Unless he lists “bank robber” or “mad scientist” as a profession on his most recent resume, it can be pretty cool for a son to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Cliff Ricci is a longtime resident of Las Vegas and works for a local meat distribution company. His part-time job is race director and technical inspector at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He also works as an official at a number of national events for the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), checking cars that can exceed 330 mph in just 1,000 ft.  If his judgment is called into question, he does not need to find the regulation in the NHRA rulebook – the tome is committed to memory. He’ll meet your questioning gaze with a fatherly, authoritative expression and recite the rule chapter and verse.

The story of the Ricci family immigrating to the United States from Italy is typical: leave the homeland to build a better life in America.

“My grandfather Eliseo came to America from Italy in 1888 and settled in Perth Amboy, New Jersey,” Cliff began. “Perth Amboy is a port and was a disembarkation point long before Ellis Island.”

A young Cliff Ricci grew up with the ocean breeze blowing through his hair, listening to the rock ‘n’ roll artists who put the Garden State on the map. Then he discovered drag racing.

“My dad took me to the drags for the first time in 1964. The track was in Old Bridge, New Jersey. The track is gone now, but it was probably less than five miles from where the Englishtown drag strip is now. Old Bridge wasn’t even your standard quarter-mile drag strip – it was 800 feet long. Today, it’s a little league baseball field.”

One trip to the drags with his dad and Cliff was hooked at an early age. It was only a matter of time before he took up the participant end of the sport.

“I started drag-racing cars in 1969. My first car was a 1956 Ford. Then I got into the hot rods with a ’63 Ford Falcon with a 396 (cu. in.) Corvette motor in it – we called it ‘The Shift Doctor.’ My friend Tommy and I also had a ’56 Chevy Sedan Delivery that we called ‘The Tijuana Taxi.’ Then I got into motorcycles and drag-raced them from 1970-1974.”

Cliff attended college in New Mexico and would visit his aunt in Las Vegas during vacation breaks.
Like a character in an old Bruce Springsteen song, Cliff was restless and bored – and trying to find something better.

“When I got back to New Jersey, I knew I had to leave – I had to get out,” Cliff admitted. “I was working in an auto parts store making $117 a week. I saved up my money, sold my hot rod, put everything we had in my wife Gail’s car and drove to Las Vegas in 1975 with 1,100 bucks in our pockets.”

Cliff discovered the Las Vegas International Speedrome, known to long-timers as “the old track,” and began drag-racing his motorcycle there. The facility is long gone, replaced by LVMS’ short track, the Bullring.

“Coming from racing on a super track like Englishtown to this little strip of blacktop with furrows in it – like an old country road – well, it was kinda scary. I did that for one or two years.”

He quit racing but returned to the track years later as a spectator and the racing bug bit again. He rejoined the sport as a volunteer official. The NHRA and its Winston Drag Racing Series hit town in October of 1980 and marked Cliff’s first function in an official capacity for the sanctioning body. Cliff worked his first NHRA national event, in the tech department, in 1985. The old Vegas drag strip was demolished in 2000, replaced by a state-of-the-art facility a few hundred yards away.

Cliff’s son, Christopher, was attracted to dad’s hobby at an early age but his ambitions had to be placed on hold.

“He always knew he wanted to go to the track, but he was too young to be there by himself and I couldn’t watch him while I was working in restricted areas. One day Chris Lamb (father of seven-time NHRA national-event winner Justin Lamb of Henderson, Nev.) asked if my son had ever been in a race car. We put him in Ryen’s (Justin’s younger sister) Junior Dragster and he made three passes down the strip and he was hooked.”

Cliff was joined by Christopher at The Strip at LVMS when he turned 16 in 2004. He cut his teeth working Junior Dragster events on Saturday mornings and later graduated to adult races.

“He drives equipment, he works in the water box and the staging lanes,” beamed the proud papa. “When I race my motorcycle from time to time, he’s my crew chief. Mom doesn’t like to go to the drags anymore, so he and I go to the track and be adrenaline junkies.

“He’s really my best friend. There’s always the father-son relationship, but when we’re at the track, we’re just a couple of guys. We’re best pals.”

John Bisci