This weekend as the venerable Virginia City Camel Races return to the Comstock and the Great Reno Balloon Race fills the sky above the Truckee Meadows, it’s interesting to note that the Northern Nevada area was once renowned for the variety of racing events in which it was involved.
Back in the late ‘50s, hydroplane and speed boat races were introduced to Lake Tahoe primarily by Reno hotel owner Charles Mapes. The races were headquartered at the Boatworks in Tahoe City and the Mapes Cup was a valued trophy among the Hydro crowd.
Hydroplane racing probably reached its peak in 1963 when the coveted “Gold Cup” event was held at Pyramid Lake. The Gold Cup is the Super Bowl of Hydro racing and is traditionally held in Seattle, WA at the end of the racing season.
In order to get the race moved to the Pyramid Lake venue, a contingent of northern Nevadans journeyed to Seattle the previous year to make a pitch. The main ingredient of that offer was more prize money. I recall several members who made the journey to the Northwest and they included Mapes, Pete Varengo, Newt Crumley and the writer.
Because the highly technical Hydros could not perform at top speed in the high altitude, thin air of Tahoe, it was decided to rent the Pyramid Lake site from the Paiute Indian Tribe who controlled it.
Fortunately, I had previously played City League basketball with one of the top members of the Paiute Tribal Council. His name was Earl Dunn, who later became one of the Tribal Chieftains.
The races at Pyramid were a great success up until the final day. Fierce winds whipped the surface of the water into large whitecaps. Drivers were offered the option of cancelling the races or taking their chances on the rough surface. They decided to continue and the result was that three of the Hydroplanes were sunk in the final heat.
Fortunately, we had several helicopters monitoring the event and they were able to fish out the lucky racers. As far as I know, the three boats that sank are still at the bottom of Pyramid.
Another racing event, this one on dry land, was the annual “Reno Day at the Races” held at the Bay Meadows thoroughbred race track in the Bay Area.
A large group of Northern Nevadans attended and the entire day of racing was devoted to The Biggest Little City.
Each individual race was sponsored by a hotel or casino in Reno and the winner received flowers and a horse blanket emblazoned with the sponsor’s name. Because the Mapes Hotel had the final and premier spot on the program, I was dispatched to San Francisco the day before to coordinate the event with the race track’s publicity man.
On race day, the Nevadans were seated in the owner’s box and I had the assignment of escorting each of the sponsors to the Winner’s Circle. While down there, I got some excellent tips on the potential winner of the next race.
One of the more interesting racing events was the annual “Snail Race” held in San Francisco the afternoon prior to the opening of the opera season. It was a lunchtime affair at the Le Trianon restaurant. About two weeks before the race, we decided to enter a snail representing The Mapes. We started releasing press reports about our snail that were more fiction than fact. His name was “Lucky Pierre” and we had supposedly purchased him in France. However, on his trip to this country we noted that he had been imprisoned in England for lack of a passport. The amenable press ran worldwide photos of Pierre weeping behind bars. Just in time, through devious diplomatic moves, we secured his release and supposedly he arrived in San Francisco ready to race.
The race itself was attended by a large contingent of Bay Area Press and numerous celebrities. Champagne and hors-d’oeuvres were served and spectators watched the slow-motion race. The race course was set in a table-top wooden model called the “Snail-a-Drome” that resembled an Olympic Stadium. On the floor of the stadium, which was about two feet long, were balsa wood rails, which were greased with a sugary liquid in order to speed up the slow-moving entrants. Fitted into the grooves were tiny two-wheeled chariots with a string that was looped over the neck of the snails. Fans could wander about the restaurant and come back periodically to see if their racers had moved more than an inch.
As I watched the exciting finish of one race, I heard a soft voice behind me say, “This is the only event I’ve seen where the entries become entrées.” I turned around and the speaker proved to be TV mogul Ed Sullivan.