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The Way It Is/ Will ISC be good for Laguna Seca?

by Gordon Kirby
News broke a couple of weeks ago that ISC and Laguna Seca are discussing the possibility of ISC adding the legendary Northern California road course to its nationwide collection of oval tracks and road circuits. Many traditional road racing fans are alarmed by this prospect but others accept Laguna Seca's addition to ISC's portfolio as another inevitable step in ISC's domination of American racing. The only question is will it be a good or bad thing for Laguna Seca?

Let's not forget that ISC took control of the new United SportsCar series when it was created two years ago. As part of the deal ISC now owns the operating rights to both Sebring and Road Atlanta, sites of the classic 12 Hour race and Petit Le Mans. And ISC has been a part-owner of Watkins Glen since 1983 and the sole owner of the Glen since 1997, so it controls all four tracks--Daytona, Sebring, the Glen and Road Atlanta--that comprise USC's Patron North American Endurance Championship.

From ISC's perspective, adding Laguna Seca to its portfolio makes eminent sense. It would provide ISC with another historic American road course with a great history of sports car racing and give it a footing on the west coast in a lucrative market where it's never owned or operated a track.

Laguna Seca was opened in 1957 after a few years of successful but dangerous racing on the nearby Pebble Beach road circuit. The Pacific Grand Prix in the fall at Laguna Seca immediately became a huge event as unlimited sports car racing boomed in America. The success of Laguna's Pacific GP and Riverside's LA Times GP were precursors to the Can-Am which burst to life in 1966. The Can-Am thrived at Laguna Seca through 1973 but Laguna's October weekend continued unbroken for many years featuring Formula 5000 for a few years and then 'new era' Can-Am cars before settling in with CART from 1983-'04.

© Mike Levitt / LAT USA
Over a period of more than forty years Laguna Seca's fall race weekend established itself as a booming event with a huge crowd. Through CART's heydays the place was jammed all weekend and you had to leave your hotel before the sun came up to avoid most of the traffic and get a good parking place.

But the great race took a giant hit in the early years of the new century when many of CART's top teams--Penske, Ganassi, Andretti-Green and others--deserted CART for the IRL. Laguna's CART race was moved to June in 2002, then to September in '04, but crowds fell off precipitously and almost overnight the race become one of the most stunning victims of the CART/IRL war.

The failure in '04 of Laguna Seca's most successful race was a key moment in the track's history. As CART failed Laguna started running ALMS races in the fall. IMSA ran a successful May race weekend at Laguna from 1974-'88 and the revived October ALMS weekend did well through the height of the ALMS's days with the factory Audis, Penske and Dyson P2 Porsches and Acura P2 and P1 cars.

Meanwhile Laguna's May sports car weekend was revived in 2005 as a Grand-Am race. Now known as the Rolex Sports Car weekend it's been a TUSC race for the past two years but crowds have been disturbingly small.

Laguna Seca also hosted AMA motorcycle races for many years and ran a successful US Motorcycle GP from the late eighties into the new century. A fleetingly successful Red Bull Moto GP ran from 2005-'13 and the Moto GP's departure was almost as big a setback for the track as the loss of CART. This year there's an FIM World Super Bike race at Laguna Seca in the middle of this month followed by the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion in August and Porsche's Rennsport Reunion V in September.

© Mike Levitt / LAT USA
Of course, August's Monterey Historic week is by far the USA's biggest vintage and historic event running in company with Pebble Beach's concours and more than a dozen high end auctions on the Monterey Peninsula during the week. Laguna Seca also runs a full schedule of club events of all kinds further adding to the track's broad-based appeal to fans and ISC both.

Maybe one race weekend ISC can have the most impact on is the TUSC race in May. Something has to be done to raise the level of the TUSC's appeal so it has the ability to generate some fan and media interest, unlike the current product.

Given ISC's giant role in the sport it's incumbent on the organization to broaden its vision and try to push American sports car racing forward. In my view, the only way to do that is to find a way to upgrade the series technically and commercially to embrace the super P1 hybrid cars that have brought so much excitement, interest and coverage to Le Mans in recent years.

But the TUSC team owners have made it clear they can't afford to go down the P1 road. They want a much more controlled formula and have little interest in racing at Le Mans. They would prefer IMSA and the TUSC develop its own formula that will attract more support from the American manufacturers and better possibilities for selling sponsorship.

Regardless, the TUSC needs to adopt a more revolutionary way of thinking in opposition to the prevailing ISC/NASCAR philosophy. If that doesn't happen ISC will fail in its wider responsibility to a sport that is much bigger and richer than NASCAR alone while the TUSC will continue as nothing more than a provincial backwater.

© Mike Levitt / LAT USA
The bottom line to all this truly is the bottom line. Almost twenty years ago both ISC and CART launched themselves as publicly-traded companies. Both raked in bucketfuls of cash but one succeeded powerfully while the other failed miserably.

ISC spent its money wisely and methodically, building new tracks and expanding its control of the sport while most of CART's team owners pocketed some early profits, then sold their shares as they departed for the IRL. In the end, CART drove itself into bankruptcy as the final pile of cash was spent trying to keep its remaining teams alive. CART's IPO wound up being entirely self-serving and did nothing but damage to the sport allowing NASCAR and ISC to fill the void with a well-executed business plan.

If ISC completes a deal to take over Laguna Seca it will be simply another step in that business plan. We can only hope it results in good things for Laguna Seca and American sports car and road racing rather than the bad news many people fear.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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