1986 Winston Western 500: Riverside to Richmond

Tim Richmond 1986

Winning on a road course was nothing new for Tim Richmond. (Photo: ISC Archives)

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series teams are headed back to the West Coast this week, yet fans may not remember that Auto Club Speedway is not NASCAR’s first Southern California destination.

For three decades, NASCAR’s top series visited Riverside International Raceway. The nine-turn road course was built on the site of a former chicken farm, and hosted 48 races from the late 1950s until real estate values soared dramatically in the 1980s. By 1988, the land was worth too much to be used as a racing facility anymore. The track closed and bulldozed. A shopping mall stands on those grounds today.

For a number of years, Riverside hosted the final race of the season, and the crowning of NASCAR’s Cup Series champion. Sunday, November 16, 1986, was one of those days. The Winston Western 500 was the 29th, and final, race of the season.

Dale Earnhardt came to Riverside as the points leader and wanted to celebrate his second Cup title by taking a trip to Victory Lane in the season finale. There was one major obstacle in his way.

Tim Richmond had already taken Rick Hendrick’s Folgers Chevy to the winner’s circle six times in 1986. He captured the top starting position at Riverside and led the first circuit before giving way to Geoff Bodine, who led the next 14 laps. Richmond re-took the lead for 10 laps before Ricky Rudd, Morgan Shepherd, Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Bill Elliott and Bodine took turns at the front.

Earnhardt took the lead on lap 108, but held it only one time around before Richmond got back in front. Richmond started pulling away from Earnhardt in the closing laps and won the race by one second.

Earnhardt’s second-place finish was good enough to lock up a 288-point win over Waltrip in the championship standings. Richmond was standing in Riverside’s Victory Lane after finishing the season third, only six points behind Waltrip.

“I don’t know what a championship feels like because I’ve never won one,” Richmond said after his seventh win. “What (crew chief) Harry Hyde and the crew have given me is a third-place finish that feels like a championship. This was our first year together, and we won the most races. But let me tell you, third place won’t be good enough next year.”

He would never get to know what the championship would feel like. Richmond became ill in the off-season and missed the first part of the 1987 season with what was described as a severe case of pneumonia. He returned to the track for the twelfth race, and reeled off back-to-back wins at Pocono and Riverside in his first two races.

After those victories, he would race only six more times before what we know now as AIDS brought his eight-year career to a close.

Richmond would pass away from AIDS-related complications just three days shy of two years following his final race.

This week’s edition of MRN Flashback Friday remembers people and places no longer with us: Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond and Riverside International Raceway. Barney Hall and Mike Joy lead the MRN crew for the 1986 Winston Western 500. You can hear it Friday at Noon (ET) on MotorRacingNetwork.com.

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