Celebrating Riverside Raceway

Dec 29, 2010

When it comes to pairing racing icons of the late 1950s and beyond, Riverside Raceway and Carroll Shelby were a perfect match.

Legends of Riverside II was the official name of an event staged recently at the Riverside International Automotive Museum, which is dedicated to celebrating the history of Riverside Raceway, the drivers, the cars and the memories.

This second year of the Riverside gala saluted Shelby as the prime honoree (as well as other racing legends) that once competed at the famed road course located in Riverside, Calif.

The Riverside Raceway was originally conceived by Los Angeles restaurateur Rudy Cleye, who dreamed of building a big place for people to race their sports cars. He located a 600-acre parcel 60 miles east of L.A. in the small town of Edgemont, only five miles from the desert city of Riverside.

Because most people had heard of Riverside, the track was named Riverside Raceway, later to be known as Riverside International Raceway.

Making a Name

Shelby had close ties to the famous Riverside Raceway from its very beginning.

In the mid-1950s, he drove for John Edgar (who owned Ferrari and Maserati race cars), and as it turned out, Edgar was a major investor in the building of Riverside Raceway in 1957.

At one of the very first events at the track-in September, 1957-and on his very first practice lap, Shelby lost control of his race car, slipping on sand that had blown onto the track as he was entering Turn 6. At 80 mph, the car hit a dirt mound with the impact of an explosion.

The damage to him and the car, a brand-new $20,000 Maserati belonging to Edgar, was severe. Shelby sustained injuries that Saturday afternoon to his face and nose, requiring 72 stitches and plastic surgery to fix. There were broken bones in his face, nose and cheekbones, plus a few lost teeth along with some displaced cartilages.

The expensive sports car was heavily damaged as well, but lived on to be raced again after being repaired.

Shelby later said, “OK, the Riverside crash didn’t cool off my love of racing one little bit. I still hadn’t, at the time, achieved what I wanted to do in racing, and when you have this thing in your blood, nothing much is going to cool it off until you draw your last breath. Or until you accomplish what you set out to do.”

Shelby won the 1960 Los Angeles Times-Examiner International Grand Prix, in front of some 45,000 fans, and then retired from driving shortly thereafter due to health concerns.

In 1961, the Riverside Raceway facility became home to the Shelby School of High Performance Driving, and the enterprise, according to Shelby, “turned out to be such a tremendous success that it marked the turning point in the financial side of my life.”

The money made from the driving school at Riverside allowed Shelby to get a few steps closer to what he really wanted to do at that time-build an American-powered sports car of medium price that would blow away the foreign competition.

Later, the Riverside road course would also become the “home” test track for Cobras, GT40s and Shelby Mustangs during their development.

At the RIAM event, Shelby spoke fondly of the old times at the Riverside track during a Q&A session that treated guests to a glimpse of what it was like in the track’s heyday.

Legends on Stage

In addition to Shelby, more than 50 other Legends of Riverside including drivers and people associated with motorsports were also celebrated.

Included in the lineup were Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Bob Bondurant, George Follmer, Dick Guldstrand, Elliot Forbes-Robinson, Jerry Grant, John Morton, Lew Spencer, Denise McLuggage, Don Pike, Pete Lyons, Dave Friedman, Linda Vaughn, Marilyn Fox and one of the Riverside announcers, Bruce Flanders.

As the years go by, the numbers of these racing heroes and motorsports luminaries are dwindling, and once they’re gone there will be no way to recapture the stories and relive the fantastic memories directly from the people who lived them. That’s what made the three-day celebration such an exciting event.

RIAM opened in 2006 and is dedicated to keeping the memory of Riverside International Raceway alive (it was converted into a shopping mall in 1992) and preserving California’s rich motorsports heritage while providing a venue for both public and private events.

The museum is located a few miles from the site where the legendary Riverside road course and drag strip were located. Event organizer Doug Magnon, president of RIAM, was tasked with making things happen, and worked with Bruce Ward, director of the museum, communications guru Doug Stokes, Norma Jordon and numerous volunteers and friends of the museum.

Along with the racing stars, many docents took time to answer questions from guests and explain future plans for the place (which includes adding off-road elements from Riverside’s past.)

As it celebrates its history, there’s hope that more iconic figures like Shelby and the other racing greats who attended the event will come along to stir interest and carry the torch of motorsports competition into the next generation.