Laguna Seca renaissance, Part 5: Panache

Photo: Motorsport Images

The venerable Laguna Seca Raceway Foundation exists to raise funds for the development of the Laguna Seca Recreational Area and is a separate entity from both the track operator and Monterey County. A 501c3 corporation, the LSRF has been rejuvenated of late with key additions to its board of directors — men who collectively possess a clear vision for WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca’s future with the energy and wherewithal to help secure it. Over the last few weeks, RACER has been endeavoring to share the behind-the-scenes of the Foundation’s part in this world-class raceway’s renaissance.

Story originally posted to RACER.com by Steve Nickless

WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca has seen its share of dominant victories over its 64-year history, but few rival Danny Sullivan’s romp in the 1988 Champion Spark Plug 300K CART IndyCar race. Pole winner Sullivan’s Miller High Life Penske-Chevrolet led 70 of the race’s 84 laps, his lead interrupted only by scheduled pit stops, beating arch-rival Michael Andretti by 2.784s and clinching his first IndyCar title with one race remaining on the 15-race schedule.

For the then-38-year-old Kentucky native, the win — his fourth in one of the most hotly competitive IndyCar seasons ever — may rank down his own list from his 1985 “spin and win” triumph in the Indy 500 or his top-five finish in the 1983 Monaco Grand Prix. But both Laguna Seca, which Sullivan fast-lapped in everything from Formula Atlantic to Can-Am cars during his 20-year racing career, and the Monterey Peninsula, are forever embedded in his thoughts and memories.

“I first came up there back in the late ’70s, racing an Atlantic car,” Sullivan recalled. “Then I drove Can-Am up there, driving for Paul Newman. That big building, built by the county in the middle of the paddock, used to be the Newman Racing shop. So that was our [Can-Am team’s] headquarters now and I spent a lot of time there, won a lot of races there.

“Like everybody — well, I shouldn’t say ‘everybody,’ ’cause that assumes that it’s ‘all’ — but like most people who come up here, I fell in love with the area. I played golf in the AT&T and got to meet a lot of people; and it is always been special to me.”

For many years, Sullivan had a home in France, staying at The Lodge in Pebble Beach six to eight weeks out of the year. But as his long career began to wind down in the mid-1990s, his thoughts turned to a full-time return to the U.S.

Sullivan was especially busy in 1982, his success in Newman Racing’s Can-Am team (third in the championship) opening the door to his F1 debut in ’83. Motorsport Images

“[My wife Brenda and I] went up to Monterey and we decided that, ‘Well, this is a pretty good place,’” Sullivan explained. “We ended up getting a place in Pebble Beach. There’s a big car community there. We knew a lot of people already, and we soon met a lot more people: ‘Oh, you know this car guy and that guy, dah, dah, dah?’ and I was always out at the track.

“Then someone said, ‘What about the Board? What about the Laguna Seca Raceway Fund?’ And that’s where it started for me, 10, 11, 12 years ago, just before the scoring pylon went up.”

In the dozen years since, Sullivan has proven to be especially valuable Board member, adept at helping the Foundation stay both clear of and well-informed of the complex politics inherent to a county-managed facility on federal land with a contracted private operator.

“The challenges we’ve encountered here are no reflection on Monterey County,” Sullivan said. “It’s just an issue when any government entity owns something that is typically run in private hands. Laguna Seca is not run the way Indianapolis is now that Roger Penske owns it — one guy making all the decisions.”

To that end, the Foundation’s resurgence as an active enterprise is critically important.

Richard Dole/Motorsport Images

“We’ve gotten some fresh talent on [the Board],” Sullivan said. “People from the industry that are very knowledgeable and well-traveled, and have gone to many racetracks and different kinds of events around the world. And we’re making some great progress.

“There are a lot of people who like to put money into this because Laguna Seca is such a special place. It’s an iconic track. People around the world know it. It’s a favorite of so many race car drivers and teams, and the area’s popular. Everybody loves to come here, for the restaurants and just everything about the Monterey Peninsula.

“But, to the same extent, if you’re asking people to donate money, it doesn’t matter if it’s a hundred dollars or hundred thousand dollars or whatever — people donate what they’re capable of donating, and for them, it’s a lot of money they could spend elsewhere. So you want to make sure (those stewarding it) are going to spend the money the way the donors want it to be spent.

“The key element is trust, and I think we’re starting to get there. People are starting to come out of their funk; they’re coming out of the lockdown. More people are vaccinated and there’s a lot of enthusiasm and, ‘Hey, let’s get back to it!’ That’ll add to the enthusiasm behind offering help to Laguna Seca — ‘Let’s put something into it!’ — because nobody wants to lose the memories or the experiences that they’ve enjoyed here.”

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

The Sullivans sold their Pebble Beach home — “It was too big for two people and a dog” — not long ago and relocated to Florida, where Danny was consulting with a group hoping to purchase Palm Beach Raceway and keep it as a racetrack.

“It’s not far from downtown Palm Beach — a great old racetrack; not a Laguna Seca by any stretch of the imagination,” Sullivan explained. “But despite our huge bid, it was bought by developers [who are] going to turn it into a Walmart distribution center.”

Could that happen in Monterey?

“If we’re not careful and we don’t keep this thing doing well, then eventually somebody might just say, ‘Hey, the land’s worth more as this than it is [as a racetrack].’

“I’m keen to make sure that it keeps its heritage,” Sullivan continued. “There are so many good people inside and outside the community — guys who don’t all live here but who love the track, who love to come to Laguna Seca not just because of the greatness of the track, but because of the entire experience of being on Monterey Peninsula.

“But when we’re raising money, our pitch or whatever word you want to use, must be for something specific — especially our pitch to guys that are driving. For example, the electronic flagging system currently in the works is something that’s important to the drivers because it’s a safety issue. When they’re in their vintage cars, their butts are on the line.

LSRF Board member Sullivan (center) stays up to date and in touch with many old friends and rivals while serving regularly as an FIA steward. Sutton/Motorsport Images

“It’s a good … listen, it’s a great cause. Laguna Seca is one of the best tracks that I’ve ever driven, one of the most fun. I love it in every different kind of car I’ve driven around it — historic car, Can-Am, Indy Car, sports car, whatever. Doesn’t make any difference; it’s just a great, challenging track.”

Listen closely and the echoes of Sullivan’s scintillating IndyCar victory 33 years ago can still be heard on a walk around the grounds, even as his time and energy invested in the Foundation over the last dozen years is to the benefit of others on their own greatness journeys.

For more information on the Laguna Seca Raceway Foundation, check out its Facebook page or log onto lsrfnd.org.