Twelve miles from the sea in northern California the automobile racecourse at Laguna Seca winds like an enormous roller coaster through the wild and lovely hills reaching upward above spectacular Monterey Peninsula. It is 1.9 miles long and, with gnarled oak trees clinging to the dun-colored hillsides along its upper reaches, it is one of the world's most picturesque—and sporting—circuits. Last weekend some 65,000 spectators rolled into Laguna Seca, drawn there by the prospect of seeing most of the world's best-known sports car racers in action. By nightfall Sunday they had truly seen something to remember: a grand slam by 25-year-old Roger Penske.
Penske came to Laguna Seca just seven days after an unheralded and unexpected (except by him) victory at Riverside, where he won $12,000. Californians, a loyal but liberal lot, granted that Penske had skill and pluck, but they also felt it had taken plenty of breaks and luck to beat a renowned home stater like Dan Gurney. And, in a way, they were right.
In the first 100-mile heat of the Pacific Grand Prix for sports cars at Laguna Seca, Gurney drove a Lotus Mark 19 to victory. In the second heat Texas' Lloyd Ruby scrambled with Gurney and ultimately prevailed when Gurney's orange racer broke down. The scramble did neither of them the least bit of good. Roger Penske, driving his home-altered, bargain-basement Cooper, finished a steadfast second in each heat and won the race on points. He got $5,000 for his trouble, or a total of $17,000 for a few days' work and two days of actual racing during one of the most remarkable fortnights in U.S. racing history.
It had begun early in the previous week when the vanguard of a mechanized army of 76,400 thronged to Riverside Raceway in the mountain-ringed Moreno Valley of southern California for a similar racing card. Thousands upon hardy thousands came on the eve of the race and spent the night on the perimeter of Riverside Raceway so as to be ready at dawn to scurry for positions. They arrived—men in car coats and girls in stretch pants of magenta, mustard, mocha and all the other colors of a Hollywood rainbow—with sleeping bags and mattresses in long queues of cars and trailers. In sum, these audiences at Riverside and Laguna Seca easily outnumbered the immense one that always attends the Indianapolis "500."
October 29, 1962
The two weeks were in perfect consonance with California's standing as the most car-happy territory on earth. After all, Californians own 10% of the nation's 60 million cars; and California is the heartland of the hot rod, the Indianapolis car builder, the old-car collector and the fabricator of specialty machines and machiners for speed events.
Reverberations from Riverside and Laguna Seca echoed all the way to Coventry and Stuttgart and Milan, for the foreign manufacturers are antelope-alert to the American market and anxious to spread a halo over their lines through racing successes. They echoed in Detroit, as well. At Riverside there was the first confrontation of Chevrolet's new-Corvette Sting Ray sports car (SI, Oct. 1) and the Ford-engined Shelby AC Cobra; at Laguna Seca, Ford paraded its experimental Mustang sports car, and at both courses, Chevy displayed Corvair-and Corvette-based models with a strong sporting flavor. These were portents of a larger sports clash which surely—and soon—will engage Ford and Chevy in open, exciting combat.
Moreover, the California fiesta proved that newspaper ink can sell racing tickets. Road racing is still relatively new to the American sports scene. Except at Indianapolis and a very few other racetracks there is no large, automatic response to racing events. Riverside had its big crowd because the Los Angeles Times plugged it heavily, with some fancy running out in the field by the Times special-events director, Glenn Davis, the unforgettable Mr. Outside of wartime Army football. Potential Laguna Seca fans were drummed to attention by the San Francisco Examiner. And even on a news-rich weekend (for example: Socialite first-nighter commits suicide over insurance premium irregularities, Chinese "ex-warlord" holds 13-year-old great-granddaughter in captivity), the Examiner bannered THE GRAND PRIX—RACING'S BIG DAY on Page One. The newspapers jointly guaranteed some $22,000 to insure the appearance of big-name international and domestic driving stars. They madepossible a rich 532,225 in prizes at Riverside and $20,000 at Laguna Seca.
"You'd feel sort of un-American if you didn't go to those races," said California Driver Chuck Daigh. (By failing to appear, Mr. Brown and Mr. Nixon, waging hot gubernatorial campaigns, passed up a marvelous opportunity to solicit the sports car vote.)
It was as an aperitif to the following day's 200-mile Riverside main event that a single Cobra and four new Corvettes met in the very first of what should be many exciting contests between those makes. Their race was a three-hour endurance run over the tricky 2.6-mile Riverside road course.
"It's little old me against General Motors," mourned the former racing star Carroll Shelby, builder (in California) of the Cobra. Carroll, it is said, is actually being offered important money by Ford to make the Cobra even more deadly than it is. "Let it sink its fangs deep into the Sting Ray"—that, reportedly, is the feeling at Dearborn.
Conceived by Shelby, Ford-engined and with sleek coachwork by AC of England, the Cobra was menacing enough in this first test as it snaked along behind the fastest Corvette at Riverside, then passed it to take the lead, only to fall out ultimately with a broken axle. The winner was Californian Doug Hooper in another Corvette—one prepared by California speed-record king, Mickey Thompson, and the only one of the four Sting Ray starters to survive.
That evening, as the night people began to assemble at the raceway, fortunate racegoers with lodgings and preferred viewing spots dined at the gracious Mission Inn, a hostelry built in the Spanish manner. Native buffs were intent, at poolside and patio tables, upon handicapping the 200-miler—confusingly called a Grand Prix, although it was for sports cars, not single-seaters. But the foreign drivers were mostly intent upon enjoying California. Said Joakim Bonnier, the bearded Swede: "The enthusiasm for racing here is fantastic." To Graham Hill of Britain, leader in the world driver standings (SI, Oct. 15), racing is "on the up in America. The enthusiasm in California is incredible and, oh, how I love the sunshine."
The next day, beneath a most beneficent sun, Bonnier, Hill and the other quality imports—New Zealand's Bruce McLaren, Australia's Jack Brabham, Britain's Innes Ireland—were arrayed against most of the outstanding Americans. Unfortunately missing from the lineup were the defending world champion, Phil Hill, and his friend and rival, Richie Ginther. The natives who did compete may be divided, for convenience, into two groups. From the world-class section came Masten Gregory of Kansas and Dan Gurney. It is a point of great pride among Californians, whose automotive plenty is boundless, that Hill, Ginther and Gurney are fellow residents.
Then there were the American "semi-pros," men with other jobs or with incomes, who do not race full time but are very rapid when they do. The well-heeled Texas subgroup includes Alan Connell, rancher and bon vivant, and Jim Hall, an oil-drilling junior magnate, who is identifiable by his skintight jeans and a shirt bearing a Lone Star emblem. In the midwestern brewery-heir wing are Augie Pabst and Harry Heuer.
In addition, there was Roger Penske of Gladwyne, Pa., a sales engineer for Alcoa. Penske, who does not figure on form to beat the likes of Gurney & Co. in matched cars, does a great deal of thinking about improving his odds. Judging rightly that extreme lightness in a racing car pays high dividends, he bought for a mere $500 a small British Cooper Grand Prix single-seater that was wrecked last year at Watkins Glen by Walt Hansgen, the ageless New Jersey semipro (who was also racing in California but was hounded by mechanical ills).
By having the Grand Prix car unbent, installing "sports car" bodywork, including fenders and headlights and a mandatory second seat (between the frame and the skin) and replacing the old engine with a powerful 2.7-liter Climax from Britain, Penske produced a rocket. He sprang this bizarre creation upon the racing world at Riverside—and, by George, he won.
Except for a blonde muffin at turn 6 who was perusing a copy of Gone With the Wind and a few other spectators whose devotion was less than blue-flame, the huge crowd raptly watched Penske and Gurney spar for many laps. Gurney, whose German Porsche Grand Prix cars were not quite up to the best (and conquering) British racers this season, is nevertheless considered by many racing men to be the fastest, finest driver now practicing, Britain's Stirling Moss having been dismounted indefinitely by accident injuries. Tall, blond, handsome and forthright, Dan Gurney is the John Wayne of racing.
Late getting his squat little British Lotus 19 ready for Riverside, he qualified only by winning a consolation sprint and started at the rear of the field as Penske departed on the pole. Yet he not only overtook Penske but would surely have won if his throttle linkage had not snapped, abruptly putting him out.
"It was," Gurney said afterward, "a doggone good race." He was thinking not so much of his duel with Penske as the $12,000 in first-place prize money that had slipped from his grasp into the hands of the Pennsylvanian. Rare is the race in which a driver can earn so much, rarer still a driver like Penske who picks up $17,000 for two weeks' work.
Second to Penske at Riverside was Jim Hall, and his was a performance gratifying to Americans because his Chaparral is an all-American car. Built by the southern California specialists Troutman and Barnes (who fashioned the frame and skin of the Ford Mustang), the Chaparral is powered by a modified Corvette engine.
However, the weekend was not all gaiety and triumph. Driver Pat Pigott was fatally injured in one accident; the Indy "500" champion, Rodger Ward, was badly hurt in another. From Riverside the racers moved northward to Steinbeck country. A core of deep-dyed buffs arrived early for all the practice trials and preliminary racing; they discovered, or rediscovered, a number of diversions from the clamor of the race-coarse.
Although the approaching Gurney vs. Penske rematch at Laguna Seca in the two 100-mile heats of the Pacific Grand Prix was the cardinal topic, these happy wanderers also discussed the quality of the abalone and the prawns at Rappa's on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, the exquisite courtesy of kimono-clad Japanese waitresses at the Ginza Restaurant, the loveliness of certain young ladies in the bar of the Casa Munras (who were to appear later in the ubiquitous stretch pants at the racecourse), and the unhappy disappearance some years ago of the great sardine schools from adjacent waters, an event that caused much hardship on Steinbeck's Cannery Row.
They all marveled at the course, which the gifted semipro Ken Miles, who was born in England and is an Angeleno by adoption, described as made strictly for drivers. "You are almost never going straight here. And, though it may not look it, the course is very fast. The fast corners separate the men from the boys."
On Saturday, Miles was among the drivers in six races preliminary to the Sunday finale. Here, for the most part, however, were men who race only for trophies and the exhilaration of adventurous striving. In MGs and Triumphs, Porsches and Alfa Romeos and Sunbeams, in Corvettes and Ferraris, and most of the rest of the world's sports cars, as well as Formula Junior single-seaters, they had a high old time dashing around the course.
"They do it," said Miles, who is 44, lean and articulate, "because the security of a 9-to-5 job is deadly dull. I find that there is a certain pleasure to be derived from doing something bloody dangerous and getting away with it. Understand me, I have a great ambition to stay alive. I try to stay within my limit. But I would hate a life without racing."
As long as he stays in California, he won't have to worry. Except about Roger Penske.