(Editor’s note: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca celebrates its 65th anniversary during the 2022 racing season and provided this story about its early years.)
The 1956 Pebble Beach Road Races showed the imperative need for a safer, larger race track to host what had become one of the most famous competitions in North America. Following Ernie McAfee’s death during a crash that year, it was decided that the current Pebble Beach course was “not enough track” to house the rising horsepower that was being created annually.
The race had become a mainstay – and a financial boon – in the Monterey region. To keep the race momentum going, a group of businessmen pooled their time and money together to form the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP). Little did they know their vision would lead to establishing a race circuit that would become known worldwide.
A lease was signed between the U.S. Army and the Monterey Chamber of Commerce (the Army had not yet formally recognized the newly formed SCRAMP) on Fort Ord property on August 7, 1957. Incredibly, the 9-turn road course was created in just 60 days at a cost of $125,000 – in time for its inaugural race on November 9, 1957.
Wallace Holm, a young Salinas architect, was site-development chair and explained the track design by literally drawing a rough diagram in the dirt, then staked the course and the bulldozers went to work.
One of the most famous, one-of-a-kind turns in all of motorsports – the Corkscrew – sits atop the circuit like a crown. As the story goes, the construction foreman drove up the hill and informed the bulldozer driver he was going to lunch. When asked what the plan was for the next phase of the track, the foreman said just get down the hill any way you can. Thus, the hard-left, hard-right combination known throughout motorsports was created.
When the gates opened on that inaugural race day, 35,000 spectators and 100 entries showed up.
Pete Lovely – who would go on to have a long Formula 1 career – was largely an underdog that day. As he described it, his “plain old Ferrari Testa Rosa with a 2-liter engine” was up against much faster cars. However, notable drivers Carroll Shelby, Jack McAfee and Richie Ginter all dropped out due to mechanical failures. This left Lovely playing catch up to Johnny Von Neumann’s new Ferrari TRC with a more-powerful 2.5-liter engine.
Lovely devised a plan that he would drop back far enough that Von Neumann would lose sight of him, and then he would make a furious charge on the last lap. It worked, as his surge flustered Von Neumann enough that Lovely made the pass at Turn 9 and took the first checkered flag in Laguna Seca history.
“I was fortunate enough to come across the line in front of everyone else on that last lap,” Lovely said in the following years. “I’ll always remember that race because it was the first race run at Laguna Seca and because it attracted a who’s who of West Coast sports car racing.
“I liked the old (1.9-mile) Laguna Seca track because it took a lot of skill to hold your foot down around the old Turn 2. You had to really be on your toes, or you would miss that corner. If you did that, it was certain disaster.”
This comment was foreshadowing for Ed Leslie two years later. It wasn’t Turn 2 that got Leslie, but Turn 4.
Leslie, a distinguished Korean War veteran who flew more than 1,300 hours for the Army Air Corps, had just gotten into the racing game in 1959.
He was leading the race in his Austin Healey 100, which had double-spoked wheels. What happened next would become Laguna Seca lore.
“With the Healey wheels, when you went around a corner at speed you could hear the spokes letting go,” Leslie said. “At Laguna Seca, I went into Turn 4 flat out and the wheel buckled up under the front of my car and sent me off the end of the road. Fortunately, there was no barricade there and I went down into the oak trees without getting hurt. After that escapade, the turn became known as ‘Leslie’s Leap’.”
With his legend created at Laguna Seca, Leslie would go on to win the 1964 US Road Racing Championship series. The following year, Leslie was part of the famous Shelby team that drove the Cobra Daytona coupe to victory in the 1965 FIA World Sports Car Championship.