Junior Johnson’s NASCAR Buick Regal on Turn Eight at the Riverside International Raceway. Photo: Mike Parris.

NASCAR on the Streets 
of Las Vegas

by John Thawley

From the Dean’s Garage book.


My boss at Buick, Herb Fishel, once introduced me as his one-man SWAT team. I thought it was funny as hell. My clothes hung on me like a scarecrow. I stumbled over my own size-twelve brogans, and I was partial to white socks and full neck undershirts. When pressed into service, I could pass for Barney Fife’s cousin.

Just about the time I thought I had a handle on some Fishel-invented task, he’d dream up something else that wasn’t in my service manual. Seriously, there were times when I just knew Mr. Fishel was staying up nights dreaming up weird stuff for me to do.

Take the SEMA Show incident of about 1977. Herb had just moved from Chevrolet to Buick, and more than one of us expressed concern over Herb’s grip on reality. In the world of racing in this country, Chevy was king of the hill in terms of hardware and teams in most forms of racing. Herb was part of the team that made that happen.

Buick had nothing to bring to the high performance table. Nothing. Nothing but the reputation of anvil like reliability in cars favored by doctors, their wives, and morticians. Wowey! The trophy queen just left with the mortician.

The SEMA Show (Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association) was the annual showcase for all things related to the go-fast business community in this country. The size of the industry is mega billion. Buick had never been in the SEMA Show. Their promotional budget went to Munster Monthly.

At any rate, Mr. Fishel had laid enough Buick Regal sheet metal on stock car legend Junior Johnson to get several Regals built to NASCAR specs. Never mind the cars were fitted with Chiverlay engines. Jest keep the hoods closed.

One of these cars appeared in the Buick SEMA Show booth. The car was sandwiched between one each blonde- and red-headed model who smiled and gave out laminated luggage tags proclaiming Buick was the next coming of the Holy Grail—or something like that. Buick moved right along with the SEMA circus. Closing was Friday evening.

Mid-morning, Mr. Fishel showed up in the Buick booth in a three-piece suit and briefcase. He’s going back to Detroit Frigging City on one of the GeeMmm 
corporate jets and The One Man Swat Team is in charge of getting the Junior Johnson Buick Regal NASCAR almost-legal race car moved to Warthen Buick about five miles away. John, take care of that. Sure.

First, I tried borrowing a trailer. There were plenty of vehicles in the show and most would be departing on one of the many trailers in nearby parking lots. No dice. When the show closed there would be a mad dash to move the vehicles from convention center to trailers and—adios Vegas for another year.

Plan-B was to rent a trailer. Nada. There was no shortage of single axle trailers used to move stuff into Vegas; but when your luck ran out at the tables, I guess you walked out.

Plan-C was to get a tow truck into the convention center, hook up, and head for the dealership. Piece of cake. Not so fast there slick, are you the owner of the car? Well, not exactly; you see Junior Johnson…

By the time Plan-C had fizzled, the Buick dealership was closed, and I was fresh out of brilliant ideas. The convention center was winding down and mostly empty when I located an elderly security guard.

Deputy Dog had at least thirty years of Clark County Law Enforcement under his ample gut, and had come by the Buick booth several times to load up on freebie luggage tags, and chat with the store-bought blonde- and red-headed models. I explained my pitiful situation to Mr. Dog. At the end of my babbling tale, he asked just one question. “Does it run?”

At six ayem the next morning, I met Mr. Dog at the back door of the aforementioned convention center, connected the battery on one Buick Regal race car, slid in through the driver’s door window opening, fired that puppy up, and drove all the way to Warthen Buick.

The November morning was quite nippy, but I had sweat running full tap from every pore. On the way I got lost, but I didn’t get stopped. You should be impressed to know that I didn’t speed, stopped for the red lights, and even stuck my arm out when making a turn.

The dealership wasn’t open yet, so parking wasn’t a problem. I figured the race car would look kinda nice sitting sideways in the spot marked, Reserved for Manager. A passing cab had been on my tail for a block or so just to get a closer look. On the way back to the Hilton, the cabbie opined he had been in Vegas for twenty years and had now seen it all.

Thank you, Mr. Fishel—you made a cabbie’s day. Another Bloody Mary morning for a one-man SWAT team.


There are more stories by John Thawley on Dean’s Garage.

  1. Peter Klain

    I did that many times in Las Vegas when I was doing the bus shows, the funniest was when I took a G-Van Cab and chassis without a school bus body to the Chev dealer 6 miles away from the convention center, no license plate,no body, but the same at 6AM in the morning. FunTimes!

  2. Charlie Henry

    Chrysler’s Mopar Parts group sponsored Julie Clark’s aerobatic program with her military T-34 trainer airplane. One year, at the SEMA show, we put the aircraft on display outside the main exhibit hall. Getting the plane there required a police escort as it was towed from the airport along Las Vegas Boulevard around 4 am. The return trip followed the same format. Mopar got a lot of coverage that year.

  3. Peter Tabmow

    Herb was the Bill Veeck of American racing…

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