Bobby Rahal has won four consecutive Indy car races at Laguna Seca Raceway, but when he climbs into his red True-sports Lola-Judd for today’s Champion Spark Plug race in search of win No. 5, he will be facing a circuit that is radically different from the one he drove in the past.
When Laguna Seca manager Lee Moselle sought to bring world championship motorcycle racing to his track last summer, he was told that he must stretch out the 9-turn, 1.9-mile course to become eligible for a sanction from the international motorcycle federation. The result is an 11-turn, 2.214-mile track, thanks to a three-quarter-mile loop that was added between turns 2 and 3 of the old circuit.
CART officials originally planned to run their Indy cars on the old course, but after some serious lobbying by Mario Andretti, the driver representative on the CART board, they switched to the new “motorcycle” track.
The change, which has substantially reduced speeds--and improved safety--has met with almost universal approval.
“Plus, plus, plus,” Mario said when asked about the change. “The new section gives this track character. And it has eliminated one of the most dangerous corners we faced in the past.
“We used to be close to 200 m.p.h. between the old turns 2 and 3, and it was white knuckle time. If something happened, we had no room to defend ourselves. Now, at least our knuckles aren’t bleeding.”
Three relatively slow turns that skirt the banks of a small lake replaced the old high-speed section.
Danny Sullivan’s Friday lap of 107.283 m.p.h. in his Chevy Ilomor-powered Penske PC-17 was good enough to win the pole for today’s 300-kilometer (185.9-mile) race as warmer temperatures Saturday made the track slippery.
By contrast, the record on the old 1.9-mile track is 129.237 m.p.h., set by Mario Andretti last year. He will start alongside Sullivan on the front row today after his Friday lap of 105.849.
This will be Sullivan’s eighth pole in 14 races this year and his fourth in a row.
If Sullivan wins today--or if he finishes ahead of Rahal and Al Unser Jr.--he will win his first CART/PPG Indy car championship. He picked up a point for winning the pole and now has 150, to 124 for defending champion Rahal and 120 for Little Al.
Unser was the only driver to move into the top five Saturday as his speed of 105.780 made him third-fastest and shoved Rahal to fourth and Michael Andretti to the third row.
“I was really surprised we wound up third,” Unser said. “I didn’t think the set-up was all that good, and the lap didn’t feel that quick. I’m glad to be up front, because with this being a new track layout, I’d rather be toward the front of the traffic than back in the middle.
“That hard left-hander at the end of the front straight is going to be tough in heavy traffic, especially right after they throw the green (flag).”
Rahal, who blew an engine in his Judd-powered Lola during qualifying, stood on his day-old 105.746 m.p.h. lap.
“I just love this track now,” Rahal said. “It’s really busy out there and it’s a lot more fun to drive. I think it will make a great race Sunday.”
Rick Mears, Sullivan’s Penske teammate and the Indianapolis 500 winner, said, “What they did was take a boring straightaway and turn it into a great place for action.”
Twenty-eight cars will start today after four non-qualifiers, including Indy car rookie Steve Bren of Newport Beach, were added to the field at the promoter’s option. Bren, driving in his first Indy car race, qualified at 99.007 m.p.h. He is in the 13th row.
“It’s tough being as competitive as we’d like, because we’re basically a low-budget operation,” Bren said. “Having only one set of qualifying tires sure didn’t help, either. We’re running an ’87 March, which isn’t the easiest car to set up, and the engine is beginning to rattle a little. It has about 350 miles on it already.”
Almost as far back as Bren is A.J. Foyt, starting his 331st Indy car race--of which he has won 67. Foyt, who has not raced at Laguna Seca in 25 years and never in an Indy car race here, is in the 11th row after coaxing only 100.818 from his Lola.
The last time he was here, in the first major road race of his career, he drove an Olds-Scarab and finished second in a 200-mile race behind the late Dave McDonald.
“I didn’t do very well today because I didn’t know the course and I didn’t have any practice, but it was a lot of fun,” said Foyt, who is running the entire Indy car season this year for the first time since he won his seventh national championship in 1979. Foyt, 53, has 4 finishes in the top 10 this year.
Today’s race will be on ESPN at 1:30 p.m.