Motor Sports

LAGUNA SECA AT 40: THE WAY WE WERE

by Larry Roberts

May 2, 1997

Laguna Seca raceway celebrates its 40th anniversary as a permanent racetrack this year and it is, indeed, a momentous event. In 1997 the track will host the world-famous Monterey Historics, the final race for the CART Indy car championship, and the US running of the World Superbike Championship besides numerous other lesser events.

But until I was given a copy of the first program for that inaugural event in November of 1957, I had almost forgotten that I drove a borrowed Porsche coupe in the first race ever held at Laguna Seca.

Road racing in the US was different then. It was almost totally controlled by the Sports Car Club of America which had started 14 years before as an "preservation" club whose members were dedicated to preserving and displaying their pre-war European sports car. In 1948 the direction of the club shifted and the SCCA sanctioned it first sports car race at Watkins Glen in New York State.

And in those days it was for sports cars only: European and British two-seater road cars that were to be driven to work during the week, then driven to a race track and raced on Sunday. Sedans were excluded and American cars were looked on as "Detroit iron," and a subject of scorn. By the time the first Laguna Seca race came around in '57, the Corvette was beginning to alter the thinking of sports car enthusiasts.

Actually, that "first" Laguna Seca race was considered the eighth by its promoter, a non-profit charity organization known as SCRAMP, an acronym for Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula. Sports cars had raced on the picturesque, tree-line and very exclusive 17 Mile Drive residential area in nearby Pebble Beach from 1950 until 1956 when Ernie McAfee hit a tree and was killed driving a Ferrari. It was then that Del Monte Properties (managers of the 17 Mile Drive) realized that auto racing was dangerous and ended SCCA racing there.

Most of us thought that road racing in Monterey was over but the elite who formed the power structure behind the San Francisco Region of the SCCA pulled lots of strings, twisted lots of arms (including those of the Department of Defense) and arranged for a race track to be built on the side of a hill at Monterey's Fort Ord, then-home of the US Sixth Army and my induction alma mater when I was drafted. The site was part of an unused tank training area which included a small dry lake around which the new track was to be built.

To say that the track was hurriedly put together is an understatement. On-site activity started early in September of '57 and in a month and a half, the 1.9 mile dirt road had been carved out of the hillside, paved over and some crude officiating buildings erected.

Needless to say, creature comforts suffered. Having been churned by tanks for many years, the terrain was a sea of finely granulated dust. Access roads to the track were mostly dirt which added to the dust problem and when spectators arrived, they found that portable toilets were few and far between. During the weekend, lines in front of those few "porta-potties" were very long and slow. Concession stands were even more rare and if spectators didn't bring lunches, they went hungry.

But ready or no, when that first flag dropped, we were underway. Most of our racing had be done on abandoned air strips or functioning air ports so we were unprepared for a purpose-built track that had ups-and-downs as well as very high speed straightaways. It was a learning experience for most of us and in retrospect, who won, lost or failed to finish was not important.

Recently a few dozen of us old-timers have been reunited at a couple of get-togethers. We all show the effects of 40 years of aging - added weight, graying, hair loss, wrinkles and the other ravages of time.

But even after four decades almost every one of us has a souvenir from that event; a pit pass, a trophy, a driving suit, a program.

But the best part of it was to be able to say, "I was on the grid at Laguna Seca when it all started."

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