SEMA News—September 2013
By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Petersen Archives
Number One Favorite
In the early ’60s, Motor Trend magazine sponsored a 500-mile Stock Car race on the twisting Southern California road course at Riverside, drawing top racing talent from a number of sanctioning bodies, including NASCAR, USAC and the SCCA. That’s why Robert E. Petersen (left), the publishing company’s founder, is handing Dan Gurney a check for winning the second annual MT 500, held in January 1964. The young lady sharing the photo op is 21-year-old TV actress Linda Evans.
Motor Trend’s coverage of the race kicked off by proclaiming, “Stock Car road racing shows every promise of becoming the Number One favorite of American racing fans. Considering the importance of passenger cars in everyday American life, this is the way it should be.” Unlike racing on oval tracks, where “brute horsepower is the deciding factor,” a road course “is much more demanding, because it puts equal emphasis on all the various systems of the automobile. Also, driver skill and nerve are important factors.”
Showing a lot of both that weekend was Gurney, the race’s defending champion, who couldn’t qualify better than fourth in his ’64 Ford Galaxie. After Richard Petty led the race early in his Hemi-powered Plymouth, Gurney took the lead, only to lose it to Mercury pilot Parnelli Jones. Jones broke his rear axle, though, putting him out of the running, and Petty again took the lead until transmission issues ended his day. Gurney took the lead again after the race’s halfway point, and he had built a full lap lead over Marvin Panch’s second-place Ford by race’s end, hitting 156 mph along Riverside’s backstretch.
“When Dan Gurney took the checkered flag on the 185th lap, he did so in the record time of 91.154 mph,” said the magazine. “The winner’s share of the purse amounted to a cool $13,000.”
Gurney’s average speed, which obliterated the previous year’s record of 84.965 mph, was indicative of a trend in early ’60s Stock Car racing: Higher horsepower levels were bringing up racing speeds, but those speeds—without a comparable improvement in safety equipment—were taking a toll in human life. Two-time national champion and crowd favorite Joe Weatherly suffered a fatal crash during the Riverside race; Fireball Roberts was killed not long after at Charlotte. NASCAR implemented new rules to help improve safety for the 1965 season, an evolving process of that continues to this day.