Fastest museum in Riverside county to host racing gala
Riverside International Automotive Museum will be hosting the inaugural Legends of Riverside, a three-day racing film festival and gala, beginning the weekend of March 27.
“This will be the largest gathering of veteran race car drivers in the country,” said museum director Bruce Ward. “We plan to seat one or two legends at each guest table at this gala fundraiser for our guests to have interaction with.”
“This brand new event will bring together fans, good food, good drink and plenty of great fellowship…all in one place and all in celebration of the place and state of mind that was once Riverside International Raceway,” reads the event’s Web site.
Dropping the green flag by joining forces with the gala is Dave Wolin’s annual Automotive Film Festival at the Friday night dinner with discussion panels introducing well-known racers.
The 20,000-square-foot museum was built by father and son racing enthusiasts Ray and Doug Magnon and opened to the public in December 2007, when they hired Ward as the director.
Ward explained the museum’s hands-on approach: “We an active history museum. We run the cars, we show the cars at public events and we work on them here, too. We have two service bays with our own mechanics.”
The tour of the museum begins with a 1953 birds-eye view of a racecourse at March Air Force Base that would attract up to 75,000 spectators on any given race weekend back then.
“This is where the first sports car races were held,” recalled Ward. “The base commander at the time was very fond of car racing and allowed the airstrip and surrounding area to be used over the weekends for events. Monday morning it was back to a functioning airstrip.
“The next commander wasn’t as familiar with racing and never approved another race while he was in command. This is what gave birth to Riverside International Raceway [RIR], which was located just a couple of miles north where the I-215 and 60 interchange now is.
“We’ve chosen a quintessential Riverside race car driver, Dan Gurney, as our honoree because he was RIR.
“In 1963 Gurney won the Motortrend 500, the first NASCAR Grand National Tour here at RIR. He went on to win the next four after that until Parnelli Jones won the Motortrend 500 in 1967.”
“Everyone nicknamed that race the ‘Gurney 500’ back then, and they still do,” said Ward, laughing.
The museum also collects memorabilia from Ontario Motor Speedway.
Patrick Flynn of Riverside is a volunteer docent and historian for the museum.
He shared his memories of RIR: “I used to race, but more importantly, I used to work there. That was my first job out of college in 1969 after I got my BA degree.
“I worked there ’til 1973 doing everything from running the press tower, escorting racers to press conferences [and] hanging signage to painting and cleaning bathrooms.
“I was at the inaugural race and every major race they had after the track rebuild for the reroute of the Feather River Project that ran through the property. RIR was Riverside County’s true claim to world automotive fame.
“The Riverside Visitors and Convention Bureau still gets calls from tourists around the world planning their trip here to visit the raceway. They have to tell them, ‘It’s closed.’
“Riverside County has been the hotbed of motorsports since God allowed man to invent the internally combusted engine. Heck, the Mission Inn used to be our race headquarters.
“I remember the very first ever closed-course off-road race. RIR’s owners were really nervous and apprehensive when Mickey Thompson and Sal Fish approached him with their plans to move all kinds of dirt and rearrange the course.
“That race was a hit. Everybody got to see the uninterrupted actions of off-road racing up close from grandstands.”
Thompson was true to his word to the “nth” degree. He had that course restored to a road-racing course in no time.
“We’re definitely starting an off-road collection from that time period to present,” Flynn continued. “RIR was part of the history of off-road racing.
“Last July my wife died, so I called my ex-wife and invited her to an annual sports car club banquet celebrating RIR’s heritage held here at the museum. It was my first time here too.
“When I left RIR my ex-wife took over the graphic design department at the track. When she saw all of the old signs from the track hanging in the museum she broke into tears. She couldn’t believe people hung on to all of that memorabilia over all these years. She was humbly honored.”
The Legends of Riverside gala and tribute is limited to 150 persons. A ticket for the three-day event is $199, with all of the proceeds going to four charities: the Parkinson’s Institute, the Lee Iacocca Foundation, Whole in the Wall Camps and CHP 11-99.