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Historic Laguna Seca track to remain under control of Sports Car Racing Assn. of Monterey Peninsula

Historic Laguna Seca track to remain under control of Sports Car Racing Assn. of Monterey Peninsula
A 1907 Renault Vanderbilt Racer hits the straightway during the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, an annual historic vehicle race held at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in 2012. (Bob Heathcote Photography)

A concerted effort by a group of deep-pocketed motoring enthusiasts to take control of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca has been rebuffed.

For now, the historic Monterey Peninsula racetrack will remain under the stewardship of the Sports Car Racing Assn. of the Monterey Peninsula, or SCRAMP.

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The Monterey County Board of Supervisors determined late Tuesday, after a closed-door session in Salinas, to give SCRAMP a three-year contract to manage the 2.2-mile raceway, race concessions and affiliated campgrounds.

The decision came after the Board of Supervisors reached out to Friends of Laguna Seca, a nonprofit group of local automobile and motorcycle racers, collectors and supporters, asking them to prepare a proposal to restore the tattered racetrack to competitive standards.

The supervisors declined through a spokesperson to comment, but representatives from both SCRAMP and the Friends group said board members had informed them of the decision Tuesday.

In contention was the fate of one of America's most important racetracks, long the site of key motorcycle and car races and a centerpiece to the annual Car Week automotive celebration that ends each August with the famed Pebble Beach Concours D'Elegance.

The track hosts five major racing events annually, and in 2015 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.

Concerned racing enthusiasts have long expressed doubts about SCRAMP's ability to maintain the facility, which currently requires substantial upgrades to remain competitive with other U.S. racetracks.

A grand jury report last year echoed those doubts, determining that the track was being poorly managed.

The 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.

Not long after, county officials announced their intention to entertain offers from outside parties interested in taking charge of the venerable track.

Through the second half of 2016, proposals and counter-proposals were made by three groups: Florida-based International Speedway Corp., a partnership between Long Beach Grand Prix founder Chris Pook and Monterey-based fast-food restaurateur Landon Hofman, and a non-profit organization calling itself Friends of Laguna Seca.

That group is composed of Monterey Peninsula locals Bruce Canepa, Jonathan Fieber, Warren "Ned" Spieker Jr., Ross Merrill, Thomas Minnich and Gordon McCall, who have teamed with race management professional Lauri Eberhart.

SCRAMP, which at first objected to county officials' conversations with representatives from ISC, later proposed running Laguna Seca in partnership with them.

In late 2016, county representatives announced that they would reject all outside offers. They put SCRAMP on a month-to-month contract to manage the venue's concessions business.

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Then, in a surprise turnaround, the county gave SCRAMP a new, revocable three-year contract to manage the entire facility — not just the concessions.

But within months, McCall said, board of supervisor representatives contacted his group and asked them to freshen their 2016 offer.

McCall said the group reiterated its earlier plan to invest an immediate $10 million to improve the race facility, and pledged a further $50 million investment over the next 25 years, half of that within the next five years.

Smith, speaking on behalf of SCRAMP, dismissed those figures as insufficient, and insisted that surpluses from track operations would bring far more funds to the facility — even though under SCRAMP's management the raceway has struggled to remain self-supporting.

Earlier this week, in an apparent attempt to prepare against the coming bid by the Friends group, SCRAMP made changes to its upper ranks.

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

She was 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.

In an interview with The Times, Smith characterized the Friends groups as a "start-up" with limited experience in race track management.

SCRAMP supporters, including Monterey Peninsula hoteliers, told county supervisors Tuesday that shifting management of the facility to a new organization would be disruptive to motoring events that bring substantial income to peninsula businesses, McCall said.

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