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Winnemucca Love Song:
In the early and middle 1970s the high school kids in Winnemucca were still cruising the drag every night until their gas tanks were pumped dry in hot rods they’d spent uncounted hours working on. Dave Bengochea had a ’68 Mustang and his buddy Ralph Whitworth built up a ’65 GTO from parts he got from wrecking yards.
Dave graduated in ’71 and worked as a carpet layer. Ralph graduated in ’73 and went to work at the golf course. When the Parks & Rec Director’s job came open, Ralph applied and was hired. He was 19.
He wrote the grant for the new swimming pool while he was there, but after a couple of years a local dentist named Dan Debonis helped Ralph attend UNR, then on to law school at Georgetown. While in Washington he worked on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staff of Senator Paul Laxalt and on the 1984 Reagan election campaign.
When he left Washington he went to work for T. Boone Pickens and learned from the master about finance and managing investments. In the years since leaving Pickens Ralph’s business enterprises have flourished. He is a partner in Relational Investors, a $3 billion investment fund with large holdings in major corporations. He is a Director of some of America’s largest corporations.
Dave was pleased when his old pal Ralph came back to visit his home town after 15 years away, and everyone was pleased when Ralph donated $1 million to the Humboldt County school system. He did it, he said, because he attributes his success in large part to growing up in Winnemucca, and to the values he learned there as a boy.
As for Dave and Ralph, they picked up where they’d left off, with cars. They went to a car show together, where they saw a great car in sad condition — a ’36 Ford roadster convertible — what a great project!
Ralph bought it. They went to an auction and Ralph bought another one.
And almost before they knew it, he’d bought 190 cars. Movie cars, muscle cars, street rods, kustom kars, dragsters — almost all of them American cars of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Some of these cars are on loan to automobile museums elsewhere, but most of them are destined for display in Winnemucca where construction is underway for America’s Car Collection on the site of the Bulls’ Head Motel at the east end of town. The Flying A Garage, where the collection’s cars will be carefully restored and maintained, is already in place as architects make the final changes in the exhibit hall plans.
While construction proceeds toward a 2008 opening, the collection is being culled to fewer than 150
cars, with about half of them on exhibit on any given day. The Little Red Wagon is there, several Ed Roth cars, one of Elvis’ limos and the Dodge Charger Daytona that Buddy Baker drove faster than 200 mph at Talladega, the first car ever to make that speed on a closed track.
Next year they’ll be displayed in the new building, drawing visitors from all over the world — a goose that will lay golden eggs in Winnemucca as long as men love cars. Thanks, Ralph.
Wendover’s casino resorts are a favorite getaway for residents of Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Wendover is thriving. (I mean Wendover Nevada, of course, even though it’s officially West Wendover. Wendover is in Utah, and the effort to unite the two as a single city did not succeed. There is no East Wendover.) Where once Bill Smith’s lone light bulb on the Nevada line welcomed adventurous night drivers from the east across the salt flats, a neon galaxy now splashes the black sky bright with color.
The Black brothers are coming in from Mesquite to build a new casino hotel uphill on the west, and the Peppermill — which converted the drab Nevada Crossing into the bright new Rainbow, and acquired the old SilverSmith (renamed the Montego Bay) after the fall of the Smith empire — is adding 80 rooms. But the big news is the proposal being floated to move Wendover Boulevard several hundred yards south alongside the railroad tracks so the Peppermill can build a mega-resort adjacent to the existing hotel. This would involve taking down a big part of Stateline Mountain, the sandstone wart to the west of the State Line Nugget that serves as a local landmark.
Top name performers are playing Wendover.
But it’s not just hotels and casinos. The 1,021-seat Peppermill Concert Hall opened last summer with Tanya Tucker as the headliner. Many of the big stars who have appeared here since have scrawled their big names on the wall of the hallway leading backstage: Merle Haggard, Olivia Newton-John, Wayne Newton (but no John Wayne), the Smothers Bothers, Ann-Margaret — even the Chippendales are there. The seats are comfortable and there’s high-priced beer (no Ruby Mountain at any price) in the lobby.
And Intermountain Guide Service, based at the Montego Bay, is now offering atv and horseback tours into the surrounding badlands, including the trail of the Donner Party over the false shortcut called the Hastings Cutoff. They also offer van tours of the Bonneville Salt Flats and they rent mountain bikes. I took an ATV ride over the ridge to the north where the view of Pilot Peak — a major landmark for westbound wagon trains — is profound, even though the snow was mostly melted away from its summit.
My visit coincided with a major municipal milestone, the groundbreaking (with beribboned shovels) of the new City Hall, which will rise up out of the sagebrush overlooking the new developments in the burgeoning urb below. There was oratory by optimistic city and county office holders, by representatives of various state agencies and by visiting G-Men, all predicting progress and prosperity ahead. Highlight of the occasion was the tribute to Gene L. Jones. Mr. Jones was on hand as City Manager Chris Melville recounted his long career in Wendover.
He came to town in 1933 when his mom got a waitress job at Bill Smith’s little place. He was 16, and he was soon working as a helper in the garage. One thing led to another and when he retired in 1991 he was a partner and GM of the Smith family’s Wendover casino hotels. Now 85, he beamed at the unveiling of the street sign to be placed at the entrance road to the new city
headquarters: Gene L. Jones Way.
Some of the same officials who appeared at the groundbreaking are stars of the streaming videos of the most recent West Wendover, Wendover, Utah and Ely City Council meetings on this cool new coyote-tv website. There’s also local news and Howard Copelan’s bright, lively and sometimes flammable editorials.
Gene L. Jones Way intersects Wendover Boulevard within a few yards of Wendover Will, the 61-foot kinetic sculpture of sheet metal and neon that has been the city’s trademark image since it went up at the state line in 1952.
Another dedication was held earlier that day, downhill from the Montego Bay east entrance where a square telephone pole commemorates the completion of the transcontinental telephone here on June 17, 1914. A monument was unveiled next to it to mark the route of the Victory Highway, completed across the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1925. The completion of the highway, renamed US 40 a few years later, ended the first chapter in cross country travel, which had begun in 1899 with an effort to drive from New York to San Francisco but ending in Chicago instead.
In 1901 a Winton motor car started east from San Francisco and made it as far as Imlay where it bogged down in sand for the last time.
Quick notes from beyond the mountains: Perhaps to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Tropicana in Las Vegas has decreed that both Folies Bergere shows at on Saturdays will now be topless, meaning all shows are now topless except the early shows on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday . . . Can you name the ten most important people in Nye County history? Pahrump Valley TIMES columnist Bob McCracken can, and here they are.