Laguna Seca's classic road course (now known as WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for marketing reasons) winds its way around the hillsides in Salinas County on the Monterrey Peninsula, and has long been considered one of America's best.
Relatively short but fast, the course features considerable elevation changes, notably the downhill plunging 'Corkscrew' turn, which is perhaps one of the most recognisable turns in world motorsport.
The course hosts annual visits for both the IndyCar Series, the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Series and MotoAmerica, as well as several popular historic racing meetings.
Its origins lie in the sports car races held at Pebble Beach in the 1950s, which used public roads through the Del Monte pine forests. When racing was abandoned on safety grounds there in 1956, organisers sought an alternative venue. Through public subscription and private enterprise, $1.5 million was raised to create a purpose-built course on the former Fort Ord US Army base.
The new course opened on November 9, 1957 for a sportscar event, won by the Ferrari of Pete Lovely. The drivers found a fast course which climbed the hillside to its signature turn, a left-right chicane which sweeps down the hillside in spectacular style. It very quickly earned the nickname 'The Corkscrew'. It was here that Alex Zanardi pulled off his audacious, four-wheels-in-the-dirt passing manoeuvre on the last lap of the 1996 CART Indycar race to take victory and seal his place in US racing folklore.
Some corners can appear a lot flatter to the eye than is actually the case, but not so the Corkscrew (officially named Turns 8 and 8A). At the apex to Turn 8 (the left-hander and entry to The Corkscrew), the elevation change is a 12 percent drop. By the time a race car reaches the apex of Turn 8A (the right-hander), the elevation is at its steepest – an 18 percent drop. It total the course drops 59 feet between the entrance of Turn 8 to the exit of Turn 8A—the equivalent of a 5½ storey drop—in only 450 feet of track length. From Turn 8 to Turn 9, the elevation falls 109 feet, or just over 10 stories.
Sportscar racing has always been a mainstay of the action, but across its history the track has also hosted Indycars, Trans-Am, Formula 5000 and bike racing. It was for the latter that a number of changes have been made over the years, in an effort to boost safety. In 1988, a new infield loop was created, turning the old Turn Two left-hander into an 18-degree hairpin and extending the track from its original 1.9-mile length to 2.214-miles. The Turn 9-10-11 section was re-profiled for 1996, with the effect of slightly extending the start-finish straight and extending the run-off for the final turns.
Further upgrades, funded by Yamaha, were made in time for 2005, mainly altering run-offs and ensuring the circuit was ready to host the MotoGP circus. The local crowds were rewarded with a win for American Nicky Hayden, who celebrated by taking his father Earl around the track on the back of his bike.
An additional $7 million of improvements were made in 2006 with the aim of further boosting safety and facilities for the two-wheeled brigade. The biggest change came from Turn Six to the Corkscrew, with run-off added to both sides of the straightaway, and the dip just before the Corkscrew was flattened. Meanwhile, the entire surface was repaved, while extra run-off was added at Turn One. This required removing a portion of the hillside as well as the former media centre building that sat atop it. A state-of-the-art hospitality centre with commanding views of the facility replaced it.
The course has been deeded over to the Monterey County Parks Department since 1974 and continues to be part of the park system to this day. The area is a must-see for nature lovers, hikers, bicyclists and anyone who enjoys the outdoors.