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Night Moves                                David Soares on being left in the dark

  This year sportscar faithful on the Left Coast finally got a chance to breathe the
pure oxygen that sets the ALMS apart from all other forms of motorsport with a
four-hour into-the-night enduro at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

The Real Deal
  Why should I care?  Since I’ve been knee-high to a grasshopper the Real Deal in
sportscar racing has been the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  From my first Matchbox D-
type and tin-toy Testa Rossa, through Jim McKay and Chris Economacki
recounting Henry Ford II’s obsession on the Wild World of Sports, to sitting in a
darkened theater watching multiple screenings of Steve McQueen’s classic film
Le Mans, I’ve figured that racing through the countryside around the clock is
tougher on man and machine than going around the Brickyard, circling the high
banks of the Tri-oval, or winding ‘round the houses and through Casino Square.
Some cried “gimmick” when it was announced that there would be a night race at
Laguna this year, but I figured that this would be the perfect opportunity to see the
cars that race in the Big Show in their true element without having to explain to my
boss, my wife, and my kids that I was skipping this month’s mortgage payment
and going to France without them.

Coming to grips….
  I suppose that the biggest pre-race knock on this event was that cars designed to
race at high speed through the French countryside from dusk to dawn to dusk
seem a bit over-built to wind through the oak trees of central California.  Laguna
Seca has always been more of a sprint circuit than anything else.  The infield
extension added in the late Eighties to bring the track up to international length
took out the fastest sections and made it even less like the country highways of
the eight-and-a-half mile Circuit Permenante de la Sarthe.  On the plus side,
despite the “improvements” demanded for the Champ Cars and GP bikes, you
can still make out the Fort Ord perimeter roads that origianally defined the circuit.
Laguna isn’t one of those glorified kart tracks; cars dominant everywhere else
often can’t find grip around the old lakebed.

  I came away from the weekend satisfied that I hadn’t just shown up for a
demonstration run.  The crowds who thronged the open grid and then lined the
fences at every corner weren’t simply a bunch of rubes hoodwinked by a gimmick
cooked up by promoters with nothing to show.  They were a knowledgeable group
of road-racing faithful who got to see a decent race weekend from start to finish.
Hardcore fans got an early tease with a balmy Thursday night-practice.  The
decent-sized group who showed up for Friday qualifying witnessed a terrific
spectacle at the sharp end of the field.  Dyson’s Lolas struggled to find traction
while Nic Minassian took advantage of his Zytec’s power delivery to out-stick the
Champion Audis of Johnny Herbert and J.J. Lehto for the pole.

Holly came from Miami FLA…
  On Saturday I decided to join the newly featured pre-race “fan walk” of the starting
grid.  In among the hundreds of fans and the “flag and umbrella girls” I ran into a
woman with a genuine reason to have a smile pasted on her face: Mazda
Raceway at Laguna Seca CEO Gill Campbell.  I stopped to congratulate her on the
substantial crowd still streaming in for the four o’clock start.  She allowed as how
it had been a huge struggle to pull this one off; she wouldn’t be ready to believe it
until all these people had cleared from start-finish.  The gate has been iffy on four-
wheel racing all year, the title sponsor pulled out weeks before the race, and the
usual suspects act surprised that they have been sold palazzi next to a racetrack
that has been operating continuously for five decades.  This afternoon Gill was
standing in a crowd so packed that you couldn’t walk from one end of the grid to
the other; it was obvious to me that she was giving the people what they’ve been

All things Green…..
  Once the green flag dropped we got to see plenty of drama, from upstart
challenger Minassian setting a blistering pace dicing with Lehto at the front, to
Herbert’s master class in carving through the field after a first-lap spin to put his
teammate in position to pounce at the end.  The GTS and GT classes were down
to inter-team rivalries, but even those held a few surprises before it was over.
When the night and then the rain came we really got to see what makes this kind
of racing unique.  Absent was the wholesale carnage demonstrated in rival series
when conditions turn less than perfect.

  Our neighbor among the campers below Turn Nine was an old Cal-Club flagger
from Riverside Raceway who of late has been a devotee of Champ Cars.  As we
sat by the light of our tiki torches he was ecstatic over racing in the dark and the
rain.  This motorhead could have cared less that the race boiled down to a few
two-car contests by the mid-point; tens of thousands used to turn up to see which
orange car would win at Riverside or Laguna.  We were just digging fast cars
sending up rooster-tails of water in the headlights as they cut and thrust through
traffic.  Watching the superb Champion Audis brought us that old buzz you can only
get from breathing the pure stuff.

  We’ve had a lot of great road racing in this country over the second half of the
twentieth century, but even Big-Daddy Can-Am only lasted eight seasons from
1967 until 1974.  Ironically, both Sebring and Daytona started out as promoters’
attempts to hook into the mystique of Le Mans and European sportscar racing,
although there have always been issues about whether they should be part of
international championships or strictly home-grown affairs.

Over There, Over There….
  In the meantime a couple of hundred thousand people are still celebrating the
Summer Solstice over in France every year with a sportscar race.  Automobile
racing is as much about celebrating traditions and connections as it is about
speed and endurance.  Ever since Americans went over to kick out the Nazis we
have been connected with this  celebration.  Our cars have been there; our drivers
have been there; our teams have been there.  This year at Le Mans Clint Field and
Rick Sutherland beat the locals in P2.  Doug Fehan’s Team Corvette slugged it out
with a slew of European Ferraris and came out on top in GTS.  Patrick Long
cracked the top-10 while winning GT in Mike Peterson and Dale White’s Porsche,
with support from Alex Job.  Dave Maraj and Brad Kettler brought back their Audi
R8 as defending P900 champs; their superior organization recovered from a
catastrophic off (on oil) to a podium finish.

  The Brits have their cross-channel ferries, but it’s a major effort and expense for
American fans, especially inhabitants of the west coast, to decamp to the Sarthe
every year to see our teams.  For motor racing to be successful as marketing tool
it makes perfect sense for these teams and their sponsors to take their hard-
earned credibility and bring it home.  As we sipped our single-malts by the fence
we knew that weren’t just watching a bunch of wanna-be’s on a demonstration
run.  We thought; these are the guys and this is what they do.

An American fan
  Internationalism may currently be out of vogue, but I think that American fans
deserve to be a part of the show.  We deserve more than five-eighths scale replica
racing.  We deserve the real thing.  Why should I care?  Because I always have.

                                                                                                      David Soares
                                                                                               Somewhere in Hawaii
                                                                                                     October 2004

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