Golden State Good Ol’ Boys: The Surprisingly Long History of NASCAR in California

When NASCAR announced late last year that the Clash would be moving from Daytona to a temporary bullring inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, as many fans were apprehensive as were excited. Wasn’t Bowman-Gray already a perfectly good stadium? Why make the teams travel all the way out there? Doesn’t Fontana struggle to fill its grandstands anyway? Would Californians really show up for NASCAR?

California is a hub of automotive culture, and the heartland of the American sports car and drag racing communities, but NASCAR isn’t generally thought of as part of its mosaic. Most would assume the clash of cultures between a West Coast audience and the Southern sport of stock car racing is too much to overcome. At best, it’s seen as an irreconcilable difference, at worst, it’s said with active animosity towards one side or the other: NASCAR just isn’t California. California just isn’t NASCAR.

In advance of a Fontana weekend where fans, drivers, and the broadcast team are sure to treat racing in Southern California as though it’s some kind of novelty, I thought I would do a deep dive into the surprisingly long history of Cup Series racing in my new home state.

Although the legendary Winston West division had a vital impact on the West Coast’s stock car racing landscape, because there has been at least one Cup race in California for 68 consecutive years, I unfortunately had to limit the scope of this article to Cup racing alone.

THE EARLY DAYS (1951-1961)

The very first NASCAR race in the Golden State was held April 8th, 1951 at Carrell Speedway, a paved half-mile oval in the South Bay region of Los Angeles. Marshall Teague won the 200-lap event in a Hudson Hornet, becoming the very first driver to win a NASCAR race west of the Mississippi. That was the first of five Grand National races held in California in 1951 alone. The series visited Carrell Speedway twice more in addition to Oakland Stadium in the San Francisco Bay Area and Marchbanks Speedway in Central California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Between 1954 and 1961, the Grand National division made stops at 14 different tracks in the Golden State, with the steadiest presence being the one-mile oval at the State Fairgrounds in Sacramento, to which the series made an annual trip between 1956 and 1961.

The only career start of Elias Bowie, the first Black driver in the history of the Cup Series, came in a 1955 race at the Bay Meadows Racetrack, a horse-racing facility in San Mateo. He drove a Cadillac to 28th place.

In 1960, the Grand National division returned to Marchbanks Speedway, which had been converted into the first superspeedway west of the Mississippi, an odd 1.4-mile tri-oval. After only two Grand National races, the remote track was taken off the schedule, and it fell into disrepair by the 1970s.

NASCAR’s first decade in California saw frequent schedule changes, as the young sport visited small dirt tracks that frequently reconfigured or closed down. This was no different than anywhere else, but the postwar boom in California’s economy often made selling a track for re-development more profitable than continuing to host racing. This would become a theme in the NASCAR history of the state: Carrell Speedway was the first ex-Cup track to be torn down, to build a freeway expansion in 1954. It would not be the last.

Additionally, since the interstate highway system was only an idea in the early 1950s, the challenge of transporting a stock car team all the way out to the West Coast was even more arduous than it is today. In those early years, many Grand National teams informally boycotted California races when meager prize pools wouldn’t cover the cost of travel. This opened the door for native West Coast drivers like Eddie Gray, a three-time West Series champion, to shine. Gray made 18 of his 22 career Cup starts in the Golden State and won four times between 1958 and 1961, including the inaugural event at Riverside.

THE MIDDLE YEARS (1962-1988)

One of the iconic venues for American road racing, Riverside International Raceway hosted F1, Indycars, and sports cars in addition to NASCAR’s Cup and West divisions. Over the 31 years it appeared on the schedule, Riverside was Southern California’s home for NASCAR, hosting between one and three Cup races every year until its closure in 1988.

Between 1970 and 1981, NASCAR opened its season at Riverside, taking advantage of Southern California’s stable climate to run races in January or February. It moved the season finale to Riverside in 1981, meaning that, including its mid-summer date, Riverside was the first track in NASCAR’s modern era to host three points-paying Cup races in a single year.

It became the first stable home of NASCAR road racing, and the list of winners at the track includes stock car icons like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, and Darrell Waltrip in addition to road racing legends Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, and Mark Donohue. Both Ricky Rudd and Bill Elliott scored their first Cup wins at the track, and Rusty Wallace won the final event in 1988.

Riverside’s iconic status stands in stark contrast to the notorious failure of the nearby Ontario Motor Speedway. Conceived of as the “Indianapolis of the West,” Ontario was a 2.5-mile Brickyard clone designed to host Indycars, F1, and NHRA drag racing in addition to NASCAR. The infrastructure was cutting-edge for the time, and the track set up a multi-million dollar advertising campaign ahead of its inaugural NASCAR event in 1971. The Miller High Life 500, won by A.J. Foyt for the Wood Brothers, had the third-highest attendance of any NASCAR race that year, trailing only the crown jewels at Daytona and Talladega.

The problem came when, without the same marketing push, attendance dropped dramatically in 1972, something that moving Ontario to the season finale slot for 1973 failed to fix. By 1980 it had become fiscally unsustainable to race in Ontario, and the speedway was sold and demolished.

By the time NASCAR entered its Winston Cup era it was running three races per year in California, all in the outer limits of greater Los Angeles. By now, the big teams couldn’t afford to miss out on the points offered in the Golden State races, but underfunded teams generally stayed home. California-based Winston West drivers usually filled out the back of the grids at Riverside and Ontario. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1980s, both tracks had been swallowed up by the sprawl of suburban Los Angeles.

THE MODERN ERA (1989-present)

Following the closure of Ontario and Riverside, NASCAR’s lone stop in California between 1989 and 1996 was Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma Valley wine country. The 12-turn road course is known for its extreme elevation changes, full-contact racing, and fuel-strategy finishes, and has seen two different track layouts and four different names over the course of its three decades on the Cup schedule.

The NASCAR history of the track now known as Sonoma reflects the history of road racing in NASCAR. In the early 1990s, very few Cup drivers (mostly Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, and Rusty Wallace) showed any kind of aptitude for road racing. By the mid-2000s, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and road racing invaders Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose set a new standard for road-racing professionalism in NASCAR. Now, road racing is a crucial part of any NASCAR champion’s skill set: just look at Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Larson to name a few.

Roger Penske opened the California Speedway in 1997, bringing the Cup Series back to Southern California for the first time since Riverside closed down. Now known as Auto Club Speedway, the track in Fontana celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2022. Auto Club was built in the mid-90s era of “expansion tracks,” flashy new superspeedways built near population centers outside of the NASCAR heartland, meeting the new demand of the ‘90s and early 2000s boom years. Auto Club is a sister track to Michigan, a 2-mile D-shaped oval with a surface broad enough to easily accommodate five-wide racing.

For 2004, Fontana gained a second date at the expense of Rockingham and took over the traditional Labor Day date of Darlington’s Southern 500 in a double blow to the NASCAR faithful. This expansion eventually proved unsuccessful, and in 2011, due to low attendance, Auto Club was scaled back to a single 400-mile race per year. Though calling it an expansion market may not be entirely accurate—after all, the first NASCAR race in Southern California was all the way back in 1951— Fontana has recently struggled to fill its grandstands.

In 2020, it was announced that the track would be reconfigured to a high-banked half-mile after one last race on the existing layout. However, after the 2021 race was cancelled due to a Covid-19 surge, and the series returns to the full two-mile oval this weekend, little has been heard about the planned redesign.

With the addition of the Clash at the Coliseum, 2022 marks the first time in a decade that NASCAR will race three times in the state of California. The Clash, which sold 70 percent of its 60,000 tickets to first-time NASCAR attendees, was a huge success for the sport. Comparison to the Los Angeles event, as well as the threat of reconfiguration or closure, will certainly hang over Sunday’s Wise Power 400. 

The relative stability of NASCAR’s presence in California after the 1990s was in no small part due to the incredible success Californian drivers have found in the Cup Series. Before Jeff Gordon’s 1995 championship, no Californian had ever been NASCAR champion. In the 27 years since, Californian drivers Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Larson have won the Cup 14 times.

THE FUTURE

Motorsports fans in California are spoiled for choice. We can choose between NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, NHRA, World of Outlaws, and Formula Drift just to name a few. Frankly, California loves cars. But like Dan Gurney wheeling a Wood Brothers Ford around Riverside, Kyle Larson winning a World of Outlaws race at Merced, or Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson banging wheels in an IndyCar race at Laguna Seca, California’s motorsports culture is fluid. At Long Beach, I saw shirts with NHRA Funny Cars, Dale Earnhardt, and Nissan Skylines at the IMSA race.

Right now, IndyCar and F1 viewer numbers are swelling while NASCAR is crossing its fingers and hoping this is as bad as it gets. NASCAR can no longer fill the stands with its die-hards. But by looking at California, where there was never that high a concentration of die-hards to begin with, NASCAR leadership can predict what this new motorsports market will look like.

There are enough car-crazy Californians to support all the major series that race in the Golden State each year. NASCAR should recognize that other motorsports aren’t competitors, something that drivers and fans, particularly those outside the stock car heartland, already understand. So instead of plonking down a cookie-cutter superspeedway an hour and a half outside whatever new city, NASCAR should capitalize on local racing culture. Keep road racing out West, maybe add a second dirt race in NorCal to take advantage of Kyle Larson’s popularity. Convert Fontana to a half-mile and use it to reinvigorate the SoCal asphalt short-track scene when Cup isn’t in town. Bring in locals for support races Sunday morning. Host a classic car show in the parking lot. Bring the Stadium SuperTrucks along.

I was surprised to learn how long the Cup Series has been racing in California, but I was honestly more surprised to discover out here the exact kind of casual racing fan that NASCAR so desperately wants to attract. It isn’t someone who stumbles across racing while flipping through channels and sometimes decides to watch it. It’s a person who might not know the names of every driver, but never misses their home race, because they love the atmosphere. Every year, they’ll bring one more friend along, and that friend falls in love with it too.

That’s what NASCAR can learn from California. Though it will likely never again be can’t-miss TV for everybody in American, NASCAR can succeed if it recognizes it should be a can’t-miss festival for anyone who likes fast cars.

Featured image from @RaceSonoma on Twitter

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: