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.
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.