On March 28, 1954, the inaugural race in the Pacific Coast Late Model circuit took place inside Oakland Stadium in San Leandro, California. Dick Rathmann tallied a victory in a field of 26 cars.
No one present in Oakland knew this race would kickstart NASCAR’s proud tradition of racing on the West Coast. The Pacific Coast Late Model circuit gradually evolved into what is now the ARCA Menards Series West, producing talented drivers like Bill Amick, Brendan Gaughan, Kevin Harvick and many more.
Nearly 70 years after the debut event, the West Series will honor that storied history with the running of its 1,000th race. The event arrives at Evergreen Speedway, a track that prior to Saturday has hosted more races than any other for the division with 59 overall.
One prominent figure who will not be in attendance for the NAPA Auto Parts ARCA West 150 is retired NASCAR senior vice president of western operations Ken Clapp. He will be attending the IndyCar event at World Wide Technology Raceway, where he serves as a member of the track’s board of directors.
Even though he will be more than 2,000 miles away from Evergreen, Clapp plans to keep a close eye on the ceremonies and reminisce about all the key moments and individuals that have made the West Series what it is today.
“I’m disappointed I can’t [attend Evergreen],” Clapp said. “I’d love to see everyone get honored in person that’s been a part of all this for so many years. I’ve promoted about 100 of these races at multiple different tracks since I had 12 tracks for about 25 years. This goes back a long, long ways.”
If you ask Clapp, NASCAR and stock car racing is just as much ingrained into the West Coast as it is in the South.
Both midget and stock car competition had already become popular in the region by the late 1940s. One of the most prominent divisions during this time was the California Stock Car Racing Association, which held events at 22 different tracks along the West Coast under the guidance of founder Bob Barkhimer and his partner Margo Burke.
The efforts of Barkhimer and Burke to promote stock car racing on the West Coast caught the attention of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. He sent his son Bill France Jr., who was stationed at Moffett Federal Airfield, to speak with Barkhimer and Burke about potentially expanding NASCAR into California.
Once the younger France saw his first West Coast stock car race at San Jose Speedway, he fell in love with the auto racing culture in the region. This sparked a close friendship between Barkhimer and the France family that only served to spearhead NASCAR’s efforts toward finding sustainability out West.
One year after that pivotal meeting between Bill Jr. and Barkhimer, the first NASCAR Cup Series race on the West Coast took place at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, California, on Apr. 8, 1951. Marshall Teague took the checkered flag after leading all 200 laps.
By 1954, NASCAR’s exploits into the West included a series exclusive to the region. The inaugural season consisted of nine events across the state of California, with Lloyd Dane taking home the first championship over Danny Letner and Marvin Panch.
Progress for the West Series proved to be slow during its early years until the construction of Riverside International Raceway in 1957. With former NFL player Les Richter acting as the track’s general manager, a 500-mile race was created at Riverside that put the best drivers on the West Coast up against names like Dan Gurney, Richard Petty and David Pearson.
With a crown jewel event now established at Riverside, the West Series only continued to grow by expanding its presence into other states like Washington, Oregon and Nevada. The series in 1970 even ventured into Canada.
The arrival of Winston as the primary sponsor in 1971 is what Clapp believes enabled the West Series to prosper as NASCAR’s popularity began to skyrocket around the United States.
“[Winston] took us from Lexington over to Broadway,” Clapp said. “As Bill France Jr. would have said, we were taking names. Then Winston came along, and we started kicking ass.
“The West Series was already successful, but Winston was so inspirational in helping us move forward.”
Through Winston’s backing from 1971 until 2003, the West Series was able to travel overseas to Twin Ring Motegi and participate in the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, all while bringing more attention to the drivers who maintained its sturdy foundation.
Clapp has had the privilege of seeing a plethora of talented drivers come through the West Series since its inception. Ray Elder holds the record for the most West Series championships with seven, while Jack McCoy remains the all-time wins leader in the division with 54 victories.
For Clapp, the one driver synonymous with the longevity of the West Series is NASCAR Hall of Famer Hershel McGriff, who he referred to as the Richard Petty of the West.
McGriff had six years of auto racing experience to his name when the first NASCAR race on the West Coast took place in 1951. He would later take part in the inaugural West Series event in Oakland, where he qualified on the pole but finished in 20th due to a broken tie rod.
As the West Series continued to grow, McGriff was there every step of the way. He emerged as one of the most consistent drivers in the storied history of the division, tallying 37 victories across seven decades of competition and scoring his lone West Series championship in 1986.
McGriff admitted there were never easy weekends traveling from track to track along the expansive West Coast, but he said the success of the West Series is a testament to everyone who made sacrifices to ensure it could survive despite the logistical issues.
“The West Coast is made up of more miles than the East Coast,” McGriff said. “When you have a race at Portland, then another one in Oakland, that’s a long way for a Saturday night race. On the East Coast, you can see a lot of different race tracks within 200-300 miles of each other. I spent a lot of nights trying to get home so I could go to work the next day.”
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Even though the days and nights could be stressful for McGriff, he has maintained his strong passion for the West Series well after the turn of the century. McGriff put together one last full-time effort in 2001 at the age of 74 before making select starts over the ensuing years.
The final West Series start for McGriff did not take place until 2018 at Tucson Speedway, which made him the oldest driver to ever compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned race at the age of 90. McGriff kicked off the festivities by playing the National Anthem on the trombone and successfully finished the race six laps behind race-winner Kody Vanderwal, who was 17 at the time.
“I ran my last official race back when I was 84, but then I thought it would be really cool to run one when I was 90,” McGriff said. “The idea got around, and Bill McAnally said he’d give me a car. It was a lot of fun, but I didn’t try to compete too hard and get in the way of the kids battling for the points.”
While McGriff’s retirement served as an informal end to the golden era of the West Series, both he and Clapp believe the division’s best days might still be ahead.
Clapp was initially worried about the future of the West Series after car counts continued to dwindle during the 2010s, but his outlook changed once the series moved under the ARCA Menards Series banner in 2020.
Although the West Series was hindered by the onset of COVID-19 in its first year with the ARCA name, Clapp has commended series director Chris Wright for the relationships he has built with the series officials and team owners, which he believes has led to the increase in attendance and car counts along with a better on-track product.
If the West Series stays on its current trajectory, Clapp is confident it will one day average 25-30 cars a race once again and become an ideal development division for promising young drivers to prove their skills against veterans like Todd Souza, P.J. Pedroncelli and others.
Clapp said the possibilities are endless for the West Series to prosper yet again, and he intends to support the division in many ways to help Wright and NASCAR accomplish their long-term goals out West.
“One of my pet rocks is the future of the ARCA Menards Series West,” Clapp said. “I was 12 years old getting my hands dirty near Walnut Creek, California, when all this started, and I had no clue where I was going to end up. This series is very important to me, and it will continue to be until the day I die.”
While Clapp is fortunate to have played a significant role in the West Series as an executive and promoter for several tracks, one of which he still leases in Stockton 99 Speedway, he said stock car racing on the West Coast would not be where it is today without the determination of Barkhimer, Burke and the France family.
Through many highs and lows since the first meeting between Barkhimer and Bill Jr., the West Series has remained a staple of NASCAR’s culture.
Clapp expects that staple to remain in place long after the division’s 1,000th race at Evergreen on Saturday evening.