MEL LARSON WAS A LUCKY MAN
I lost a friend on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2016. November is the 11th month of the year. Add 11 and 2 and you get 13. That was an important number for my friend. You see 13 was his lucky number: His home address, phone numbers and anything to do with his life have had the number 13 within them. He passed away on a combination of numbers that made up his lucky number. I’m sure he had planned it that way. My friend died from having one of the most horrible diseases one can have: cancer. When he took his final breath, he was at home with his wife, and a very loyal friend.
Mel Larson and Norm at Old-Timers Dinner in 2011
Mel Larson was a Lucky Man. It’s seldom that you meet someone during your lifetime, that you just knew was going to be your friend for life. I got lucky. I met Mel Larson. Now Mel would counter that with a statement such as, “I’m the lucky one…I met Norm.” When I was ill he was there for me. And, as his life took a slight turn, we were there to give him a boost. That’s what friends do.
Let me tell you a story about two men who had a love for life and auto racing. It’s not going to be a long story, but a nice little story.
This writer knew Mel Larson for more than 51 years. We raced against each other over the years. Not too long ago we would race each other from his home on the outskirts of Las Vegas, near where the M Resort is located, to Sandy Valley where he owned another home. His wife, Marilyn, called us both “Nuts.” And she was right! But, what the heck, the road was there and we had cars capable of reaching some high speeds. Plus, it was fun!
We first met when I was sports columnist and assistant editor for the Las Vegas Sun Newspaper. Larson had the franchise for the first closed-circuit Indy 500 telecast’s in Nevada. It was during the early years of television, and the Indy owners had finally agreed to allow the race to be televised. If you couldn’t get to Indy to watch the “Great Race,” you could now go to your local theater, purchase a ticket, and watch the race on a giant screen. Larson rented the convention center of the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, its sister hotel at Lake Tahoe, and another one in Reno. So, naturally, Mel had a press conference where he asked me to do a column on the telecast, which we happily agreed to do. Most importantly, a friendship had been made that would last 51 years, five months and two days.
Three years later I would call in a favor from my friend. I asked him to compete in a new off-road race. He, like most people in 1968, had never heard of such a race. It was something new this author had dreamed up as a promotion for a downtown hotel. The name of the event: “The Del Webb Mint 400 Off-Road Rally.” He agreed and the rest is history. We worked together on the original Mint 400 Off-Road Race: He as a competitor and me as the promoter. But what a lot of people do not know about Mel is just how lucky he is!
What you need to know is that Mel was not always in a position of such solvency. Believe it or not, at one point he was so broke he couldn’t afford gas for his Cadillac.
“During those times I was like a yo-yo,” Larson laughed. “One week I’d have a pocketful of money, and the next week I would be out hustling for a buck.”
Larson, was best known for his public relations reign at Circus Circus Hotel & Casino in the early 1970’s under William Bennett’s ownership. Because of that connection Larson never had to worry anymore about having gas money. Indeed, he and his wife of 37 years, also became known for once owning three jet helicopters housed in a large hanger on their seven-acre, multi-million-dollar Sloan estate, which showcases the old McCarran Airport Control Tower, pink suits, pink Cadillac’s, and pink helicopters.
Most importantly Larson had gained the respect and fondness of a community that is known for embracing its good-hearted eccentric characters in a special way. Being named the Grand Marshall of the Terrible 400 Off-Road race in Henderson, along with the Mint 400 in 2013, was another special honor to a guy who helped to bring off-road racing to where it is today. He was also inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame, and has a Star on the Las Vegas Strip among many honors earned over the years.
When this writer was putting together the first Mint 400 in 1967, one of the first guys called was Mel, telling him about my idea of getting a bunch of guys to race across the deserts of Nevada. The first question he asked was “what kind of car would I need?” We replied, “Anything with four wheels!”
Mel Larson as Grand Marshall 2013 Mint 400, with Miss Mint 400 and Norm Johnson
He agreed to enter the race and to help me obtain some other professional race drivers to enter the first ever desert race in the United States. Bill Stroppe, a friend of Larson and the man who maintained and built race cars for Parnelli Jones, was contacted by Larson and this writer. Stroppe agreed, but first he would have to obtain a Bronco from Ford. Lee Iacocco, who had helped to create the Ford Mustang, agreed to furnish a Bronco. Jones would race in the April, 1968 Mint 400.
The moment it was announced that the Indy 500 champion had entered the Mint 400, entries began to stream in to the hotel. The Mint 400 will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in March, 2017.
Mel Larson, a PR legend, was born on Oct 1, 1929, and raised in Plymouth, Mich. His father, Algot, helped build the Wayne County Airport and later became its manager. His mother, Oleta, watched her son fall in love with flying at an early age, getting his solo flight at age 16. In 1948, he joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Luke AFB in Phoenix, AZ. Discharged in 1952 as a tech-sergeant, he settled in Phoenix and began a career in public relations. He quickly became known as the go-to guy if you wanted to promote something. It held him in good stead the rest of his life.
“I began to race cars soon after, mainly on the West Coast, and was fairly successful, which eventually led me to race in the NASCAR Grand National (forerunner of today’s Sprint Cup) circuit,” Larson said.
In 1959 Larson took over management of a dirt track outside Phoenix. He and Marilyn (who he dated for 20 years) ran the track. She would also manage the track when he was off racing in NASCAR, off-road or promoting the Indy 500 closed-circuit TV telecasts in Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe from 1965 to 1971.
Toasting the Mint 400’s return in 2012: K .J. Howe, Mel Larson and Norm Johnson
Mel Larson at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2006 for the christening of the Richard Petty Terrace.
During the first Mint 400 race in 1968 Larson did not finish the race. Neither did Parnelli Jones. When this writer was promoted to the Thunderbird Hotel (owned by Del Webb) Larson was asked by Bill Bennett (who was then General Manager of the Mint) if he would take over as director of the race. Larson agreed and promoted the race for the next four years, helping to make it the most prestigious off-road event in the United States today. We remained a consultant for the next two years until resigning from the Del Webb Corporation.
In keeping with his Vegas persona, along with his wife Marilyn, they donated $1 million to the Lied Animal Foundation a few years ago. Larson claimed 13 as his lucky number right up to the end. He admitted he had been a “very lucky” guy! He will be greatly missed by those who knew him, or ever met him, and especially by his “luckiest catch of all, Marilyn!”
The family has asked that instead of flowers a donation in Mel Larson’s name be made to the Lied Animal Foundation.
Mel Larson, Oct 21, 1928—Nov. 2, 2016.