Riverside’s grand opening, as seen through 1950s smog.
Along with extreme heat, wind, and dust, Riverside, California, promised race fans choking smog (spewed by the West Coast’s largest steel mill, since shuttered by Kaiser, in nearby Fontana). Nevertheless, a huge crowd gathered on Memorial Day weekend 1958 for what was billed as the grand opening of a combination-road-coursedragstrip initially named Riverside International Motor Raceway. These sprint cars were featured Saturday, followed by stock cars on Sunday, then midgets on Monday.
Five brothers (of 11 siblings) in the sponsoring Yeakel family operated major auto dealerships in the Los Angeles area. Bob Yeakel ran the biggest Oldsmobile store in southern California, thanks to a weekly talent show televised live from the showroom from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon; more than 18 hours, continuously, of performers and newcar shoppers. (Glory-bound unknowns included aspiring singer Phil Spector, still in high school; future Hawaiian Eye costar Poncie Ponce; comedian Lenny Bruce.) Rocket to Stardom also rocketed Bob, a political novice, to a shocking second-place finish in L.A.’S recent mayoral election. He also played himself in a low-budget movie, Man on the Prowl, in which the dealership and a new Olds convertible enjoyed considerable exposure.
The driver and passenger(s) here are too
tiny to positively identify, but chances are that Bob personally chauffeured queen Dyan Cannon to start the CRA 500. (See this issue’s installment of Backstage Past for photos and results.) Two years later, Bob died as spectacularly as he’d lived, crashing his Comanche airplane onto the nearby San Bernardino Freeway (I-10). Five lives were lost: Yeakel, 41, two of his sons, aged 22 and 13, a business acquaintance, and an unlucky motorist. Bob’s Plymouth agencies in Downey and Compton would continue motorsports sponsorships into the mid’60s under the direction of Lou Baney, a former Yeakel mechanic. The famous track suffered repeated financial scares and bailouts, finally succumbing to residential development in 1989. (Pete Lyons’s beautiful 2015 history book, Riverside International Raceway, is still available from petelyons.com.)