WAID’S WORLD: The Time When NASCAR’s Season Began In January – In California
During the seemingly long, cold (for most of us) months that make up NASCAR’s off-season, diehard fans impatiently count down the days until racing begins anew in February at Daytona.
There was a time when no one had to do that. Believe it or not, a new season began in November of the previous year.
For example, the 1963 Grand National season began on Nov. 4, 1962 at Birmingham Speedway in Alabama. The second race was held at Tampa and the third in Randleman, N.C., before the end of the year.
The road course race in Riverside, Calif., was the fourth of the season but the first run in 1963 – Jan. 20, to be exact.
It was won by road racing ace Dan Gurney in a Holman-Moody Ford.
Why the NASCAR schedule of the time was so convoluted and downright peculiar is uncertain,
But my own theory (theory, mind you) might have had something to do with the fact that there were 57 Grand National races conducted in a single, 52-week year.
Rather than trying to cram them all in, NASCAR simply started all over again before the end of the year.
This unique schedule went away after the 1964 season. However, for the next 17 years Riverside maintained its January date. And for the majority of that time it was the first race of the season – and not the Daytona 500.
Riverside International Raceway was a 2.62-mile, nine-turn road course that was opened in September of 1957. It was a haven for sports car racing and then the Indy Car circuit made a couple of appearances.
NASCAR’s first race at the track was held on June 1, 1958. It was part of a grandiose plan that included a trio of 500-mile races. Indeed, the promoters had an immense idea but the financial blow was equally immense – they lost $50,000.
The winner of what was known as the Crown America 500 was Eddie Gray, a California native known for racing Jalopy cars.
Interestingly, only four widely recognized NASCAR drivers competed in the race – Lee Petty, Jack Smith, Eddie Pagan and Jim Reed.
NASCAR went back to Riverside in 1961 before it was established as part of the Grand National circuit in 1963.
Riverside’s debut as the first race of the NASCAR season came on Jan. 17, 1965. Called the Motor Trend 500, it was won by Gurney in a Wood Brothers Ford. It was Gurney’s third straight Grand National victory on the road course.
There were many more NASCAR regulars in the race than there were in 1958. Among them were Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Marvin Panch, Darel Dieringer, Sam McQuagg, Ned Jarrett and a young Bobby Allison.
Future racing school entrepreneur Bob Bondurant finished 28th in a field of 42 cars.
The last January race at Riverside was held on Jan. 11, 1981 and was won by Allison, who was driving for the late Harry Ranier.
Riverside continued to hold two Grand National races per season until 1988, the year Rusty Wallace emerged as the winner of the June race. By that time it was no longer NASCAR’s sole road course. Watkins Glen came on board in 1986.
The track was built on what evolved as prime commercial property. It was the victim of expansion and closed its doors in 1989 after 32 years of racing. The land on which the track was built is now home to a shopping mall and townhouses.
Riverside was an anomaly. It was a road course in California, not exactly a NASCAR hotbed. It was not popular among the stock car regulars and many of them stayed away – most claimed the expenses incurred to go west were too great.
To be honest, many of them did not know how to negotiate a road course.
Perhaps the track’s greatest notoriety was its status as the host of the first race in each Grand National season from 1964-81.
Of that time it can be said NASCAR’s off-season wasn’t all that long.
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