How WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca Helped Redefine U.S. Sports Car Racing
Written By: BLAKE Z. RONG
From the top of the Corkscrew at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, you can see the ocean. At the pinnacle of the most famous corner in American motor sport, 900 feet above sea level, lies the waters of Monterey Bay, and just before you reach the top of Turn 8, you catch a glimpse of the water. It’s a brief reminder of where you are.
Off in the distance, past the Lone Cypress, past a billion simultaneous rounds of golf, past Steinbeck’s laudation of his Cannery Row scamps and the teeming concentrations of money that now make up this place, you turn in blind into the steep left-hander, drop five and a half stories, and roll down screaming into a long sweeping right that pulls you in every different direction. Down the roller coaster, you go. It’s 70 degrees, with a cool Pacific breeze, and it’s a lovely day. In Monterey, it’s always a lovely day.
This year, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca celebrates its 60th anniversary. To understand the impact that the track has had on American sports car racing, you have to understand where it came from: After World War II, young Americans went mad for the sport. The contest at Laguna Seca spawned other legendary road races: at Torrey Pines, San Diego; Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin; Watkins Glen, New York; Pebble Beach, two hours south of San Francisco. Here’s a look back at the key events in its history.
1950 – 1956
Sanctioned by the Monterey County Chamber of Commerce and a nascent Sports Car Club of America, the Pebble Beach Road Races lasted from 1950 to 1956 and brought in spectators and racers all along the West Coast. Half of the 1.8-mile track (later 2.1 miles) was unpaved. It was a fast course, practically all 90-degree turns, and it was thrilling: cypress trees lined the narrow roads, and everything from MGs to big Jaguars to small-bore Ferraris to one-off specials—including the first coach built a sports car in America, the 1949 Edwards R-26. It was fast, and beautiful, and made for rousing competition among the well-heeled, who could then nip off to the Cypress Point Club for a drink.
One thing brought all of these road races to an end: They all ceased after driver fatalities. On April 22nd, 1956, Ernie McAfee hit a tree in a French Blue Ferrari 121 LM Spyder Scaglietti and died instantly, and that would prove to be the end of road racing at Pebble Beach.
But Monterey wanted to find a way to preserve racing in the area. A new organization called SCRAMP (Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula) partnered with nearby Fort Ord for a piece of land right behind the target range; take the back entrance into the track and you’ll see signs warning of the live ordinance. They raised $125,000, one million dollars in today’s money—largely donations from townsfolk as well as businesses.
The track took just two months to build. According to legend, it was the end of a long workday when the road graders reached the top of the hill, and they snaked down the hill in an attempt to get down as quickly as possible, thereby inventing the Corkscrew. At the first race, on November 9th, 1957, over 35,000 spectators showed up, including a who’s who of racing: Carroll Shelby, Jim Hall, John Von Neumann, and Richie Ginther. Pete Lovely won that first race in a 1956 Ferrari 500 TR; just seven months prior, he also won the first-ever race at Lime Rock Park, Connecticut.
It was the location that helped the track along: Right in the middle of San Francisco’s European sensibilities, Southern California’s race-car builders, and Carmel’s moneyed glamor. You could head down from Martin Swig’s dealership, win big, and still be back at the Fairmont Hotel for dinner. You could win at Riverside Raceway or Ontario, then head north in a day for the next shot at glory—, and many teams did. It was the dramatic elevation changes (180 feet). Such a contrast from Southern California staples as Willow Springs or Riverside or even NorCal’s Sonoma Raceway, that made it a challenge on two wheels. And it was the fact that you didn’t have to drive two hours into the middle of nowhere that made it a destination.
“IT SUCKERS YOU INTO GOING TOO FAST THROUGH THE SLOW STUFF, AND TOO SLOW IN THE FAST STUFF, AND I THINK THAT’S THE HALLMARK OF A GREAT RACETRACK.”
1958 – Now
Over the past seven decades, the Monterey track has hosted nearly every major racing series on two wheels or four—from MotoGP to the American Le Mans Series, IndyCar to Trans-Am, the SCCA Nationals to World Super bikes. Hall’s fabulous Chaparral held its only victory there, in 1966, with Phil Hill. NASCAR appeared for one year, in 1973, the same year Mark Donohue and his Porsche 917-30 dominated Can-Am. In 1965, a then-unknown Jackie Stewart won in a Lotus Cortina. Steve McQueen entered a Formula Junior race before Hollywood gave him an ultimatum: racing or movies. He may have chosen the latter, but he never strayed too far.
There’s more, as you might imagine. Motorcycle legend Kenny Roberts won seven times there, ultimately holding down three Grand Prix world championships. Wayne Rainey won twice; Turn 7 is named in his honor, which he can see from his house. In 1988, the track expanded with Turns 3, 4, and 5, effectively carving out an infield from nothing. In 1996, Alex Zanardi came in hot at the top of the Corkscrew and went all four wheels off to squeeze past Bryan Herta, a racing event so momentous it’s simply known as “The Pass.” Twelve years later, Valentino Rossi would pull off basically the same feat on two wheels, his first victory on American soil. And in 2005, Nicky Hayden took his first MotoGP victory there, before he dethroned Rossi’s five-year streak.
In 2001, Mazda bought the naming rights for $7.5 million, an investment that has transformed the track—most notably in the form of hospitality suites along the front straight. Jeremy Barnes, Director of PR and Branding at Mazda North America Operations, has been racing there since the Nineties; he now champions a 787B during the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, the car that helped Mazda win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1991.
“I remember being particularly blown away by the elevation change,” he told Road & Track, “which is the thing that shocks anyone and everyone the first time they go there. Of the thousands of laps I’ve put down, I don’t think I have a lap where I couldn’t put another tenth or thousandth of a second. It suckers you into going too fast through the slow stuff, and too slow in the fast stuff, and I think that’s the hallmark of a great race track.”
If you do visit this year, in time for the 60th-anniversary festivities, Barnes recommends that you show up early. Get a breakfast burrito from the paddock café that is, in his words, epic. Then, walk up to Turn 6, up the hill, right before the cars turn left toward the Corkscrew, one of the most important corners of the track. (“Back in the day,” said Barnes, “they used to joke that if you missed turn 6, you didn’t stop until you got to Salinas.”)
Walk to the campgrounds, over three tiny campsites. There, you’ll be able to see the cars setting up for the approach to the most famous turn, and you’ll catch a glimpse of just how the cars are attacking the track: who’s hitting the apex, who is late-breaking, who is on the line. “You’re essentially over the race cars. It really separates those who are driving and those who are on a committed lap.”
Watch the cars go by. Listen to them shoot off toward the Corkscrew; maybe you’ll walk over there next. There’s no humidity, the fog is burning off. And even from there, if you look up, you can see the water.
Original Article was published on Road & Track