It has been said for many years that I have a promotional side to me.
I guess you could call me a combination of a PT Barnum. fight promoter Don King and auto racing marketing wizard Bruton Smith.
That said, during the spring of 1980 I put on my promoter’s hat and went to work laboring as more than a sports writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Our sons were five and three at the time and they each spent their first days watching a stock car race at Craig Road Speedway in North Las Vegas. While their dad was up in the tower announcing the race, the boys and their mom were on the front row of CRS watching a very loud stock car race.
And as interesting as it seems now, the boys would fall asleep right in the middle of the main event.
During the period of time in 1980's, I’d walk to my car in the parking lot of the R-J thinking about covering an assortment of auto racing events like the Caesars Palace Grand Prix and the Mint 400. The parking had lots of room and besides, the boys love to ride their Big Wheels racing around the neighborhood hell-bent for the finish line.
Big Wheels were three-wheeled “hot rods” that used pedal power. No one had ever mentioned anything about Big Wheels and a racing event, so my mind started to wander. Surely, kids riding Big Wheels could make for a great racing event in the R-J’s parking lot.
Finally, I started talking with friends of mine from NASCAR, the National Hot Rod Association and the Mint 400 checking on the viability of the Review-Journal sponsored Big Wheel Championship. Before long, I started receiving a long line of souvenir materials in what was about to become a very serious racing event for kids who loved to ride their Big Wheels.
It was decided that we’d have the R-J Big Wheel Championships in October of 1980's. Before I knew it, I was a one-man shop who needed help. The entries for the race started rolling into the R-J sports department and I suddenly realized my little dream was about to turn into reality.
I started talking with some of my fellow employees knowing full-well that I needed someone to handle the signups while also stuffing plastic bags that were sent in huge boxes by the National Hot Rod Association. Cliff Findlay sent over a motorhome that served as race headquarters and CRS champion Phil “The Mad Hatter” Hayes volunteered to be the chief steward.
The field suddenly included young Chris Trickle, a talented youngster whose auto racing career was ended when he was shot on Blue Diamond Road in 1997 while heading for a tennis match east of his home. In its one and only year, the Big Wheel Championships sprouted legs grabbing attention all over the city as parents dug deep to make sure their kids had the best-possible “machinery.”
I needed to order trophies although I had never done such a thing. And I needed sponsors to help foot the bill on an event that would turn the R-J’s north parking lot into a mini Indianapolis 500. When the entry deadline had been reached, I think we had something like 170 kids fired up to bring their Big Wheels to compete over a track outlined by old tires that a local business dropped off. I called one local retailer who immediately donated new Big Wheels to the winner of each class.
Next thing I knew the parents were training their kids how to get the best traction on Big Wheels which were all plastic. Some parents even wrapped the wheels with Duct Tape to provide the best possible traction.
Long before the creation of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the enthusiasm for an inaugural Big Wheel race had young people fired up to compete over in a parking lot on West Bonanza Road. The race was set for Saturday, Oct. 20, which seemed ideal although I did forget to consider that R-J had a packed house on Saturday’s because it was on that day that the huge Sunday edition was produced.
I never made an official announcement that the north lot would be occupied by the Big Wheel Championships and a least a few staffers groaned that the race forced them to park several hundred yards from their traditional spots on this Saturday afternoon.
To me, it was a detail that I had forgotten about but it was all worth it. As I looked across the parking lot, I couldn’t help but also notice many dragsters and stock cars that were on display for the race. The trophies were impressive and so were the giveaways not to mention the many members of the auto racing fraternity who showed up to patronize the race.
When the R-J’s Big Wheel Championships were concluded, we all watched in amazement at one of the true downhome, grassroots race highlighted by big-hearted young people who had the time of their life. Between the trophies and the Big Wheels that were given away to the winners, most everyone left with a smile on his or her fact as events like it suddenly started sprouting up around town.
Some 36 years later, people are still talking about the R-J Big Wheel Championships, which remain one of my favorite times seeing kids laugh while having the times of their lives in what still has people talking.