04/04/2007 12:00AM

Vegas Grand Prix takes to the streets


LAS VEGAS – When I first moved to Las Vegas in 1998, it was easy to drive anywhere in town.

As long as you avoided the Strip corridor on weekends, it was smooth sailing. Even the "rush hour" traffic was nothing compared to most big cities. But with the Vegas valley being among the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, negotiating the traffic jams now is a part of everyday life.

The secret to getting around the gridlock on the highways is knowing which surface streets offer the best out-of-the-way route that the tourists aren't aware of. But if you're looking for a shortcut this weekend, don't go driving through downtown Las Vegas. That area is usually much less crowded than the Strip and easy to navigate, but this Friday through Sunday is the Vegas Grand Prix, which will have open-wheel race cars zipping through the streets at speeds of up to 180 mph.

The 2.44-mile road course will start just west of the downtown casinos on Grand Central Parkway heading south, turn left onto Bonneville Avenue, then left on Main Street, right on Carson Avenue, a quick right on First Street, a quick left on Bridger Avenue, another left onto Casino Center, a right back onto Carson, a left on Fourth Street and under the Fremont Street Experience canopy, and then a left onto Ogden Avenue that will take the drivers on a half-mile straightaway back to the start-finish line and the pits. It's not the most direct route I would take, but it should make for exciting racing.

Tickets range from $12 to $175 in the reserved grandstands, but it's free along the downtown streets, and that's where the hotels are hoping for the expected 150,000 people to come check out their part of town for the qualifying runs and other events on Friday and Saturday, plus the actual running of the Vegas Grand Prix at 1 p.m. Sunday to be shown live on NBC.

Station Casinos auto racing oddsmaker Micah Roberts has Sebastien Bourdais as the 6-5 favorite to win the Vegas Grand Prix, which is the first race of the Champ Car World Series's yearlong calendar. Bourdais has won the series championship the past three years. Bourdais drives for the Newman/Haas Racing team, co-owned by actor Paul Newman.

"They have the best equipment and the most money," Roberts said. "I guess you can say Newman has money with all the movies he's made and all the salad dressing he has sold."

Most sports books in town have Neel Jani as the second choice at between 7-2 and 6-1, but Stations has Paul Tracy at 5-2. All of the drivers want to win the season-opening race, but Tracy has added incentive as he is a Las Vegas resident.

Other top contenders are Graham Rahal at 5-1, Will Power at 7-1, and Alex Tagliani at 10-1.

Roberts said the betting handle won't approach what he sees in Nextel Cup races (which is taking the week off), but it'll be about what Station Casinos will book next week when the National Hot Rod Association comes to town.

"This isn't something we book weekly like Nascar, so it's not going to be as big," Roberts said. "We've seen a steady stream of bets since we put the odds up last month, but we'll see most of the bets this weekend as people get more excited about the race and want to place a wager before checking it out."

NCAA hoops tournament wrap-up

Florida's 84-75 victory over Ohio St. in Monday's NCAA championship game wasn't the best possible scenario for Las Vegas sports books as the popular favorite/over parlay came in, but the result merely cut into overall profits as books did well on the tournament as a whole.

That's especially true considering that favorites went 13-2-1 against the spread on the opening Thursday. With the public rolling in dough and a lot of parlays cashing, it looked like a disaster for the sports books here. But the dogs started winning soon and went 24-20-3 the rest of the way to balance the books.

The future books worked out well for bet-takers, too. Even though Florida was a popular play, the Gators were mostly available at odds of 4-1 or 5-1, and all of the other teams on the betting board were more than enough to cancel out any liability.

When the Las Vegas Hilton was the first to post future-book odds last April, Florida and North Carolina were the co-favorites at 7-1 with Ohio St. and Kansas at 8-1. Note that those four ended up being the four No. 1 seeds. In fact, with UCLA being the fifth choice at 10-1, the only "outsider" to make the Final Four was Georgetown, which was offered as high as 25-1. The Hoyas were the wise-guy pick to win it all and would have been a loser for some books.

Last three men left standing

Station Casinos conducted a Last Man Standing contest on the NCAA tournament, with each contestant making a selection against the spread on each day of the tournament. Winners stayed alive and losers were eliminated.

When it came down to the title game, four people were alive. One went with Ohio St. and lost his chance to win the whole $50,450 jackpot that was made up of the $25 entry fees; the other three went with Florida and won $16,816.67 apiece. The winners are Thomas Bershara, Robert Meleski, and Paul Parasugo. Meleski entered at Texas Station while the others entered at Green Valley Ranch.

Rampart/Cannery contest

The networked race books at the Rampart Casino in Summerlin and the Cannery in North Las Vegas are resuming their free handicapping contest, which will be held the second Sunday of each month starting this Sunday, April 8.

Contestants must register 20 minutes before the first race at Santa Anita and then make plays before each race during the afternoon (players are not allowed to put all their plays in and leave). The contest will include only the first eight races at Santa Anita.

There are actually two contests in one. The "Champions Pool" gives players points based on the parimutuel payoffs of all their winners, up to a $50 max per race. The top scorer wins $2,000, with $750 for second, $350 for third, $250 for fourth, and $150 for fifth. The other contest is a "Show 8 Pool" with contestants earning one point for each horse that finishes in the money. The contestants with the highest score split the $1,500 prize.

"When we did this contest before, we found there were no more than five or six who would have all their horses finish in the money," said Eric St. Clair, race and sports book director at the Rampart. "That $250 or $300 is still a nice chunk of change for a free contest."