It is the car culture capital of America, where cruising the streets is an art form and the warm sunshine glints off chrome fenders too numerous to count. Nowhere is this nation’s obsession with the automobile more evident than in Southern California, where the packed freeways, surf rock anthems, location of manufacturer design studios and even the scarcity of sidewalks in certain areas all attest to a region built to be explored on four wheels.
That motoring fervor certainly extends to the race track. Southern California has a NASCAR tradition that runs as deep as anywhere outside of the Carolina foothills where the sport got its start. NASCAR has held premier-series races on and off in the region since 1951, when Marshall Teague won at half-mile Carrell Speedway in Gardena. There was Ascot Park, the half-mile dirt layout in Los Angeles. There was Riverside International Raceway, one of the most famous tracks of its era. There was Ontario Motor Speedway, the short-lived replica of Indianapolis. There was Willow Springs, the road course still in operation today.
And of course there is Auto Club Speedway, the 2-mile speed palace in Fontana that will host the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this weekend for the 25th time. All those tracks have been there for a reason, of course — densely-populated Southern California has over the decades produced bushels of drivers, many of whom climbed the ladder through regional circuits like the old Southwest Tour or Winston West (now K&N Pro) Series en route to the national level. Several of them left legacies that still stand, or are still being built upon today.
So, with the sport headed back to Auto Club Speedway — and using the most widely accepted definition of the region, the 10 counties between the 36th parallel and the Mexican border — here are the top 10 NASCAR drivers from Southern California.
10. Johnny Mantz
He started just 12 races at NASCAR’s highest level, but Johnny Mantz will always be remembered for winning the most arduous event of his era — the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington. That 1950 edition was the sport’s first 500-mile race and first event on a paved race track, and it attracted 75 cars. A native of Long Beach, Mantz outfitted his Plymouth with truck tires, realizing the rubber of his day wouldn’t be durable enough for an event that would last six hours, and he came from the back of the field to win. It may have been his lone NASCAR victory, but Darlington winners receive the Johnny Mantz Trophy still today.
9. Jim Robinson
It may now be known as K&N Pro Series West, but back in the day it was called Winston West, and it was a haven for established drivers who wanted to stay closer to home. Among the most prominent of those was Jim Robinson, a native of the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Reseda, who won three titles on the tour and in nine years never finished worse than sixth in final points. That’s nothing to dismiss on a circuit that also featured the likes of Chad Little and Hershel McGriff, and in which established premier series stars would often compete. Robinson also made a handful of competitive premier series starts, with a best finish of sixth at Riverside.
8. Joe Ruttman
Joe Ruttman competed for two decades on NASCAR’s top circuit, and he won a race in what is now the Nationwide Series, but he’s best known for his success in the NASCAR Camping World Truck ranks. A native of Upland, near where Auto Club Speedway is today, Ruttman won 13 times on the Truck tour, and was a title contender for most of that span. His big national break came in 1981, when the team formerly owned by Rod Osterlund hired him to replace a driver who had just left — Dale Earnhardt. He scored 19 top-five finishes, though his best chance to win slipped away in 1982 at Richmond, when his power steering failed and he hit the wall.
7. Eddie Pagan
In NASCAR’s premier series, the moment Eddie Pagan may be best known for is a crash — he was the pole winner at Darlington in 1958, when he lost a tire and went hurtling through the fence, tearing out roughly 100 feet of guardrail and leaving his Ford a smoldering ruin on the other side. Thankfully he suffered only a broken nose, and the incident didn’t eclipse a career that saw him win four times, most notably at Bay Meadows in 1956 when he outran Parnelli Jones to the finish. A native of the south L.A. town of Lynwood, Pagan later joined with another driver, Dick Hutcherson, to establish a high-performance parts business that still exists today.
6. Ron Hornaday Jr.
Among the best-known graduates of NASCAR’s former Southwest Tour, Ron Hornaday Jr.’s two championships in that series catapulted him to a long national-series career that began with a Cup Series start at Sonoma in 1982. He’s been a presence in all three national divisions, but his greatest success has come in the Truck Series, where his four titles and 51 race victories both stand as records. A native of Palmdale in northern L.A. County, Hornaday also owns four Nationwide victories, a ninth-place Cup finish and a reputation for mentoring many younger drivers who bunked on his couch during their climb up though the ranks.
5. Eddie Gray
They called him “Steady” Eddie Gray, and he certainly was that over three championship seasons in the Pacific Coast Late Model Series, later to become the Winston West tour. One of the top short-track drivers in the region, the native of the metro L.A. town of Gardena regularly competed in premier series events on the West Coast, and won four of them — including the first NASCAR race at Riverside in 1958, besting a field that included Lee Petty and Jack Smith. It was back at Riverside 11 years later when Gray suffered a heart attack in a sportsman race, an episode that nine months later would claim his life.
4. Robby Gordon
Overflowing with driving talent and a stubbornness to match, Robby Gordon’s career in NASCAR leaves you wondering what might have been. Gordon may have cut his teeth in off-road and open-wheel, but he soon found a home in stock cars, and excelled on road courses. A native of Cerritos on the border of L.A. and Orange counties, Gordon won three times in the Sprint Cup Series, including on an oval at New Hampshire in 2001. He added a Nationwide victory at Richmond on 2004. As talented as he could be, he often clashed with owners, and wound up operating his own team that last competed in 2012. These days, he’s back racing on the dirt.
3. Dick Rathmann
A one-time open-wheel racer who enjoyed far more success in NASCAR, Dick Rathmann’s relatively short career netted 13 premier series victories, including the Southern 500 at Darlington in 1952, as well as triumphs at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro. In 1953 he finished third in the final standings behind Lee Petty and Herb Thomas, and led all 200 laps en route to a victory in Langhorne, Pa. A native of Los Angeles whose swapped names with younger brother Jim — later a winner of the Indianapolis 500 — so his sibling could appear old enough to race, Rathmann and owner Walt Chapman comprised one of the more formidable teams of the 1950s.
Once one of those aforementioned young drivers who bunked on Ron Hornaday Jr.’s couch, Kevin Harvick blossomed into a NASCAR star whose career is still going strong. Another product of the former Southwest Tour, the Bakersfield native broke through as a contender in the Nationwide Series before being rushed to the Sprint Cup ranks in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death. He won two races in 2011 and has since added 22 more, the most recent early this season at Phoenix. Harvick finished third in final points three times with Richard Childress Racing, and shapes up as a contender again this year with Stewart-Haas.
He may own six titles and 66 race victories — and counting — in NASCAR’s top series, but Jimmie Johnson was and always will be just a dude from El Cajon, a dusty town on the outskirts of San Diego. He remains very much a product of that environment, from the humility he learned in his modest upbringing as the son of a school bus driver and heavy equipment operator, to the driving skills he first honed wheeling dirt bikes and off-road cars. Johnson’s charitable work still brings him back to the area every year, and one day he may well return as a seven-time champion, owning a piece of the most hallowed record his sport has to offer.
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