The Other Side of the Tracks
By Robert Kreutzer
Racing, whether in cars or motorcycles or other vehicles; whether it’s along ovals, strips or just plain dirt, is in our DNA in Southern California. You can thank the Inland Empire for that.
With more race tracks, organizations and competitors than you can shake a tire iron at, racing is pretty much going all the time around here. And it’s not just a pissing contest between guys with more testosterone and horsepower than brains—it’s organized, it’s big business and it’s a passion for so many personalities who have made racing big stuff with a very long history in our communities.
With the myriad varieties of auto racing, motorcycles—not to mention bicycles, carts and all manner of wheeled contraptions—the scene here deserves not just an article, but a whole book. No, maybe an encyclopedia is more like it.
Yes, there are lots of tracks, styles of racing, not to mention movers and shakers that we couldn’t include here. So, what follows is not the end-all-be-all, but simply our humble attempt to give the IE its racing props and to help educate the non-racing devotees just what that sport—no, that way of life—is all about.
In 1886, civil engineer H. Clay Kellogg designed the circular Grand Avenue in South Riverside—these days known as the City of Corona. In September 1913, Grand Avenue became the site of one of the nation’s first meaningful road races, featuring light- and medium-sized vehicles. The races stopped in Corona by 1916, but racing in the IE was just getting revved up.
Today, mention racing and most people think NASCAR. But NASCAR is only the most big money and is far from the only thing happening locally. The NHRA, the USAC and various other national bodies run events from Claremont to Barstow, and this doesn’t even count regional and local groups.
NASCAR has become omnipresent not just in sports but all through American culture. Its towering presence felt not just on the racetrack but all through popular culture, especially in country music—even becoming part of politics. This cultural behemoth, though, didn’t just fall off the back of a monster truck. It’s been six decades in the making, and that road to its ascendance zooms right through the Inland Empire.
Auto racing before the 1960s was not the mega-business it was today. Often, races were held at air bases—March Air Force Base was a popular place for that. But Riverside International Raceway was born in 1957, and its footprint goes much deeper than the hills between Riverside and Moreno Valley.
“One of the First Tracks”
These days, Patrick Flynn, 72, volunteers at the Riverside International Automotive Museum. Flynn guides tours of the museum’s 50-plus strong collection of classic race cars and Maseratis. Talking to Flynn, it doesn’t take too long to figure out he’s a walking fact list of racing in this area. Flynn spent many years working at RIR, working both in publicity and in racing capacities. The track captured his imagination as a teen and has never let go.
“My friend and I were lucky enough to con my dad into bringing us out here from Pasadena,” recounts Flynn. “There weren’t all these freeways like we have now. It was one of the first real courses—with S bends, pit stops—and one of the first tracks ever built specifically for automobile and motorcycle races.”
“Racing was a brand new sport at that time,” he adds. “All we had before that was drag racing, and a lot of that was us kids dragging on Saturday night. It was the first serious professional track in Southern California, except maybe Paramount Ranch [a figure-8 track that opened in 1956 in the hills above Malibu]. But that was used more and more for shooting movies and TV, so they held fewer and fewer races.”
RIR was helped quite a lot by the climate. Unlike many tracks back East, the Riverside track could hold big races in January, which it did. The Winston Western 500 was first held in 1958 and was a tradition until 1987.
“We were one of the first tracks to lure the NASCAR to the West Coast,” Flynn says. “They came here because it was snowing back East. Later, we also drew the Golden State 400, which was covered by the TV networks. Then we drew the Rex Mays 300. We were the first place to hold regular races. NASCAR got interested in a West Coast series because it got a nationwide TV audience.”
Along with prestige races came prestige drivers. By the late ’60s, the immortals of racing—the drivers whose names are known even by non-fans of racing—came to compete. The likes of A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and later Richard Petty began to show their faces at RIR.
“In my opinion, the track is still the thing that put Riverside on the map,” says Flynn. “People all over the country knew about it, and we were even known in Europe.”
Another pillar of NASCAR in the IE was Ontario Motor Speedway. Where RIR featured primarily stock cars, Ontario was known as the “Indianapolis of the West” because that was where the real fancy machines went to compete. All of the legendary drivers competed at the speedway, which opened in 1970.
The speedway also broke ground both in the way races were run and on the business end. Computerized timing and scoring systems were pioneered in Ontario and adopted by the bigger racing world. High-priced luxury suites were introduced, as were multi-million dollar media blitzes based on extensive research.
The track was also legendary to non-racing aficionados, thanks to the Cal Jams. The pair of gigantic rock festivals, held in 1974 and 1978, was two of the biggest fests since Woodstock, drawing upwards of 300,000 people each. The lineups were a who’s who of artists popular at that time, from Black Sabbath to Aerosmith to Ted Nugent. The shows were later broadcast on late-night network TV and yielded albums.
Sadly, both Ontario and RIR met the reaper for the same reason—the real estate on which they sat was far more valuable than the activities going on at the tracks. Ontario closed down in 1981 and RIR bid its farewells in 1989. Both have been replaced by shopping malls.
Today, the NASCAR torch in the IE is carried most notably at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Formerly known as California Speedway, the two-mile oval track is about two miles from the old Ontario speedway. Built on the site of an old Kaiser Steel Plant, the venue has featured several NASCAR events since 1997 and been home to such events as the Auto Club 400, the Royal Purple 300 as well as the Suzuki Superbike Challenge.
It’s not just NASCAR that was incubated here, though. Other bodies have also arisen, and in fact, professional racing of various kinds may never have reached their heights had they not spent their formative years right in our back yard.
Preceding all the action in Riverside was drag racing in Pomona, which gradually went from being a bunch of unruly teenagers living out their Rebel Without a Cause fantasies to one of motorsports biggest draws.
Today, the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, formerly known as Pomona Raceway, hosts high-level events. It’s best known for hosting the Winternationals, one of the drag racing’s most important championships. The National Hot Rod Association, which began in Pomona, is one of racing’s biggest national bodies.
Greg Sharp is the curator of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, the official museum of the National Hot Rod Association. He told how the NHRA in its early days turned drag racers from scofflaws to professionals.
“Wally Parks was the founder of the NHRA,” recounts Sharp. “He was instrumental in getting hot rods off the streets and giving them a more positive image. The very first NHRA drag race was in Pomona in 1953. Now, we have 23 events in our circuit and well over 100 events all over the country.”
Parks, who had previously founded Hot Rod magazine, went on to help establish Motor Trend. Meanwhile, Pomona police chief Ralph Parker and Sergeant Bud Coons helped raise funds to establish a professional drag strip in the parking area of the Pomona Fairgrounds. Over time, it became the Pomona Raceway. Now known as Auto Club Park of Pomona, the track has become the de facto mecca for the NHRA, with the Winternationals kicking off the season then closing it in November.
“Due to real state values, there used to be other dragstrips,” says Sharp. “Fontana, Colton, all these places had dragstrips, and we even used to race at Riverside International Raceway. They’re all gone, and Pomona is the only one left. In 1955 the first nationals were held here, and it was a great place for everybody to gather on common ground.”
But auto racing need not always be so neat and scientific. Also popular is Off Road Racing, which is really several different kinds of racing in one.
“Quick and Intense”
Off Road has its roots in desert racing, but fans can find many varieties at tracks in the IE. Lake Elsinore Motorsports Park and Glen Helen Raceway both feature events from the Corona-based Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, a series of short course competitions. The tracks are often dirt and feature gobs of turns, jumps and gravel pits. Modified trucks, motorcycles, cars and buggies all get in on the action.
It’s not just the cars that have all the fun around here. On any given weekend, you can also find motorcycle racing in all of its permutations. Once again, we can thank the celebrated Southern California climate for helping motorcyclists (who are properly referred to as riders rather than drivers) to zoom around circles at breakneck speeds.
Nationally, the American Motorcycle Association sponsors races, but the Southern California Flat Track Association is based in Riverside. Founded by Freddie and Donna Edwards along with Vince Graves, the organization holds sway at Perris Raceway. Graves talked about the sport’s built in excitement.
“With auto racing, sometimes somebody takes a big lead and stays there,” explains Graves. “Then, it’s just cars going round and round. With us, it’s real quick and intense. Main events are between eight and 20 laps, and at 60-70 miles per hour, that’s under 20 seconds a lap.”
“It’s real exciting for spectators,” said Graves. “The races are so few laps it stays close, and most races have a lot of back and forth activity. And, even if it is a bad race, a new will start again soon. With our races, there’s something going on all the time.” Graves said a typical evening might feature 50 heats and races, with up to 100 riders competing.
The races are frequently held at Perris Raceway, which Graves said has a vital place in racing history.
Keeping it Fast—and Flat
“It’s the oldest motorcycle track in Southern California,” says Graves. Races have been held there since 1954. It’s still renowned, and with riders coming as far away as Europe coming to race there.
Motocross, with its dips and turns, is right now the more popular kind of motorcycle racing, but flat-track racing—racing in a circle or oval at high speeds—remains popular.
“Flat track goes back to the early 1900s,” Graves recounts. “It was popular because you could make a track out of any flat surface. Back during the Depression they made tracks out of wood. For a while, though, flat track was dying in Southern California because motocross was such a big deal. That’s what prompted us to start this flat track association. It’s not only staying alive, but it’s growing.”
You would need a phone directory-sized book to really chronicle the depth of racing in the IE. These only represent the most celebrated tracks and people, but our humble homeland is host to a dizzying array of motorsports, each one building their legacies one race and one superstar at a time. Sure, we could tell you more—but maybe the best way to learn more is to get your tailpipes in gear and check them out yourself.
Auto Club NHRA Finals at the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, 2780 Fairplex Dr., Pomona; www.nhratix.com. Nov. 8-11.