Flashback Friday: Riverside Rejuvenescence

Editor’s note: A  recent phone call from an old friend had us bringing up some of our memories of racing at Riverside in Southern California back in the horribly smoggy days of the area’s Inland Empire. There was no track quite like it and I competed there on motorcycles and in Formula Fords. Yet it was the hellacious pro races there we witnessed that made the track’s final closing in 1990 so unthinkable, so difficult to swallow. So in this “Flashback Friday”  here’s my column that appeared in VM issue 18.3, May/June 2018 on my first trip to the fabled circuit.—D. Randy Riggs

Preferring to remember Southern California’s Riverside International Raceway in its prime, rather than when California’s crush of humanity encroached on it and punched a shopping mall into its solar plexus, Dan Gurney’s recent passing got me thinking about Riverside and the many times I’d watched Dan run there, the once-famous circuit now 28 years gone. Its last day of operation took place in May of 1990—the Jim Russell School races running on an abbreviated circuit, since part of the track was already plowed into sad piles of asphalt.

My first sojourn to the track that holds so many racing memories for countless fans and participants was the January 23, 1966 Motor Trend Riverside 500 stock car race. In those days NASCAR opened its season each January at Riverside. It was well promoted and there was no way I was going to miss this, a newcomer race fan to California who’d read about the circuit for years and the many drivers who were scheduled to race that weekend. Even then,  barely 10 years old, the place had a mystique about it that remained as part of its DNA for its lifetime. When a race fan heard the name “Riverside,” it was never the nondescript town it was named after that they thought of.

Dan Gurney in the Wood Bros. Ford at Riverside’s Motor Trend 500 in January 1966. Photo: Bob Tronolone-D. Randy Riggs Archive

From my then-home in the San Fernando Valley it was a long 90-mile trek to the track, since few of the freeways that exist now were not yet built. Tagging along with me in my ’65 Chevelle SS were a girlfriend and my younger brother and we wound up watching the race from the tall and elbow-to-elbow packed stands in Turn 6, a spectator spot that also had a wonderful view of the track’s trademark esses. Along with us there were 73,328 others vying for viewing spots around the 2.7-mile circuit that Sunday, the weather warm and pleasant. How many racetracks would kill for attendance like that today?

Having never been to Riverside I did a lot of hiking around to explore different viewpoints and corners, and was blown away by the speeds the stock cars carried down the straight. Unlike the sports car races where Turn 6 was like a horseshoe that sent cars back in the opposite direction down a hill to Turn 7, the stock cars used the longer course, going across the top there, heading straight over to Turn 8 out of Turn 6 before screaming down the track’s long, long backstretch. This was before the 1969 modification when a left-hand dogleg into Turn 9 was completed, making it somewhat safer.

Stock car drivers charging through those tricky and challenging esses was pure entertainment, the dust clouds stirred up by errant cars lunging off the circuit rivaling the area’s notorious smog layer, that on most days in the summer was so thick and bad you couldn’t see the length of the near mile-long straightaway.

The entry list was a Who’s-Who of American drivers of that era, but one of the things that really struck me about Gurney was how precise he was in comparison to most of his competition. At his every exit out of Turn 6, his left-side tires were right at the track’s edge, while even many of the better drivers would vary—six inches away one lap, 12 inches away the next. It was an exhibition of driving art, and no surprise that he won.

Years later Dan told me that he gave credit to his wins there to the Wood Brothers team, saying that they pretended to be just sort of hillbillies but they were always one step ahead of everybody else. He had four straight wins there with them in Fords, but FoMoCo company politics forced him into a Bud Moore Mercury Comet for the ’67 event, which he called a “barn door,” because it sat so high.

His greatest memory of Riverside was the four wins there with the Wood Brothers when they were in their prime, and I’d have to say my greatest memory of Riverside was watching Dan when he was in his prime. My first time at Riverside and Gurney the victor. Hard to top that.