Laguna Seca Raceway is one of the best-known tracks in the entire United States. Since its inception in 1957, this facility has hosted just about every race series under the sun, from IMSA to MotoGP. There are many things that make Laguna Seca an incredible track, but none are as famous as the ‘Corkscrew’. While the Corkscrew may be the main attraction, there is still so much to love about this 2.2-mile long track.
Salinas, California, USA
The Begining: Dry Lake Beds Are Meant For Racing
It’s crazy to think that Laguna Seca is now 60-years old. For a racetrack to stay in use over that many years is a real testament to how good the track really is. While the track was built in 1957, it stems from a race series that started 7-years earlier.
Pebble Beach, 1950. The race was billed as a ‘European style road race,’ which saw competitors racing through the Del Monte Forest. The course was extremely challenging, with pine trees lining the edges of the track. There was little room for error, adding to the excitement of the series. The series gained traction through the years, becoming one of the go-to events for any motorsports enthusiasts. The event itself was considered an amateur outing, and yet it still drug in a massive crowd. By 1956 Pebble Beach saw 50,000 spectators coming to the event. Half for the racing, and the other half for the party afterward. This same year would see Ernie McAfee lose control of his Ferrari 121 LM, hitting a tree which killed him instantly. This would mark the official end to the Pebble Beach races, and the beginning of Laguna Seca.
While the loss of McAfee was devastating, there was no denying that the Monterey community was thriving thanks to its new racing culture. The local Army base, Fort Ord, was instrumental in keeping the racing alive during these trying times. They gather a newly formed not-for-profit group, Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP), effectively paving the way for a local race track. SCRAMP went on to pay $3,000 to Fort Ord, securing a dried up lake bed for construction on August 7th, 1957.
With the land in place, it was time to build a facility. SCRAMP raised $125,000 to construct a 1.9-mile course on the lake bed, breaking ground September of 1957. To truly understand how impressive this was, you have to look at through the eyes of inflation. While $125,000 is still a lot of money, it would currently be over $1-million dollars, showcasing just how much the community wanted a safe haven for racing. With the funds raised, construction was underway. The entire facility was built in a mere 60-days, being completed just in time for their very first event. The ribbon cutting ceremony saw 35,000 fans and over 100 competitors in attendance, sealing Laguna Seca’s fate as one of America’s premier racetracks.
Evolution: A Much Needed Update
Laguna Seca operated with the same configuration for over 30-years, all without hassle. But as the industry of Motorsports kept growing, it was time the track did as well. While 80% of the original blueprint is still intact, many things have been changed for safty and sporting reasons. The largest of which came in 1988. To meet evolving FIM and FIA regulations, the course had to be lengthened to be included on the calendar. This was done by adding what is now turns 3, 4, and 5. This took the course length from 1.9-miles to a still slim 2.2-mile course, but it was enough to pass the FIM and FIA.
The changes didn’t stop at lengthening the course. The track was also updated in several areas, all in the name of safety. Runoffs were extended, as well as new spectator embankments. The facility also received new pedestrian bridges in the process. These changes would be in place until 2005, where more changes were made for the return of MotoGP. Runoffs were once again revised, due to the increase of racing speeds. 2006 was a massive year for facility improvements, with over $7-million being re-invested in the facility.
The massive overhaul saw the original broadcast tower getting demolished, clearing the way for more runoff for turn 1 over the finish line. This was also the first time the famous Corkscrew was tweaked. The overall structure remained the same, with a well-known dip just before the corner being flattened out. While it takes some character away from the course, it was completely necessary to keep the track safe. Of course, the runoffs in this part of the track were addressed at the same time. Once these improvements were made, the entire track was re-surfaced, which was a long time coming.
The racing surface has been up to date since this massive overhaul. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been enough to keep the facility relevant. MotoGP was the facilities biggest series in recent years, but elected to drop Laguna from its calendar starting in 2014. This was due to many factors, but the most significant were the on-site facilities. A lot of people think only of the track surface, but there are many more things that come into play when the big boys come to town. Laguna’s old school 50’s charm was perfect for the club racer, but for factory teams, it had become tiresome. Since then the powers at be have realized new facilities were in order, with plans to remodel coming at the end of this year. It will be nice to see such a great track find some modern amenities, hopefully drawing back the biggest series.
Laguna Seca is known for one thing, the Corkscrew. And while it is what put Laguna Seca on the map, it isn’t the only challenging section in the 2.2-mile course.
A challenging 190-degree hairpin, turn 2 was added when the track was expanded in 1988. In design alone a hairpin like this is challenging, but Laguna offers an added touch. The Andretti Hairpin is located at the end of a long, nearly straight, section of track that houses the start-finish line. While turn 1 is a slight left, it is the elevation change that really matters. Competitors fly up over the crest, before descending quickly into a hard braking zone for turn 2. It’s the type of corner that separates the pros from the joes, making the Andretti tribute a perfect match.
Further on down the track houses one of the biggest names in motorsports. But it wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t for the perfect setup. The Rahal straight, named after Champ Cars Bobby Rahal, is what allows the Corkscrew to have the features we know and love. While the Rahal straight is from turns 6-7, it’s the elevation gain that starts at turn 5 that we are talking about. The demands put on the given machine as they jet up nearly 180ft in elevation is one of the challenges rarely talked about, but it can be a deciding factor in any race. It’s all about the perfect racing line for optimum speed, making turn 6 onto the Rahal straight one of utmost importance. So why is it named after Bobby Rahal? Well, he happens to hold the most wins at Laguna for any driver and team owner. I’d say he earned it.
Ah, the Corkscrew. Does it even need introduction? People from all walks of life have heard of this, even if they don’t know which track it’s at. It’s a staple in the community, because it is absolutely insane. The quick left-right section is one with immense elevation change, dropping nearly 6-stories in the process. With a grade of 12-percent when turning in, the corner becomes completely blind. It’s the type of corner you have to set up perfectly, or you are in serious trouble. From there the right-hander drops to a further extreme 18-percent grade, making the exit of the corner just as crucial as the entrance.
Wayne Rainey is a 3-time former 500cc Grand Prix Champion, having won 3-times at Laguna from ’89-’91. With his success, Rainey built a new home in Monterey, overlooking the Laguna Seca Raceway. Unfortunately, Rainey was involved in a high-speed crash at Misano in 1993, resulting in paralysis from the chest down. In light of the tragedy, the officials at Laguna Seca named the fast turn 9 after Rainey. Turn 9 comes right after exiting the Corkscrew, and its an incredibly fast left-hander that is crucial to a fast lap. While Rainey’s injury was horrible, it didn’t stop him from racing. Wayne helped establish the Superkart series based in northern California, utilizing Laguna as one of its main venues.
Most Notable Moments
With a facility this old you are bound to have at least one good moment, right? Laguna Seca has played part in many pivotal moments throughout the years, but here is the top 5.
Sir Jackie Stewarts American Debut
In 1965 a young Jackie Stewart makes his American debut. He raced the USRRC class in a factory Lotus Cortina. He would manage a 13th place finish, not bad for a rookie in a new class. At the time he was an unknown, working his way to the top. Now, his name is a staple in the motorsport community. The man was synonomys with racing success, even becoming a color commentator in the US, and Laguna Seca played a part in that journey.
Kenny Roberts Sr. Gets a Big Win
Legendary Kenny Roberts Sr. takes his first of many wins during the 1974 Superbike race. Riding on his trademark Yamaha, Roberts managed to fend of reigning 500cc World Champion Giacomo Agostini who was also aboard a Yamaha. At this point Agostini had won 7-500cc Championships, establishing himself as one of the greatest racers to ever live. While Giacomo may be one of the greatest, Kenny Roberts Sr. has certainly earned his spot on that same list, and this race was a pivotal moment in his career. From here Roberts went on to win 3 500cc World Championships, as well as winning the Laguna Seca 200 a total of 6 times. Bravo Mr. Roberts, Bravo.
Return Of The USGP
Finally, in 1988 Grand Prix racing makes its return to Laguna. This time the class is stacked with some of the best talents to ever throw a leg over a motorcycle. Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Mike Baldwin and Randy Mamola were all competing in the ’88 USGP, with Lawson stealing the win in a classic battle. The subsequent years saw wins from Wayne Rainey, John Kocinski, and Luca Cadalora until the series left in 1994.
CART Racing And ‘The Pass’
The CART series ran at Laguna from 1983 to 2004, with many good races over that time frame. But none were as talked about, as the 1996 battle between Alex Zanardi and Bryan Herta. Going into the final lap Herta, driving the No. 28 Rahal Reynard Mercedes, was leading Zanardi, who started from pole in the No. 4 Target Ganassi Racing Reynard Honda. After the last run up the hill the pair entered the braking zone for the Corkscrew. It was just then that Zanardi dove up the inside, shooting across turn 8 briefly into the gravel, but with the lead. Zanardi managed to keep the car under control, with Herta watching helplessly from behind. It’s one of the most controversial passes in racing history, and it could only happen at Laguna.
Rossi vs. Stoner 2008
Arguably one of the most hair-raising battles in all of motorcycle racing. Casey Stoner was on the arguably faster bike, having a half second lead over the rest of the pack throughout qualifying. But when it comes to race day, you can never count out Valentino Rossi. Once the race started Rossi had one hope, stay ahead of Stoner at all costs. And that is exactly what he did. Any time Stoner got passed Rossi would immediately force his way back into the lead. While the entire battle is incredibly entertaining, it’s the magnificent, if not a little reckless, pass going into the Corkscrew that makes this battle so intense. Much like Zanardi, Rossi dove up the inside, running hot and nearly taking both riders out. The fact that he made it stick has made this one of the most memorable moments in MotoGP history.