Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Good Old Days!!! Once upon a time in the west. Pictures from Riverside and Ontario, a Winston Western 500 patch, youthful Terry Labonte proudly displaying his 1984 Winston Cup Championship Trophy!

California Here We Come: NASCAR's West Coast History Goes Way Back

Lots of fans aren’t too wild about the Sprint Cup’s two trips to the Auto Club Motor Speedway in Fontana, California. Images of Hollywood culture, the NASCAR politics of trying to race everywhere from coast to coast while raiding its traditional country in the Carolinas and robbing Darlington of its annual Labor Day classic, the traditional Southern 500 are all factors which give the good old fans the creeps. Then to see how poorly the California events are supported by the beautiful people who can’t even find an NFL Football team, really pushes a few good old fans’ buttons a little too far.

Truth be told, west coast racing is nothing new. Back in the 60’s, California was a cool scene for the car crowd, but NASCAR has a long history out west. Only in the 80’s and 90’s did California dates evaporate to where there was the sole event up in wine country, the Sears Point road race at Infineon Motor Speedway. The Riverside Speedway in the Los Angeles area hosted road races through 1988 until the property was sold to developers hastening the move to Sears Point. In fact, from 1981-1987, two races were held in hot rod country, all of those years except ’87 were the last races of the year (’87 was next to last before Atlanta). The second Riverside date gave way to Phoenix; however, during that stretch in the 1980’s, Dale Earnhardt celebrated two of his championships in California. Darrell Waltrip hoisted the trophy for all three of his, and Terry Labonte and Bobby Allison won their titles there as well. Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, and Bill Elliot were all winners at Riverside. It was one of the season’s big events with Budweiser sponsorship.

Today’s fans are conditioned to think of the Daytona 500 as the start of the NASCAR season; however from 1970-1980, Riverside was where the flag dropped to start the season. Back in its day, the Riverside Track was one of the premier race tracks in the country. When race fans would recite the top racing venues in the country, Riverside would be mentioned along with Daytona, and Indianapolis. CART, IROC, IMSA, NHRA, and Formula One all came to the Los Angeles area in pursuit of California gold. Furthermore with NASCAR, for most of these seasons, not only did the season begin in California, it also ended there as 1974-1980, the season concluded at a track not far from the existing facility in Fontana, The Ontario Motor Speedway where Dale Earnhardt won his first championship with Benny Parsons winning the race for the last time the checkered flag would signal victory before less than 18,000 fans on November 15, 1980.

Prior to the “Modern Era” which began with the 1972 season shortening the season to 31 races from 48 but often more in previous years, California tracks were stops on the NASCAR circuit. Riverside was the mainstay, but in 1971, after starting at Riverside then coming cross country for racing in Daytona, they returned to California on February 28th to race the Ontario, California speedway which was supposed to be an architectural copy of the Brickyard. The further race historians go back in the 60’s, the more NASCAR was truly an east coast and southeast phenomenon, with 1963 being the year Riverside became a regular date each year on the circuit. The 1962 season was exclusively a Dixie affair with not a single race north of the Potomac. Yet in 1961, there were two May dates for NASCAR racing, Riverside and Los Angeles.

Lee Petty won a series race in Hanford, CA in 1960 while there was an April trip to Phoenix. Other west coast dates in the 1950’s included: Los Angeles, 1959; Sacramento, 1958 --They also raced in Toronto, Ontario that year, the boys also travelled to the California capital in ’57 as well. 1956 had three California dates. Would NASCAR love this today, in 1956 and 57, the fellows raced at Portland, Speedway. Yes, Portland, Oregon! In total, ten tracks in California hosted races in the 1950’s, some were dirt tracks. Some tracks even remain active today.

Think about the California scene, many of today’s race fans grandfathers and maybe even great grandfathers could belly ache about those boys takin’ off for far distant places out with all those California types.

Fine, does that make us feel any better that Darlington will be quiet this weekend? At least next year, Atlanta gets the Labor Day event while California gets pushed into October as part of the Chase. So why is Rockingham just an ARCA track these days. Don’t ask!!!

Riverside winners: (Modern Era)

Early Event, 1972-1988: Budweiser 400 (1982-1988)
1988 - Rusty Wallace
1987 - Tim Richmond
1986 - Darrell Waltrip
1985 - Terry Labonte
1984 - Terry Labonte
1983 - Ricky Rudd
1982 - Tim Richmond
1981 - Darrell Waltrip
1980 - Darrell Waltrip
1979 - Bobby Allison
1978 - Benny Parsons
1977 - Richard Petty
1976 - David Pearson
1975 - Richard Petty
1974 - Cale Yarborough
1973 - Bobby Allison
1972 - Ray Elder

Late Season Event, 1972-1987: Western 500 (Final race of season: 1981-86)
1987 - Rusty Wallace
1986 - Tim Richmond
1985 - Ricky Rudd
1984 - Geoff Bodine
1983 - Bill Elliott
1982 - Tim Richmond
1981 (November) - Bobby Allison
1981 (January) - Bobby Allison
1980 - Darrell Waltrip
1979 - Darrell Waltrip
1978 - Cale Yarborough
1977 - David Pearson
1976 - David Pearson
1975 - Bobby Allison
1974 - Cale Yarborough
1973 - Mark Donohue
1972 - Richard Petty

One more interesting NASCAR note at Riverside: Racing legend, Dan Gurney, won five races at Riverside, 1963-1966, 1968. Gurney raced in Formula 1 and nine Indy 500’s from 1962-1970.

Ontario Motor Speedway Winners
1980 - Benny Parsons
1979 - Benny Parsons
1978 - Bobby Allison
1977 - Neil Bonnett
1976 - David Pearson
1975 - Buddy Baker
1974 - Bobby Allison
1972 - A.J. Foyt
1971 - A.J. Foyt

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