Looking Back at NASCAR in the Golden State
“Big Bill” France dreamed big; that we know. So once his NASCAR baby had begun to toddle, you know he had to turn his attention to California with all those race fans… all those potential paying customers.
While it’s doubtful that this weekend’s Monster/Cup stop at Fontana will be the most successful race of the 2019 season, it will be the latest in a very long line of Grand National/Cup events in the Golden State. Just in case you’re interested, here’s a quick review.
It took until 1951 for Big Bill to get a Grand National race date in California, but on April 8 of that year NASCAR put on a show at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, where Marshall Teague won a 200-lapper. But here’s the thing: On that same day, Tim Flock was edging brother Fonty in a 150-lapper in Mobile, Ala.
Racing at Carrell Speedway
Thus began France’s oddball practice of scheduling Grand National races on both coasts on the same date. A second Carrell Speedway race in ’51 was run the day before an event at Grand Rapids, Mich. (one or two drivers actually flew from one track to the other and competed in both those events), and a race at the Oakland, Calif., Stadium was run on the same day as another GN event at Martinsville, Va. A race at Hanford, Calif., didn’t have eastern competition, but fewer than half a dozen eastern drivers made the cross-country trek to race.
Obviously, things were a bit different back then. Lots of other California tracks got these “split” dates during the ‘50s. This even happened to the first California road course on the NASCAR schedule. In November 1955, Willow Springs Raceway (which still exists) ran a 1956 season Grand National race on the same date as a race at Charlotte.
The next year Willow Springs got a stand-alone date, but only a handful of well-financed cars headed west to join the locals there, and Willow Springs never had a third Grand National event, although it wasn’t the end of stock car racing there.
Here are Derrike Cope (79) and Jim Bown in a 1986 Willow Springs race for what is now the K&N West Series. Cope finished second to Hershel McGriff, who was a mere 58 years old at the time and who ran a K&N West race last year at age 90.
The modern era of big NASCAR events in California began in 1958, when Riverside Raceway ran its first event. Between that event and the last one in 1988, Riverside would host the Cup fraternity 48 times and create many memories.
Dan Gurney’s five wins in seven races certainly helped NASCAR catch the public eye, and fans of the underdog never felt prouder than the two occasions West Coast champ Ray Elder defeated the Grand National regulars. Arguably, Riverside remains the most successful Cup track ever in the Golden State.
Ray Elder at Riverside
For the record, Gurney’s five wins tie him for second place on the all-time Riverside list with Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. All of them trail Bobby Allison, who scored six wins over the 11-year period between 1971 and ’81.
It’s interesting to see how things changed at Riverside over the years. In 1958, fewer than half a dozen eastern drivers were in the field, and the entrants included two Citroens, a Renault, an Austin-Healy (which didn’t qualify) and a Goliath (the German import whose parent went under not that long afterward). By 1988, only about 10 starters were West Coast cars, with another dozen or so failing to qualify.
It’s going to be a while before Riverside loses its position of hosting the most Grand National/Cup events. Sonoma has held 30 since 1989 (1 a year), and Auto Club/Fontana has had 29 (starting in 1997 and with 2 a year for several seasons).
Oh, and Riverside has one other distinction: It’s the only NASCAR track in California that has hosted the U.S. Grand Prix Formula 1 race. That happened in 1960, and Stirling Moss was the winner.
Stirling Moss on the way to victory
Probably the grandest NASCAR failure in California was Ontario, which hosted nine races from 1971-80 (like Riverside, it also hosted Indy Car events – but no F1). A.J. Foyt, Bobby Allison and Benny Parsons won two races apiece, and the site of the speedway today is a shrine to… well, to nothing, although it seems still to be frequented by “lost speedway” enthusiasts looking for evidence of the track’s existence and perhaps souvenirs.
They called Ontario the Indianapolis of the West, and the track itself looked a lot like Indy, but the success never followed.
There was one more superspeedway, the oddball Hanford (or Marchbanks) Speedway (listed at several lengths in the 1.25 to 1.5-mile range), which ran Grand National events in 1960 and ’61, and which also hosted a handful of Indy races and other events. This underfunded track, which was said to look perpetually unfinished, was on the same property as the dirt track that had a NASCAR race in 1951.
California also had NASCAR races on various fairgrounds miles and horse tracks, but most of that was in the ‘50s, and by the time NASCAR’s “Modern Era” began with Winston Cup in 1972, it was Riverside and Ontario, to be succeeded eventually by Sonoma and Fontana. It’s been 20 years since there’s been any change, although Laguna Seca (now officially WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway) will hold an IndyCar race this year and has been mentioned as a possible place to expand Cup racing’s road course footprint.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
After two weeks of being snowed out and a one-day delay last weekend to cold and wet conditions, Lincoln Speedway opened our local racing season, pulling off a miracle of track prep and getting its 410 sprint car opener run Sunday. 23 cars made it out, and Lucas Wolfe was the winner. More racing is scheduled this weekend, with a forecast of rain Friday and cold temperatures Saturday and Sunday.
Lucas Wolfe and his muddy ride after the Lincoln Speedway Icebreaker