Call it the “Curious Case of Road Course Confusion in Monterey County.”
I’ve followed the murky circumstances that surround Monterey County’s desire to replace its current promoter with a new organization to run its Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca property, and as far as I can tell, it’s a job no one would want, and it’s being offered by a group that’s lost touch with reality.
It’s such a silly mess of entangled egos and fantasy-based desires, attempting to understand the situation is best served by breaking down the dynamics into smaller sections.
[Editor’s note: What is going on with Laguna Seca, and why is Monterey County considering replacing a local organization with a different promoter? Marshall Pruett from Racer explains all the challenges facing the iconic race track, from oppressive noise limits to unrealistic expectations. - Stef Schrader]
Laguna Seca, which held its first event in 1957, was gifted to the County in the early Seventies, and is part of the California State Park system. It’s governed by the Monterey County’s Board of Supervisors. It isn’t for sale. It’s located near the splendid Monterey coast, sits atop a mountain, and rests within a dry lake bed.
Laguna Seca was once a very popular destination for IndyCars, sportscars, and continues to host everything from motorcycle races to vintage racing events. The track is about an hour and 15 minutes from a major metro (San Jose), and a good two hours from San Francisco or Oakland. In general terms, it’s a destination venue where most visitors top up their fuel tanks and invest a fair amount of time to drive to and from the circuit. From my house, it’s about an hour and 30 minutes south without traffic.
The track has a solid assortment of residents who live on the hills surrounding the facility. Those houses are very costly, and their owners have kept the County on a short leash when it comes to noise pollution. Of all the tracks I’ve visited, Laguna Seca is the most restrictive when it comes to sound. It severely limits the type of events—and even the types of cars—that can make use of the facility. If there’s one track that feels like a hushed library most days, it’s Laguna Seca.
Laguna Seca gained international fame as one of the most desirable road courses on the planet, thanks in part to the iconic “Corkscrew” corner. It’s also hosted some of the greatest series and drivers—from Trans-Am to Can-Am, CART to IMSA, and others—since its inception. It was a genuinely big draw through the early 2000s, and when MotoGP arrived a few years later, its popularity was rekindled.
Sadly, the public’s waning interest in road racing over the past decade has seen Laguna Seca host a variety of proven series, some lesser-known championships, and all but MotoGP played to relatively empty grandstands.
Champ Car struggled to draw a crowd, Grand-Am races were almost empty, and even the ALMS suffered in its final years. Continuing the theme, May’s visit by the NASCAR-owned TUDOR United SportsCar Championship was lightly attended, and next month’s event for the Pirelli World Challenge/Indy Lights season finales are a concern at the box office.
And the phenomenon isn’t unique to Monterey County. IndyCar no longer draws a meaningful crowd at many events. In 2015, NOLA, Detroit, Texas, Fontana, and Milwaukee were notable for their poor attendance, and the final two races of the season at Pocono and Sonoma have underperformed in recent years. It speaks to a situation where almost 50 percent of IndyCar’s races—road courses and ovals—sell far too few tickets, and IMSA is in a similar situation at some of its sports car races.
As road racing lost its selling power, Monterey County lost Laguna Seca as cash cow to bolster its annual budget. In the simplest terms, the product Monterey County once sold generated significant income, but with a growing apathy towards road racing, a much smaller crowd is willing to make the trek to buy what they’re selling. The County, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP), and the series that race at Laguna Seca could spend a fortune on promotions, but if the core product isn’t especially desirable, it would take more than a marketing campaign to solve the problem.
And in a final Catch-22, the drop in interest for road racing has resulted in reduced income for Laguna Seca. Without the necessary funding to pay the costly sanction fees required by most of the major series, holding onto MotoGP, or bringing IndyCar back to Monterey, or hosting a round of the FIA World endurance Championship is impossible.
If you’ve wondered why Laguna Seca went from hosting a number of elite road racing events to a calendar filled with less compelling content, it started with road racing’s decline and continues to suffer as fewer fans buy tickets to attend. There are also hurdles to clear when it comes to track rentals and hosting car clubs and amateur racing series between major events. More on that later.
Significant income is needed to attract significant racing series, and without it, Laguna Seca’s options are limited to what they can afford or, as vintage racing fans will find this weekend at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, whatever events they can create.
[ISC’s lone road course, Watkins Glen International]
In light of the situation above, Laguna Seca faces a series of constraints that makes appeasing the County much harder than anyone might expect. With shrinking income from the track, the County’s Board of Supervisors began exploring a change in promoters approximately 13 months ago. If the existing promoters haven’t been able to turn things around, why not look towards other solutions? On the surface, it makes complete sense.
The non-profit team from SCRAMP has run the track since 1957, and with growing dissatisfaction from the County, the Board reached out to the NASCAR-owned International Speedway Corporation (ISC) as a possible alternative.
(In an interesting twist, although Monterey County started its search more than a year ago, SCRAMP only learned of the Board’s closed-door initiative about six weeks ago. Awkward...)
The County asked ISC to submit a business proposal to take over promotions at Laguna Seca, and of the wishes expressed by the Board, an increase in revenue and major renovation of the rustic facility have been mentioned.
For their part, ISC runs 13 tracks NASCAR has either built or bought, and they have considerable expertise in the field of track management. It’s also worth mentioning that of those 13 tracks, only one is a permanent road course (Watkins Glen, ABOVE). The rest are ovals, and in some instances, those ovals have active road courses (“Rovals”).
ISC doesn’t know much about road racing, but they do know how to run race tracks, and as a for-profit company traded on Wall Street, they offer brand name appeal like no other. For ISC, the invitation to meet and submit a business plan was greeted as an interesting opportunity to explore. According to multiple sources, ISC is presently in a 90-day due diligence phase to assess the track’s financials, to consider the Board’s wishes, and then determine whether they can meet the County’s needs.
Before making an attempt to draw any conclusions, we need to take a quick look at how Monterey County governs Laguna Seca, and how those practices influence the current (or future) promoter.
Referring back to the Draconian sound limitations imposed on Laguna Seca by the Board, the track’s annual calendar has been created with two key items enforced by the County: A maximum of five major motor racing events and, most important of all, maximum decibel levels every day of the year.
Where most tracks look at an empty calendar and think of the series they want to fill the available dates, Laguna Seca starts with a bizarre matrix of “decibel limit days” granted by the County and works backwards. At present, the track is given 30 days with no sound restrictions, and most of those days are consumed by the five major races.
Track rental days are held to a nearly impossible 90 db limit, while SCCA and NASA club racing events—which have declined in recent years in favor of Sonoma or Thunderhill—are allowed a more reasonable 103 db limit.
Even, so Laguna Seca forces some racers to avoid the circuit altogether due to their inability to consistently run under the maximum decibel requirement. And with the regular presence of fog, sound dissipation can be a problem—especially in the mornings—which means a car that complies on a sunny Friday morning could be black flagged with the presence of fog on Saturday morning. After one warning, repeat offenders are pulled off course and sent to the paddock.
As an interesting aside, Laguna Seca has seen more exhaust pipe configurations, baffles, mufflers sound diverters, and other homemade devices to try and stay within the day’s decibel limit than any other track I’ve visited. In the Bay Area, it’s common to build a racecar and base the routing of the exhaust on where Laguna Seca’s sound meter is located. I know because I’ve had to do it a few times, and its location can change, adding more complexity to the situation. For those who compete in a class where the rules don’t allow custom exhaust routing, many have a “Laguna exhaust” they install that features big, power-robbing mufflers.
One way or the other, most who race in Monterey (outside of those 30 unlimited days) have spent considerable time and money to comply with the County’s fast-acting sound police.
The detailed explanation on Laguna Seca and sound might help to illustrate how different the facility is to most tracks. Many circuits have sound restrictions of their own, but they pale in comparison to the lockdown in Monterey.
With Monterey County looking for more revenue, the first thought would be to hold more major events at Laguna Seca but they continue to hold firm at five big races.
And what about using the circuit’s expansive infield for events other than motor racing? That’s where sound—and other limits—enter into the equation. Why not hold a few festivals, and maybe some concerts? Both ideas have been floated as earning opportunities and both have been turned down by the Board. Whether it’s the physical capacity limit of the facility or the 10 p.m. noise curfew, Monterey County has shot down the idea of Laguna Seca tapping into the types of alternative income streams other tracks have recently embraced.
They could court a wider variety of car clubs, karting championships, Pro-Am motorcycle series, and other forms of racing to fill the weekdays and open weekends, but with the stifling sound restrictions in mind, Laguna Seca isn’t even a consideration for far too many decision makers. Why bother ringing the track if you know there’s no chance your cars or bikes can run without being black flagged?
The picture of how the County runs Laguna Seca is fairly clear, and as far as I can tell, the Board conspires against their own success. Its primary product they sell isn’t very popular; the track is far away from where most people live in the Bay Area; as a result the track’s income is down; they can’t afford to pay most of the bigger road racing series to appear; it’s facilities, while improved, lack most modern amenities; its sound restrictions have dialed down its use among locals; the unlimited sound days are mostly consumed by the major races; hosting more than five big races is prohibited, and so far, they’ve blocked attempts to use the circuit as a money maker with non-racing events.
With all of that in mind, how exactly would a SCRAMP, ISC, or another promoter appease Monterey County with all of those choke points in place?
In recent weeks, SCRAMP has been painted as an inept group of underachievers. ISC has been flamed as part of NASCAR’s Death Star—an entity that would somehow ruin Laguna Seca and rob the County.
As I said in the beginning, based on the ridiculous expectations held by the Board, and the shackles they continually place on the circuit’s promoter, why would SCRAMP or ISC want the job? Based on the vitriol coming out of the Board, and the blow-for-blow responses from SCRAMP, we can assume there’s no love lost on either side.
Maybe a change in promoters is what’s best for the track. And maybe it isn’t. The Board’s treatment of SCRAMP has been poor, at best, and with their willingness to negotiate in secret, ISC might think twice about the County’s practices. Is there any reason to believe they wouldn’t pull the same stunt in a few years?
I have no doubt ISC, with its massive resources and infrastructure, could improve Laguna Seca in some capacity, but we aren’t talking about big spikes in profitability or a wholesale remodeling of the facility. Not without easing the restrictions on sound and dates. And if the County was willing to relax in both areas, it’s worth asking why they haven’t done so with their current promoter and given them a chance to win.
In yet another point to consider, because Laguna Seca is state property, every improvement made to the facility belongs to Monterey County. If ISC were to take over, the track would not be transformed with a variety of new buildings, grandstands, bathrooms, and other structural items to increase its value on ISC’s dime. Every dollar ISC spent would be, in essence, a gift to the County, and one dollar less for its shareholders.
Under the current arrangement with a non-profit like SCRAMP, some of the revenue from events at Laguna Seca is used for facility upgrades. Why, then, as a publicly-traded company, would ISC spend its own money to improve a facility is doesn’t own?
If hiring ISC can bring in more money, and permission is given to spend the excess on modernizing the track, Monterey County would have a perfect solution to meet one of its two goals. Exactly how ISC would generate that money under the numerous constraints I’ve detailed is the question that defies a logical answer.
The County has already confirmed the potential hiring of ISC would not come with a NASCAR Sprint Cup event, so that scuttles any chance of using North America’s most popular racing series to boost income at one of the five big events. So where does the windfall of money and property improvements come from?
ISC is still conducting their evaluation, and has not commented on the situation in any meaningful way. As much as the County apparently wants ISC, who knows if the track’s financials and the prospects of meeting the County’s expectations would leave ISC wanting to get in bed with the County.
I’d have to assume ISC could turn the profits up a little bit, but would it be worth the headaches? Is taking over Laguna Seca as a promoter-for-hire a lucrative proposition? That’s ultimately ISC’s decision to make.
If there’s one major takeaway from the entire ordeal, it’s how out of touch Monterey’s Board of supervisors has become with the fading popularity and earning potential of their 58-year-old road course.
It’s like an old record store that was a cornerstone of the community for forty years, barely survived the format change from vinyl to compact discs, and can’t understand why they’re struggling as internet music sales have taken off. They can blame SCRAMP for diminished revenue, hold false hopes ISC will parachute in as a savior and angel investor, and continue to believe their dated product holds the same earning power it did at the turn of the century, but those are delusional views.
I can’t say whether replacing SCRAMP with ISC would benefit Laguna Seca, but after digging into this nonsensical situation, I’m convinced replacing the current Board of Supervisors would definitely benefit Monterey County.
Photo credits: Getty Images, top photo credit Flickr/Jason Goulding
Marshall Pruett is a U.S.-based motor racing reporter and photographer. This originally appeared on Racer.
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