Bennett, Engelstad saw potential for NASCAR in Las Vegas

It’s nearly unanimous. Southern Nevadans love NASCAR week, and this year’s crush of motor madness was no exception.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Kobalt 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway met and surpassed high expectations, and even the unpredictable March weather played nice for a city of racing fans and the drivers they support.

Speedway Motorsports of Charlotte, N.C., owns the facility and deserves credit for taking the amazing space to such a high level. But the community also owes a debt of gratitude to the two curmudgeonly characters who saw the long-term potential of a major motor speedway for the Southern Nevada economy. They are, of course, the late casino men William Bennett and Ralph Engelstad.

Bennett, a Glendale, Ariz., native who died in 2002 at age 78, partnered with Bill Pennington to buy a scandalized and gaudy grind joint called Circus Circus. They turned it into an unprecedented moneymaker by focusing on slot play and Middle America bargain customers. Although he built successful properties at Excalibur and Luxor and also bought the careworn Sahara, Bennett opened Las Vegas to a generation of small but loyal players.

Engelstad, a Minnesota native who died in 2002 at age 72, owned the Imperial Palace and office buildings across the country.

Their decision in the mid-1990s to build the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for $250 million was scoffed at by some in the community. Despite the criticism, their decision had an almost immediate economic impact. It has generated a hard-to-fathom amount of free Las Vegas marketing and advertising since its first big race in 1996.

They risked millions in personal capital on the idea, and the result years after their departure is one of America’s great raceways. It’s also a big winner for the Las Vegas economy.

They went into their sizable bankrolls and put their money on the line. Isn’t that refreshing?

It’s hard to keep a straight face imagining what Bennett and Engelstad would have said about all the attention being paid to the various promoters of the next big sports arena or events center in the valley. There’s no shortage of proposals. Pick a section of Southern Nevada — from Henderson to downtown — and one big plan or another is on the drawing board. All those developers appear to lack is a bunch of money and the courage to risk it.

Although I’m not sure how crusty old Bennett and Engelstad would have reacted to the presence of the ocean of young folks grooving at the Electric Daisy Carnival on the speedway grounds, they surely would have appreciated all the room nights the flower heads would have filled up during a slow week. Those two could pencil out a moneymaking venture faster than the rest of us can write a grocery list.

The events the speedway attracts, thanks to its current owners, help rank it among the nation’s best. And you’ll get few complaints from the racing teams, which certainly don’t mind coming to Las Vegas.

If you hear the names Engelstad and Bennett at all these days, it’s likely because their family foundations have stepped up and donated millions to everything from college buildings to Opportunity Village. They had plenty of flaws and failings, but they left behind a legacy of giving that will live on.

Just as rodeo fans are indebted to Benny Binion and Michael Gaughan for nurturing the National Finals Rodeo into a December tradition, NASCAR aficionados owe a tip-of-the-cap to Bennett and Engelstad for putting their money on the table and getting the motors running in a big way in Southern Nevada.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.

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