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Twelve miles from the sea in northern California the automobile racecourse at Laguna Seca winds like an enormous roller coaster through the wild and lovely hills reaching upward above spectacular Monterey Peninsula. It is 1.9 miles long and, with gnarled oak trees clinging to the dun-colored hillsides along its upper reaches, it is one of the world's most picturesque—and sporting—circuits. Last weekend some 65,000 spectators rolled into Laguna Seca, drawn there by the prospect of seeing most of the world's best-known sports car racers in action. By nightfall Sunday they had truly seen something to remember: a grand slam by 25-year-old Roger Penske.
Penske came to Laguna Seca just seven days after an unheralded and unexpected (except by him) victory at Riverside, where he won $12,000. Californians, a loyal but liberal lot, granted that Penske had skill and pluck, but they also felt it had taken plenty of breaks and luck to beat a renowned home stater like Dan Gurney. And, in a way, they were right.
In the first 100-mile heat of the Pacific Grand Prix for sports cars at Laguna Seca, Gurney drove a Lotus Mark 19 to victory. In the second heat Texas' Lloyd Ruby scrambled with Gurney and ultimately prevailed when Gurney's orange racer broke down. The scramble did neither of them the least bit of good. Roger Penske, driving his home-altered, bargain-basement Cooper, finished a steadfast second in each heat and won the race on points. He got $5,000 for his trouble, or a total of $17,000 for a few days' work and two days of actual racing during one of the most remarkable fortnights in U.S. racing history.
It had begun early in the previous week when the vanguard of a mechanized army of 76,400 thronged to Riverside Raceway in the mountain-ringed Moreno Valley of southern California for a similar racing card. Thousands upon hardy thousands came on the eve of the race and spent the night on the perimeter of Riverside Raceway so as to be ready at dawn to scurry for positions. They arrived—men in car coats and girls in stretch pants of magenta, mustard, mocha and all the other colors of a Hollywood rainbow—with sleeping bags and mattresses in long queues of cars and trailers. In sum, these audiences at Riverside and Laguna Seca easily outnumbered the immense one that always attends the Indianapolis "500."
The two weeks were in perfect consonance with California's standing as the most car-happy territory on earth. After all, Californians own 10% of the nation's 60 million cars; and California is the heartland of the hot rod, the Indianapolis car builder, the old-car collector and the fabricator of specialty machines and machiners for speed events.
Reverberations from Riverside and Laguna Seca echoed all the way to Coventry and Stuttgart and Milan, for the foreign manufacturers are antelope-alert to the American market and anxious to spread a halo over their lines through racing successes. They echoed in Detroit, as well. At Riverside there was the first confrontation of Chevrolet's new-Corvette Sting Ray sports car (SI, Oct. 1) and the Ford-engined Shelby AC Cobra; at Laguna Seca, Ford paraded its experimental Mustang sports car, and at both courses, Chevy displayed Corvair-and Corvette-based models with a strong sporting flavor. These were portents of a larger sports clash which surely—and soon—will engage Ford and Chevy in open, exciting combat.
Moreover, the California fiesta proved that newspaper ink can sell racing tickets. Road racing is still relatively new to the American sports scene. Except at Indianapolis and a very few other racetracks there is no large, automatic response to racing events. Riverside had its big crowd because the Los Angeles Times plugged it heavily, with some fancy running out in the field by the Times special-events director, Glenn Davis, the unforgettable Mr. Outside of wartime Army football. Potential Laguna Seca fans were drummed to attention by the San Francisco Examiner. And even on a news-rich weekend (for example: Socialite first-nighter commits suicide over insurance premium irregularities, Chinese "ex-warlord" holds 13-year-old great-granddaughter in captivity), the Examiner bannered THE GRAND PRIX—RACING'S BIG DAY on Page One. The newspapers jointly guaranteed some $22,000 to insure the appearance of big-name international and domestic driving stars. They made possible a rich 532,225 in prizes at Riverside and $20,000 at Laguna Seca.
"You'd feel sort of un-American if you didn't go to those races," said California Driver Chuck Daigh. (By failing to appear, Mr. Brown and Mr. Nixon, waging hot gubernatorial campaigns, passed up a marvelous opportunity to solicit the sports car vote.)
It was as an aperitif to the following day's 200-mile Riverside main event that a single Cobra and four new Corvettes met in the very first of what should be many exciting contests between those makes. Their race was a three-hour endurance run over the tricky 2.6-mile Riverside road course.
"It's little old me against General Motors," mourned the former racing star Carroll Shelby, builder (in California) of the Cobra. Carroll, it is said, is actually being offered important money by Ford to make the Cobra even more deadly than it is. "Let it sink its fangs deep into the Sting Ray"—that, reportedly, is the feeling at Dearborn.