Conceived by Shelby, Ford-engined and with sleek coachwork by AC of England, the Cobra was menacing enough in this first test as it snaked along behind the fastest Corvette at Riverside, then passed it to take the lead, only to fall out ultimately with a broken axle. The winner was Californian Doug Hooper in another Corvette—one prepared by California speed-record king, Mickey Thompson, and the only one of the four Sting Ray starters to survive.
That evening, as the night people began to assemble at the raceway, fortunate racegoers with lodgings and preferred viewing spots dined at the gracious Mission Inn, a hostelry built in the Spanish manner. Native buffs were intent, at poolside and patio tables, upon handicapping the 200-miler—confusingly called a Grand Prix, although it was for sports cars, not single-seaters. But the foreign drivers were mostly intent upon enjoying California. Said Joakim Bonnier, the bearded Swede: "The enthusiasm for racing here is fantastic." To Graham Hill of Britain, leader in the world driver standings (SI, Oct. 15), racing is "on the up in America. The enthusiasm in California is incredible and, oh, how I love the sunshine."
The next day, beneath a most beneficent sun, Bonnier, Hill and the other quality imports—New Zealand's Bruce McLaren, Australia's Jack Brabham, Britain's Innes Ireland—were arrayed against most of the outstanding Americans. Unfortunately missing from the lineup were the defending world champion, Phil Hill, and his friend and rival, Richie Ginther. The natives who did compete may be divided, for convenience, into two groups. From the world-class section came Masten Gregory of Kansas and Dan Gurney. It is a point of great pride among Californians, whose automotive plenty is boundless, that Hill, Ginther and Gurney are fellow residents.
Then there were the American "semi-pros," men with other jobs or with incomes, who do not race full time but are very rapid when they do. The well-heeled Texas subgroup includes Alan Connell, rancher and bon vivant, and Jim Hall, an oil-drilling junior magnate, who is identifiable by his skintight jeans and a shirt bearing a Lone Star emblem. In the midwestern brewery-heir wing are Augie Pabst and Harry Heuer.
In addition, there was Roger Penske of Gladwyne, Pa., a sales engineer for Alcoa. Penske, who does not figure on form to beat the likes of Gurney & Co. in matched cars, does a great deal of thinking about improving his odds. Judging rightly that extreme lightness in a racing car pays high dividends, he bought for a mere $500 a small British Cooper Grand Prix single-seater that was wrecked last year at Watkins Glen by Walt Hansgen, the ageless New Jersey semipro (who was also racing in California but was hounded by mechanical ills).
By having the Grand Prix car unbent, installing "sports car" bodywork, including fenders and headlights and a mandatory second seat (between the frame and the skin) and replacing the old engine with a powerful 2.7-liter Climax from Britain, Penske produced a rocket. He sprang this bizarre creation upon the racing world at Riverside—and, by George, he won.
Except for a blonde muffin at turn 6 who was perusing a copy of Gone With the Wind and a few other spectators whose devotion was less than blue-flame, the huge crowd raptly watched Penske and Gurney spar for many laps. Gurney, whose German Porsche Grand Prix cars were not quite up to the best (and conquering) British racers this season, is nevertheless considered by many racing men to be the fastest, finest driver now practicing, Britain's Stirling Moss having been dismounted indefinitely by accident injuries. Tall, blond, handsome and forthright, Dan Gurney is the John Wayne of racing.
Late getting his squat little British Lotus 19 ready for Riverside, he qualified only by winning a consolation sprint and started at the rear of the field as Penske departed on the pole. Yet he not only overtook Penske but would surely have won if his throttle linkage had not snapped, abruptly putting him out.
"It was," Gurney said afterward, "a doggone good race." He was thinking not so much of his duel with Penske as the $12,000 in first-place prize money that had slipped from his grasp into the hands of the Pennsylvanian. Rare is the race in which a driver can earn so much, rarer still a driver like Penske who picks up $17,000 for two weeks' work.
Second to Penske at Riverside was Jim Hall, and his was a performance gratifying to Americans because his Chaparral is an all-American car. Built by the southern California specialists Troutman and Barnes (who fashioned the frame and skin of the Ford Mustang), the Chaparral is powered by a modified Corvette engine.