By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
Author’s note: This is part of a 10-part series discussing tracks around the world that I feel would be a good fit for the Verizon IndyCar Series. The opinions here are expressed solely of the author and not necessarily of the Motorsports Tribune.
When it comes to quintessential American road courses, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, California is one surely on many people’s list.
The 2.238-mile road course hosted Indy car races from 1983-2004 under the CART and Champ Car banners. The track is famous for its mix of tight corners and short straightaways along with a hilly second sector highlighted by the famous Corkscrew. The left-right turn complex at the top of the hill features a 109-foot drop in elevation in just around 450 feet of track length.
The past winners at the historic road course is a who’s who of Indy Car racing with Bobby Rahal leading all drivers with four straight wins at the track from 1984-87. Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Bryan Herta and Patrick Carpentier also are among the list of drivers that have won multiple times at Laguna Seca.
Arguably the most exciting finish at the track was in 1996, when a late race duel between Alex Zanardi and Bryan Herta produced one of the most iconic moves in racing. The two combatants each led a majority of the race, with Herta holding the upper hand in the final half of the race. Everything was going Herta’s way until the pair reached the Corkscrew on the final lap. Zanardi pulled a major banzai move on Herta’s inside heading into the tricky turn and went off the track but managed to snag the lead and the win.
Herta would redeem himself in 1998-99 where won two straight wins at the track, leading an unprecedented 164 out of 166 possible laps in the two races.
The track survived CART’s rebranding into Champ Car only for one season as it was dropped off the calendar in 2005 in favor of a street circuit in nearby San Jose, California.
The series would return to Laguna Seca in 2007 for one of the series’ first mass tests of the Panoz DP-01. Four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais showcased the speed of the new car by logging a lap at 1 minute 5.880 seconds, nearly two seconds under Helio Castroneves’ record lap set in 2001.
The series was set to revive the Grand Prix of Monterey in 2008 as construction in downtown San Jose curtailed the race. The race was not meant to happen as the merger of Champ Car and IndyCar in 2008 effectively kicked Laguna Seca off the calendar.
It was not the end of open-wheel racing there as IndyCar’s developmental Mazda Road to Indy Series revived the Grand Prix in 2015 as a standalone event. The race only lasted for two years and was dropped from the calendar following the 2016 season.
Why go back?
Much like Road America, Laguna Seca has a place in racing history and an IndyCar race there can further that history. The track currently hosts the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the Pirelli World Challenge and the World Superbike Championship. A return would not also be beneficial for the Verizon IndyCar Series, but it would be much more beneficial for the track.
The track’s management as seen some issues in recent years. The Sports Car Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) has overseen track operations for its entire existence, but it is owned by the local county, as it lies in a state park. SCRAMP has come under fire by the local government in recent years citing financial mismanagement and apparently struggling to maintain the facilities.
As a result, SCAMP has only had a month to month lease since 2014.
A SCRAMP representative told Motorsports Tribune the issue was that the county takes around 80 percent of the profits generated from events while SCRAMP is left with a meager 20 percent, leaving little to go towards track operations. The county since opened up bidding for track management.
The track is in need of upgraded restroom facilities as well as other structural upgrades. The garages were built in the early 2000’s and are still in exceptional shape.
SCRAMP aligned with the International Speedway Corperation, which owns 11 tracks across the country, in order to maintain control of the track. An independent group: Friends of Laguna Seca was given the green light in October to manage the facility while SCRAMP/ISC and a group operated by the Grand Prix of Long Beach founder Chris Pook and local restaurant owner Landon Hoffman have been kept in the loop in case things don’t work out.
With a leadership change close at hand, this could be the chance for a new beginning if IndyCar was to return to Laguna Seca. The only issue would be scheduling the race as Sonoma Raceway hosts the IndyCar season finale just 150 miles up the coast. An open date exists in early May as IMSA has moved its date to September. Either that or swap that date with Sonoma Raceway.