Laguna Seca Raceway – now properly called the WeatherTech Raceway – in Monterey, California sees visitors – both entusiasts, racers, and “others” – from all over the world. Where are you from?
Looking out over the crowds—of cars, not people, since I’m not close enough—as I enter Laguna Seca Raceway (now properly called WeatherTech Raceway) in Monterey, California, I wonder: Where’d you all come from? They are already parked hundreds-deep on the hillsides surrounding the track. No doubt the foot traffic in and around the paddock is already thick with enthusiasts.
Think about the drivers, too, of the IndyCars, the featured series here this weekend. They hail from around the globe, including the US and Canada, Brazil, New Zealand, Sweden, France, and Japan. I might have even missed one or two. Oh yeah, England. Who knows where they were earlier in the week. You can just imagine their jet-set lifestyle takes them to the exotic places most only imagine visiting. Or maybe, they were getting their gear packed for the weekend, the last one they’ll race for the season.
And they aren’t all. Many series compete at this track this weekend, including Porsche GT3, USF2000, Indy Lights, and Indy Pro 2000. Even Mazda Miatas, though as fans likely know, those are now officially called “MX 5s,” are racing here.
This is going to be one busy weekend, in other words, around the speedway. It has happened before, by the way. IndyCar has raced at Laguna Seca Raceway 23 times, including this weekend, and has decided their championship here nine times. The series often goes down to the final moments of the final race—it has been decided in the last race of the season fourteen times in a row now, at various places. The track was where CART finalized its series from 1989-96.
For the past four years, the last race has taken place at Sonoma. Before that, the series was finalized at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA, for three years. That stopped when drivers complained about the danger of the race and the small crowds that the track drew, though for my money, the 2014 race, won by Tony Kanaan, was maybe the most thrilling automobile race ever held anywhere. It was one of those late-summer nights that you just wished could last forever.
But zoom back to the present. The IndyCar series is led in points by Josef Newgarden. He has been in the lead spot with one race to go before. That time, 2017, he won the title.
This time, three drivers can challenge him. They are Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, and Scott Dixon. Newgarden’s lead of 41 points is more than the leader has come into the final race of the season with for the past few years. Dixon led by 29 entering the finale last year on the way to winning. Newgarden himself was up by three points in 2017 on his way to being the champ.
So for all of these drivers, and tens of thousands of fans, the world has narrowed to 11 turns, 2.258 miles, and, in the case of NTT IndyCar, a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon, when the championship is to be decided. Those of the other series are scattered through the days of both Saturday and Sunday, with several of the support series racing both Saturday and Sunday. It won’t be over until they park the Porsche GT3 cars sometime after 5:05 on Sunday afternoon.
The track is 30 feet wide at the minimum and 78 at the max. The feature most people who visit remember the best is the “Corkscrew,” a twisting, downhill plunge that allowed Alex Zanardi to make maybe the most daring pass in the history of open-wheel racing, at least at this track, when he overtook Bryan Herta in 1996 on his way to winning.
Herta would later win two years in a row at this track in the CART series, in 1998 and 1999. I was a shadow member of his pit crew that first year. His team owner, Bobby Rahal, told me afterwards that he hoped I could be with them every week.
Maybe this year, someone will pull off a similar miracle on the track, which is raced in the counter-clockwise direction and features several hundred feet of elevation change.
Twenty-four drivers have entered the NTT IndyCar event. Four of them are rookies. And then there are those four hoping for a clean race and the shot at the season’s championship. Follow here for further reports, and watch the race on TV, Sunday afternoon at 12:15 Pacific.