When the NASCAR Winston West Series was first put on the map way back in 1954, no one could deny the talent level of West Coast drivers.

Although NASCAR’s roots, for the most part, are traced back to the Southeast, with the likes of the Pettys, the Earnhardts and the Allisons, the West Coast provided its share of top-notch talent that was almost comparable. However, back then no one really knew about the West Coast racers.

Now, with the emergence of Kevin Harvick, Ron Hornaday and Kurt Busch, the West Coast and the Winston West Series could be an active participant in the growth of NASCAR for many years to come.

Even before Harvick and Hornaday came East, the likes of Derrike Cope, Ernie Irvan and Chad Little moved toward their own NASCAR dreams and made a splash in NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

None of this could have been possible without the generations before them who paved the way for West Coast talent. Guys like Hershel McGriff, Jack McCoy, Ray Elder, Ron Hornaday Sr., Bill Amick, Jimmy Insolo and Parnelli Jones proved to the rest of the racing world that they could drive against the best drivers in the world ... and beat them.

The Starting Point

Early on, West Coast drivers had few options. They had the opportunity to move South and race, but the money wasn’t what it is today. Chasing the dream of becoming a top-notch race car driver back East didn’t take precedent over putting food on the table and feeding the family.

Once the realization came that it wasn’t too practical for the West Coast’s elite to race back East, the racers began sanctioning the Pacific Coast Late Model circuit. The series visited historic tracks such as Oakland (California) Speedway, Balboa Stadium in San Diego, Bay Meadows Race Course in San Mateo, California, and Carrell Speedway in Gardena, California.

The 1954 series schedule featured nine races, with the first event taking place at the 5/8-mile Oakland Speedway. The track was known as “The Oakland Wall” because of incredible 65-degree banking used for some events. While McGriff won the pole position, it was Dick Rathmann who drove through the field to win the 250-lap race in a 1952 Hudson.

The series quickly began to grow, fueled by support from Detroit automakers. Thirteen races were held in 1955, followed by 27 events in 1956 and 32 in 1957. As the series expanded, the number of tracks on the schedule grew. The complexion of the series changed drastically in 1957, however, after the automakers pulled their financial support. In 1958, the schedule again contained only nine races.

The popularity of the series began to rebound in the ’60s with the help of premier racetracks such as Riverside (California) International Raceway. Drivers such as McCoy and Elder hit the scene, and things took off like gangbusters.

“I spent 10 outstanding years of my life in the NASCAR Winston West Series, and I loved every minute of it,” McCoy says. He holds the all-time series record for victories with 54. “At the time when I came up through the ranks people thought all of the action was back East, but let me tell you the drivers on the West Coast could also drive their tails off. You look at what I did with 54 victories in the series. I think it’s a record that will definitely stay intact. Nowadays, if a driver from the West Coast is any good, he is going to North Carolina. With the money that is out there, who could blame them.”

Elder is second on the all-time win list with 47 wins, followed by McGriff, who has 35. When it comes to championships, Elder leads with six (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974 and 1975), followed by Bill Schmitt (1977, 1979, 1989 and 1990) and Roy Smith (1980, 1981, 1982 and 1988).

Elder’s team also made a significant mark in racing by becoming the only West Coast team in the modern era to win a NASCAR Winston Cup (then Grand National) race. Elder won the Motor Trend Riverside 500 on January 10, 1971, at Riverside International Raceway. He also won the Golden State 400 on June 18, 1972, at Riverside.

“When Ray won those races it proved to a lot of people that the West Coast could definitely keep up with the major players in stock car racing,” McCoy says. “Being out on the West Coast nobody really knew a whole lot about us, but all of a sudden we were getting the respect we deserved.”

What’s Ahead

Through the ’60s and ’70s, meanwhile, the series visited fewer and fewer dirt tracks. The final Winston West Series race on dirt was in 1978. Once Riverside closed at the end of the 1983 season, the series was in a whirlwind once again. However, the series continued to evolve, with various changes taking place during the ’80s and early ’90s. The construction of beautiful speedways—such as California and Las Vegas—sparked a resurgence in the series.

Meanwhile, competition for Winston West Series drivers has stretched beyond the United States with racers from the West Coast participating in NASCAR events in Australia in 1988 and in Japan in 1996, 1997 and 1998. And in 1999 the series became the first in NASCAR to hold a championship race outside of North America—with the season finale at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.

With the success of its drivers in recent years, the sky’s the limit on how far the Winston West Series could go.

“As a driver, you couldn’t ask for a better learning tool than the NASCAR Winston West Series,” says Mark Reed, a rookie this season in the series. “I couldn’t ask for a better training ground than what I’m currently going through. The exposure definitely helps you get your name out there, and if you want to make the move up it’s definitely a plus.”