Opinion: Saving Laguna Seca

One of America's finest road courses is under threat from factors caused by age and the struggle to make money from its headline events. David Malsher believes the proposal from a non-profit organization is what Laguna Seca needs most.

Opinion: Saving Laguna Seca
Paul Tracy
Sunrise over Laguna Seca
Bruce Canepa, 1969 Porsche 917K
Turn one at Laguna Seca
Scenic view of Laguna Seca
Scenic view of Laguna Seca
Above Laguna Seca
Above Laguna Seca during the Concours on Pit Lan
Above Laguna Seca
Top of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca
View during the Porsche Rennsport Reunion IV at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Helicopter view of Laguna Seca
Helicopter view of Laguna Seca
Continental Tire Sports Car Festival, powered by Mazda at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Grand-Am cars run laps at a test session at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
1966 Porsche 906 of Wade Carter III, heads into the corkscrew ahead of Jeff Zwart ('66 906) and Bruce Canepa ('69 917K)
Ambiance at Laguna Seca
2011 Ferrari Racing Days at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
The American Le Mans Series Monterey Presented by Patron at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
View at Laguna Seca
View at Laguna Seca
Laguna Seca at dusk
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
The corkscrew at Laguna Seca gets crowded during the first lap of the Historic Trans-Am race
Bobby Rahal returns to Laguna Seca
Beautiful Laguna Seca scenery during the race
Start: #55 Mazda Motorsports Mazda Prototype: Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez leads
Start: #68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE: Alessandro Pier Guidi, Daniel Serra leads
Morning fog at Laguna Seca
Zak Brown at Laguna Seca

In a previous job, writing for a publication based in the UK, one of my favorite tasks was visiting racetracks of the past and comparing them then and now. A particular favorite was Pescara in Italy, still the longest course ever to grace the Formula 1 World Championship, at 16-plus miles. The Adriatic coast and the vineyard-strewn hillsides inland in this region together form one of the most gorgeous places on Earth.

The photographer and I felt a real sense of accomplishment when, brandishing archive pics from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, we were able to figure out where the original photographers had stood, and then were able to replicate the shots in the 21st century. Gratifyingly, much had remained the same.

But as you can imagine, the delight in spotting the same milestone markers, the same trees with 60 years more growth and the faded painted curbing at the roadside, etc., was accompanied by a deep sense of poignancy. It can’t be described as nostalgia, of course, as we weren’t present when races were held at Pescara, but somehow we felt a longing for a version of the sport we never knew.

There we stood on the same shadow-dappled stretch of road where Stirling Moss once vanquished all in a Vanwall, where Tazio Nuvolari teetered his Tipo B Alfa Romeo, and where a gentleman by the name of Enzo Ferrari won the first ever edition of the Coppa Acerbo race.

Europe, of course, has no monopoly on ghost racetracks, buried by shopping malls, factories, golf courses and housing developments. Here in the States, men of a certain generation go dewy-eyed when they speak of watching or racing at Bridgehampton, Riverside, Langhorne and even tatty-but- unique Trenton, in their heart-pounding pomp. Again, I wasn’t there, but I empathize with their melancholy.

Laguna Seca's unique place in history

Now imagine how you’d feel if Laguna Seca went the same way as those other hallowed tracks. You'd surely get that same doleful feeling when you describe how it was to witness Indy cars, IMSA sports cars, Can-Am cars or MotoGP racing there. Would you be able to accurately convey what it was like to see the greatest riders of their generation, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, duel like their lives depended on it in ’08?

Your sense of disbelief as Alex Zanardi pulled off that outrageous pass on Bryan Herta at the top of the Corkscrew in ’96? The sight and sound of Denny Hulme trying to apply 800 of Chevrolet’s horses to the road through the bias-ply rear tires of his Can-Am McLaren M8D in 1970?

OK, maybe we’ll never again see something as wild as a Can-Am car on the limit… not there or anywhere. But if you wish to watch any kind of top-class series racing on the beautiful and challenging 2.238-mile course in Steinbeck country, it’s time to hope and pray for good news from Monterey County over the next month.

Local authorities started considering bids for the role of managing the Laguna Seca Recreation Area last Monday. A decision is expected by September, and there are three groups competing for the title of concessionaire.

One is a group of potential investors led by Chris Pook, godfather of the Grand Prix of Long Beach Association. Another is the International Speedway Corporation, which last year looked at taking over Laguna Seca and initially walked away. Then, following an approach by the track’s operators since 1957 – the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) – ISC interest was piqued once more.

The third bid is the most intriguing of all and comes from a group called the Friends of Laguna Seca, a non-profit public benefit corporation. Its president Ross Merrill has stated, “We are committed to managing Laguna Seca with fiscal responsibility and for the benefit of our community.

“We’re driven by a passion for motorsports, a dedication to our community, and a desire to transform nearly six decades of renowned racing legacy into a new engine for our local economy. Ultimately, our aim is to restore the Raceway’s former glory.”

The Friends of Laguna Seca team is led by general manager Lauri Eberhart, described as “a nationally recognized leader in speedway management and motorsports,” and the board includes longtime business and community leaders who have emotional ties to the track.

One board member Ned Spieker said: “We are realistic about the challenges we face. We will have a huge responsibility to this community and to Laguna Seca visitors. Our first priority is to provide a high-quality experience to all, which stands in contrast to for-profit companies whose first priority is to generate profits for their investors.

“Our approach will be to reinvest proceeds and make much-needed capital improvements to attract a new generation of visitors, achieve a self-sustaining enterprise and restore the original vision of Laguna Seca.”

A noble and necessary cause.

What are the issues?

SCRAMP has been running Laguna Seca since it opened in 1957, through the hard toil and enthusiasm of employees and volunteers. However, in its 60th year, SCRAMP faces tasks it cannot tackle alone. The facilities within the track’s boundaries need upgrading, the course itself needs resurfacing, and there are inevitable environmental hurdles which will not just go away.

Many of those who live nearby regard the sound of a roaring big-block V8 or screaming flat-12 as an intolerable pestilence rather than a euphoric experience. Hence Laguna Seca has provision for just five major spectator events (totaling 30 days per year) without sound restrictions. As you can imagine therefore, opportunities to make money from race events are negligible.

It’s an exercise in futility to howl about the perceived injustice of modern-day sound restrictions, or to belligerently point out that in some cases, the track was here before its current neighbors moved in. The world has moved on and the Friends of Laguna Seca acknowledge this; they have vowed to look at ways to accommodate not only the desires of the devotees but also the needs of the neighbors.

Consequently they have hired a leading noise consultant to consider what kind of muffling and noise cancellation is required to lower the nuisance level. Similarly, a traffic consultant has been hired to look at roads that are currently not operational but can be made so, thereby minimizing traffic disruption on Highway 68.

And then within the track confines, there are experts being hired to examine the water supply, the waste disposal system, and the best methods to create substantial hard-standing parking facilities. At the moment, Laguna Seca’s some way off what is expected of a modern and aspirational facility.

So being conscious of the track’s neighbors and its customers is part of the Friends of Laguna Seca’s grand plan. But then there’s the need to actually make the venue a success.

Who is trying to find a new way?

Bruce Canepa, who you may have seen competing in historic races around the country, is one of the Friends of Laguna Seca, although he is best known as a streetcar/racecar restorer and someone who can assemble a team to run your Porsche 917, Lancia Group C car, or whatever, should you be in the lucky position of racing one.

It was Canepa who negotiated SCRAMP’s deal to run the Rolex Monterey Historic Festival, the event founded and managed by Steve Earle. What had started as a hobby needed to become a sustainable venture, and Canepa’s understanding of that level of business ensured it has become the track’s most successful event.

Laguna’s other big event last year, Porsche’s Rennsport Reunion V, was another Canepa-led success. When the event’s founder Bob Carlson died in 2008, Rennsport’s future was in doubt, but Canepa kept beating down doors at Porsche US and Porsche AG to hold the event at Laguna Seca. And so it came to pass in 2011 and then returned last year, when it attracted 63,000 attendees.

“Rennsport was a happening,” says Canepa. “It was a lifestyle event, the way I believe these things need to be. There was racing going on, there were great cars constantly on display, there were Le Mans cars, cars that showed the complete history of the Porsche brand, celebrities from within Porsche and celebrity fans…

“It was profitable and good PR for Porsche, it was profitable for Laguna Seca, and it was incredibly successful for the community because it filled every hotel and restaurant in the area with a very high-end demographic.”

Rennsport, though, is a moveable celebration and is far from being annual. The core of Laguna Seca’s business going forward will involve using the Rennsport model as a template for all the principal annual race events. The attitude among the Friends of Laguna Seca is that a race weekend needs to be far more than just a weekend of races; it needs to have that roadshow feel that is intrinsic to the best streetcourse events such as the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Despite some complaints about the layout of the track – too narrow say some, not enough potential outbraking zones say others – the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has proven it can produce good racing at Laguna. It remains the highest-profile series that races there and it is also the one event, besides the Historics, that is dependably profitable.

Meanwhile the Pirelli World Challenge weekend breaks even, and the MotoGP round, last held in 2013, was a loss-maker. So, overall, the amount of race-generated money that can be plowed into upgrading the Laguna Seca facility is minimal. Little wonder that when you look closely around this classic venue, it shows every one of its 60 years.

Hence the need for a group of people like the Friends of Laguna Seca who are looking for an eight-figure sum. It’s hard to imagine you could convince a bank to lend that kind of money, and Lord alone knows how you’d sell a group of investors on it. Even assuming they were to keep Laguna Seca as an operational racetrack rather than just sell off the land, shareholders wouldn’t live long enough to even get their money back, let alone make a profit.

Therefore if the track is unable to remain a viable entity funded purely by ticket sales and is also unlikely to entice lenders or investors, its survival would appear to rely on those able to donate money, no strings attached, and write it off.

Can the Friends of Laguna Seca assemble that many other friends? Canepa seems to think so. He also says they have pledged to retain those who have dedicated their time and careers to the venue.

He comments: “Those volunteers who have worked here for 20, 30 and 40 years… they made this racetrack what it was and should always be, and their legacy should be preserved. If we’re lucky enough to get this concession from the County of Monterey, we intend to rehire the employees and ask the volunteers to join in just like they’ve always done. And hopefully these improvements we’ve planned will make things a lot more pleasurable for them to do their jobs.”

Conclusion

For me, and I suspect thousands of others, this whole situation has been a wake-up call. I have had no cause to attend an event at Laguna Seca since 2009, and now feel guilty that for the past six years I’ve taken for granted the existence of one of this country’s most beloved road courses. It’s a mere 350 miles from where I live, it’s a journey that can be turned into a beautiful roadtrip, and so there’s no excuse for apathy.

I hope that a couple of decades from now, race fans will still be able to visit Laguna Seca for reasons other than wistfulness and sentimentality.

I want us all to be able to walk around the track and point out to our children and our children’s children the epic visuals of Indy cars tumbling down the Corkscrew, how every sports car driver appears to have a different line through Turn 1, why bike riders can’t resist going for that Hail Mary pass at the final corner, and how every car appears on the brink of wrenching its tires off their rims through Turn 10.

So good luck to all who have Laguna Seca’s best interests at heart. Because witnessing living history is so much more engaging to the next generations than a bunch of old guys telling nostalgia-soaked tales of how things used to be.

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