Monterey has a lot to offer any traveler. There’s the beautiful bay teeming with marine life. There’s the history and touristy atmosphere of Cannery Row. There’s the massive Monterey Bay Aquarium – one of the best in the world with a central ocean environment tank holding 1 million salty gallons.
But, for car nuts, the main attraction in the area is Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca about 20 miles inland between Monterey and Salinas. A historic track that hosts everything from F1 races to Moto GP to consumer track days, it’s a track known around the world as a challenge for even the world’s best drivers.
If you’re looking for one of the prime places to stay in the area, I recommend the hotel I enjoyed during my track run. The Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa. It’s been newly renovated in a massive, multi-million dollar effort and now holds more rooms (550) in its sprawling complex than any other hotel in the Monterey Bay Area. My suite was spacious, warmly appointed and quiet – allowing me to get some rest before hitting the track.
I hit the Hyatt’s Accista Spa for a massage to loosen up my neck, shoulders and back before heading into the Laguna Seca park area. The spa is perfect central casting – soft lighting and new age music. But I was probably less able to relax than most because I wanted to do my laps.
The night before the big track day, I allowed myself one glass of Woodbridge Sparkling Wine by Robert Mondavi – Extra-Dry. Obviously, you wouldn’t get anywhere near alcohol on lap day, but I wanted to celebrate the day that was to come.
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca sits in a Monterey County Park and the grounds can be visited by anyone, though the track is off limits unless an event is underway. Built in 1957 at a cost of $1.5 million, it’s a 2.2 mile road course with some of the most famous turns in racing.
It was a cool, overcast and rainy day in Big Sur country as the event staff from Mazda down in Irvine, Calif. was on hand to set me up with the 2013 Mazda CX-5 – a nice new vehicle, but hardly a performance car.
I’ve driven plenty of track laps at speed in the past. But, considering I was a rookie at Mazda Raceway, it wasn’t the worst idea to have me do my 10 laps in a vehicle that – even if you really stand on the accelerate – it’s going to be giving you much more than 80 mph anytime soon.
After a brief orientation and one familiarization lap with an experienced Skip Barber Racing School professional, I donned my helmet and took the wheel of my manual transmission CX-5.
The track was very wet, and that meant the most worn patches of the track – the natural racing line for veteran drives – was actually the slipperiest portion of the surface. So, my instructor urged me to get away from the traditional line a little and find some better grip. It was all up to me to find my way – making the whole experience existential. Or, to put it more even more poetically, I watched for rougher payment to keep me safe at high speed.
A lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca begins from pit row along the track’s main straightaway. The first trick you discover on a lap at Laguna Seca is that Turn 1 is barely a turn at all – more of a dog leg left into the much more challenging Turn 2 – The Andretti Hairpin. The temptation to hit it too hard along the straightaway heading out of the pits and Turn 1 can immediately bite back hard into Turn 2 – an immediate, tight and unforgiving whip to the left.
If you behave yourself out of Turn 2, you need to immediately drift right and then clip the apex into a right at Turn 3. Turn 4 is a wider more gentler right, but you want to push it coming out of Turn 4 because you face a second, shorter straight straight away into Turn 5.
Turn 5 is a rimshot – or a wide left turn that asks you to go wide before settling into an uphill straight taking you to a sharp Turn 6 to the left. You clip the apex there as years of tire rubber has stained the inside left white track markers.
Turn 6 takes you into the Rahal Straight building up to the most famous turn on the track – and one of the most famous challenges in racing – The Corkscrew (Turns 7, 8 and 8A). You enter the left/right S turn blind as the ground drops out a couple stories beneath you. As you begin to descend, you literally aim for a tree in the center of your vision. Then, the moment the car begins to level out, you immediately turn right.
You can’t see the right turn because of your downward angle, so you simple have to trust that it will be there and turn the wheel. (Don’t worry. It hasn’t moved in 50+ years.)
Unfortunately, as you’re enjoying your success of surviving the Corkscrew, you realize you have no time to celebrate as Turn 9 – the Rainey Curve – serves up another left hand rimshot turn. I came out of the Corkscrew too aggressively on my first lap and almost spun out on Turn 9.
Recovering into Turn 10 – a sharp left into the track’s final stages – I was struck with a sense of both achievement and sadness on every lap. I showed enough skill to take the track at speed – but I was a lap closer to being done. And you don’t drive Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca every day.
Turn 11 finally – a very sharp left – forces you to hard brake for either a return to the pits or for hard pour of power down the main straightaway back to Turn 1.
As I pulled back into the pits – proud to leave the smell of hot brakes and sizzling rubber in my wake – I had only two thoughts. When am I scheduled to be back in Monterey? And, when can I drive this track again?
Photo Credit: Laguna Seca Web Site