California Not So “Golden” A NASCAR State
How many seats have been removed from Auto Club/California Speedway? Will that make the place look full for this year’s race?
NASCAR has always wanted to be successful in California, and even though “the suits” would probably claim otherwise (both at International Speedway and Speedway Motorsports as well as NASCAR itself), it’s never really, REALLY succeeded.
Riverside, with the Bobby Allison and the King in front - wearing their wings.
Riverside used to draw decent crowds before becoming a shopping mall and townhouses, but Auto Club, which many hoped would earn a spot in the upper echelon of Monster/Cup tracks, clearly hasn’t, and Sonoma/Sears Point isn’t exactly the most talked-about race of the year, either.
Then there’s the ghost of Ontario, the considerably fainter ghost of Marchbanks/Hanford, and other tracks, from the famous - Ascot Park - to various fairgrounds miles and Bay Meadows, a well-known and long-lived horseracing track. Most of those other tracks ran only one or two NASCAR events and went on to try something else.
Only photo I could find of stock cars at Sacramento - could be NASCAR.
The one-mile California State Fairgrounds track at Sacramento ran half a dozen Grand National races in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, but they were always those oddball events when NASCAR sponsored a race on each coast at the same time, so the entrants were all West Coast racers. Yet AAA and then USAC made the track a regular stop for Indy Cars - A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Roger Ward and other big-time Indy drivers won there, so why did those succeed and NASCAR languish?
That track closed in 1970 when the fairgrounds moved across town, and a new horse racing track was built at the new site. Motorcycles still run a major race there, but no NASCAR.
Perris Auto Speedway is one of California’s weekly racing venues.
Racing remains popular in California, with several successful short tracks (at least until they become housing developments), drag strips and road courses, but big-time NASCAR continues to be an afterthought on the Golden State sports scene.
Maybe we could dress Kyle Busch up as King Kong and Joey Logano as Godzilla, let them go 10 rounds in a caged ring with Arnold Terminator as referee, and call everybody who attends a race fan.
Actually, that shouldn’t be considered a knock on Californians, because in some ways, I think they’re just America’s vanguard, the trend-setters. In this case, the trend is toward being much more diversified (as in all-over-the-map) in their leisure activities, leaving less attention for any individual sport or other pursuit. Yes, there are successful sports teams in the Golden State, but look how many people there are to support them - I can’t imagine the attendance numbers in L.A. represent as high a percentage of the population as do those in Pittsburgh or Boston.
Maybe what’s happening to NASCAR elsewhere is that people are beginning to have a wider array of other things to do, similar to what Californians have had all along. If that’s the case, we’re going to be seeing more “re-launchings” (or whatever it’s being called) of NASCAR as it struggles to halt its slide.
Here’s the back half of the field for the 1956 Bay Meadows race, with Ralph Moody in the white Ford #1. More Bay Meadows pix can be found here.
Whatever the future brings on the West Coast, the past has its stories, and I’ll draw attention in particular to Bay Meadows, the horse track that ran Grand National events in 1954, ‘55 and ‘56, as well as a couple of AAA Championship (“Big Car”) events and some races for sprints, midgets and other stockers. Here’s a really good story about the track that I found.
This is the 1954 race start at Bay Meadows.
Note that Bay Meadows first tried a couple of other sanctioning bodies for its big stock car race, then turned to NASCAR before eventually deciding that the ponies were its sweet spot.
I don’t think I knew before about Elias Bowie, the first African-American driver to run a Grand National event when he started 31st and finished 28th in the 1955 race. A local, that was Bowie’s only GN start. You can read more about him here.
Only a handful of Southern NASCAR drivers ran in the Bay Meadows events. They paid well for the day, but it was still a long hike and couldn’t possibly have been profitable on its own for the racers. Even though the races were 250 laps on a one-mile track - quite a grind - two of the three were led, start-to-finish, by the same driver. West-Coasters Hershel McGriff and Eddie Pagan won in 1954 and ‘56, each leading all the way, while Tim Flock took the 1955 race.
As was a nearly universal problem with the mile tracks, especially those groomed for horse racing, dust was cited as a problem.
I don’t know if NASCAR will ever unlock the key to unbridled success in the West (other than in Las Vegas, I guess), but there are just too many people there for them to give up trying. That probably means those who come after us will have to some stories to tell as well, and if racing is transformed into something we can’t even imagine today, it’ll probably happen first in California.