In praise of a dry lake

United States GP 2001

United States GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

In Richard Dana's seafaring classic "Two Years before the Mast" (which I happen to be reading at the moment) there is a wonderful remark about the people of California. Dana was writing in the 1830s when it was rough-and-ready sort of place, peopled mainly by Spanish adventurers.

"They can hardly go from one house to another without mounting a horse," he noted.

It reminded me of Steve Martin's wonderful movie LA Story in which his hero Harris Telemacher (a wacky weatherman in Los Angeles) drives to see his next door neighbor, a journey of perhaps 30ft.

LA - Los Angeles - is, assuredly, an acquired taste and I cannot boast that I am one who is taken by the place. But go West to Malibu and into Ventura County and I can begin to relax. Get me to the Santa Barbara County Line and I can begin to love it. Once I have crossed the Santa Inez Mountains on Highway 101 I am in heaven.

One of the difficult things about travelling a lot is that one never knows what to say when people ask: "What's your favorite place?"

I think of Sydney. I think of Bellagio, where Lakes Como and Lecco meet. I think of Paris. I even think of London on a summer evening. But somehow or other I always end up back at a place called Morro Bay in California. There is a big rock, sticking out of the water at Morro Bay but that is not why I love it. I love it because it is the start of Highway 1 - the greatest piece of road in the world.

This is an enchanting part of the globe. The road runs north along the Californian coast in the shadow of the Santa Lucia Range. Everything is named after one saint or another although this coastline was so rugged that even the Spanish did not bother. Their network of missions was away inland and it was not until the coast road was built in the late 1930s that it really became part of the United States of America.

Highway 1 from Morro Bay to Monterey is one of the great journeys in the world. And if you need evidence of that, just remember that William Randolph Hearst, one of the richest men in the world, chose this coastline on which to build the ultimate rich man's folly Hearst Castle. It's a bizarre place but the location is really extraordinary. They used to call it La Cuesta Encantada, the enchanted hill, and if you go there you can see why. Go on north through wonderful places like Redwood Gulch, Jade Cove, Sand Dollar Beach, Rat Creek and eventually you will reach the Big Sur and then you will begin to return to civilization as you get towards the Monterey Peninsular.

"The climate," wrote Richard Dana, "is as good as any in the world, water is abundant and the situation extremely beautiful."

And so it is.

You may be asking what this column has got to do with Formula 1 and all I can say is that I hope one day it does. Because we are within a few miles of the Laguna Seca racing circuit which, I have always believed, is the perfect place for a Grand Prix on the West Coast.

For a start this is car country. Pebble Beach is the home of the annual concours d'elegance, the greatest historic car meeting of the year. The people in these parts have money to buy beautiful old automobiles and they like nothing better than to show them off at Pebble Beach. This is the sort of place where movies stars go to retire. Clint Eastwood was famously the mayor of the town of Carmel. This place has the right shopping, the right hotels and even a smattering of great restaurants.

The races at Pebble Beach got to be too dangerous and in the late 1950s the local got together to form the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsular (SCRAMP) and did a deal with the US Army to use some of the vast Fort Ord training camp to build a race track. And they built a great one. It was nearly two miles in length and was fast apart from the wild snaking piece of road down the hill at the place they call The Corkscrew.

SCRAMP has long dreamed of a Grand Prix but Formula 1 was too greedy when there was a chance although Laguna went to the trouble of extending the track in an effort to attract the Grand Prix circus.

Laguna Seca (which any Spaniard will tell you is a translation of Dry Lake) may need work to become a F1 venue but it is exactly what Formula 1 needs in the United States. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is fine but it is not a classic road course like Spa or Suzuka. It does not show the greatness of the F1 cars nor the brilliance of the men behind the wheel. And I have also felt that this is what is lacking in America. That and an American driver.

The F1 drivers are foreign and therefore not much good and whenever they do show up in the USA they go wombling around stupid street courses. Indianapolis is a step in the right direction but a place like Laguna Seca would be something else.

The problem with Formula 1 is that it does not always go where it would be best to go. It goes to where the money is. Having seen the recent list of rich people published in The Sunday Times one would have thought that money is not really the issue for F1 people and that if they were really smart they would invest in a race at Laguna, just to increase interest in F1 in the United States. If you hit the right vein of gold in the American market you can print your own money. NASCAR has shown that.

The good news in recent days has been the news that Laguna Seca has moved its CART race to June. It is a sign that SCRAMP is not happy. And I hope it is a sign too that SCRAMP has F1 ambitions.

I know that I would be there if ever they managed to get a Grand Prix organized there.

It is a little known fact that there was a Grand Prix at Laguna Seca back in 1960 - and it was won by Stirling Moss. The event - named the Pacific Grand Prix was, however, for sportscars.

And so no-one paid it much attention.

It would be nice to do it again one day - with proper cars.

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