Far from having exhausted the fund of sports delirium created for it by the Dodgers, southern California had another epic jag on last Sunday. This time it was over a sports car race. Los Angeles and its satellite cities flung a monster traffic jam into the bleak, treeless hills to the east as 82,000 travelers—the largest crowd ever to attend a road race in America—oozed onto the dusty slopes of Riverside Raceway. They had two reasons for coming out in such numbers: 1) the Los Angeles Times, which runs the Riverside Grand Prix for charity, had been egging its readers on for a week, and 2) the field of cars and drivers was remarkable for its excellence and variety.
The race itself was remarkable for the rate at which fast cars broke down, but fierce to the end was the Ford-engined Cooper-Cobra of a 27-year-old California charger named Dave MacDonald. He took the lead on the fifth lap and steadily increased his advantage throughout the 200 miles, winning at a record average speed of 96.273 mph.
From the time practice began on Friday it was clear that there was a strong new trend in big-time sports racing. American power was on the rise, foreign engines in decline. Obvious, too, was the fact that American womanpower, pit adorables division, was at its zenith. They may be banned from dugout and sideline, but wives and sweethearts of the contestants and female visitors are a fixture in the pits at road races, where they keep lap charts or simply stroll about looking womanly. In California these adorables look more womanly than anywhere else. "A man could get into terrible trouble out here," said one unattached visitor, happily.
There was trouble of other sorts for drivers who were stuck with European engines on a weekend of emergent American power. Followers of racing know that this country has lagged sadly as a producer of sports racing cars. In the early postwar years glamorous Italian Ferraris and Maseratis and British Jaguars won the major races. Then came the "widened Grand Prix car," the British Lotuses and Coopers of scant height and weight that shamed bigger cars by virtue of their tremendous cornering abilities. But recently hot Ford and Chevrolet engines, planted in a wide variety of chassis, have made serious inroads on the old favorites. At Riverside a bright Cal Tech-educated Texan named Jim Hall arrived with a Chevy Chaparral he had designed himself. A well-heeled young man, Hall had previously built front-engined Chaparrals, but the new one, square-cut and distinguished by a kind of cowcatcher front (it keeps the car from becoming airborne), wore its super-light experimental Chevy engine at the back in the latest fashion.
Carroll Shelby, whose Cobra sports cars—powered by Ford Fairlane engines—foiled the foreigners this year by capturing the first U.S. road racing championship, installed two of the Ford V-8s in light (1,500 pounds) chassis built by Britain's John Cooper. MacDonald drove one at Riverside, Bob Holbert the other.
Thus it was that when three of the greatest names in racing arrived in California with all-foreign cars they discovered that they were virtually beaten before the start. The world champion himself, Jim Clark, poured all his majestic skill into a Lotus 19. It refused to catch the Americans in practice. Then the engine broke down and had to be rebuilt, leaving Clark the bleak task of qualifying for Sunday's race in a preliminary event. He just did squeak into Sunday's main race by borrowing a Lotus 23. Motoring impeccably, he won first prize in the under-two-liter class.
John Surtees of Britain in qualifying a V-12 Ferrari was no faster than Clark, but at least his car was healthy. Surtees' countryman, Graham Hill, winner the week before of the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, went well in a small-engined Lotus 23—a kind of square pancake on wheels—but obviously needed the kind of miracle the 23 has occasionally sprung upon bigger, inherently faster cars. It was not forthcoming.
As this brilliant trio agonized, the Americans went pleasantly wild. Hall, a good but not world-class driver, ran up a Lone Star flag on the staff in his pit. Trading cowboy hat for racing helmet, he settled his 6-foot-2 frame into the Chevy Chaparral and seized the pole position.
The qualifying lap record for Riverside's 2.6 miles of serpentine asphalt was 1:35. Hall chopped that to 1:31.9 for an average speed slightly exceeding 100 mph, which had been considered a formidable barrier for any car to penetrate.
Innocent of roadside obstructions, Riverside is Dave MacDonald's kind of course. He stayed mostly on the pavement and wailed to a lap time of 1:32.6. Holbert was slightly slower, at 1:32.7. MacDonald is a new boy from California, Holbert a polished veteran from Pennsylvania. "Bob," Shelby declared, "is as good as anybody in the country. Dave is tenacious. He'll never quit, but he is a little rough. If I can get him to be more cautious, he'll be some driver."
Qualifying behind both was an unprecedented number of American-powered cars of actual or potential merit. By a supreme effort of concentration, California's celebrated Dan Gurney broke 1:34 with a new, untried Ford-engined Genie built by San Francisco Car Importer Kjell Ovale. Mexico's Pedro Rodriguez wrestled with another new Ford-Genie.
The U.S. track-racing champion, A.J. Foyt, flirted with 1:34 in an Oldsmobile-engined Scarab. Track Driver Lloyd Ruby herded a Lotus-Ford. The racing dentist, Dick Thompson, had the entertaining task of taming a rather spooky Maserati powered by Ford. California's Skip Hudson drove a Chevy (chassis by Troutman and Barnes of California), as did the Indianapolis master, Rodger Ward. His car was a Chicago Cooper-Special.
To be sure, these possessors of American power had an eye out for the brilliant young Pennsylvanian, Roger Penske, who plucked the first prize last year with a special of his own design, utilizing a Cooper Grand Prix chassis and a Coventry Climax English engine. Refitted to avoid the controversy that raged about it then as a rules-beater, the car was Sunday's only real threat to the American V-8s.
MacDonald made his big American engine velocity look lovely. It was so easy. Hall's Chevy, the early leader, and a flock of other racers took sick and expired, and MacDonald was never even mildly menaced once he was in front. At the end he had whipped Penske's second-place car by a little more than a complete lap, and he was more than two laps ahead of Rodriguez, the third finisher, and three ahead of John Surtees, the fourth man. The American showing was excellent, though some good car doctors are going to have to heal those breakable new models.