Laguna Seca

Sporty car racing began on the Monterey Peninsula in 1950. The Pebble Beach road races ran on the Del Monte Forest Course for five years. The event was enormously popular and by 1955, the crowd of spectators had grown too large for the picturesque venue. A group of local businessmen calling themselves “SCRAMP” (Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula) negotiated a lease with the Department of Defense to use a portion of Ford Ord’s vast property. A nine turn, 1.9 mile permanent course was constructed and operational by 1957. Only amateur races were held initially but when the venue turned professional, luring the biggest names in the sport, enthusiasts showed up in droves.

San Josean Gene Burgess was a sporty car guy and in 1965 he grabbed his eldest son, “Duff” and endeavored to spend a day at the races. Their outing was so successful that the following October, Gene chauffeured all three of his sons and their friends (ranging in age from nine to thirteen) to the inaugural Canadian American Challenge Cup races at Laguna Seca Raceway. I was lucky enough to be included and the experience changed my life.

I don’t remember too many specifics from 1966. We watched the action from a hillside in the infield and were a pretty good distance from the track. I do remember watching the two white, high-winged Chaparrals pace the field (It was the only time that ever happened). I remember a lime green car owned by Dan Blocker of Hoss Cartwright fame. I remember a yellow car sponsored by Ronald Reagan for Governor! I remember a woman on horseback dressed like Lady Godiva (promoting…something) working the crowd. I remember taking a bath when I got home because I was filthy! As I lay in the bathtub, my ears were still ringing! And I was in love with auto racing.

Due to popular demand, Gene escorted us again in 1967 but this time we attended on Saturday rather than Sunday (race day). My buddy Drew thinks we drove down in the family wagon- a powder blue early sixties Plymouth Valiant. I remember that we parked inside turn two which was the fastest part of the course and only a flimsy green cyclone fence obscured our view of the action. I remember the early morning practice session when Jim Hall crested the hill in his Chaparral. My brother Scott (Duff’s guest) called it out and in unison we all turned to look. It was so iconic, elegant, beautiful and my brother’s favorite. I fell in love with the new entry of New Zealander Bruce McLaren, a more aerodynamic, wedge-shaped racer painted a brilliant yellow orange. McLaren’s car was quick too; he qualified fastest and won his first Can-Am the next day- leading Hall by a country mile.

I968 was last year Gene provided transport for the crew- it had been an amazing run for which I will forever be grateful. We again attended on Saturday which was the smart choice as it rained from flag to flag on Sunday. ’68 was the year Canadian John Cannon won in an upset (I told that story in the Dec. ’20 issue of R&RNW entitled: One for the Little Guys). I was oblivious to Cannon’s effort watching the practice and qualifying sessions that year however as by now, I was a devoted Bruce McLaren fan. He didn’t disappoint either putting his latest creation on the pole. I distinctly remember watching the final session from the famous “Corkscrew” that year as forty big bore machines jousted to improve their starting berth or simply earn a spot in the field. The racing was frenetic, wheels slipping off course kicking up plumes of dust, and the engines twisted into submission. When the checkered flag fell, we panted our approval. Heady stuff!

A new kid named “Mike” moved onto my street about this time and he too was a race fan. His father was a member of the Mustang club and they attended the pony car races (Trans-Am series) at Laguna as well as Sears Point. I received an invite to my first race at Sears Point in September of 1969 but they declined to include me in their plans to attend the Can-Am at Laguna three weekends later. Naturally I was devastated but Mike was thoughtful enough to buy me the official program. 1969 was a year of total domination by Team McLaren. They won all eleven races that year and Laguna was no exception.

I vowed not to miss another Monterey Grand Prix and began working on my own father in 1970. As he had no interest in racing, it was an uphill battle. I’m sure guilt played a big role in my strategy and I think my mom actually helped my cause in the end. Ultimately my dad agreed to take Drew and I down. I think we took his Olds 442 and parked inside turn two- not a bad spot if you’re stuck in one place. Not only did my dad refuse to walk around but he sat in the car all day! He read the program, dozed, whatever, we didn’t care. We were happy just to be there. Dad read an article in the program about Jim Hall’s “sucker car” and predicted it would win. It probably would have but it blew its engine in the final warm up session and spun off course right in front of us. My hero Bruce McLaren had died testing their new car in the off season and that left the team in the capable hands of fellow kiwi Denny Hulme. He won the race that day but was chased all afternoon by Brit Jackie Oliver in the Ti22- a lightweight new entry built largely of titanium.

In 1971 my brother Scotty and I endeavored to make the trip. We stuffed my Kawasaki mini bike in the trunk and headed south. What transpired that day has become my favorite childhood memory of my late brother and me. We stopped to have breakfast at a restaurant on the peninsula and just happened to choose the same spot as the Ti22 Team. Their racer was on an open trailer out front and I couldn’t get over how small it was- like the coolest toy ever! When we arrived at the track we unloaded the mini bike and away we went. We went everywhere that day, exploring each vantage point and nobody said “Boo!” to us. That year Peter Revson began driving for McLaren and crossed the finish line trailing smoke. Jackie Stewart gave chase in the factory Lola.

1972 was the year Roger Penske’s Porsche 917 team came to the fore. They were the first cars to topple the McLaren dynasty and I wasn’t happy about it. Painted in the L&M cigarette livery, I didn’t like those cars and didn’t push to attend that year (I regret it now). As predicted, the Porsches finished first and second while both Team McLaren cars failed to go the distance. Somehow I still acquired a program.

By 1973 I was a sophomore in high school and finally could drive myself to Laguna Seca! So Drew and I piled into my 1961 Beetle with two other pals and we were off to the races. Making the journey was a rite of passage, really. For the first time there was no factory McLaren team to root for. Penske returned with a new Porsche 917, “the 30T” and painted in Sunoco colors, it was the most beautiful racecar I’d ever seen. Beautiful and dominate, with Mark Donohue behind the wheel, nobody could run with him. We had a great day- Little did we know we were watching the end of an era. The Can-Am series fell apart the following season and didn’t return to Laguna Seca.

Again I thank Gene Burgess for the indoctrination and my late father and brother for enabling me. The original Can-Am series has become legend and over the years I have met few that can claim to have seen it with their own eyes.

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