News & Media


Caraviello: Riverside's greatness exists only in memory

March 24, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

MORENO VALLEY, Calif. -- California's greatest race track today exists only in memories

The first sign that this area might have held some greater significance to the motorsports world is, appropriately, a car dealership. The sign for Raceway Autoplex looms off to the right near where the 60 freeway dumps you onto Day Street, a crowded commercial boulevard near the heart of the old track. Big box stores and a shopping mall now stand where the old north end used to be, while housing tracts are in the vicinity of what at one time was the high-banked south turn. Running through the middle of it all is Memorial Way, the only remembrance -- and a vague one at that -- of the greatest race track California has ever known.

It's difficult to believe it now, on a Saturday morning congested with shoppers going about their business, but this mixed-use area crammed with stores and subdivisions is the headstone of Riverside International Raceway, a road course that earned worldwide fame over three decades of hosting every type of major motorsports series imaginable. NASCAR is competing this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, the 2-mile oval over in Fontana, but 48 times it raced at a facility so notable its spring event at one point even preceded the Daytona 500 on the calendar.

"I loved it, because it was the first road course I went to, and it was heaven. We were just hee-hawing, man. It was so much fun you wouldn't believe it."

--MARK MARTIN

Today, though, nothing remains. The only racing takes place in between traffic signals, and the former features of the raceway are denoted by commercial landmarks -- a Lowe's, a Costco, a Hampton Inn, and most notably the Moreno Valley Mall, which sits at what was Riverside's north end and whose genesis was the beginning of the end for a track beloved by the Southern California racing community. Memories are all that are left behind.

"I loved it, because it was the first road course I went to, and it was heaven," said Mark Martin, who raced four times at Riverside, with a best finish of fifth. "The first time I went there, I finished [eighth] in Cup, and I was just a kid with my own car. But we sat out one practice and went up in the esses, and watched Tim Richmond come through there so we could just laugh. We were just hee-hawing, man. It was so much fun you wouldn't believe it, because Tim Richmond was a wheel man. He'd ride that thing, and dust was flying, so we'd go watch that."

Eddie Gray, a California racer who 11 years later would suffer a heart attack competing in a late model event on the same track, won the inaugural NASCAR event at Riverside in 1958. Open-wheel stars like Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt dominated the early NASCAR races there until the regular stock-car drivers began to assert themselves. Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Richmond all enjoyed tremendous success on the 2.5-mile NASCAR layout, and Rusty Wallace won what proved to be the series' final event at Riverside in 1988.

One California driver who frequently competed in races at Riverside was Butch Gilliland, whose son David often watched from the grandstands. "It was a neat track," remembered David Gilliland, a Riverside native who now competes for Front Row Motorsports on the Sprint Cup tour. "I know it was a big deal for my dad to race there. It was a big race for him. I was too young. I was in the grandstands watching. But it was a cool deal. It was a huge race for us being here on the West Coast."

Two-time NASCAR champion Joe Weatherly was killed at Riverside, in a Turn 6 accident in 1964. For a road course, it could produce tremendous speed, Martin remembered. "That right-hander, that last one, was a superspeedway, high-banked right-hander with a wall and everything," said Martin, now driving a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing. "There was nothing else like it that I've ever driven on."

To find more tangible remnants of the race track, you have to drive to the other side of the Box Springs Mountains and into Riverside itself, and a commercial park off Marlborough Avenue that houses the non-profit Riverside International Automotive Museum. There director Bruce Ward and his staff lovingly restore and display cars that have a connection to Riverside or the circuits that used to compete there. This Saturday morning is a busy one. "In about 20 minutes, we're going to have an IndyCar coming in," he says. Sure enough a trailer arrives carrying Bobby Unser's front-row qualifier from the 1971 Indianapolis 500, part of next week's annual Legends of Riverside gala at which Unser will be the honored guest.

The museum is immense, as brightly lit and as spotless as a race shop, and with about as many cars. There's a Formula 5000 vehicle built by Gurney, an F1 car that competed at Riverside and Monaco, one of Paul Newman's sports cars, a space-age Maserati MC-12 and a 1951 Simca Special undergoing a restoration, among many others. There's also a yellow No. 66 stock car that ageless West Coast racing legend Hershel McGriff drove to six victories in NASCAR's old Sportsman class at Riverside, where he was allegedly so fast officials asked him to not show up the Cup guys. The vehicle had been in McGriff's junkyard until he donated it to the museum, and save for new tires and glass it's in the same shape as it was when it last came off the race track in 1989.

Hershel McGriff's car, looking identical to what it did in 1989. (Turner Sports New Media)

More than anywhere else, this is where Riverside still lives and breathes, where a visitor can gain some sense of why the track meant so much to so many. "For 30 years, this was the most heavily-used race track in the world," Ward said. "Nothing else was even close. Not only more racing miles than any track in the world, but because of its proximity to the L.A. and Hollywood area, you had movies, television, advertising. You had testing of everything from windshield wipers, shock absorbers, tires, you name it. It was all going on out here."

It would host six to eight major racing events every year. It was so busy that by Ward's calculation, it was operational all but four days in its final year of 1988. But the housing business in Southern California was booming, and five years earlier the community of Moreno Valley had been incorporated, and the raceway fell under its jurisdiction. The combination of easy money and perceived public progress were too much to overcome. Moreno Valley wanted a mall, and the track's owner was enticed with a large payday, and with that California's greatest race track met its unceremonious end.

"The city of Riverside, they knew full well economically what that race track meant," Ward said. "When you have major NASCAR crowds, major SCORE off-road crowds, major IndyCar crowds, IMSA crowds, Can-Am crowds coming in every year filling the restaurants and the hotels, they knew full well economically what that race track meant. They fought very hard to keep it, but they had very little say over what was happening here now, because Moreno Valley had been incorporated."

The racers hung on until the bitter end, laying in a new strip of asphalt so competition could be held on a part of the race track even while construction of the mall and adjacent housing tracts went on around them. In those final days fans took home souvenirs, including a bench from the Turn 6 grandstand that sat in someone's garage for 20 years until it was donated to the museum.

"There was a whole lot of screaming and yelling and crying and everything else going on," Ward said. "People were grabbing things .... I've got some of the old 55-gallon trash cans. People knew it was of historical value, and kept grabbing all this stuff. There was a whole lot of screaming and crying. But the people making the decisions didn't comprehend fully what they had there."

It's very clear that among Riverside race fans, there's not much love for the founding fathers of Moreno Valley. "They were a bunch of rookies," Ward said. "They did not know what they had here. It was literally a world-famous, internationally-known venue. You could go to England or Australia or South Africa and if you said Riverside in a racing crowd, they knew exactly what you were talking about. In fact, not too long ago I talked to a lady at the Riverside Convention and Visitor's Center, and she said to this day, she has people visiting Riverside from Europe asking to see the race track."

Today, there's nothing to see. Until a few years ago some pavement and a stretch of wall from Turn 9 remained, Ward said, but now even those are gone. Plans to build some kind of memorial along Memorial Way never materialized. In a nearby housing development, there are streets named Andretti, Penske, Yarborough, Donohue, Branham and Surtees, small tributes to the men who once raced at Riverside. And on either side of the sign for Towngate Park are small black and white checkers -- which perhaps to the more racing-minded could be construed as parts of checkered flags, and some sort of abstract homage to a legendary race track that today only exists in memory.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.