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Fate of historic Laguna Seca race course is clouded once again

A 1990 Mazda 787 leads a 1986 Porsche 962 in a 2012 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion race at the historic Laguna Seca raceway, the future of which is once again in play. (D.M. Troutman / DMT Imaging)

The future of the historic racetrack at Laguna Seca is once again up for grabs.

Parties fighting for control of the Monterey County facility faced off at a Board of Supervisors session Tuesday morning in Salinas.

A closed-door session that followed could decide the fate of the track, one of the most important race facilities in American motor sports.

Hoping to retain control of the venue is the volunteer-based Sports Car Racing Assn. of the Monterey Peninsula, or SCRAMP, which has helped manage Laguna Seca since it opened in 1957.

Moving to take control, perhaps in some sort of partnership with SCRAMP, is Friends of Laguna Seca, a nonprofit that describes itself as a group of local racing enthusiasts “committed to preserving the historic racing legacy,” its website says.

The group consists of Monterey Peninsula locals Bruce Canepa, Jonathan Fieber, Warren “Ned” Spieker Jr., Ross Merrill, Thomas Minnich and Gordon McCall — many of them car racers, restorers and collectors — as well as race management professional Lauri Eberhart.

This week has already seen a tectonic shift at the legendary racetrack, considered one of the world’s most technically challenging race venues.

On Monday, the track’s veteran steward, Gill Campbell, announced that she had relinquished her titles of general manager and chief executive to take a new post as senior vice president of event operations.

She has been replaced as CEO by Michael Smith, president of the SCRAMP board of directors, who will act as interim CEO while overseeing the search for a permanent replacement.

Friends’ McCall said his group, despite its doubts about SCRAMP’s management history, hopes to partner with the volunteer-based group in running the raceway.

“SCRAMP is beloved and they have a lot of local support,” McCall said. “We would like to maintain SCRAMP, and bring in the things that they are lacking – like leadership and resources.”

That’s not going to happen, Smith said.

Dismissing the Friends group as a “start-up operation,” Smith said it was foolish to imagine that those employees and volunteers long loyal to SCRAMP would embrace McCall and his Friends.

“I can tell you that many of them don’t want to work for the people at Friends,” Smith said. “They’ve been very vocal about that.”

The historic Monterey hills racetrack, currently known as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, hosts five major racing events annually. In 2015, its managers reported 234,000 tickets sold to visitors who pumped an estimated $62.1 million into local businesses, including $5.2 million in state and local taxes.

But charges of mismanagement and a scathing Monterey County Grand Jury report on SCRAMP’s Laguna Seca activities cast doubt on the group’s ability to manage the facility.

The grand jury report stated that SCRAMP had underreported income, juggled creditors and delayed payments to balance its books, and inappropriately used funds for capital improvements to meet operating costs.

“SCRAMP has not been a financially fit concessionaire,” the report found.

Last year, county officials began entertaining offers from outside parties.

Following months of hearings and proposals from Friends of Laguna Seca, Florida-based International Speedway Corp. and a partnership between Long Beach Grand Prix founder Chris Pook and Monterey-based fast-food restaurateur Landon Hofman, the county gave SCRAMP a new, revocable three-year contract to manage the entire facility — not just the concessions.

But within months, McCall said, county officials asked his group to come back to the negotiating table.

“The county came to us, asking us for help,” McCall said. “But there’s also this plea to keep SCRAMP in place, and we’re being painted by SCRAMP as the bad guys.”

McCall, who produces two major events during the August “car week” period that culminates annually with the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance, said that his group is prepared to walk away from the racetrack if the county does not give the Friends group a hand in managing it.

The timing is right, he said, for change, as the first “car week” events will begin on Aug. 14.

“We’re going to have everyone in the motor sports world on the peninsula here in a couple of weeks,” McCall said. “We can’t keep telling them, ‘Well, we might have something good to announce soon.’ We really want to act on this now.”

Smith was also eager for a quick resolution.

“I hope the county will look at this in terms of what is best for the county and the community – period,” he said. “Not what’s best for SCRAMP, and not what’s best for Friends.”

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