Q: Hi Greg. I lived near Riverside Raceway back in the early 1960s, and remember the first NASCAR races there. I was at the 1967 Riverside 500 when Parnelli Jones won in a Mercury Marauder. Was this Marauder the same as the Fords that also raced back then? How about some information on Riverside and the Mercury and Ford drivers? Thanks, Bill M., Illinois.
A: Bill, happy to oblige. First and foremost, those Mercurys and Fords were identical from 1963 on, albeit set up by different race teams. The Fords relied mostly on Holman-Moody or the Wood Brothers, while the Mercury division had Bill Stroppe head up its factory race division.
Riverside opened in 1957 and could be run in five different track configurations. It was known for some great sports car racing on what would become known as a very dangerous track to race on. (An SCCA club driver, John Lawrence, was killed at the first ever race when he flipped his MGA).
The first NASCAR Riverside 500 mile race was held in 1958 and won by Eddie Gray in a 1957 Ford. The second NASCAR race was held in 1961, but was cut to just 100 miles instead of the 500 grueling miles. It was won by Lloyd Dane in a 1961 Chevy.
Two NASCAR races were held in 1963 with the length back to 500 miles. Ford’s Dan Gurney and Mercury’s Darrell Dieringer shared the wins. Then, Gurney went on a tear and dominated single races from 1964 to 1968, sans the aforementioned Parnelli Jones win in 1967. To round out the decade, Richard Petty won in 1969 driving a Ford.
Riverside NASCAR events competed on a 2.62 mile layout., which included a long 1.1-mile straightaway. Gurney, by the way, made his name at Riverside in 1958 when he finished second in an ill-handling Ferrari that other top drivers didn’t want to drive.
Jones, meanwhile, won the 1967 race in a Stroppe Mercury Marauder, and it had a 427 engine under the hood with a single four-barrel, which was what the Fords also ran as per NASCAR and USAC stock car rules. Back then, USAC had its own modern stock car division, and Jones was a devoted USAC driver. He won the 1963 Indy 500, and numerous other big name races on both dirt and asphalt. He also won the 1963 Pikes Peak Hill Climb in a Mercury, and then scored seven wins in the USAC Stock Car Series to win the title in 1964 in a Stroppe prepped Mercury. Currently, Parnelli Jones is the oldest living Indy 500 winner and, along with Gurney, are living race legends.
As for other drivers of Mercury stock cars, the one that sticks out that never really had a chance to prove himself was Dave MacDonald (above), a driver who I believe would have been a champion in either USAC or NASCAR had his life not been cut short at the 1964 Indy 500 fatal fire accident that also claimed Eddie Sachs. MacDonald did finish a few big time NASCAR/USAC races in the top five, and carved a reputation winning in Corvettes and AC Shelby Cobras while on his way to the limelight. Sadly, he never got there.
Racing also lost two-time NASCAR champ Joe Weatherly in January of 1964 when he crashed his Mercury Marauder in turn six of the season opening Riverside 500 and was killed instantly. His head hit the steel barriers as “Little Joe” never wore a shoulder harness and liked his seat belts loose.
On the bright side, many drivers posted big wins for Mercury at Riverside, most notably David Pearson who won three times in succession, twice in 1976 and once in 1977.
The track closed in 1989 to make way for a mall. Overall, a total of 48 NASCAR Riverside races were held from 1963 to 1988, with Ford/Mercury scoring 15 wins.
In ending, Riverside track President Les Richter, the late, great, LA Rams NFL football personality, was responsible for Riverside’s success. (I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning him as he was a great guy who I had the pleasure on interviewing several times along my motorsports path).
Hope this info helps and thanks for your question.
(Greg Zyla writes weekly for BestRide.com, More Content Now and other GateHouse Media publications. He welcomes questions on collector cars and old-time racing at 116 Main St, Towanda, Pa,. 18848 or email at email@example.com)