Five Wins at Riverside

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Dan Gurney Wins the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside and again... and Again and Again and Again.

By Matt Stone - From Motor Trend Magazine, February 2003

Back in the days when a humble car magazine could afford to sponsor and promote a NASCAR race, we did just that.

The Motor Trend 500 was held at the late and absolutely great Riverside International Raceway from 1963 through 1971; NASCAR continued racing there until the track’s still-mourned demise in 1988. During the nine years MT’s name was affixed to the event, Dan Gurney won it an amazing five times. Though he ran several other NASCAR races during the meat of his driving career, all his stock-car victories came at RIR. He was so dominating there – winning four times in a row from 1963 through 1966 (plus 1968) – the race was colloquially dubbed "The Gurney 500.


Dan was by no means a NASCAR regular; if anything, the stock-car establishment saw him as an outcast. He was born in New York and lived in California. He drove cars that turned both left and right, and most of them didn’t have doors or fenders – all manner of British, German, and Italian sport and formula machines, not the domestic door-slammers that’ll always be the heart of stock-car racing.

Gurney was a star wherever he went, but nowhere was he more "The Man" than at his home track, Riverside International Raceway.

What made this F1/USA/sports-car racing standout feel compelled to mix it up with the Good Ol’ Boys? "I always suspected I could probably do pretty well with a stock car at a road race,’ says Gurney. "I was a road racer and an oval racer, and we (including such contemporaries as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Parnelli Jones) drove lots of different cars: Indy, Can Am, sports cars. We were hungry, we loved to race, we wanted to jump into almost anything and adapt as rapidly as possible. You learn things in every car you drive, something you can apply to any end of the spectrum."

The Gurney/NASCAR/Riverside combo made sense. RIR was a fast and challenging nine-turn road-racing course, something the stock-car regulars had little or no experience with at the time, as almost all the schedule was run on small and large ovals. Dan knew the track, living nearby for many years. His world-class talent as a sports-car and endurance-racing pilot also meant he knew how to orchestrate – and preserve – a car’s tires, brakes, transmission, and clutch. "Most of the stock-car guys used the brakes only when they were coming into the pits and shifted gears only when they left the pits.." He cracks that humble yet all-knowing grin and continues: ‘…so even though a lot of them were really fast, they just burned their brakes or clutches and transmissions up by midpoint in the race." Someone who’d run endurance races at Sebring and Le Mans would, of course, know better.

Gurney heaps praise on the Wood Brothers, his team owners and legendary pit strategists, for his success in this environment. "Leonard and Glen were among the first ones to attack things scientifically. In (pit-stop) practice, they timed everything. When they realized a certain person or thing or system seemed quicker, they noted it and built upon it. They practiced everything, looking for efficiency and every little advantage. Their cars were always well prepared, And they downplayed their abilities, sort of like quiet hillbilly types. But ‘hillbilly science’ is as good as any science out there, and they were more scientific than most."

For the 1963 race, Gurney drove a Ford Galaxie for Holman and Moody, qualifying on the pole. His main competition came from other USAC mainstays, like Foyt and Jones, both of whom led the race. Parnelli had car problems, and Gurney, "the hometown favorite, driving smooth as glass in the Italian extended-arm style," according to the race report, was able to outlast Foyt for the win.

The 1964 season was the first of his Wood Brothers "threepeat" years. Richard Petty and Foyt proved to be Gurney’s match through most of the race. Petty’s Plymouth succumbed to transmission problems, and Foyt rode out a nasty crash on lap 151; from then on, Gurney enjoyed a fast and unchallenged run to the flag. As further testimony to the Wood Brothers’ Penske-like racecraft, Gurney’s teammate, Marvin Panch, finished second.

It was A.J. Foyt who again seemed prepared to foil Gurney’s attempt to win for a third time in 1965. But on lap 165. Foyt’s brakes failed, and Gurney again cruised home for the win. This time, the spoils included a new Hurst-equipped Pontiac GTO. Nobody even dared predict anything but a Gurney win for 1966. According to MT Technical Editor Jim Ethridge: "Gurney’s driving style could hardly be improved with magic. As always, he never appeared to overextend himself. Most of the time, it seemed he wasn’t even trying. Gurney made no mention of black arts, but credited Ford, Goodyear, and the Wood Brothers pit crew for making his win such an easy task."

How did Bill France Sr. and the rest of the NASCAR establishment feel about this semi-stranger taking prize money away from the regulars and making them look bad? Gurney speaks thoughtfully: "Yes, I think NASCAR itself was a little stressed about it. They were good sports for a while, but then they got tired of it. When you live in a dictatorship, you learn to live by the rules of the land. It’s the same way now."

One of the guys who heckled Gurney during several of the previous races finally got his day in the Riverside spotlight, as Parnelli Jones took the win in 1967. Gurney, for a reason he doesn’t exactly remember, drove a Mercury for Bud Moore that year and finished 14th. Dan was back with the Wood Brothers for 1968 – and back in the winner’s circle, too. Although this one proved anything but easy.

Dan pats the heads of those who help put him in victory lane, Glen and Leonard Wood. MT’s Robert E. Petersen holds, and wrote, the big check. He again sat on the pole and set record-smashing lap times during the race. Leading comfortably, with a little more than 40 laps remaining, track debris from a previous accident shredded his left rear tire as he was heading into Riverside’s sweeping turn 9, a long right-hander. The fact that Gurney kept it off the wall is amazing in and of itself. The crew needed one-and-a-half minutes to remove the blazing-hot wheel-and-tire shrapnel; Dan returned to the track in third place. He retook the lead, only to give it up again on his final stop. Gurney passed Jones on lap 160, then held on for his fifth NASCAR victory at Riverside.

Dan Gurney DNF’d at the 500 in 1969. He switched to Plymouth for 1970 and ultimately retired as a full-time driver at the end of that year. We sponsored the race through 1971. How does this American motorsport treasure summarize his unbridled success in the Motor Trend 500 and, moreover, his experience with stock-car racing? "It was great. Great fun. Hard racing, memorable victories. I made some friends there that are friends to this day. It all taught me a great deal about this area of motorsport. Glad I did it."

So are we, Dan – M.S