Pictorial: Rolex Motorsport Reunion at Laguna Seca
Attending the Rolex Motorsport Reunion at Laguna Seca was not just a time travel experience, but a time compression experience too. Motorsport has been underway since that first Paris–Rouen motor race of 1894, and the Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca celebrates the majority of the 124-year history and squeezes it into a couple of days ... all in one place.
It's the third leg of the perfect trilogy that comprises Monterey Car Week: the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is a static display of 200 of the world's most authentic period automobiles, the Pebble Beach Tour d'Elegance demonstrates those roadgoing cars in their natural habitat, and the Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion demonstrates the history of the science of speed around a road course.
Racing is exciting, but for aficionados of the automobile, it is in the pits where you can get the full context of being up close and personal with the machinery of each era, and see the engineering history of motorsport unobfuscated by bodywork. You can watch as engines are fettled and repairs are undertaken, and unlike current cutting-edge motorsport, where the technological advantages are administered behind roller doors, it's all there to see.
Roaming the pits, you can be transported back in time to more than a dozen different eras to see what they drove and the limitations of engineering of the period – not just the engines, but the brakes, the suspension, and all the technologies available – and then witness the resultant speeds on the track.
Around 1000 entry applications were received for the Rolex Motorsport Reunion this year, with the best 550 cars accepted to showcase so many different cross sections of motorsport during that wonderful 124-year history.
It's an interesting time to be looking back on the history of motorsport because during qualifying for the 2018 Italian Grand Prix at the "Cathedral of Speed" (Monza), Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari did the fastest lap in Formula One history, averaging 163.785 mph (263.586 km/h) for a lap of the high speed Italian home of motorsport, beating a record that had stood for 14 years.
The previous record lap speed of 162.95 mph was set by Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams at Monza in 2004, and it broke a record that had stood for 19 years, that had been set by Keke Rosberg in 1985. Now best known as the father of 2016 F1 champ Nico Rosberg, Keke lapped his Williams around Silverstone during qualifying for the 1985 British Grand Prix to break the 160 mph average lap speed for the first time. He already had pole position sewn up, but in contrast to the rational business approach that characterizes motorsport these days, Frank Williams let him go out one last time for a berserker lap and a crack at the record, and he responded with a lap of 160.007 mph (in falling rain with a slow puncture).
Putting that in context, Formula One lap speeds have improved just 3 mph in the last third of a century, indicating the extent to which racing authorities have added track chicanery and limited engine capacities in an attempt to slow down racing cars since that time, and for some considerable time before that too. Competition has indeed improved the breed, moreso in motorsport than in any other competitive arena except for perhaps all-out warfare.
The progress of the science of speed is an interesting one to consider over the last 124 years, and there's no better way of plotting that progress than the fastest lap speeds at "the Greatest Spectacle in Racing," the Indianapolis 500.
The first 90 mph lap of Indianapolis was in 1915, 100 mph was achieved in 1919, 110 mph in 1925, 120 mph in 1927, 130 mph in 1939, 140 mph in 1954, 150 mph in 1962, 160 mph in 1965,170 mph in 1968, both 180 mph and190 mph were beaten in 1972,200 mph in 1978, 210 mph in 1984,220 mph in 1989 and 230 mph in 1992.
That's quite some progress and it is no coincidence that the long-time sponsor of the event, Rolex, has been so relevant to our collective affliction across that period, because motorsport boils down to using scientific method for just one thing – getting from point A back to point A in the quickest possible time. The scope and detail of the understanding mankind has achieved in its race against the clock was magnificently displayed in the pits and on the track at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca.
The classes at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion spanned racing cars from a 1911 National Speedway Roadster in Group 1A, to a 1995 Nissan 240SX in Group 7B – the period in which Indianapolis lap speeds rose from 90 mph to 230 mph. Seeing, smelling, feeling and hearing all the differences of the period-based classes was an overwhelming experience of the highest order. You aren't allowed to touch, not unless you have a Presidential Seal, but you were certainly close enough to see every detail.
We've attempted to capture many slices of that diverse experience in the images in the gallery, but here are a few highlights of the weekend for us.
Each year the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion has a featured marque and this year it was Datsun, more recently known as Nissan. This was the first time a Japanese manufacturer was designated as the featured marque in 42 years of the running of the event, and Nissan really rose to the occasion, bringing in many important cars from Japan to offer a museum-like collection of the marque's finest.
Apart from providing four-time IndyCar Series champion and three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Dario Franchitti, Nissan rolled out many of the high points of its racing history. Cars like a hyper-rare Nissan R390 GT1 Road Car used for homologation purposes were on display, as were cars like Paul Newman's SCCA National GT-1 Championship 300ZX Turbo, the Daytona and Le Mans-winning Nissan 300ZX Turbo driven by IMSA champion Steve Millen, a beat-to-hell Datsun 510 raced in period in the Baja 500, many of its racing roadsters, and the famous 1970 #46 BRE Datsun 240Z driven by Hall of Fame racer John Morton.
There were a couple of far more modern highlights in the Nissan display, most notably the next generation Nissan Formula E car and the new million dollar plus Nissan GT-R50 limited-edition road car by Italdesign. The combination of the words Nissan and GT-R once meant a bargain basement supercar, but as the legend has grown to match the performance, so has the prestige and the price.
Another of the many highlights this year was the 1995 McLaren F1 GTR that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Rather than just show the priceless car, it was demonstrated on-track by two-time Formula 1 World Champion, Mika Hakkinen.
Watching Hakkinen being briefed on the car before he went onto the track was almost as exciting as watching and hearing the McLaren doing its thing around the famous 2.2 mile (3.6 km) course.
One of the most thrilling experiences for any member of our team at Monterey Car Week was that of Angus MacKenzie, who experienced a lap of Laguna Seca in one of the new 2018 Lexus GS F cars that were provided by Lexus as pace/safety cars for the racing.
Here's how Angus described it: Having been a fan of the track since the 1960s, hot lapping Laguna Seca in Lexus' new 467 hp V8 powered 2018 Lexus GS F was one of the top automotive drive experiences of my life. Lexus provided three of its new super-sedans piloted by professional drivers, to provide hot laps to an assortment of media. The big saloons chased each other about the iconic speedway hitting 120 mph on the home straight and providing a drivers eye view to those who normally only get to report from trackside. Thanks to my years of training on PlayStation's GranTurismo series, I was able to verbally assist/humour the driver on braking points and apex lines. It isn't the fastest circuit in America by a long stretch, but Laguna Seca is one of the more technically challenging. The one section that Laguna Seca is famous for is of course Turn 8 and 8A, otherwise known as the Corkscrew. This blind turn can't be seen as you come hard on brakes after blasting up Rahal Straight. All you see is sky and asphalt until you come up over the small rise before placing yourself in the hands of the racing gods and dropping 18 meters down and to the left.
Dan Gurney is one of the giants of American Motorsport, and is one of only three drivers (alongside Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya), to have won races in Sports Cars, Formula One, NASCAR, and Indy cars. He is the only person to score maiden Formula One Grand Prix victories for three different manufacturers: Porsche, Brabham and Anglo-American Racers (better known outside F1 as "All American Racers").
Beyond driving though, he was so much more than that, having also been a race car constructor, team owner and race engineer of the highest order. Gurney started All American Racers and contributing much to the aforementioned progress in the science of speed. His mechanical and aerodynamic innovation is still evident in that the "Gurney Flap" bears his name, and his log file of first includes being the first driver ever to use a full face helmet in Grand Prix racing.
Gurney is a legend in so many ways that it's difficult to mention his name without listing a few that normally don't get listed in a racing drivers resume. For starters, Gurney began one of motorsport's most famous traditions, when after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967, Dan was the very first person to spray champagne on the podium.
Even more infamously, Dan and maverick journalist Brock Yates won the inaugural Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, (the "Cannonball Run"), driving coast-to-coast in 35 hours and 54 minutes in a 1971 Ferrari Daytona 365 GTB/4. Gurney's famous quote on the dash across America was, "at no time did we exceed 175 mph."
Gurney passed away in January of this year and he was honored in a touching tribute in the latter half of the "Picnic in the Paddock" event on Saturday, which was hosted by Murray Smith and featured stories from Sir Jackie Stewart and Chris Cord and a musical tribute by Donald Osborne.
Given the strongest association with motorsport of the many components of Monterey Car Week, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion has now grown in stature to the point where it is beginning to become a world stage for the first showing of concept cars.
Audi used the event as a platform for the world premiere of the 2019 Audi PB 18 e-tron concept car on the Paddock Stage on Thursday, and Ford unveiled the 2019 Ford GT Heritage Edition on the Paddock Stage on Friday, August 24. Derek Bell drove the car up to the stage. Above is the 2019 Ford GT Heritage Edition in the pits with one of the originals in the background.
The Formula 5000 race group celebrating the 50th anniversary of the series provided another highlight. The racing and revelry drew participants from around the world including 14 from New Zealand alone.
The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) announced its 50th anniversary book on the Paddock Stage, too. IMSA will be featured at next year's Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion on August 15-18, 2019.
Be sure to have a look through the many images in our 2019 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion photo gallery.