A First-Timer’s Pilgrimage to Laguna Seca
Photography by Yoav Gilad and Jonathan WC Mills for Petrolicious
Full caveat, I’ve never been to Monterey Car Week. Nor, before this last week, to Laguna Seca.
I realize this is a blot against my credentials as a lover of all things automotive, but I’m quite pleased to have scratched the event off my bucket list.
I’m also happy to report that the week more than lived up to my expectations, in particular the Rolex-sponsored, classic car racing at the Mazda-branded Laguna Seca race track: The “Monterey Motorsports Reunion” is the kind of gasoline powered event that is absolutely singular, an event I will indubitably drag my unimpressed progeny to see, saying, “look at that! Look at THAT!” over and over again. It’s one of those kinds of events.
On arrival in the early morning it’s hard to know what to expect. Laguna Seca is nestled into one of the prettiest areas of Central California, steeply rumpled, chaparral covered hills adjacent to what appears to be a defunct Army artillery range. The parking lot is steeply pitched, so steep that I was concerned for a brief moment that I was in the wrong sort of car for this excursion. This ode to elevation was echoed in my walk to the raceway, where I overheard someone mutter, “The only flat place at Laguna Seca is pit row…” which is something I can confirm.
Pitching over the top of the mountain and past the hospitality tents brings the first sign you’re somewhere special: the howl of engines. Crossing a bridge over the short straight away before turn one with a dozen priceless Cobras streaking beneath you is certainly a great way to wake up and an instant reminder that what you thought you were going to see is going to be much, much better.
Once in the open paddock and pits you’re immediately assaulted. First are the sounds. The cars racing this particular weekend range from Pre-War Bugattis to late-’90s Le Mans-winning IMSA cars….and everything in between. The cacophony of engines being fired, revved, and shut off is intense. Ear plugs are a must if you want to retain your hearing. BMW was helpfully providing them to passer-bys and I was grateful to accept. Score one for BMW. The second thing you notice are the colors. Every color in the rainbow is represented. The trailers, the race liveries, the people, the track…your eye can’t accept the amazing hardware on display. “Is that really a…? Yes, it is,” becomes something you say to yourself ad nauseum. Porsches, Ferraris, Alfas, Fords, Maseratis, Bentleys, Chevrolets…it seems that every era and every manufacturer has some intensely significant car, and they aren’t on pedestals. It’s probably worth noting that I was almost run over by Mr. Adam Corrolla driving an ex-Paul Newman-raced Nissan 300ZX. Later, I had to jump out of the way of a 1926 Bugatti. Not something you expect to do in 2014.
But despite these near-misses, the key take-away from the event was its overall friendliness. This sort of racing isn’t a road to riches so the participants themselves are usually just that, rich. They are racing because they love the competition, the hobby and the conviviality. A point brought home when we met up with Mr. Jim Click of the Tuttle-Click Ford Dealerships. Jim is just about the nicest guy you could meet anywhere and in minutes we were sitting with his team eating homemade BBQ and discussing his race cars, the kind of cars that on any other weekend would be sitting in a climate controlled garage being wiped down with a diaper. It’s that kind of place.
But as fun as the paddock is, the best part of the historics is found on the track itself. You walk from the front-straight through the paddock and then up a long and dusty trail that seems to go straight up and is not the least bit glamorous. But after cresting the summit, the hair on the back of your neck stands on end as you gaze at one of the most famous corners in all of racing: the Corkscrew. A blind, three story drop that, when viewed in person, seems much steeper than it does on television. Trust me. When I arrived, mid-morning, the third race of the day was under way. Trans-Am Mustangs and Camaros. Seeing these huge, heavy, skinny-tired beasts powering out of the Corkscrew on an off-camber downhill while leaving lurid streaks of rubber behind them, the drivers fighting hard to keep the nose pointed the right way, is pure intensity.
I was in heaven. Plus, they have beer and water for sale at the top of the mountain as well, so you’re able to enjoy your racing and stay fully hydrated (or inebriated). I watched at least three races in a row, clinging to the fence transfixed by the sound, the thunder and the smells. Work was forgotten, in fact, everything was forgotten and for a brief bit of time I was just another fan, soaking up the incomparable sounds and sights of old race cars that have been allowed to do what they do best, run fast and hard.
A pilgrimage indeed.
The historics are a singular event. Nothing else in my experience allows for such a vital, intimate experience with cars of this pedigree. The location, the people, the hosts, the track all make for an unforgettable experience that I hope everyone who loves automobiles will make time to experience. It’s absolutely worth it.