Vintage racing at Laguna Seca was so good it made me sick

1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 Nathan Petroelje

I meant well when I showed up at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Saturday morning for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. I really did. I had multiple talks with my editor, Grace Houghton, about the stories that I would write based on my day at the race track, the first time I’d ever attended this famous vintage racing event in Monterey, California. We had a plan—well thought-out, tactical, and ripe for execution. It was going to be great.

Then I was there, at Laguna Seca, and a 1969 Ferrari 312P came shrieking past. The sound of its 3.0-liter V-12 completely melted my brain.

There is nothing quite like vintage racing. Among the annual gatherings the world over, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion (“Rolex Reunion,” for short) is in the upper echelon. Every type of race car, from old prewar metal to high-tech machines barely a decade old, storms the 11 turns of Laguna Seca with a ferocity that will make you weak in the knees. It’s one of the few chances to see your motorsports heroes—any and all of them—run flat-out. If you have even an ounce of interest in racing, cars, or history, you absolutely will not be able to peel yourself away from the track.

vintage racing Monterey Historics 1972–81 FIA, IMSA, GT, GTX, AAGT, GTU Porsche 935K3
1980 Porsche 935K3 Nathan Petroelje

At the Rolex Reunion, cars are separated into classes based on time period and racing series. Vehicles run throughout the weekend, but Saturday is entirely racing—out laps, rolling starts, and then 10 laps of fury for each group.

I showed up midway through the first group, eager to find my photo vest and to tail Hagerty’s senior editor and camera wizard Brandan Gillogly around like a happy, dumb puppy. The first group we saw run flag to flag was the 1961–71 FIA Manufacturers Championship—basically anything that would have run at Le Mans, Daytona, and a host of other locales around the globe during one of racing’s most innovative periods.

vintage racing Monterey Historics 1961–71 FIA Manufacturers Championship Porsche 908/02 Spyder
1969 Porsche 908/02 Spyder Nathan Petroelje

Alongside that V-12-powered Ferrari, there were V-8 machines like the Ford GT40 and Lola T70 as well as all sorts of flat-six-powered Porsche 911s, and even a straight-six-powered BMW 3.0 CSL. The noises—my god, the noises—were as diverse as the cars, each a snapshot into the mindsets of a brand as it sought to build a  name for itself on the track. The experience was magical, a haze of noise and color and scent that left me temporarily without recollection of where, or when, I was.

We were transported to several different time periods before lunch. Following the ’60s racers, open-wheel and single-seat Grand Prix cars from as far back as 1927–1955 took the track. Watching the drivers steer these machines—many of which rode on tires that could pass as mountain-bike rubber—with their whole bodies was mesmerizing. Their pace wasn’t anything to sniff at, either: I watched a fearless pilot drift a 1928 Bugatti Type 37A around the Andretti Hairpin, wringing the blue machine for everything it had.

As the open-wheelers exited the track, I turned to Brandan, mumbling something about walking the pits to see machinery up close and scope out an interview or two. Then a 1987 Protofab Corvette driven by famous Corvette ace Ron Fellows snarled past, its soundtrack all V-6 and spooling turbo. Brandan and I both dropped our cameras from our eyes, mouths and eyes wide open. “What was that?!”

Fellows absolutely pulverized the field, which consisted of cars from IMSA’s GTO and Trans Am class from 1981 to ’91. The other cars in the mix—Motorcraft-liveried Fox-body Mustangs, Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams, a Buick Somerset, even a Merkur XR4Ti—were just as riveting.

Monterey Historics 1981–91 GTO/Trans AM Merkur XR4Ti
One always shows love to a 1988 Merkur XR4Ti race car. Always. Nathan Petroelje

I dashed from my perch at turn two to dump a memory card in the media center. As I ran back to my spot, worried I would miss something on-track, I suddenly realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had drunk any water. In the California desert, especially in full August sun, dehydration is not your friend. I chugged a bottle of water, then booked it back to the track.

I found a new vantage point to watch the 1972–81 FIA and IMSA class, which held all manner of machines, from a handful of Porsche 935s to Lola open-canopy prototypes to a Datsun 240Z. Watching the drivers manage the immense speed deltas between types of machinery was intense; thankfully, nobody wadded a car. Somewhere on the track, however, the 1979 Porsche 935 of Bruce Canepa met something with enough force to chew up the front right corner of the car. Of course, Canepa charged on anyway, the damage merely a bit of added war paint. I fist-pumped as he hammered by in the closing laps.

If the previous class was all about differing powertrain philosophies, the Can-Am class that followed was an exercise in the dark art of downforce. These wedge-shaped monsters get grippier with speed. Between their bodywork and the big-block V-8s powering many of the cars, they posted some of the day’s highest corner speeds.

If I’d had any doubts about how sincere the folks running these cars were about their passion for motorsports, seeing Zak Brown—yes, that guy, the Team Principle for McLaren’s Formula 1 team—pound a papaya orange 1970 McLaren M8D through turn four erased the thought entirely. The guy was movin’ around Laguna.

We paused to eat lunch for all of maybe 15 minutes before my FOMO dragged me back trackside. I’d been told not to miss the class that ran just after they sang the National Anthem at 1:30. Whoever gave me that mandate—your name is just one of a thousand things that I forgot that day, my apologies—I owe you a beer. Or fifty.

Monterey Historics 1966–72 Historic Trans Am Two Mustangs and a Camaro through Corkscrew
Two Mustangs and a Camaro pound through the Corkscrew. There is no punchline. Nathan Petroelje

The Historic Trans-Am class, consisting of cars from 1966 to ’72, is without a doubt the best race of the day. Picture all of the classic American muscle cars we know and love engaged in a 10-lap, bare-knuckle brawl. “You might see more overtakes in these 10 laps than you have in the last 10 sessions combined,” crooned the announcer as a field of 32 (!) cars rumbled past on the out lap.

To watch them, Brandan and I scurried out to the Corkscrew, Laguna’s most famous corner combination (8 and 8A), a drop of 59 feet over 450 feet of track. “Green flag is out, listen to these machines thunder past!” came the call over the loudspeaker.

Parnelli Jones. Dan Gurney. Peter Gregg. Chevrolet Camaro. Ford Mustang. The Gray Ghost. AMC Javelin. Penske. Shelby. If a name looms large in the pantheon of 1960s American motorsports history, it was accounted for in this field. I’d only ever read about these cars before, maybe perused a handful of YouTube videos to watch some of the action. Photos, videos, and words do the machines little justice compared to the sight of the real things backing through the on-camber turn nine, just after the Corkscrew.

You feel the noise in your chest whenever more than two of cars charge past. Imagine trying to mediate a fistfight between a silverback gorilla and a white rhino; that’s probably about what each driver was experiencing as their cars’ roaring V-8s did their best to peel the rubber from the rear wheels. Having to call it quits after just 10 laps was an immense bummer—I would have watched them run for hours.

Monterey Historics 1966–72 Historic Trans Am AMC Javelins pair
Two of the FOUR AMC Javelins showing respect through Rainey Curve. Nathan Petroelje

Then again, I’m not sure. The combination of August sun, completely uncorked excitement, too little water (I might miss a hero car!), and sleep deprivation caught up to me. Dizzy and nauseous, I hailed a ride back to my hotel. Once back, the little food I had eaten that day promptly left the way it came.

A bit wilty, I began to thumb through the thousands of pictures on my camera, suddenly realizing that my carefully laid plans for the day had been vaporized before I could finish the morning’s breakfast burrito. But then again, even my lofty expectations had fallen short of the real thing. I chuckled at my own naivety and began scheming a way to do it all again next year.

Well, maybe not all of it.




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    Vintage events are a must for anyone who appreciates machinery. TA is unique and special and my favorite, and CanAm is nuts! And yeah, the 312P’s 3.0 V-12 makes some of the finest music on the planet. Only thing better than watching is being involved, which has provided arguably the high points of my life experiences.

    Are you talking about picture #86 – of the 77 car? On my screen, it’s clearly labeled “1970 Dodge Challenger”!

    Ok I stand corrected. The original 7 pics showed all the other muscle classics identified except the Challenger.

    That orange Boss 302 with the number 16 would have been driven by George Follmer not AJ Foyt.

    That orange Boss 302 with the number 16 would have been driven by George Follmer. Number 16 was his exclusive number during the trans am wars.

    Ah! Thanks for catching that, Steve. I’ll adjust the caption to that picture. Hope you enjoyed reading!

    Nathan, thanks for your honest article. Sorry about your nausea, but a lesson learned…get the track early, after a breakfast to go somewhere while the fog is still burning off, the Bringatrialer corral will just be opening, followed by your first walk into the infield where a 2nd steaming cup of hot coffee will help kick start your long day. Then water until just before lunch. Lunch should be a lobster roll with a Monterey Beer. Then climb up the hill to the Corkscrew where you grab a table in the beer garden with a view of most of the track. Then back down to the pits and turn 3 for a quick walkaround before you go over to the Bringatrailer corral again to see all the arrivals. Watching a race from the grandstands on the outside of turn 4 is a good place to take a break, check on the severity of the sunburn and then back into the pits. Once the day is over and you return to your rental, now drive into Monterey and enjoy dinner at El Torito before walking around Cannery Row. If you groan like a sunburned and tired 70 year old at the end of day – you know it was perfect. See you next year!

    Naturally my favorite is the Can-Am, having gone racing in the Can-Am Series with my husband
    and his Lola T-70.

    Old man speaking here. I lived in the Bay area in the early 80s when Laguna Seca was still the old track that separated men (professionals) from boys (everyone else). To me, all the cars on track looked fast until Jacky Ickx took a 917 out for a few demo laps. All of a sudden, every other car seemed irrelevant as he circulated at warp speed with minimal throttle lifts through the high-speed turns 2, 3 and 4, with the flat 12 screaming at redline nearly the entire time, after which he carried ungodly speed down through the corkscrew. That was the day I first realized that my car control skills, which I considered to be above average and held in high regard, were not even in the same universe as those who drive such cars for a living. Reality can be harsh, but less so when in the presence of genius.

    The first race I ever attended was a (L.A.) Times Grand Prix for sports cars at Riverside in the early 1960s, the races thad turned into the Can-Am series. I still love those cars, and, man, how I wish I had gone to the vintage show!

    Thanks for the great pics of the great cars, and sorry about that breakfast.

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