SI Vault
Liz Smith
November 15, 1965
Dress was informal—and remarkable—at Riverside's big race, a swinging affair where 84,478 people focused intermittently on speed and spin-outs but mostly on their own gaudy show
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November 15, 1965

The Grand Prix Was A Gasser

Dress was informal—and remarkable—at Riverside's big race, a swinging affair where 84,478 people focused intermittently on speed and spin-outs but mostly on their own gaudy show

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I just might be the only person in the world whose parents went to the Indianapolis 500 on their honeymoon. Until a fortnight ago this small and rather curious fact was my only link with the sport of auto racing. Then an opportunity came to attend the eighth annual Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside, Calif., and I took it eagerly. After all, as I was informed, it had become one of America's classic sports car races. I must admit, however, that there was another reason for my eagerness. I had also learned that Riverside's race weekend could be a wild and swinging affair. Hadn't the young race hounds at Watkins Glen, N.Y.—a clean-cut group of collegians—recently set fire to the bales of hay at the track and tossed two motorcycles into the flames for good measure? Who knew what bongos might be bonged, what frugs might be frugged and what local tribal customs I might observe in the interest of edifying my sheltered eastern friends?

Riverside International Raceway turned out to be a seared, tan saucer backed by dun-colored hills that resemble carelessly crumpled tortillas. The race weekend was marked by southern California's worst smog in nine years, a gullet-filling, nose-burning, eye-blistering gaseous haze that had drifted the 50 miles from Los Angeles and was aggravating an environment already burdened with drought-dusty upper-90� temperatures. The raceway was simply a sizzling platter during the time trials, but the myriad offbeat spectators roaming the grounds did not seem to mind. One ducktailed sybarite, as impervious to sunstroke as the rest, strolled past, wearing a T shirt bearing only one word, "Boo!" While the uninitiated might think he was simply celebrating the Halloween weekend, I had been clued in that boo is the slang word for pot, weed or Mary Jane—you know, marijuana. My interest quickened.

As a conscientious reporter I duly noted the presence of such big names in racing as Jim Clark, the world champion driver; of the Indianapolis men, A. J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti; of the visiting Europeans Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren; of Dan Gurney and Walt Hansgen, Jim Hall and Hap Sharp, Ronnie Bucknum and Ken Miles.

In the pits crews were pampering approximately $600,000 worth of sports two-seaters which would never carry more than one person—the driver. These cars seemed to be puny, tubercular metallic animals at first, their delicate mechanisms sputtering and coughing—until they rolled out onto the track. Then they would roar like pained paranoiacs.

The pit crews seemed to love their work. And no wonder. They were surrounded by acres of girls, girls, girls. And what girls! Mother never saw girls like this at Indianapolis. There was a chick wearing a black-leather Courr�ges chamber-pot hat, gold sandals and skintight purple hip-huggers. There were two fabulously endowed starlets or models or mothers or something, sunbathing on the concrete-block pit wall in bikinis. There was a sullen Elizabeth Taylor type in a silver lam� shirt (this at 2 p.m. on one of the hottest days of the year in country that would have made Pancho Villa nervous). There was Mrs. John Mecom, wife of the Houston racing-car builder, standing in moneyed silk Pucci splendor near her husband's Lola. There was a sweet young thing in khaki stretch-jersey overalls watching Andretti, a comedian, cracking a braided whip at his pit crew. There were tighter than tight pants with flowered bell-bottoms and, up above, cowboy hats. There was a blonde sitting in an air-conditioned car with the motor running, her bare feet up on the dash. There were classy-looking dames surrounding a powder-blue-coveralled Jimmy Clark, who was parked off alone with his own group. There was a blonde college girl who wore a fuchsia vinyl top with a big matching hat and a bathing suit hidden underneath it all.

Then there were the males of the species, with their philosophy that you were out unless you were in a T shirt that talked. The varieties were endless and some of the printable ones read: HELP STAMP OUT CALIFORNIA DRAG RACING; GO STRAIGHT TO HELL DO NOT PASS GO DO NOT COLLECT $200; COORS, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS; COBRA, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS; SEX SATISFIES; SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FUZZ; PARTICIPANT 1965 WATTS RIOT.

One shirt bore only a picture—a copy of an engraving depicting a Roman bacchanal. With these splendid playthings everyone seemed to wear either a hat or a variety of beard. There were ten gallons, boating and golfing caps, a hat consisting solely of madras petals, a Marine garrison hat from World War I, every kind of planter's straw and even a deerstalker.

Although every person entering the pit area had signed a contract absolving the raceway of responsibility in case of accident and there had already been one crash putting David Hobbs's Lola T-70 out of action, the pits were full of these exotic spectators. They weren't watching the trials, either; they left that to the squares in the grandstands. "That's another attraction of racing, you know—all these chickies," said a Tucson, Ariz. racing enthusiast serving as an official for the Grand Prix. "Each car has a driver and four crew members and they bring their wives and girl friends, and those dames try to outdo each other in short shorts or whatever else is the fad. That's their way to get recognition. Same way with those guys who hang around but don't race. Everybody here is an exhibitionist. It's the nature of car racing. You see, regardless of what kind of auto you drive, you associate yourself with these drivers and you say to yourself, 'I wonder if I could do it?' And you think you could. These kids come here not only for excitement but because everybody in the world is a potential racing driver."

This philosophy particularly applies in the Los Angeles area, where the car is god, there being 3,230,000 of these indispensable smog-producing household pets. Clifton Fadiman recently described life in California by paraphrasing Lincoln Steffens' faded pronouncement on the U.S.S.R. ("I have been over in the future and it works"). Mr. Fadiman quipped of his adopted state, "We have seen the future—and it plays."

They were playing like mad at Riverside Raceway, milling around with sophisticated insouciance, buying car emblems and patches from the hawkers, watching the cars now and again and swilling great quantities of beer. The rising dust from the roaring cars lifted to meet the lowering smog, a situation not paralleled by the ubiquitous low-rise hip-hugger and the barely adequate bolero. "Would you like to join the Freedom Fighters?" one Fu Manchu mustache asked a man with a spade beard. "Man," snorted the beard, "what freedom you fighting, anyway?"

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