With NASCAR heading to Sonoma this weekend, it seems like as good of a time as any to look back at some of the history of NASCAR in California. Despite NASCAR being a predominantly Southeastern sport, there were two race tracks that now no longer exist that once hosted NASCAR in Riverside International Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway. We at the Daily Downforce will take a look at both of these race tracks, and first up is Riverside International Raceway.
The Early History of Riverside
Riverside International Raceway was opened in 1957. The track had four different layouts, but NASCAR raced on the “Short Circuit”, which was 2.62 miles long and nine turns. The track featured a long back straightaway and the iconic esses from turns two through six.
The track began hosting every series in existence immediately after the opening of the track. NASCAR ran its’ first event at the track in 1958, and IndyCar ran a few races there as well. The track also held the Formula One United State Grand Prix in 1960, a race won by Stirling Moss.
However, NASCAR was the main attraction of the track as NASCAR came there every year. After one-off races in 1958 and 1961, Riverside became a permanent fixture on the calendar beginning in 1963. With its’ location in Southern California, Riverside became a popular early season stop on the NASCAR calendar with races being run in later January or early February through the 1960s. With that, a NASCAR tradition was born.
In the early days of the sport, NASCAR had trouble getting a road course permanently on the schedule. NASCAR had run races at tracks such as Road America, Watkins Glen, and even at Linden Airport. Riverside was the first one to catch on, and from 1967 onwards, it became the only road course on the schedule.
Riverside became a playground in those early days for “Road Course Ringers” with drivers such as Mark Donahue, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, and Dan Gurney all winning races there. All five of Gurney’s NASCAR wins came at Riverside.
The Glory Days
Beginning in 1970, Riverside started hosting two races per year with one race in January and one race in June. While NASCAR fans traditionally think of Daytona as being the season opener, from 1970 until 1981, Riverside was the track that opened the season. In 1981, the track also began to host the season finale with the closing of another California race track in Ontario Motor Speedway.
What happened with the June date that year may you ask? Well, NASCAR kept that June date in addition to the season opener meaning that Riverside hosted three Cup Series events in 1981. With it being the only road course on the schedule, it was pretty much the only track NASCAR could justify doing this at.
Beginning in 1982, Riverside went back to two races per year as the season opener was moved to its’ now traditional spot, the Daytona 500. Riverside kept the finale and its’ June date, however, and, during this time, became the host to some incredible NASCAR moments.
While many think of the “Pass in the Grass” as Dale Earnhardt in the 1987 All-Star Race, he duplicated the feat at Riverside that year as well. Not only did he duplicate it, but he actually topped it.
In 1982 and 1983, Riverside was also the host of three first time winners in its’ four races. Tim Richmond, Ricky Rudd, and Bill Elliott each got their first career victories at this race track.
Because of its’ placement in the season finale, Riverside was also the site of championship moments. Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, and Terry Labonte all clinched championships at the track during the season finale.
Unfortunately, Riverside was not a track that was sustainable for long. Gradually, through the late 1980s, it began to lost its’ grip on the local community and in NASCAR.
The End of Riverside
From 1967 until 1985, Riverside was the only road course on the Cup Series schedule. In 1986, that changed with Watkins Glen International being added to the schedule permanently.
Also in 1987, the season finale was moved to Atlanta Motor Speedway. An understandable change since ending a predominantly oval schedule on a road course is a strange concept. This took some of the luster off of Riverside, but it was far from the only thing Riverside was concerned with.
During the 1980s, Southern California’s population was expanding, and Riverside International Raceway was in the way. The track was not as well-loved by locals as time went on because of the noise and pollution. Real estate began closing in on it, and that was it for the race track.
In 1988, Riverside was relegated to just one Cup Series race in June, a race won by Rusty Wallace. That was the last time the Cup Series raced at Riverside. It’s June date was given to what is now known as Sonoma Raceway near San Francisco, and Riverside International Raceway closed shortly thereafter.
From 1988 until 1996, Southern California did not have a Cup Series race until Roger Penske opened Auto Club Speedway. While Riverside is now gone and will not come back, it is a track with a rich history, and it was the Cup Series’ first permanent road course. For that reason alone, it is worth being remembered.