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Hourglass

Posted in Features on September 4, 2013
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Riverside Raceway Photo 68810853 Riverside-Raceway

Author: Jim Ober Photos: Noel Dietrich, Trackside Photo

Backstory: It was August 1977, and sweltering hot with temperatures well above 100 degrees. The race was the fourth running of the SCORE Off-Road World Championship at Riverside International Raceway, and as can be seen, competitors were racing in front of a full house. As most of the modified four-wheel drives (Class 4) entered the first hairpin, Ray Russell in his white Jeep (seen already heading down the straight) took an early lead. Every seat in the Turn 6 grandstands was taken, and it was hard to find a spot to watch along the spectator fences, especially on Thompson’s Ridge (far right in the photo and named after the innovator, Mickey Thompson). The mass of fans waited for the lull between races, and then ran out onto the track to get cooled off by the watering trucks. Water balloons sailed from one side of the track to the other in mock artillery battles — anything to cool off. Motorhomes crammed the infield, and it was a non-stop party for many during the three-day event. There were not enough rooms in the nearby town of Riverside to meet the demand of the spectators. Outside the gates of the track were a bar or two and a gas station down the freeway, until you got to town, about six miles away. Unfortunately all that was about to change. Riverside International Raceway was a unique way of bringing off-road racing to people who didn’t want to, or couldn’t go to, the desert to watch a race. At a Baja event one could see, at best, a hundred yards of racing, usually one car at a time. Here the entire field battling it out was visible, and if you were in the Turn 6 grandstands, you could see the entire racecourse! As for the course layout, “Mickey (Thompson) built the first one in 1974,” Walker Evans said right before practice for the 16th and final race at the track in 1988. “The next year, however, I volunteered and built it for the second race. Funny thing is, that first one (racecourse) is almost identical to the way we will go in the last one. There have been a few minor changes, but mostly it is the original.” The idea of an off-road race didn’t sit well with the management of the track at first. They were used to putting on more “sophisticated” races, such as the Can-Am series, NASCAR and the Indycar series. The popularity of the off-road series was not to be ignored, however, and the management reluctantly put up with the tons of dirt that had to be moved by Evans’ team to create the track. RIR gained notoriety with a lot of television exposure. CHiPs, The Rockford Files, Route 66, and movies such as The Love Bug, Gran Prix, Thunder Alley, Winning and Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas were filmed there. However, even though Riverside was popular, urban growth slowly crept into the valley where the track was. Year by year, housing tracts, shopping malls, churches and schools began popping up everywhere. The noise of racecars was being complained about, and the property was worth a lot more as housing than it was as a racetrack. The SCORE event in 1988 was the last for the raceway, as after 32 years it eventually made way for a shopping mall. The spot on which this photo was taken (Day Street and the 60 Freeway) is now a housing tract, and where the once-famous bleachers were, a Lowe’s Home Improvement warehouse of all things, now stands. Nearby is the Riverside International Automotive Museum where one can see what once was. I wonder if, on a quiet afternoon in that Lowe’s parking lot, one can hear the faint sound of a McLaren Can-Am car going down the back straightaway, or Rod Hall’s Dodge truck at speed on Thompson’s Ridge? It might be worth the trip to find out.

Vaya Con Dios from the staff of Dirt Sports.

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