Mark Donohue whipped his mud-spattered rental car out of the main gate at Riverside International Raceway and accelerated savagely down one of the shabby side streets that enmesh California's most venerable road course. A heavy rain the previous evening had left deep puddles on all sides and, cackling like a delinquent diddybopper, Donohue slewed and spewed his way along, sending sheets of water over the flanking front yards. "Hey," yelled one of his passengers, "there was an old lady behind that lemon tree and I think you soaked her needlepoint." "Not at all," replied last year's Indy winner, careening toward another puddle. "I merely watered her lawn."
Ah, yes, back on the road again. After a soporific surfeit of holidays and too much TV football by far, the American racing fraternity reassembled last week at Riverside to inaugurate what promises to be the most exciting season of motor sport in a good many years. This inauguration—much less costly and certainly a lot more fun than President Nixon's—was the Winston Western 500, the only big-league road race on the NASCAR 32-event 1973 Grand National schedule. Apart from Trenton, where the track boasts a crooked little dogleg, Riverside is the only place where the big stockers can turn right and thus demonstrate their kinship with the road racers of Grand Prix, Can-Am, Trans-Am and Formula-whatever fame.
Donohue's delight at being there was as much a seasonal celebration as it was an expression of relief at having recovered from the painful knee injury that took him out of racing for most of 1972 after he had already won the Indianapolis 500 and $250,000. Mark still limped a bit when he walked around the pits, but his throttle foot was heavier than ever, his eye as keen and his ability to gobble up opponents in the corners as voracious as anyone could recall. Moreover, he had added to his growing knowledge of the arcane world of stock-car racing. "Last year, when I first started running in the Grand National series, I had to keep a glossary of the terms that the good ol' boys used," he explained. "I'd pull into the pits and they'd tell me what was wrong and I'd consult my dictionary. Today I learned a new word—roothoggin'. It stems from the old Southern epithet, root hog or die. And it seems to mean a certain type of automotive aggression peculiar to this form of racing. I think I understand it."
Donohue sho nuff did. The race began under chill gray skies, more reminiscent of Wisconsin than Southern California. About the only gain was that the high winds off the snowy mountains had scoured the smog out of the Los Angeles Basin, giving locals their cleanest air in nearly a decade—and many folks just stood around enjoying the act of breathing.
Even Donohue was breathing hard right from the start. Pole-sitter David Pearson bobbled his Mercury at the drop of the green flag and Mark was quick to take advantage. By the fourth lap he lay second, and on the 11th he sneaked past Bobby Allison to take the lead at lap speeds in excess of 110 mph. Then the 500 evolved into a pursuit race, with Richard Petty's Plymouth the only car containing the horses to close on Donohue's Matador.
The two drivers exchanged the lead a few times until Donohue lost it with a 44-second pit stop about a third of the way through the 191-lap race. Pearson, now a distant threat, retired soon afterward with a blown clutch, as did Bobby Isaac and Cale Yarborough with various ailments of their own. But barring a yellow flag, it looked like Donohue would never catch Petty. Then came disaster for the Petty cause, a blown engine in lap 95. The skies cleared at that very moment, both meteorologically and symbolically for Donohue. The rest of the race was a desert breeze.
It was the first Grand National victory for both Donohue and American Motors—quite a feat for Mark in only his second NASCAR season, and it added an $11,770-purse to the Donohue family coffers.
Actually, the race results were the least important aspect of the weekend. What counted so far as the 51,000 faithful who gathered at Riverside were concerned was that their sport was still alive and revving. Though the big Detroit factories have virtually disappeared from the racing scene, along with their megabuck inputs and even more costly insights, the purses offered at races like Riverside are still appreciable—$106,000 in this instance. And the familiar old rivalries endure as well. The big prerace shuck last week was the putative Petty-Allison feud, a latter-day confrontation as intense as that of the Hatfields and McCoys if one was to believe the antagonists and the papers.
Petty, four times Grand National champ, who last year won eight races and $227,015 and who was ostensibly defending his title in this particular go-round, faced off with his blue and STP-red Plymouth against Allison in a gold and red Coca-Cola Chevy. Allison last year won a near-record $271,395. This dynaflow duo has been crunching one another's racing fenders since way back in 1968, so when Allison qualified second to Pearson's aging Wood Brothers Mercury and Petty ended up an unflattering fifth from the pole (behind even that relative newcomer Mark Donohue) Richard waxed wroth. Or at least he pretended to.
But there were plenty of new developments evident in last week's inaugural. Jerry Grant, who almost won Indy last year, appeared slimmer and much more serious than ever, although his car was not quite Dan Gurney's Mystery Eagle. Jerry Thompson, the Corvette vet, raised esthetic hopes among the NASCAR fans with a black, boat-nosed Pontiac Grand-Am that sounded like a sports car, thanks to a super trick exhaust system. Cale Yarborough was back in NASCAR competition with a will, if not a way. But the most important fact, win or lose, was that Donohue—America's premier racer now that A. J. Foyt is easing his way toward wealthy retirement—was alive and well. And ready to run through puddles. What with a full schedule of Indy-type races, Formula 5,000 duels and the customary enduros ahead of him this season, not to mention the NASCAR circuit, Mark has plenty of puddles to jump. And plenty of admirers to cheer him on his leaps.