RALPH WATSON AT LAGUNA SECA

After some persuasion from Ralph Smith and an old friend Herb Gilroy and Ralph Smith's assurance that he did not want me to work on the car, I joined the Ralph and Bill McCabe crew to run the Lycoming at the Laguna Seca Race Track in California.

After a night in San Francisco we found our way to Peter Gidding's home, hidden away among the trees, in a very nice area about 20 miles out. Peter had been doing some scouting and knew where to find the Lycoming in the square mile or so of container terminal at Oakland, so we hitched a trailer to his camper van and proceeded to the terminal. I was left in the van as security guard while the others went to negotiate the release of the Lycoming. This succeeded after some time and they arrived back with the car and a rather shocked Ralph Smith who had just paid the charges!

It was arranged that Stan Peterson would lend us his van for the weekend. A visit to Stan's home, hidden among the trees in Oakland was a surprise. Stan is a competent engineer and showed us some race car parts he was making in his basement workshop. To get to the lathe and milling machine one had to pick the way among engine blocks and space frames etc., which filled the rest of the space and overflowed out the door. A larger shed further down the drive was also full of body panels, frames, and an MG was seen under the stack, but in the centre of it all was a 70s era V12 BRM with the air intake over the driver's head. Stan advised that he runs it in the few events which include a class where it is acceptable.

The next day after collecting his well used van with stickers left from many race meetings on its windscreen, as well as spare parts from the same inside, we towed the Lycoming 100 miles south to near Monterey and settled in to a motel.

Reporting at the track on Thursday we found our allocated pit space and got to work. I was relieved when the car started up without any trouble. There had been a petrol fire in Dunedin which had burnt some wiring and Ralph's hands while he was saving the car. This had put him in hospital for a few weeks while the car was repaired and loaded on the ship, without being run, or prepared as he would have wished.


Checking on car and driver prior to the Lycoming making its debut in the U.S.A.

So called “rookie” drivers, had to attend the Jim Russell Driving School. This is a large organisation with over 35 racing cars, mostly Formula Fords, but some with Mazda rotary or Toyota engines.

The school also trains racing mechanics. I want along to the lecture detailing aspects of the circuit, after which all competitors drove round it following a lead car. Ralph got in a number of laps in the Lycoming.

He came in reporting that the engine would not go above 3,000 r.p.m. due to mixture trouble so that it seemed to be time for me to look into things. After the fuel pressure was reduced considerably, Ralph set out again to reset the cockpit mixture control, but he was only allowed one lap which did not allow him to make proper adjustments. We fiddled about with the car in the pits, but its running only became worse. An inspection of the spark plugs found them covered in soot and no spares were on hand. I was trying to clean them when an American voice said, “You need some new plugs, I've got boxes of those at home.” We were indeed interested but home was 2,000 miles away!

The next bit of information was more helpful. Oliver tractors used them, so Ralph and Bill departed in haste for the nearest farming community. With new plugs fitted we left the car ready for practice the next day, when it could be quickly out on the track before the plugs fouled.

As the Lycoming accelerated out of a corner close by our vantage point, Bill and I listened to the misfiring. After three or four laps Ralph got the mixture setting right and the car started to go and passed some of the opposition. After another three or four laps, at a point close to where we were standing, the transmission broke and it was all over.

We took the gearbox apart and found several fatigued teeth broken off second gear. Some thought was given to running without second gear, but Ralph called it off, which was the right decision, as with a three speed box and no second the performance would not have been worthy of the car.

When I enquired regarding maximum revs obtained 3,600 was quoted which was reasonable, but did not indicate best possible performance. The few laps completed earned Ralph fifth place on the grid of approximately twenty cars. We were now free for the next two days, to watch races and look around the paddock.

The 2.2 mile circuit is laid out in rolling country and starts with the fastest stretch which has a slight bend and rise in the middle, enough to restrict visibility, and according to Graham McRae make an F 5,000 go light in the steering. This ends with a left hand hairpin followed by two right and two left hand sweepers, an easy climb to an altitude of about 300 feet followed by a steeper twisty decent known as the Corkscrew, with a left hander at the bottom. Two short straights with a right and tight left takes one back to the start. The Corkscrew is taken mostly on a trailing throttle and the downhill corner at the bottom seemed to cause the most trouble. I saw two Lotus Eleven-style cars spin here, as did the camera car which was leading Fangio in his Mercedes, leaving Fangio to go on his way as if nothing unusual had happened. If Laguna Seca was in New Zealand it would be considered the best circuit in the country.

Trailers were required to be parked outside the paddock area, but camper vans and large transporters containing cars, tools and living quarters were allowed in. Some had come thousands of miles and were really well set up, with mag wheels and all the trimmings. Outside the paddock there were stalls selling books, accessories, junk food and Ferraris!

There was an Alfa and a Mercedes display containing a 159 which did a few laps leaving a blue haze and a P3 for looking at only, and the Mercedes desmo dromic valve gear car which Fangio used for his photographic demo.

The cars racing were divided into fourteen classes according to age, type, capacity and performance. Each class had a half-hour practice session and one race of 22 miles during the three-day meeting. Some entrants brought several cars and so raced in different classes. There were 259 entries.

I was pleased to again meet Steele Therkelson, an expatriate New Zealand engineer, who is now in demand as an historic engine restorer in Los Angeles. He was there as part of a Lago Talbot crew and is at present working on one of the few straight six 4.4 litre Ferraris.

Some time was spent examining cars not seen in New Zealand. The Frontenac Ford racers, old oval track cars and in particular two 1.5 litre straight eight Millers with centrifugal superchargers. I was longing to hear these on full song, but they only pussyfooted them around at about zero boost. There was a 1750 6C Alfa sports lapping with one of the 130 m.p.h. plus Millers. Probably their gearing was unsuitable and the brakes on all these old racers would be quite inadequate.

A surprise was the speed of a 4.5 litre Bentley with a big new blower on the front which had a runaway win from the more normal Bentleys. The slower old racing cars, three wheeled Morgans, etc. trailing behind.

Among the small sports cars, were a couple of 750 Crosleys, 850 Dyna Panhards, a Cooper MG and even a Ford Ten Special. Among the four Bugattis in another race, was one that really sounded as if it had some boost, likewise a two litre ERA was going very fast, particularly before the driver was stopped and spoken to by officials. Also in this group was Peter Giddings 2.3 litre Alfa Romeo Monza, a 4CLT Maserati, two Lago Talbots, a K3 MG Magnette and a five litre sprint car, reminiscent of a tidied up GeeCeeEss, which sprinted well out of the corners.

Photos taken by Ralph Watson showing some of the interesting cars competing at Laguna Seca

1927 Indianapolis Miller. 91 cubic inch engine.


1934 British ERA


1924 Frontenac Model T Ford


1914 Buick Bullet.

The Lycoming would have been among a group of 1955 to 1959 sports cars, including three Ol' Yaller sports cars and other big V8s, as well as Ferraris, Maseratis, Lister Jaguars, etc.

On the last day there were another seven races for the after 1960 cars, finishing with Can Am cars, but no F5,000 entries. The standard of driving in general seemed good, with the aim being to take care of the valuable old cars.

We took time off to view the Pebble Beach Concourse, set among the pine trees and homes of film stars. The cars were in the main old American heavyweights with superb coats of paint, but a few cars which had finished their racing, were also on display. Back at Laguna Seca the meeting ended with some Awards of Merit being presented and thanks were given to Fangio and Gonzales.

After returning the Lycoming to Peter Giddings who was to deliver it for shipment to New Zealand, we were taken for a drive northward by Stan to see another racing circuit. We did a couple of laps in the van, it was all corners and up and down hill, with only about one hundred yards of straight. It may have been Stan's favourite place to dice, but it would not have been mine.

A surprise was the amount of racecar servicing going on in a block of 36 units at the circuit. Engine, transmission, panel and paint repairs, the lot. Ralph did the rounds looking for parts for the Dunedin HWM project. On the way back we called into a specialist engine shop where they were rebuilding a V12 Ferrari and a vintage Hispano. Around the shop I spied a 4.5 litre four cylinder Offenhauser, in pieces and also parts of a 1.5 litre straight eight Miller.

After I showed them some New Zealand photos the discussion moved on to rotary valves, model aero engines, the strange design of Hispano connecting rods and the difficulty of truing up Bugatti roller bearing crankshafts. A good final to an interesting trip, thanks to Stan.

Dreaming on the way home I thought, what if the BSA had been there? It would have been quite competitive among the old cars and certainly not last in the small sports car class. The circuit should not have been too difficult as the cars soon spread out in a 20-mile race. All that is needed is a sponsor to charter a Jumbo jet and fly a load of New Zealand cars direct to Monterey!


Behind the shades at Laguna Seca. 1991.

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