of money. For the victory, Hap Sharp took $8,000 of the $37,000 Stardust purse from Allard Roen. The race purse, though, deserves some perspective. It was the biggest cash grab at the most well-attended motorsports event ever in Nevada. The race purse guaranteed by the Stardust Racing Association, though, was far less than the $50,000 Roen admitted to taking from the cage of the Desert Inn in an effort to suppress indictments related to a stock swindle. It was also significantly less than the $68,000 that Ruby Kolod lifted from the Desert Inn, all of the cash invested with the person that Kolod was later convicted of extorting with a death threat.
For the racers, the Stardust Grand Prix victory by Sharp and Hall’s third-place run capped a truly remarkable year for the self-made constructors. 1965 was also a year of incredible financial success for Jim Hall and Hap Sharp, one for which the racers from Midland, TX dutifully paid their fair share of taxes to the IRS. By contrast, Stardust Racing Association president Moe Dalitz was due in a Los Angeles federal court for his tax fraud trial proceedings the very next day.
It must have been Dalitz’ least favorite visit to Los Angeles since Senator Estes Kefauver’s crime committee hearings in 1951. “The Kefauver senate crime committee heard today how a top Cleveland gangster made a quick $250,000 on a steel company merger” crackled the AP wire to the Los Angeles Times press room on February 28, 1951, “Moe Dalitz…boss of the notorious Mayfield Road game, was the crime probers’ star witness in their…last day of hearings here.”
On November 15, 1965 the Los Angeles Times pinged Moe Dalitz again. “They are members of the interwoven mobs which make up the national crime syndicate. Also included in this cast of characters are Morris Kleinman, Sam Tucker, and Louis Schrager,” columnist Paul Coates went all in for the Times, “As duly appointed representatives of Moe Dalitz’ Cleveland syndicate, they own percentage points in a number of Las Vegas gambling casinos.” The name-dropping was conspicuous.
Morris Kleinman and Sam Tucker were members — along with Ruby Kolod and Allard Roen — of Moe Dalitz’ Cleveland Syndicate that threw money in 1949 to complete and then take over Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn. In 1958, Dalitz, Kleinman, Tucker, Kolod, and Roen were then licensed in the Stardust Hotel and Casino. Moe Dalitz, Allard Roen, and New Yorker Harold Jason later formed the core of the Stardust Racing Association in 1965. Louis Schrager, though, appeared as a wild card entry in Paul Coates piece for the Times. Schrager, however, had his own national criminal reputation.
Racketeer at best, gangster at worst, Schrager was described as, “a principal figure in the Meyer Lansky crime syndicate who ran the numbers racket on Manhattan’s West Side and in the garment district and part of Brooklyn.” Schrager was also identified as “a convicted felon…number two man to Bugsy Siegel.” Sam Schrager, brother of Louis, had his own reputation as a trigger man for the Depression-era killing squad, Murder, Inc. Further, and perhaps coincidentally, New Yorker Harold Jason — vice president of the Stardust Racing Association and reportedly — the man in the ear of Stirling Moss at Sebring, had his own Harold A. Jason, Inc. textile business situated in New York garment district in which Louis Schrager ran the numbers racket. The mind immediately races right back to Stardust International Raceway — and perhaps the whole Stardust thing does make sense — allegedly.