In what was easily the most ambitious automotive venture of my career thus far, I towed all the way to the legendary and historic Laguna Seca in Monteray, California, for an Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car event.
When they announced this year’s schedule, I couldn’t ignore the two bucket list tracks that weren’t in my bucket, and the first was Laguna Seca.
Doing this event was daunting for a few reasons. The first was distance. Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca is 2,327 miles from my house. Driving 12-14 hours per day, it was going to take three days to get there and three days to get back. That’s a physical demand on me. There’s a line from the Lord of the Rings movie by King Theodan about a three day ride and man and beast must arrive with the strength to fight. It’s a wise consideration.
Second was the car. The Probe has simply not been reliable. Our trip to VIR last October ended in disaster. We drove nine hours to south central Virginia and didn’t make it past lunch on the first day. Traveling four times that distance and breaking would be crushing. Like, to the point I’d have seriously considered scrapping the car in California so I wouldn’t have to pay for the fuel cost to drag it back home for repairs.
The third was financial. I’ve done well for myself, but my resources are not unlimited. This trip was going to require eight nights in hotels and nearly $1500 in fuel. All in, expenses for this trip alone could approach $3,000. That’s a lot to go play with a car that originally cost $520.
But it’s LAGUNA SECA. I decided to make it work.
Goals for the trip prep were simple: find and eradicate ALL of the fluid leaks on the Probe. Even after replacing the oil cooler lines that gave us trouble in Virginia, we still had smoking after the car was driven hard. Oil was coming out somewhere and getting on the exhaust. Having remediated all the leaks at the top of the engine, the only place left to look was the oil pan itself. I took off the exhaust and dropped the pan, and turns out that was it. The oil pan on these cars is installed using sealant, not a gasket. When installing the pan last year, I must have rubbed it against something and disturbed the sealant bead enough that there was a gap. That gap happened to be directly above the downpipe.
I reinstalled the oil pan with a fresh bead of sealant and took it for a spin and it appeared the issue was resolved, though time would tell. It’s difficult and unsafe to push this car hard enough on the street to really evaluate anything.
Prep for the truck was fresh fluids and a once over on the tires.
The outbound trip was mostly uneventful. The first leg took us to Weatherford, Oklahoma; day 2 landed us in Winslow, Arizona; and day three ended in Tulare, California, where that lake just filled back up.
On day two, we did have a scare when the volt meter on the truck suddenly dove for the floor. The alternator had given up. Luckily, we had a giant Optima Yellow Top battery under the hood, and it easily got us the 30 miles to Santa Rosa, New Mexico, where we sourced a new alternator and replaced it in front of the courthouse.
We settled that night in Winslow, Arizona. We took a picture. If you’re not familiar with standing on a corner in Winslow, check out the Eagles (the band).
On day four, which was Friday, we made it to the track. Check in went fine. We tech’d the car, and headed for the beach! I haven’t had my feet in the Pacific since 1986.
Friday night was orientation. With the Trans Am and SVRA practice over, it was our time to go out and not crash. We made it out on track via our entrance at turn five, crossed the start finish, and exited at ten. That covered the whole track, including the Corkscrew, which lived up to all the hype. It was driving off a cliff, but with substantially less chance it would kill you. Unbelieveable.
As an aside, Let me talk for a second with Moterey, California:
DO NOT LOSE THIS TRACK. Whatever sins of the past, some of you know the value of the national treasure in your border. Talk to you neighbors about it. Figure out a way. Do not let this pass into history. This track us just too good to lose.
Ok, back to the event.
We did well. 4th in class in the autocross and D&E, which in this company was fantastic. Falken Tire Hot Lap challenge practice was at the end of the day, and boy, what a story that was.
We ran consistently in 2:03 range during practice – until the cars in front of me pitted early. I blitzed the last lap, shaved eight seconds and landed a 1:55. That got me a favorable position in the grid for the timed sessions on Sunday, and met my goal of a sub-two minute lap.
We finished Saturday off with the Lucas Oil Road Rally, got some food, and passed out at the hotel.
Sunday morning brought another day of excellent weather and a forgiving schedule. We had the Peak Performance Challenge in the morning and afternoon, with road course competition sessions during the lunch hour and to close out the day.
I’m happy to report that for the first time in seven years of running these events, I was happy with my Peak Performance runs. We finished fourth in class again, and 59th overall (out of 88) in a stacked field of really fast cars. We got the car to dig out of the hole and really did well sticking the finish in the box.
Then the road course. In the lunchtime session, we backed up our 1:55 from practice, but we were in traffic the entire time. In the evening session, we got greedy and spun and never really recovered to put down the kind of flyer I think the car was capable of. But we still didn’t suck. Again, fourth in class and 58th overall of 88. There are a lot of cars that were not faster than a Probe that day.
At the end of the event, we were solidly fourth in the Geaux Moto GTC class, scored 282 points in what I think will turn out to be the toughest field of the season, and catapulted ourselves from 10th to 5th in the season points.
The cherry on top? We had zero mechanical issues with the car.
This was a tremenduously successful trip. Looking ahead, we have a few regional autocrosses over the next two months, then the Chasing the Dragon Hillclimb in July, followed by Optima’s event at Daytona International Speedway in early August.
HUGE thanks to Jenni, my girlfriend and the best travel companion and crew chief ever. More thanks to Optima Batteries and all the event sponsors for making these events possible and giving crazy people like me access to tracks like this. Thank you all.
Keep watching this space for more updates!