Less Motor, More Mob
Caesars Palace Grand Prix is mainly for auto-racing fans, but has something for mafia-lovers too
When it comes to auto racing in Southern Nevada, the first thought for most of us is the annual NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But the history of auto racing in Las Vegas began long before the speedway opened in 1996.
Randy Cannon chronicled the sport’s first major period in Las Vegas in his 2018 book Stardust International Raceway: Motorsports Meets the Mob, 1965-1971. Now Cannon has tackled another big Las Vegas racing story in Caesars Palace Grand Prix: Las Vegas, Organized Crime and the Pinnacle of Motorsport.
In each case, as the subtitles emphasize, Cannon has identified a theme that expands his potential audience. A reader with only a modest interest in auto racing may be enticed to take a chance on these books to find out how the mob wormed its way into yet another industry.
Cannon is a tremendous researcher, digging deeply into newspaper archives and FBI files for long-forgotten information. For his latest book, he provides not only a detailed narrative of Formula One racing in America, but fascinating insights into how the Caesars Palace executive ranks were riddled with organized crime figures long after its glamorous debut in 1966.
The link to Hoffa, a heavily mob-connected union leader, might have been trouble enough for Sarno and Mallin, but as Cannon reports, the mob connections and hidden ownership suspicions at Caesars extended well beyond the Teamsters loans. Cannon describes the casino’s executives and associates as “a veritable wrecking crew of bookmaking, numbers, policy and strong-arm syndicate racketeers and mobsters.”
Topping the list was Jerry Zarowitz, the Caesars executive who was convicted of bribing three New York Giants football players to influence the NFL championship game in 1946. Investigators suspected Zarowitz reported to New York Mafia boss Tony Salerno. Cannon also draws a connection between Caesars and the mob’s legendary financial wizard, Meyer Lansky, through a mysterious intermediary named Alvin Malnik. Interestingly, Cannon notes that New Jersey gaming regulators were considerably more curious about mob ties at Caesars than their counterparts in Nevada.
Of course, the book’s primary goal is to document how the Grand Prix — the world’s most popular motorsport circuit — came to Las Vegas in 1981. The 2.2-mile course was built in the north parking lot of Caesars, on property that today sits beneath the Forum Shops and The Mirage. The Grand Prix returned to Las Vegas in 1982, but Formula One races did not continue after that because they proved a money-loser for Caesars. While championship boxing matches drew large, high-rolling crowds to Las Vegas, Formula One’s global popularity failed to duplicate boxing’s success. (IndyCar races did continue at Caesars for a couple of years.)
Cannon’s relentless cataloguing of winners and losers in each annual Grand Prix racing series from the 1950s through the 1980s is thorough and authoritative, but it can be mind-numbing for those with minimal interest in the sport. His detailed reporting on the mob connections at Caesars Palace is more intriguing.
But the two stories — auto racing and the mob — do not collide as one might expect. No evidence is presented that mobsters used nefarious means to bring Grand Prix racing to Las Vegas, nor that they tried to fix the races. There are no offers that can’t be refused, no thugs knocking at the door. This is a story of the mob gone corporate. Cannon sticks to the facts, which is appreciated, even if the result is a book lacking in drama. Φ
Caesars Palace Grand Prix: Las Vegas, Organized Crime and the Pinnacle of Motorsport by Randall Cannon, 442 pages, $49.95, McFarland Books