Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Riverside’s Dan Gurney 500

NASCAR’s decision to open its calendar with a stadium race in Southern California remains divisive among fans.

To start the NASCAR Cup Series season anywhere other than Daytona International Speedway at any time before the second week in February has been seen by some as a slap in the face to NASCAR’s well-established tradition. Instead, in recent years, the series has kicked off the year with an exhibition event at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

But NASCAR’s first season-opening tradition wasn’t the Daytona 500 at all. 

Many of the early years of NASCAR saw each season begin in the late fall of the year before – Wendell Scott’s historic victory in December 1963 actually earned him points toward the ‘64 crown – but for 18 years, between 1963 and 1981, NASCAR kicked off each calendar year at Southern California’s Riverside International Raceway.

Built in 1957 in Riverside County, Calif., two-ish-hours’ drive from Los Angeles, Riverside was constructed during a golden era in Southern California motorsports: the post-World War II sports car racing boom, when veterans came back from Europe with a taste for the light, nimble roadsters produced by MG, Alfa Romeo and the like, and wanted to race. 

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With its long straights, fast corners and treacherous braking zone into the turn 9 hairpin – especially on mid-century tires and brakes – Riverside developed a reputation. First: for danger, as California racer John Lawrence passed away from a brain injury in its inaugural event, becoming the first of 21 people to lose their lives in the Moreno Valley dust, a list that includes Cup champion Joe Weatherly and sports car legend Ken Miles.

Its second was as a star maker. Carroll Shelby, before winning Le Mans as a driver or ever lending his name to car, took the checkered flag in the first sports car Grand Prix at the track, a title he narrowly wrested away from a local kid driving a car called the “Arciero Special,” a half-Ferrari, half-Maserati hot rod that Shelby and Miles had both refused to drive. 

That kid’s name? Dan Gurney.

Gurney was one of this country’s greatest contributions to the world of motor racing. By 1967, he’d be the first driver to win in sports cars, Formula 1, NASCAR and Indy cars. The iconic bubble in the roof of the Ford GT40? To clear the 6 ft. 4 inch. Gurney’s helmet. It took aerospace engineers years to figure out how the “Gurney flap” spoiler used on the trailing edge of a wing increased downforce: years that Gurney used to win races. He co-created CART and won the first Cannonball Run. He invented spraying champagne on the F1 podium. 

And Riverside was his playground. On the event of Gurney’s death (in 2018), legendary car owner Glen Wood remarked, “once we got him going, it was pretty much a sure thing we would win the race if nothing happened to the car.” Between 1963 and 1969, every time he saw the checkered flag at Riverside, he was the first driver to see it: five wins from eight starts, all at Riverside and all in January.

While the race was officially sponsored by Motor Trend magazine, after a few years, fellow competitors began to colloquially call it the Dan Gurney 500.

To put it frankly, behind the wheel of a stock car, no driver could beat Gurney at Riverside. The only thing that could beat Gurney was Riverside itself. 

NASCAR road races today generally run to a distance of 220-odd miles, significantly shorter than the speedway races that make up an overwhelming majority of the calendar. Riverside’s … weren’t. The Motor Trend 500 ran a full 186 laps of the 2.7-mile layout, totaling over 500 miles. On a road course. In mid-’60s stock cars.

Race times regularly stretched far in excess of four hours, and mechanical problems doomed many cars and drivers unable to handle the extended cycles of braking, shifting and hard acceleration. But Gurney and fellow road-course ringers AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue were used to racing at Le Mans. 

Still, Gurney was a cut above the rest.

After wheeling a Holman-Moody Ford to his first victory in 1963 (just his third career start, but a stat like that almost goes without saying), the Blue Oval offered Gurney’s road-course ringer services to Wood Brothers Racing for 1964. Gurney entered three races for the Woods that year. He won Riverside, of course, and finished the Daytona 500 a respectable 14th. But after failing to finish the summer race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Gurney never turned a lap in a Cup car anywhere other than Riverside.

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From 1965 to 1970, Gurney entered only a single Cup race per year: Riverside’s January 500-miler. He won it three more times before he was finally defeated in 1970 — not by mechanical trouble, but by Foyt.

He left NASCAR race with five wins, eight top fives and 10 top 10s from 15 starts.

Gurney came out of his NASCAR retirement a decade later, asked by then-track president Les Richter to return to his old stomping grounds, behind the wheel of a No. 48 Chevrolet for Rod Osterlund. Gurney suffered a transmission failure on lap 79 of the race, while he was running third.

For 1982, NASCAR moved its crown jewel Daytona 500 to the season-opening slot, with Riverside’s 500-miler taking over season-finale duties from the shuttered Ontario Motor Speedway (a 2.5-mile quad oval Indianapolis Motor Speedway clone in the Inland Empire worthy of its own Only Yesterday). But moving a race from January to November would leave California without a Cup race for a full year, between June 1981’s 400-miler and the same event in 1982.

So a solution was reached: to preserve the six-month cycle, Riverside would host three points-paying Cup events in 1981, including the season opener and season finale. Both of those races were won by Bobby Allison, with Darrell Waltrip taking the checkered flag in June. No venue would best two points races per year until the COVID-19 pandemic-interrupted 2020 season.

Riverside remained the Golden State’s home for premiere stock car racing until 1988, hosting Bill Elliott’s first career win in 1983 and Tim Richmond’s last four years later – until the same forces that doomed Ontario (and would come to doom Auto Club Speedway) sealed its fate: Southern California’s skyrocketing real estate value.

The track had been sold to Fritz Duda, an ex-MRN announcer and real estate developer, in 1971. By the late 1980s, the rapid economic growth in the Moreno Valley created an offer Duda couldn’t refuse. After Rusty Wallace won the final Cup event at the track, it was torn down, and a shopping center was built on the property. 

But all was not lost. In 1989 NASCAR moved north, adopting Sonoma Raceway as its new West Coast home. The flowing, treacherous road course sweeps through the verdant hills of Wine Country – at least in the rainy season. 

But NASCAR visits in June, when the image of stock cars sliding through the dust reminds us all more than a little of those January trips to Riverside.

About the author

swansey.jack

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast,but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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old fan

Jack, Fred Lorenzen did not get killed at Riverside, I think you meant Joe Weatherly.

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