For the last 23 years, NASCAR has opened its premier stock car racing season with the Daytona 500, long enough for many followers to think it has always been that way.
But it hasn’t.
Riverside International Raceway, a sprawling road course that twisted its way through what is now Moreno Valley east of Riverside for three decades, was long the site of the opening race of the 1965 Grand National -- later Winston Cup and now Nextel Cup -- season. Every year from 1970 to 1981, Riverside was first and Daytona, NASCAR’s Super Bowl, was second.
It was an anomaly in stock car racing because all of the other races were on ovals. Riverside was the only track where drivers turned right as well as left.
That came about as a case of, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
Big Bill France, who had founded NASCAR a few years earlier, wanted a West Coast presence to give his fledgling organization some credibility outside the South. Les Richter, who had the task of making Riverside profitable, wanted major stock car racing.
“When Big Bill -- he’s the grandfather of Brian, the France who runs NASCAR today -- heard about the races we’d run on our track, he called me late in 1962 and asked about coming to Riverside,” said Richter, now a consultant for International Speedway Corp., parent company of California Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and other tracks.
“I couldn’t have been more pleased because I knew Riverside needed a big stock car race to survive and I thought NASCAR would be better than USAC [the U.S. Auto Club, which had a thriving stock car division at the time].”
Negotiations moved so quickly that Riverside had a race the following January, and as an added treat, a second race in the summer.
There had been a Grand National at Riverside in 1958, won by Eddie Gray, but the first big one under Richter’s administration was Jan. 20, 1963. Dan Gurney, an experienced road racer, won in a Holman-Moody Ford, the first of his four consecutive Motor Trend 500 victories. Then Parnelli Jones won one and Gurney won another before the Southern boys figured out what road racing was all about.
USAC was even more upset than the NASCAR home guard. Before the 1963 Golden State 400 in June, USAC banned Gurney, Jones, A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward from racing, threatening to keep them out of the next year’s Indianapolis 500 if they drove in the rival series.
USAC’s stock car division eventually proved to be no match for the newer NASCAR and ceased operation in 1984.
After driving on tracks all year long where they turned only left, the high-speed racing gypsies from the Carolinas found it nearly impossible to keep their wheels on the asphalt as the 2.62-mile course zigzagged its way up through a series of switchbacks called “esses” from the second to sixth turns.
Richard Petty, who had already won two Grand National championships before he mastered Riverside for the first time when he won in 1969, had a devil of a time adjusting to the esses.
“Why didn’t they just straighten out the road?” Petty said at the time. “There’s nothin’ there but dirt, nothin’ to have to go around. It’s no wonder I couldn’t get much experience on a road course ‘cause I couldn’t stay on one long enough.”
Bob Steinbrinck, who broadcast Riverside races for 15 years on the radio, remembers Petty well.
“For the first four or five races, I don’t think Richard was on the asphalt once except when he crossed it,” Steinbrinck recalled. “He went straight across the dirt, never coming close to the corners. There’d be a big cloud of dust following him up the esses, but he always seemed to hit his mark when he got to Turn 6 at the top of the hill.”
Junior Johnson, who once earned his living running moonshine through the Carolina hills on roads with more curves and dips than Riverside, had his troubles too. Asked how he could stay on more dangerous roads at blinding speeds in the Piedmont and not Riverside, he said, matter-of-factly, “Back home, the roads have trees to keep you honest. Our here, there’s nothing to miss so you just take off anywhere you want.”
The closest Johnson came to winning was a second to Gurney in 1965.
There had been NASCAR Grand National races in Southern California before Riverside, at short tracks such as Carrell Speedway in Gardena, Willow Springs north of Lancaster and Ascot Park, but none on a major league track.
In the 1950s, when NASCAR ran races on the West Coast, others would be scheduled the same weekend on the East Coast.
In 1962 there were 62 races scheduled and it wasn’t until 1972 that the season was pruned to 31, a figure that has remained pretty constant. Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be the first of 36 this year.
Racing in January proved a gamble. One race, the Winston Western 500 in 1972, was delayed by fog at the start and cut short when more fog enveloped the course after 149 of 191 laps. Maybe that’s why Petty won; he didn’t have to race through the esses for the last 42 laps.
The 1967 race was postponed a week and in 1969 a race scheduled for Jan. 23 didn’t get started until Feb. 1, two weeks later.
“It was a terrible hardship for the boys to have to tow out to California twice a year and then to have one of them postponed twice was awful tough on the pocketbook,” Petty said at the time. “Some of the boys stuck around [Riverside] and that cost extra sleeping money and some went back home and came back. Then there’s some slick cats who just went to Las Vegas to watch the rain.”
A tragedy in the 1964 race, when two-time national champion Joe Weatherly was killed as his car slammed the wall at Turn 6, led to an important safety innovation. Weatherly had no shoulder harness and it was determined that his head hit the wall, killing him on impact.
Shortly after that, NASCAR made shoulder harnesses mandatory and introduced the window safety screen that protects the head and upper body from such disasters.
Weatherly and Riverside will always be remembered in Norfolk, Va., where Weatherly is buried. His headstone has a replica of the Riverside track with an X marking the Turn 6 spot where his fatal accident occurred.
Racing was more primitive in the days before R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. brought corporate leadership into NASCAR in the early 1970s, sprucing up rundown tracks, expanding purses and offering incentives to run the entire schedule.
Bill Gazaway, a tough ex-Marine who ran Riverside’s garage area with an iron fist, kept drivers, mechanics, writers and hangers-on at arms’ length. No one could get away with anything.
Except one time.
Gazaway caught a radio personality passing his credential through the fence, and, after ordering him off the premises, he called Richter and told him the man was off limits and to not let him buy a ticket. Richter informed all his ticket help of the edict and the incident was the talk of the paddock.
The next day, as the race queen for the late-model sportsman race rode to the starting line, who stepped out to open the door but the radio guy, beaming under his colorful cowboy hat.
Sadly, for racing fans at least, Riverside succumbed to urban sprawl in 1988 when Fritz Duda, a Riverside attorney who had gained control of the property, bulldozed the track to make way for the Moreno Valley Mall at Towngate and a housing development.