Las Vegas Becomes Sports City, USA

From checkered flags to slam dunks to home runs, we score big this week

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Somewhere around the 399¼-mile mark of the Kobalt 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 9, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car sputtered. Leading the pack and just two more left turns away from crossing the finish line, Earnhardt could only watch as his speed plummeted and former protégé Brad Keselowski shot past him to hijack the checkered flag. Earnhardt’s mishap? He ran out of gas.

Turns out it was a fitting metaphor to kick off a weeklong Vegas Sportsapoolza, one that has the potential to leave fans of multiple athletic pursuits running on fumes and in dire need of refueling—which, in this case, means more beer.

NASCAR Weekend (March 6-9): For the 17th consecutive year, our 1½-mile tri-oval superspeedway welcomed the world’s most skilled stock-car drivers—and more than 150,000 of their rabid fans—for a high-octane, tire-burning, paint-trading weekend, highlighted by the Sam’s Town 300 Nationwide race and the Kobalt 400 Sprint Cup race. With a little help from Earnhardt’s empty tank, Keselowski pulled off the rare double, completing all 1,868 left turns before any of his colleagues to capture both races. The real winners, though? That would be you and me, as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority projects the state’s single biggest annual sporting event will pump $146 million (not including gaming) into Southern Nevada’s economy. (Suggested slogan for next year’s race: “Hey, Dale—your first gallon of gas is on us!”)

Conference Tournament Central (March 6-15): The stuffy, ever-so-pious suits who run the NCAA will never grant Las Vegas an NCAA tournament regional, let alone a Final Four (because, you know, Nevada is the only place where Americans wager on college sports). Thankfully, those stuffy, pious suits have no jurisdiction over where individual conferences stage their regular season-ending basketball tournaments. And this year, an unprecedented four leagues—the Mountain West (Thomas & Mack Center), Pacific-12 (MGM Grand Garden Arena), West Coast and Western Athletic (both Orleans Arena)—elected to travel here to crown four men’s and three women’s champions. Apparently, places like Pullman, Washington; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Laramie, Wyoming, fail to offer students and fans the same level of excitement as our little desert oasis. Go figure.

Mint 400 (March 12-16): Did somebody say desert? Shortly after the NASCAR trailers peel out of town, the racing action moves from the asphalt to the dirt for another running of the Great American Off-Road Race. Tech inspections, pit-crew challenges and the annual Miss Mint 400 contest—all of which happen on Fremont Street, once home to the event’s namesake, the Mint Hotel—precede the grueling, shock-absorber-destroying adventure. Now here’s a little Vegas history for you: The Mint 400 was created in 1967 as a PR stunt to promote the Mint Hotel’s annual deer hunt. (For more history, Google the names Mickey Thompson, Ivan Stewart and Walker Evans. Seriously.)

Big League Weekend (March 15-16): While we continue to wait (and wait … and wait …) for a major pro sports team to plant roots in Las Vegas, we get our annual tease of what it feels like to be a big league city when the New York Mets (parent club of the Las Vegas 51s) host the Chicago Cubs for a pair of exhibition games at Cashman Field. To repeat: a New York baseball team versus a Chicago baseball team. On a warm March weekend. In Las Vegas.

Oh, to be a beer vendor this week …