The Re-Birth Of Sportscar Racing In The United States?
Laguna Seca ‘97 & ‘98
Horrocks provides a little historical perspective, as he
looks back to two events at Laguna Seca – events that got
his juices flowing. They still are….
racing in the United States was possibly at an all time low. Gone
were the glory days of the IMSA Camel GTP Series, a victim of its
own success. Instead of the all-conquering Toyota GTP, we were served
up converted GTP cars and later some decent racing between Ferrari
333SPs and Riley and Scotts. While there was some good racin’,
it was not racing that captured the imagination of the fans. Unfortunately,
there were many instances when the competitors out numbered the
Us hardcore racing fans
knew about another series, one that were mainly based on the other
side of the Atlantic, and maybe it was a situation of feeling that
the grass was greener over there - where some of it sure looked
interesting. To me, the BPR was the series that caught my interest.
The thought of seeing Ferrari F-40s race amongst various Porsches,
Lotus and later the McLaren F1 was just too much. These were genuine,
exotic, supercars and while they were street legal, they were also
full of technology. ‘Why, oh why can’t they race here
in the States?’, I kept asking. Little did I know, but later
on, I was to get my wish.
Well, as is known to
happen when a sportscar series gets popular, the FIA took over,
just as it really got going. I’m not sure if it was the rules,
the manufacturers, the personnel or the sanctioning body (or all
four) that again let things get out of hand, but for 1997 and 1998,
we were able to witness some spectacular machines, racing in truly
an international series. Were the costs out of hand? Of course they
were. Would you expect anything else when the factories are involved?
so the racin’ wasn’t the greatest. Once Mercedes got
their car sorted out, there was no stopping it, but the show was
spectacular. Granted, the various Mercedes and also the Porsche
GT-1s were all blatant attempts at circumventing or taking full
advantage of the rules, but when are factories not known for doing
Laguna Seca is a 14 hour drive for me, the distance did not prevent
my Dad and I from traveling there for the May IMSA races in 1984-87.
They were great times, from an era I fondly remember. Due to various
life circumstances, I hadn’t been back to Laguna, but when
it was announced that the FIA Series would conclude their season
there in ’97, it didn’t take much prodding for my dad
and I to plan the trek.
As the word
got out about the race, it was apparent that Laguna Seca was beginning
to resemble Devils Tower in the movie Close Encounters of the Third
Kind. All kinds of diseased people were making the trek to witness
the event first hand. Hmmm, maybe those mashed potatoes did resemble
a McLaren long tail… Anyway, it was apparent that there was
a pent up demand for genuine factory based and supported racing.
When it was all said
and done, six of us piled into my minivan for the long trip. Stupidly,
we left Thursday night, about 8:00 pm, with the intent of driving
straight through. Big mistake. Salinas had never (and probably will
never will) look any better than it did then. Thankfully our Motel
had one of our rooms ready for us so we could at least shower. When
was the last time you showered just before you went to a race?
arrival at Laguna, I was running on residual caffeine and sugar
that was still in my system from the drive. I guess massive quantities
of Mountain Dew and Peanut M&Ms did the trick. First stop was
the Corkscrew, and the timing was perfect, as the FIA cars were
on track. Through one’s life, certain things are permanently
etched in your memory bank. Birth of a child, your wedding day;
you know the stuff. Well, the sight and sound of the Panoz blasting
out of the Corkscrew is now officially one of those moments for
me. It wasn’t just the sight and sound, but it was also the
feeling. That Roush Ford V8 noise just hit you in your chest. Truly
a magical moment. I’m freaking out along the fence line, soaking
it all in, when I finally look at my dad and the rest of the group.
I never thought it was possible to sleep in those circumstances,
but there they were on the hillside, completely passed out, and
oblivious to the on track activities and the antics of one freaked
cars that were at the track were absolutely magical. The Panoz,
the Mercedes, the Porsche GT-1s, the long tail McLarens and the
rest - including the Morgan - were stunning to just look at, but
on the track, the combination of sights and sounds was just too
much. Most of the weekend was a blur, and without checking resources,
I’m not sure if I can actually remember many specifics of
the remainder of the weekend, but needless to say it was worth the
effort. Yes, even if dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken on Friday
was about as lively as feeding time for the zombies in The Night
of the Living Dead. We did have mashed potatoes, and I do think
I saw someone sculpting them to resemble a Panoz…
’98, a much smaller group of us returned, but this time we
were smarter and flew down, arriving in a much better mood and much
more relaxed. While the same initial excitement was not there, it
was still a simply amazing weekend. Yes the Mercedes dominated yet
again, but who cares? This was racing at the highest level possible
for sportscars. Among the highlights was the amazing rain and low
clouds that shut down the track for quite some time on Saturday,
and that I got to speak one final time with my long time hero, Klaus
Ludwig, as this was to be his farewell. The sights and sounds were
something that just had to be absorbed yet again. Little did we
know at the time, but this was the end of the line for the series.
The costs were too high to continue (sounds familiar doesn’t
it) but it was sure glorious while it lasted.
back at it, what do I remember about these races? Obviously, the
central theme to all of this has to be the cars. These were racing
cars that were exciting. Maybe the racin’ wasn’t terribly
exciting, but the cars were incredible. Just to be able to see these
machines in their true element was enough. It was the technology
on display. It was the atmosphere and the setting. It was the people;
the friends that travelled from all over the land to meet and see
or family tree of sportscar racing may have many convoluted twists
and high and low points, but I truly feel that it was the appearance
of the FIA cars on US soil, at both Sebring and Laguna, that kick-started
the re-emergence of sportscar racing here. Don Panoz was just starting
to emerge as a power, and I’m sure that what he saw at these
events got him moving to where we are now. So maybe the competition
wasn’t close, but how many of the so-called glory days offered
close and competitive racing? This was technology at its finest,
on the track. Manufacturers pushing the envelope and the rule book
at the same time.
Remember back to the
Can Am. It was typically dominated by one make of car, typically
a McLaren, and then later Porsche. Endurance racing in the late
‘60s was dominated by Ferrari, then Ford, and then by the
Porsche 917 in the early ‘70s. These are the cars that captured
the imagination of a generation. For all the constant whining about
the Audi domination that we have witnessed for the last few seasons,
somewhere down the road, we will be fondly remembering those same
cars that some are bored with right now.
especially when based upon technology, will be an up and down thing.
Rules will be put in place to slow the growth of speed. That is
just a fact of life here in this sport that we all love. I don’t
believe the desire for, or market for, this has ever, or will ever,
go away. It is just a matter of catching the imagination of the
fans. That is one thing that the FIA Series did for those two magic
seasons, at least here in the States. I feel that the ALMS has taken
this belief and carried it on, at least in tradition. Long may that
belief and tradition continue.
And the connection between Laguna Seca in '97 and '98
and the ALMS is.... the Circuit Manager then is the current CEO
of Panoz Motorsports: Scott Atherton, of course.