This is a little-known story, but the real father of Riverside Raceway was Jim Peterson. I thought this would be a good time to tell it, because the new Riverside International Raceway Museum is having a “Legends of Riverside” celebration on March 27-29. It might be appropriate to include at least some remembrance of Jim.
During the fifties on the West Coast, Peterson raced a light green 1954 XK120 roadster. His California Sports Car Club and SCCA-LA Region permanent number was 83. He won so many races that he was often referred to as the “Jag Master.”
I was racing a rather tired XK120 then, and most of us in the over-1500-cc production group got to know one another. Among others, the group included 300SL pilot Rudy Cleye, the visionary who conceived the idea of a raceway near Riverside. When initial financing dried up, Rudy convinced wealthy sportsman John Edgar to put up the necessary construction funds, and selected Jim Peterson as the general contractor.
In 1956, GM replaced the Corvette’s original six-cylinder engine with a V-8. Jim was selected to prepare and race the new model, the first time a Corvette had been in serious competition on the West Coast. There was much debugging to do, and Jim’s efforts helped in the car’s later success.
With two exceptions, Jim’s racing was confined to Southern California. Jim was a general contractor with offices and an equipment yard in Pasadena. Although he surely had the talent, his business kept him from spending any serious time on the sport.
After the 1956 season, Jim retired from racing at the insistence of his wife, Margie, and sold his Jaguar to me. He participated again in only one event, the 1957 Palm Springs SCCA National. Jim had been appointed race chairman and I was his assistant, so we went to set up the course early in the week. Saturday was a short five-lapper to determine Sunday’s starting positions. I had entered his old XK120, and as we were lining up on the pre-grid, I called to Jim: “Why don’t you give it a go one last time. Margie will never know!” He agreed, put on my helmet, and got behind the wheel.
The Sports Car Journal reported: “Saturday’s over-1500 production race got off to a flashing start… The big surprise of this event was the return of old Jag-Master, Jim Peterson. Jim tooled Art Evans’s XK120 to a magnificent 3rd, in front of Mercedes, Corvettes (including Andy Porterfield), Ace Bristols, etc. In fact, he had a battle with Ron Ellico in his 300SL for his spot that may have been the high point of the afternoon.” Actually, Jim was gaining on the leaders and, had the race been longer than five laps, probably would have won.
Peterson built quite a number of structures during the fifties, mostly in the Pasadena area, and before starting construction at Riverside, spent several months in Europe touring various courses. During the trip, he visited the Jaguar factory at Coventry where he purchased an XKSS, one of the few that had been made before the fire at the factory destroyed the tooling.
When Jim and the car arrived back in California, he would occasionally drive it from his home to the Riverside site, a round trip of about 130 miles. As time allowed, I would accompany him. At the site, Jim drove a surplus Army Jeep around the property, planning the course layout. Although others have claimed credit, I know from personal experience that Jim not only built the track, but also designed it.
In those days, the raceway site was located near a highway (U.S. 395) that went from Riverside to San Diego. (It still does, but now it’s a freeway.) The property for the raceway was just north of March Air Force Base, where we had raced in 1953 and ’54, courtesy of General Curtis Le May. Just south of the base, 395 was long and straight.