A collaboration between NASCAR, Riverside International Raceway, and Petersen Publishing (the company that founded MotorTrend and HOT ROD magazines), the Motor Trend 500 offered West Coast motorsports enthusiasts an opportunity to see big-money stock car racing for the first time. Traversing the golden age of the muscle car era, the Motor Trend 500 was the longest and richest road course event in the Grand National Series, the precursor to what would become the NASCAR Winston Cup.
Over a period from 1963 to 1971, some of the greatest drivers to ever race a car—including Richard Petty, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, and Mario Andretti—took to the track at Riverside. It’s a story so compelling that it has become the subject of a special three-part documentary series debuting on the MotorTrend app called The Motor Trend 500: NASCAR Heads West.
As NASCAR started to gain popularity nationwide, a push began to bring the series west in a big way. The venue eventually chosen to host the major event was the newly constructed Riverside Raceway east of Los Angeles, where in 1963 the first Motor Trend 500 was run—the history of which is detailed in the documentary’s opening “Driven” episode. As part two’s “Danger” outlines, Riverside was an ultimate test of driver skill, given its twisting layout unlike the NASCAR tracks back east. The 2.7-mile circuit was also treacherous, taking the lives of 21 drivers over its 32-year existence. During the MT500 races alone, two drivers died, and Foyt almost died in a now-storied crash. “Dominance,” the final segment, chronicles the exploits of hometown boy Gurney, who won five of six MT500 races at Riverside during a stretch that became the stuff of legend.
Narrated by Roadkill star David Freiburger, The Motor Trend 500: NASCAR Heads West features appearances from many of the major players and racers of the era—all while weaving in incredible archival footage and historical context. It’s not just a NASCAR story; it’s a story of California and the people who brought the excitement of big-time motorsports to the American West. Click the gallery for a photo retrospective of the Motor Trend 500 straight from trackside, and then be sure CLICK HERE to head over to the MotorTrend app to take in the documentary, a key part of our special NASCAR Collection.
GURNEY STREAK STARTS
(1963) Joe Weatherly is the 1962 Grand National champion and the one to beat. Dan Gurney, though, qualifies fastest and comes from 11th place to win the inaugural Motor Trend 500.
(1963) Wendell Scott of Virginia qualifies 33rd in the 44-car field. He finishes 18th and later becomes the first and, to this date, only black driver to win a Grand National event. He’s invited back for the second-annual Motor Trend 500, where he secures an alternate driver spot, but he doesn’t get to race.
THROUGH THE TWISTIES
(1963) The notorious esses: This group of turns culminating in Turn 6 proves most challenging for the Southern racers.
A CHAMPION FELLED
(1964) Joe Weatherly wins the Grand National (driver’s) Championship again in 1963 while driving for nine teams. He’s not able to control his Mercury coming into Turn 6 and dies after his head collides with the steel retaining wall. He is the first of two fatalities that occur during the MT500 races.
A LUCKY ONE
(1964) On lap 15, Riverside veteran Clem Proctor’s slide into Turn 1 leads to an acrobatic battering of his new Ford Galaxie. Although the sheetmetal takes a pounding, Proctor escapes with only minor injuries. In the years to come, Proctor will claim two victories at Riverside International Raceway in NASCAR’s Late Model Sportsman division.
PIT LANE SPEED
(1964) It’s the dawn of modern pit stops, pioneered and exemplified by the Wood Brothers team. Swapping two tires and adding fuel is a 30-second endeavor in ’63. By 1967, the Wood crew gets it below 11 seconds. The Wood Brothers’ two Ford Galaxies finished 1-2, with Dan Gurney’s No. 121 a full lap ahead of teammate Marvin Panch’s No. 21 car.
(1964) Robert Petersen, the founder of MotorTrend and HOT ROD magazines, hands Dan Gurney another winner’s check (his second of five) while Race Queen, a young Linda Evans, looks on holding the winner’s trophy.
FOYT’S HARROWING CRASH
(1965) A.J. Foyt pushes Gurney hard, but on lap 169, in the fastest portion of the track, Foyt’s car experiences brake failure. He drives into the infield to avoid the Turn 9 wall and endoes several times, sustaining serious injuries. Upon his Grand National return, in April at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Foyt takes the checkered flag.
(1965) After bumping the wall in Turn 6, Ned Jarrett stops by the pits for gas and repairs. His car ignites, and although no one is hurt, his Ford is toast.
NOTHING TO IT
(1965) Fred Lorenzen, like Fireball Roberts, can often be seen driving one-handed. Lorenzen is particularly noted for having one hand on the roof during the race.
(1966) This will be Billy Foster’s last Motor Trend 500. An accident in Turn 6 claims his life during qualifications for the 1967 MT 500.
(1966) Richard Petty told the Los Angeles Times, “It was pretty embarrassing, trying to get up through them switchbacks without running off in the dirt,” which he does often.
PARNELLI STOPS GURNEY
(1967) Parnelli Jones claims his first victory in the MT500, ending Dan Gurney’s unprecedented four-wins-in-a-row run.
FOUR FOR FIVE
Gurney loses a tire halfway around the track, but quick pit work helps him nail his fifth Motor Trend 500 victory. The race starts and finishes with the same drivers in the first three positions.
MARIO MAKES DO
The Motor Trend 500 bracketed Mario Andretti’s first and last NASCAR Grand National experience—his first in 1966 and his last in 1969.
GURNEY GETS WING
(1970) For 1970, Gurney moves to the new Plymouth Superbird under the Petty Enterprises banner. This ties in with his All American Racers Trans-Am team effort fielding the Plymouth ‘Cuda.
FOYT TAKES IT
(1970) Parnelli Jones sets a new track record and leads for 88 laps despite starting 35th due to a NASCAR ruling against Firestone. Foyt, in car No. 11, takes the lead, keeping his ’70 Ford in front for the checkered flag.
Ray Elder beats legends Bobby Allison, Bobby Isaac, and Richard Petty to become the first driver of a Chrysler product to win the MT500. Three of the top five finishers are Dodges.
By 1971, most factory teams have pulled out of racing and the key USAC celebs have retired, leaving plenty of upward mobility for independent racers such as J.D. McDuffie, Dick Guldstrand, and Paul Dorrity.
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