The following is an excerpt from the Great American Road Trip. If you don’t want to read it, I suggest at least checking out the video at the bottom. Nothing like watching a daily driver sedan rip around a closed course to the dismay of track officials…
One days of driving up the pacific coast highway will madden any sane driver. I know the views are spectacular, the bends are wicked and a swim is only minutes away. This is all irrelevant when that guy in the Cruise America rental RV winds up in front of you. You know the one; he’s doing five mph and swerving in and out of his lane forcing oncoming traffic off the road.
Inevitably this jackass is either illiterate, delusional or both. Somehow “Slow Vehicle Turn—Out” does not mean his slow vehicle. Worse still, is how Michelin, god of the roads, enjoys placing oncoming traffic at precisely the spots where the road straightens into a passing zone.
Normally this would be a nuisance, nothing more. To a driver, having just burned through long desert straightaways at speeds nearing the terminal velocity of a 15 year old swedish sedan, this could not stand. The camper vans, the village speed limits, the no passing zones, it had all built up after 400 miles of following the coast north from Venice.
It felt like I was getting nowhere fast and the slower I drove, the hotter the car got. One can only keep cool with proper air flow in the cabin. This requires putting the windows down and driving at a high rate of speed. Palo Alto was still 100 miles to the north when I noticed the sign for Laguna Seca.
I only recognized the name for one reason—there’s a race track there. Suzy, the dutiful GPS that she is, told me I was in Monterey and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was 14 miles to the east. She took me to the entrance of a county park.
Having ventured this far, I drove in to the park and saw unoccupied camp sites, but a sign for the track gave me hope. Eventually the infield came into view and a small army was at work tearing down a stage and packing up a few very large tents. I drove on. Eventually the park road became “Paddock Rd” and before I knew it I found the myself in the Paddock area at Laguna Seca.
One other car seemed out of place there. It was parked near a row of Honey Pot brand portable toilets, right next to gate leading to the track itself. An older gentleman emerged from the Honey Pot. I engaged him.
“Sure is a nice track here,” I offered.
“Oh, yeah. I love it here,” he told me. “I stop by every year.”
The man was wore mesh backed Navy hat and large over-the-glasses sunglasses. He drove a ten-year old Buick, the kind with plastic covers on the seats and that smells both of old people and new car at once. The gate was half-open when I asked what he thought about my prospects of getting around the track without incident.
He pointed to the gate’s closed half. The one with the sign saying “TRACK CLOSED Authorized Vehicles & Personnel Only” above a myriad of fine-print prohibitions, regulations and bureaucracies. “I did it about four years ago” he said pointing to the Buick. “I did it in that car right there, in fact.
“I made it all the way around. It’s at the end where they’ll get you. I thought I got away with it and was on my way off the track when they got me. Now I’m an old man, so they let me go, but I wouldn’t do it if I were you.”
He wasn’t exactly the enabler I was looking for, so I drove over to the trailer Event Operations trailer. I thought the intern in the office just might give me the “Authorization” that my car and I needed to spin a hot lap on the track. And he was, assuring me that the track was still rented by the folks who had put on a Christian music festival that weekend (Who knew racetracks were the modern day missions in CA? Incidentally it was the Pope and not a race who drew Laguna Seca’s largest ever crowd in 1987).
With the Gideon’s Bible in hand I headed for the festival folks. Five minutes later, after being told “Oh they said you had to ask us? We don’t have a problem with that. The track is the most holy place here,” I had all the Authorization I needed.
Heading back to the track gate, the Sunoco station in the paddock caught my eye, rather, the 110 Octane sign did. The fuel light was on, so I pulled in. Heeding the Volvo’s “Unleaded Fuel Only” sticker forced me to settle for the 100 octane. I only pumped five gallons—partly to keep her light and partly because the stuff is eight bucks a gallon.
I pulled out onto the track just ahead of turn 11, put my hazards on—for safety—and opened the taps on five cylinders of swedish horsepower. I powered down the front stretch across the start-finish line and into the Andretti hairpin. A large truck caught my eye at the entrance to turn 3, but I held my line and clipped the apex and cruised under the into turn 4 and out of the infield.
Sheer adrenalin and excitement coursed through me as I put the traffic jams, stop lights and RVs behind me. Up the back stretch I could tell I had gained quite a bit of elevation and the famous “Corkscrew” turn approached fast. Gran Turismo does not prepare you for a blind crest coming at 70MPH, nor does it prepare you for braking like hell to slow to 40 while the road literally drops from beneath you. Down the six story and nearly vertical drop, the acceleration is awesome, the rush is invigorating and all of it a far cry from a vibrating game controller. There’s not much time to enjoy it because you’re struggling to keep your line at 85-95MPH as turn nine approaches.
I could see another truck at turn nine, parked next to the gravel trap. It was there I realized that the trucks were paddy wagons and the track maintenance crew were out on work release. More unsettling, the guy in the pickup truck parked at turn 10 was wielding a shotgun about ten feet from the curbing that I was just about to clip. Clearly, there wouldn’t be another lap, but perhaps I could make my escape without being asked to join the chain gang. (I thought I could negotiate the penultimate curve right through the gate and then make my escape to the safety of the paddock.)
The chain gang whizzed by and as I swept through turn 10 I hit the brakes to pull off the track (short of the start-finish line, but a complete circuit nonetheless). Then the old man’s prophecy came true. A pickup truck with a shotgun wielding driver raced in behind me. He shouted to get my attention, but he didn’t need to—the shotgun did that.
After quite a bit of ‘splainin and apologizing and more ‘splainin, I was allowed to leave—and keep my camera. So here it is, my hot lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in a Volvo sedan running on 100 Octane race gas.
Note: the clicking noise in the background is the hazard lights. For an idea of the speeds the Volvo reached, compare my REAL lap to the Gran Turismo 4 Lap below. The 850 blew that French P.O.S. Citroen away….