California racing is known for craziness

Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013

Imagine NASCAR fans being allowed to take their personal cars onto Charlotte Motor Speedway or Darlington Raceway to circle around to assist with track-drying after a rain shower.

Never happen nowadays anywhere on the Cup Series tour.

But it did at the old Riverside Raceway road course in California in the early 1980s.

Officials, desperate to run a season finale on schedule, had the speedway's public address announcer invite fans onto the hilly, twisting, 2.62-mile layout. They joined ambulances and other emergency vehicles in circling the track near Riverside.

The invitation came with a caveat:

There was to be no acting up, pretending to be Bobby Allison or Richard Petty or Tim Richmond or Darrell Waltrip.

Participants had to maintain a steady speed of about 50 mph and drive carefully.

Hundreds responded. They drove every type of vehicle imaginable, ranging from restored '57 Chevrolets to new Rolls-Royces.

Of course, some couldn't resist the temptation and weren't cautious. They sped and passed recklessly. There were several close calls that could have led to crashes.

Officers, policemen and deputy sheriffs, were stationed at a cross-over road near the main grandstand to wave off the violators. A steady stream of laughing, excited would-be Dale Earnhardts turned left after being forced from the track.

The effort to get the track into racing condition worked, best I recall, and the race ended with darkness falling.

The comical fiasco on a gray day at Riverside comes to mind each year when the Cup Series returns to Southern California, as it does this weekend. The Auto Club 400 is set Sunday at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, an oval layout at Fontana. It isn't far from the old Riverside Raceway, which closed after a 1988 event.

The property became more valuable for real estate development than it was as a speedway.

You know how California has a reputation for craziness? It's true.

Some of the most bizarre incidents I saw in a long career of covering motorsports took place there.

The fans-on-the-track-en-masse is just the wackiest.

A close second is the season-ending L.A. Times 500 of 1980 at Ontario Motor Speedway.

On the morning of the race, which featured a battle for the Cup Series championship between Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough, Santa Ana winds swept over the area. The storm blowing out of the San Bernardino Mountains raised a thick cloud of dust from fallow vineyards near the track.

It was so thick that the backstretch couldn't be seen from the control tower or the press box. Postponement of the race appeared quite possible.

However, conditions improved slightly enough to get a preliminary NASCAR Southwest Tour event going.

Still, driver after driver had to pit to have windshields cleaned of dirt.

I distinctly remember Joe Ruttman pitting for this service. Joe's windshield had to be cleaned of dust from THE INSIDE!

It's almost certainly the only time that ever happened in NASCAR.

The 500, billed as "The Dale and Cale Show," was held on schedule as the dust lifted a bit. Earnhardt escaped a couple of glaring errors to finish fifth and take the first of his seven titles by 19 points over Yarborough, who was third. Benny Parsons won the race.

Like Riverside Raceway, the magnificent Ontario speedway is long defunct as well. The 2.5-mile track that was modeled after Indianapolis Motor Speedway closed after that '80 race, doomed, it is said, from the day it opened in 1970 because of poor financing.

Both tracks may be gone, but for me and many, many others, they and some nutty things that happened at them are not forgotten…