Last Go-Round Recalls Legends of Famed Track : And Now, Riverside Roars Into History

Times Staff Writer

The closing of a race track is nothing new, but the closing of Riverside International Raceway is like no other.

RIR, which will become a victim of urban sprawl next week, has had more variety of world, national and would-be motor racing champions driving around its twisting road course than any other track in the world.

Name a famous race driver of the last several decades and you can be sure that he or she performed at Riverside, from Indy cars to Formula One, from stock cars to sports cars, from drag racing to motorcycles.


In the 31 years since Richie Ginther and Ricardo Rodriguez won the opening day twin features on Sept. 21, 1957, Riverside has meant something special to racing competitors and enthusiasts.

Controversy has often been a part of Riverside and it started with that first race. Rodriguez was only 15, a phenom who had raced and won in his native Mexico City, but was too young to drive on California’s highways. The racing director, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, father of the current racing driver of the same name, had to obtain special permission from the highway patrol for Rodriguez to compete.

Riverside was the site, in 1958, of the first professional sports car race in the United States, the Los Angeles Times-Mirror Grand Prix. It was also the first automobile race sponsored by a major metropolitan newspaper.

Chuck Daigh, in one of Lance Reventlow’s Chevrolet-powered Scarabs, won that race after a battle with Dan Gurney, in Frank Arciero’s Ferrari, and Bill Krause, in a D-Jaguar.

“Those early Times Grand Prixs got sports car racing out of the airport course syndrome,” said Les Richter, who spent 23 years running the Riverside track. “Bringing over the Formula One drivers from Europe like Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss gave the track and the race an international respectability.”

Riverside was the site of the first International Race of Champions, a unique event that brought together for the first time drivers from stock car, Indy car, sports car and Formula One racing to compete in identically-prepared cars.

It also was the home of the first race in the Can-Am Challenge Cup series, the first off-road closed course championship and the first--and fortunately, last--Olympic Athlete and Sports Car Relays.

The year was 1964 and it was billed as an Olympic charity event.

Each team had a walker, a sprinter, a bicycle rider, a motorcycle rider and a sports car driver. It was held on a hot July Sunday and virtually nobody showed up, which was just as well. Things got so confusing that bicycles and sports cars were on the track at the same time.

About the only type of racing never seen at Riverside was ice racing.

NASCAR stock car racing, with stars ranging from Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts to Richard Petty and Bobby Allison to Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, was the track’s staple.

“It was the Winston Cup (then Grand National) series that put Riverside on the map nationally,” said Richter, who left Riverside in 1983 to become a vice president of NASCAR. “That, and the fact that Dan Gurney won those first four or five races from the Southern drivers, gave us a reputation.”

Gurney, who lived in Riverside and attended junior college there, became a cult hero of sorts when he won the first Motor Trend 500 in 1963, driving a Ford for the Holman-Moody team, and then won three more for the Wood Brothers’ Ford team.

“After the first couple of wins, everyone wanted to know if he could do it again,” Richter said. “Every time he won it stimulated interest, and then when he came back and won for the fifth time, that really did it.”

Gurney, after winning four straight, gave up his Wood Brothers’ ride in 1967 to Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones, who won. The next year Gurney returned to the famous Wood Brothers’ team from Stuart, Va., and won in a tense race with Jones and David Pearson.

“Driving a stock car then was like stepping into a different world,” Gurney said recently. “I was fortunate to have the Wood Brothers behind me, and also fortunate to have a lot of luck on my side.”

The Wood Brothers won eight races, more than any other car owner--four with Gurney, one with Jones and three with David Pearson.

“We were very fortunate to get Dan Gurney to drive for us when the track was new,” said Leonard Wood, the team’s crew chief then and now. “Dan had the purest style getting in and out of a corner of any driver I’ve ever observed. I don’t care what kind of track or what kind of car he’s driving, Dan drives every lap just the same.”

Curiously, Gurney rates his wins in a Corvette in 1957 in a Cal Club event and in his Eagle Indy car in the 1967 Rex Mays 300, as his biggest moments at Riverside.

“When I drove that Corvette for Cal Bailey, I caught the eye of Frank Arciero and he offered me a ride in his Ferrari,” Gurney said. “That led to getting me into Formula One.

“I remember the ’67 Indy car race, it was my first one with Ozzie Olson as a new sponsor. He brought out all his customers to a big tent at Turn 7, the way most of the big sponsors do today. But then it was a whole new idea.

“I had to come from behind after I had a flat and fell about 40 seconds behind with 20 laps to go. I didn’t catch Bobby Unser until the next to last lap. All of Ozzie’s friends were screaming for me every time I went through Turn 7. I’ll never forget that.”

Winning that race made Gurney the first to complete a sweep of the four premier types of racing--Grand Prix, Indy cars, stock cars and sports cars. Earlier that season, Gurney had won the Belgian Grand Prix in his own Eagle, and the 24 Hours of LeMans with A. J. Foyt.

That Mays race, the first Indy car event at Riverside, was also memorable for having the leader, Roger McCluskey, brought into the pits to give up his ride to Foyt. It was the era of a tire war between Goodyear and Firestone, and with the Rex Mays 300 the final race of the season, the United States Auto Club championship was being decided between Foyt, on Goodyears, and Mario Andretti, on Firestones.

When Foyt’s car broke down halfway through the race, McCluskey, also a Goodyear driver, was leading. Goodyear officials called him into the pits, turned his car over to Foyt, and A. J.'s fifth-place finish--in McCluskey’s car--enabled him to edge out Andretti for the driving championship.

Andretti was involved in a similar situation the following year when he and Bobby Unser went into the Riverside race with the championship at stake. Only this time it was Andretti who did the car hopping.

When Andretti’s own car quit on Lap 59, Firestone flagged down Joe Leonard and put Andretti in one of Andy Granatelli’s two turbine cars, which were running their last race before being legislated out of Indy car racing. Art Pollard was driving the other one.

Four laps after getting into the radically different handling turbine, Andretti drove into the side of Pollard’s car, knocking both cars out of the race and ending the Indy car turbine era once and for all.

But it wasn’t the end of Andretti’s championship bid. Parnelli Jones, a Firestone distributor, raced to the collision site on a motor scooter, picked up Andretti and raced back to the pits where Lloyd Ruby had been called in by Firestone. Andretti, in his third car, finished third but the 165 points he collected fell 6 short of catching Unser, who had finished second, a lap behind Gurney.

Surprisingly, Gurney never won another race at Riverside. He retired there, at 39, after the 1970 Mission Bell 200 Trans-Am race in which he finished fifth in a Plymouth Barracuda behind Parnelli Jones in a Mustang.

“Gurney for President” signs were seen throughout the raceway and Gurney’s legion of followers were on hand for their hero’s finale. It turned out to be perhaps the most exciting of 10 Trans-Am races run at Riverside.

Jones, the pole-sitter in one of Bud Moore’s two Mustangs, disappeared from sight on the sixth lap when he was hit by a lapped car and slid into the dirt behind a stack of hay bales at Turn 9, the long sweeping right-hander that is one of Riverside’s trademarks.

By the time Jones got his car turned around and back on the track, nine cars had passed him and George Follmer, in Moore’s other Mustang, was 25 seconds down the track. Jones pitted for new tires and had some broken panels taped up--losing more time--and set out after Follmer.

Even fans waving “Gurney for President” signs were on their feet, cheering, when Parnelli charged to the front a few laps from the finish.

Ten years later, almost to the day, Gurney had one more memorable race at Riverside. Coming out of retirement, he returned to drive in the 1980 Winston Western 500 stock car race.

Said Richter, who had been an all-pro linebacker with the Rams before getting into the racing business: “I tried to talk him out of it. It was like me coming out of retirement to play in the Super Bowl.”

Just the same, Gurney was racing with the leaders when the transmission failed on his Chevrolet on the 79th lap of the 119-lap race.

All the excitement of stock car road racing wasn’t generated by the Winston Cup series, either.

On a cool Saturday in January of 1969, the Permatex 100 unveiled a driver who went on to win 14 races at Riverside, more road races than anyone else would ever win there. Hershel McGriff, almost totally unknown in Southern California, started 41st, in last, but by the sixth lap was second and ended up passing Ron Grable to win.

“Who is this guy?” the assembled media and track officials asked. It turned out that he was a former winner of the Mexican Road Race who had retired for 14 years to become a lumber baron in Bridal Veil, Ore.

McGriff scored his last Riverside victory in the 1985 Pep Boys 300 at 57. He was 60 when he drove in last June’s Budweiser 400, the final NASCAR race held at Riverside. He also served as the event’s grand marshal.

“I was sick that it was the last race,” McGriff said, sounding like a man half his age. “I wanted to drive in a lot more of them.”

Drivers from the Winston Cup series won the last 32 NASCAR races, dating back to 1972, when Ray Elder scored the second of his two straight upsets. Elder, the racing farmer from Caruthers, Calif., shocked the Establishment by winning, first the Motor Trend 500 in 1971 and then the Golden State 400 the following year.

“This win will make the bankers happy in Caruthers (a tiny San Joaquin Valley farming community),” Elder said after he and his Dodge had beaten Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Richard Petty in the Riverside 400. “Racing is expensive, especially when farming isn’t what it used to be, either.”

Elder’s family raised alfalfa, cotton and black-eyed peas on a 240-acre farm during the day and worked on Ray’s cars at night in the barn.

The closest any other West Coast driver ever came to winning was Jimmy Insolo of Mission Hills. He finished third in the 1976 Winston Western 500.

Allison won six Winston Cup races, more than any other driver, but had the most memorable weekend of his Riverside career in an IROC Camaro in 1974.

“You tend to remember things when you win a race with a broken back,” Allison said. “There were two IROC races that weekend and in the one on Saturday I got caught in a big accident with Bobby Unser and when they got me to the hospital the X-rays showed I had a broken back.

“Later that night, some friends brought me my clothes and I sneaked out of the hospital and went back to my motel. When the doc found I was gone, he called me up and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was watching television and getting ready for tomorrow’s race.

“I think he thought I was crazy, for sure, but the next day I started from the pole and led every lap to win, broken back and all.

“Maybe that inspired me because the next year I came back and won the Winston Western 500 in that Nash (AMC Matador) of Roger Penske.”

The first IROC was as unusual an event as had ever been proposed in major motor racing circles--bringing together drivers from different backgrounds to race in similar cars. The ultimate ego challenge.

For the first IROC, on Oct. 27, 1973, there were Foyt, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock and McCluskey from Indy cars, Petty, Pearson and Allison from NASCAR stockers, Emerson Fittipaldi and Denis Hulme from Formula One and Mark Donohue, Peter Revson and George Follmer from American sports cars.

There had never been a field like it because before IROC there had been little cross-over among drivers in different racing organizations.

Foyt held out, asking IROC chief Richter for appearance money, but when Richter refused, he came anyway.

“How could you call it a race of champions if you didn’t have ol’ A. J.?” he reasoned, and rightfully so.

Follmer, the 1972 Can-Am champion, won one of the first races that year and when IROC returned to Riverside for the last time last month, Follmer was there to prepare the cars and coach the “rookie” IROC drivers, Roberto Guerrero, Chris Cord and Chip Robinson.

From 1967 to 1972, the Can-Am was Riverside’s showcase event, but more often than not it was a parade. From 1967 to 1971, McLarens driven by Hulme and Bruce McLaren dominated, and in 1972 and 1973 Penske Porsches driven by Donohue and Follmer ran away and hid.

The Porsches, in fact, so dominated the series that it folded for five years until the Sports Car Club of America resurrected it in 1977.

Racing journalist Brock Yates once described Can-Am racing as “about as exciting as a war surplus auction.”

Al Holbert, who had first come to Riverside from Warrington, Pa., with his racing father, Bob Holbert, as an 11-year-old in 1959, returned to win Can-Am races in 1980, 1981 and 1982 in his own Chevrolet-powered cars.

Holbert, however, could never win there in his favorite series, the International Motor Sports Assn. Camel GTP. He finished second five times.

The hardest to swallow was in 1987, the last IMSA race held on the track. Holbert and Chip Robinson, the series champions, led most of the way in their Porsche 962, but with less that two laps remaining, John Morton took the lead and the win in a Jaguar he had shared with Hurley Haywood.

For Morton, who had taken his first driving lessons at Riverside in 1962, it was the ultimate thrill to win the final major sports car race in the track’s history.

“I don’t care what they build there, a shopping mall or what, I’ll always remember the smells of Riverside,” Morton said. “It had an ambiance that no other track had.”

For Robinson, losing that race was nothing like what happened to him in 1986 when he, Lyn St. James and Doc Bundy were involved in what was one of the most spectacular, and horrifying, accidents ever seen at the track.

Bundy clipped St. James as they entered the high-speed first turn, knocking her into Robinson. His car catapulted down the track, flipping five times, end over end. St. James’ car burst into flames and Bundy’s spun dizzily in the dirt. It appeared that all would be seriously injured, but all of them walked away from the mess.

Only old-timers may remember it, but there also was a Formula One race at Riverside in 1960. It was won by Britain’s Stirling Moss in front of almost no one. The race was scheduled less than a month after a heavily promoted Times Grand Prix--won by Bill Krause in a birdcage Maserati--that attracted 65,000 spectators.

Moss won in a Lotus Climax, over Brabham, Gurney, McLaren, Innes Ireland and Phil Hill, but the promotion was so unsuccessful that Grand Prix racing did not return to Southern California until 1976 at Long Beach.

The honor, if that is the right word, of closing Riverside International Raceway will go to the Stroh’s SCORE Off-Road World Championships next weekend. Then on Monday, Aug. 15, the bulldozers will erase what little remains of the famous race track.

The late Mickey Thompson introduced off-road racing to spectators in 1973 when he laid out a 7-mile course on and around the asphalt road racing track.

The next year, he had Walker Evans cut it down to a more practical size, approximately 2 miles, complete with all the hazards of desert racing: washboard sections, hard-packed dirt, mud holes, jumps and the unforgettable Thompson Ridge, a high-speed side-hill dash of several hundred yards on which drivers must challenge gravity as well as other racers while bounding along at better than 100 m.p.h.

It was along Thompson’s Ridge that former heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton cartwheeled a Jeep four times before it plopped down in front of the main grandstand during a celebrity race in 1978. Norton climbed out, jumped on the back of the wrecker, and waved to the cheering crowd as his battered machine was hauled away.

The first off-road race in 1973 fell on the first weekend of the gasoline shortage and attendance was minimal because would-be spectators feared that they might not have sufficient fuel to get to the track and home again.

It was fortunate, perhaps, that the freeways weren’t crowded when favorite Bobby Ferro crashed through a fence during practice and landed right side up in his buggy on California 60--heading in the wrong direction.

But Thompson was not dismayed by the small turnout and returned in 1974. A good-sized crowd was rewarded with what was very likely the best race in the 16-year series.

Roger Mears and Parnelli Jones, in unlimited single-seat desert buggies, raced side by side or nose to tail for nearly 50 miles before Mears shoved his Cloud Hopper ahead to stay. It was the most spectacular of Mears’ record 19 wins in 43 Riverside off-road races of different classes.

Mears will be in his Nissan pickup truck in the Mini-Metal Challenge next Sunday and may drive in another event, too.

This will be the third “closing” of the Riverside track for the off- roaders. Track officials announced in 1984 that the facility would be closed in 1986, along with the building of a new track.

When plans for a new track never fully materialized, president Dan Greenwood and owner Fritz Duda kept the old place open, almost on a race-to-race basis.

No one expects one more race now, however. Too many trappings of the new TownGate Center are already showing and the bulldozers are poised to finish the job. Reference points such as Turn 6, the esses, the kink in the back straightaway, will become a department store, super market, theater and drug store.

It will become part of a master plan for the city of Moreno Valley, a suburb of Riverside incorporated in December of 1984.

Perhaps fittingly, the old track had as much trouble getting started as it did closing.

What was originally known as the Riverside International Motor Raceway was built in early 1957 by the West Coast Automotive Testing Corp., which was headed by Rudy Cleye of Los Angeles, who had raced in Europe. Also on the board were John Butler of La Canada, James E. Peterson of Altadena, and Maj. Gen. Victor Bertrandias of Encino.

As so often happens with planned race tracks, the organizers ran out of money and the track did not become a reality until industrialist John Edgar bailed them out with a hefty bankroll.

In 1960, oilman Ed Pauley, investor Fred Levy and comedian Bob Hope bought control of the raceway property for an estimated $800,000 and shortly afterward hired football star Les Richter to run it.

Nine years later, American Raceways, Inc., obtained nearly half of the track’s stock for $1.25 million to be used in improvements--something Riverside needed to compete with the $35-million Ontario Motor Speedway a few miles to the west.

Philsophical differences between Richter and ARI president Larry LoPatin were apparent early on, though, and the raceway foundered near bankruptcy as they feuded. In 1971, a four-man group headed by Duda, a Riverside attorney and land developer, acquired 80% of the stock for $400,000.

Richter and fellow former professional football player Roy Hord, the track’s long-time vice president and general manager, left in 1983 and Duda, who bought out his partners for full control of the property, announced in 1984 that he was planning to turn the track into a shopping mall.

Now it has happened.

“Riverside was one of the tracks that was part of the renaissance of sports car racing in America and I hate to see it go away and not be replaced,” Richter said.

“From a personal standpoint, I had 23 years of blood, sweat and enjoyment there, so I’m sorry to see it go. It was a big part of my life. It is also sad from a community standpoint. The track gave Riverside an identity in the world that it will miss.”

And racing fans, with no place to go, will miss it, too.