The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season (I’m not sure I’m ever going to get used to that) officially begins with the Feb. 26 running of the Daytona 500.
It didn’t use to be that way.
Believe it or not, from 1970-82 NASCAR’s elite series got underway with a mid-January race at Riverside International Raceway in California. The Daytona 500 followed a month later.
This came about after NASCAR streamlined what was then known as the Grand National circuit. For years before 1970, Daytona was the fourth race on the schedule following events at Macon, Ga., Montgomery, Ala., and Riverside.
NASCAR came to realize that 50-52 races per year, several of them in relatively small-town venues that offered little exposure and even less money, was an unwieldy situation.
So by 1970 several races, many of them on short tracks, were removed from the schedule. That allowed Riverside, a 2.62-mile, nine-turn road course, to claim its role as the season’s debut event.
This seemed to make little sense, for several reasons.
First, it was held in a state not known for much affection for NASCAR – at least back then. The sanctioning body’s form of stock car racing was still a regional sport with a strong support base in the South.
Certainly the race received media attention but not nearly as much as it could have if the hard-core motorsports writers who worked south of the Mason-Dixon line were able to attend. They were not because their newspapers simply weren’t going to spend the money – airline fees alone were prohibitive – to cover a single race.
Stalwart NASCAR fans weren’t very interested in the race. It was an anomaly. The real racing didn’t begin until Daytona.
And many of the NASCR regulars simply couldn’t afford to make the trek to California. They didn’t have the budget needed. In reality, only a handful of organizations had sufficient sponsorship to go west – they were always battling for the championship and could not afford to lose points.
But that didn’t necessarily mean the Riverside race was devoid of talent. Many top-flight competitors from the West Coast who built their reputations in other forms of motorsport made regular appearances.
Drivers like Dan Gurney, Ray Elder, Herschel McGriff and Mark Donohue turned to NASCAR at Riverside and did very well. Elder and Donohue were winners. So was A.J. Foyt.
The NASCAR regulars of their day, who competed with the best in sponsorship, equipment and personnel, were routinely victorious at Riverside. They included Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Fact is, these drivers won all but three races from 1970-81.
I have always theorized that what started the notion that it made little sense for NASCAR to open its season with a race at an outpost was the 1979 Daytona 500.
You know all about that race. It was first to be covered flag-to-flag by a major TV network, CBS. It had that smashup finish culminated by a wreck between Yarborough and Donnie Allison on the backstretch on the final lap that allowed Petty to win.
And then came the fight between Yarborough and the Allison brothers.
A massive TV audience witnessed the drama and mayhem and NASCAR’s popularity began to soar.
Given that, I am certain that NASCAR reasoned it would be far better to start each season with possible big bang – and that meant at Daytona, not Riverside.
In 1982, Riverside’s first race on the schedule was in June and it remained there.
But the road course did have something going for it. From 1981-86 it staged the last event of each season. Many times the championship was decided in California.
By 1989 Riverside was gone, a victim of residential and commercial expansion.
But for a time it held the distinction, however improbable, of staging the first, and then last, race of each season.
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