Ralph Engelstad was the owner of the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino until his death in 2002. He was one of the last independent operators of a Casino on the Strip. He was also co-developer of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Engelstad was the grandson of Norwegian farmers from Minnesota who rose from humble beginnings to become a shrewd and competitive gaming operator. Born in Thief River Falls, Minn., Engelstad made his fortune first in the construction business in Las Vegas in the 1960s. His company built commercial buildings at the Nevada Test Site and housing divisions in North Las Vegas. A street in that city is named for him. Yet his name will remain inextricably linked with two events that painted him as insensitive and racist.
First, controversy arose over Engelstad's Nazi memorabilia collection in the Imperial Palace in the 1980s. The Nevada Gaming Control Board and Engelstad's other attorneys reached a settlement to levy a $1.5 million fine against Engelstad for embarrassing the gambling industry. It allowed him to keep his gaming license. Engelstad had held parties in the resort's secret multimillion-dollar Nazi memorabilia room allegedly to observe Adolf Hitler's birthdays in 1986 and 1988. Engelstad later denounced Hitler, apologized for his error in judgment and emptied the room of Nazi memorabilia. Engelstad long maintained that the parties were to honor the employees who worked on the room, not Hitler.
Secondly, in 2001, Engelstad gave $100 million to his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, to build a field house for the hockey team (now recognized industry-wide as the top hockey arena in the area) . But, he insisted that the school keep its (controversial) nickname, the Fighting Sioux, as a stipulation of the donation. He felt it was the right thing to do. Critics, however, called the Sioux name racist. He also built and donated a $10 million hockey arena to his hometown, Thief River Falls, Minnesota, named for his wife, Betty. Ralph and Betty also contributed generously to charities that benefit children, veterans, seniors and animal causes.
In 1967, Engelstad sold 145 acres, including the North Las Vegas Air Terminal, for $2 million to billionaire Howard Hughes. Engelstad used the money to purchase the Kona Kai motel which became the Klondike at the south end of the Strip. He eventually sold it.
In 1971, Engelstad purchased the old and decaying Flamingo Capri on the Strip and added some buildings and a casino. He reopened the Flamingo Capri a year later. In 1979, it became the Imperial Palace. Engelstad used the resort to house his multimillion-dollar automobile collection that remains a popular attraction at the hotel. Ironically, one of the most valuable cars was Hitler's 1939 Grosser Mercedes parade car.
By 1989, Engelstad's wealth was estimated at $300 million, according to published accounts of the time.
Engelstad also was one the central figures behind the creation of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He and Bill Bennett of the Sahara Hotel provided the financing for and were the original owners of the speedway, before selling the $200-million plus facility to NASCAR track magnate O. Bruton Smith in December 1998.