Blurry photo of car travelling at high speed at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Late afternoon sun lights up Cameron Healy's 1970 Porsche 908/3 as he exits turn five.

A Conversation with John Narigi and Barry Toepke of Laguna Seca

If you’re searching for an American racetrack with a unique history, look no further than WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on California’s Monterey Peninsula. Built on property that was once part of the Army’s Fort Ord, racing began here in 1957 and has continued ever since.

After decades of the track being managed by a local non-profit organization, the racing community was surprised in 2020, when Monterey County awarded the rights to manage WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the entire Recreation Area to a Mr. John V. Narigi.

Who? John is a businessman from the Monterey area hospitality industry. How? John overcame several competing bids submitted by “heavy hitters” from the racing community. Within days, wild rumors of John’s intentions to shut down the track and build a locked gate housing community or a private tennis club were flying over the web. Lawsuits followed.

Two years later, John is still at the helm, and Sports Car Digest thought it would be a good time to catch up with him—as well as with Barry Toepke, his Director of Marketing and Communications. Barry is also the event manager of the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, one of the world’s largest vintage racing celebrations, which is held every August at the track.

John Narigi of Laguna Seca
John V. Narigi
President ? General Manager
Weather Tech Raceway Laguna Seca

JN – I’m John Narigi, president and general manager of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Laguna Seca Recreation Area.

Barry Toepke of Laguna Seca
Barry Toepke
Director of Marketing and Communications
Event Manager Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion

BT – Barry Toepke – Director of Heritage Events and Public Relations.

DG – Enhancing the Laguna Seca experience for spectators—I know that’s always been a goal of the track and it kind of fell behind a little bit before you guys came on. What are you doing to enhance the spectators’ experience—coming in, walking around the track, where you park, where you find a restroom, the food?

JN – I took over on January 1, 2020, and then we all know what happened a couple of months later [referring to the COVID-19 pandemic]. That lingered and kept the track closed until June 1, 2020, when we reopened track rentals under very strict health and safety protocols. [After] June 15, 2021, we were allowed to open with spectators but with restrictions on hospitality services, yet we introduced a kids’ zone with three or four different types of activities, which were well received. We now offer go-karts at all race events. And [we’re] reviewing the potential of starting a karting program.

As for food and beverage, we will be upgrading the offerings and service in 2022. If there was one item that really stood out, we didn’t have enough vendors, and some of the vendors had a very tough time delivering what they needed to produce at the standard requested, mainly due to the pandemic.

We are also upgrading the Flag room hospitality area and rebranding it to The Legends Club, offering a superior experience for guests. As it relates to other experiences, we have some great plans regarding the (Rolex) Reunion. We’re looking at how to layout our paddock for all our major races. That would be from the Turn 3 structure through the entire paddock area, to make it more welcoming and not just a place where a race is being set up with the transporters and all the vendors in one place.

Although, there are a lot of people, racing professionals and racing enthusiasts, who love to experience the behind-the-scenes action. They like to see tires being changed and mechanics working on the race cars. Guests enjoy the excitement of an open paddock.

Red car on track at Laguna Seca Raceway in California with Rolex ad visible in background
Early on a Saturday morning Steve Walker takes his 1973 BMW 3.5 CSL into Laguna’s turn eight The Corkscrew.

Laguna Seca, as we all know, is an iconic, world-renowned race track. It has a huge draw and an impressive history. As it relates to some of the key projects, I’m very thankful to the County of Monterey, the owners of the park and track. The County has approved two major projects—a complete track resurfacing, which will also take care of curbing around the track. The track has not been resurfaced since 2007.

We’re also going to begin construction on a new start/finish bridge, which will allow for golf carts and ADA access, both of which are critical. Additionally, interior upgrades will occur in our Turn 3 hospitality pavilion.

Another critical project and a necessity for all races is the need for additional permanent restrooms. There’s ARPA money available to assist in the funding through the County of Monterey. The plan is to add two new permanent, large restrooms. They will be in two key areas; one will be built right outside the paddock, which will be easily accessible for those who love our Corkscrew location. The other in the lakebed. We have newer restrooms in the Newman Building that are right in the paddock and can handle significant traffic.

My firm has a very good relationship with the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and staff. They understand that over the years, there hasn’t been a lot of capital investment put back into Laguna Seca—the track nor the park. And as a result, the facility is showing its age. Receiving funding for capital improvements is critical.

Another objective in a year or so would be to develop a bond measure initiative for Monterey County Parks and include all County Parks. The park with camping is open year-round. There is good demand for daily use of the park and a strong upside versus relying mainly on just the major events for use.

Laguna Seca is in a beautiful location 20 minutes from the Monterey Peninsula. We’re in the Sunbelt, so our temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees higher than what you experience on the Monterey Peninsula. And Laguna Seca is in the heart of a world-renowned tourist destination offering restaurants, wineries, lodging, and shopping. Carmel, Pebble Beach, Big Sur, the Salinas Valley as the agricultural capital of the world, and the world-famous Cannery Row in Monterey are easily accessible. We’re in the middle of it all.

Twenty minutes to a half-hour, you can be anywhere, whether you’re here because of a race, or because you want to enjoy Monterey County and/or the coastline of the Monterey Peninsula.

DG – What about an Area Development relationship with various sanctioning bodies? Are you thinking about bringing anybody new in?

JN – We have. Last year, we signed a new three-year deal with INDYCAR. We’re their season finale this year in September. We moved the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship from fall to spring as there was a lot of doubling up with current events. Difficult on the staff and volunteers and challenging at times for ticket sales. So IMSA is now in the spring, following the Trans Am Speed Fest. We are focusing our efforts on ticket sales and promoting all our events.

Moto America will become the premier annual motorcycle event. And then, of course, we have our Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, followed by the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season finale and Velocity International closing out our 2022 season. So, I guess to answer your question, Dennis, I’m not looking at any other major sanctioning bodies to come in at this time.

BT – But you know, look at how many dates we can provide unlimited sound dates. So, we have to prioritize who and what we’re going to be doing.

Yellow race cars in Shell livery rounding curve at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Jim Bouzaglou’s 1973 Lola T-292 leads Gray Gregory’s 1973 Chevron B26 through Laguna’s turn two.

DG – It sounds like you’ve got the main events people want to come to see.

JN – The main ones, and we are trying to provide variety. For 2022, we are working extremely hard to make it a banner year for the track.

DG – Is there any interest or any contact with Porsche about Rennsport?

BT – Coming back?

DG – Can you share anything?

JN – Can we? Not really. We are one of a limited few at the top of the list.

DG – The first year Porsche came here for Rennsport, they had Porsche executives driving photographers around to different shooting locations in Porsches. I had a guy from Porsche Performance Parts out of Atlanta. He couldn’t get over the experience of seeing a few hundred Porsches lined up in the lakebed. They really drew nobody the first couple of Rennsport events back east. And they were just blown away. Rennsport and Laguna Seca are just a natural fit.

BT – Yeah, 2018 was spectacular. In terms of attendance and just what Porsche brought to the show. Porsche hasn’t informed us of any decision, but we sure would love to have Rennsport return. And the other big draw—it’s on the Monterey Peninsula.

JN – I think previous management forgot about the Monterey Peninsula, because that’s a draw, even for our track rentals that we sell out every year. As it relates to the noise levels, we are controlled on unlimited sound and 105 DBs because we’re literally adjacent to neighborhoods. So, we must be very cautious on managing the sound levels for all track use. We want to be good neighbors.

Blurry photo of car travelling at high speed at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Late afternoon sun lights up Cameron Healy’s 1970 Porsche 908/3 as he exits turn five.

DG – What’s the INDYCAR event look like this year? How many days and how many cars? I have not been to Indy here in 10 years.

BT – Maybe come back, then.

DG – I am. SCD is covering it. I’m coming back.

BT – I was not here in 2019 when it was the season finale. I understand it went very well. Last year was a bit slower on Friday and Saturday. But on Sunday, I walked out of the media center and the hillsides were filled. The Corkscrew was filled. It’s like the old days of wow, look, and listen. Sunday was a big day here.

Romain Grosjean was on fire, making repeated passes, working his way up to a podium finish, and the drivers loved it. We expect to be bigger this year, being the season finale. It’s not the back-to-back John alluded to—with IMSA the first weekend and INDYCAR the following weekend. A spectator may have to make a decision, perhaps of “where am I going to spend my money? I’ll go to IMSA or I’ll go to INDYCAR.” So, we’re expecting a very good year with INDYCAR, and they’re very supportive. They’ve got a great team of people, and they want to be here. Hopefully, we can keep them as a season finale each year.

Driver in helmet racing open top car at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Michael Silverman’s 1959 Echidna Sports Racer early Saturday morning of the Pre-Historics drops into Laguna’s turn eight The Corkscrew.

DG – Trans Am is coming back with SVRA. And with them comes Historic Trans-Am too. What kind of event is that?

BT – It’s a mix between a pro series and a vintage race. Obviously, they have the historic Trans-Am, plus other historic groups that they’re running. They run hard, vintage racing, and they award first, second and third place to the victors—which we don’t do for the Rolex Reunion. In the Trans Am series, those guys are going at it hard. Those cars are loud, and the racing is intense.

JN – They drive hard and bring a lot of cars. We are supporting Tony Parella and his team. We have not really, because of COVID, had a real SVRA event, although they’ve been on track now twice, because of the no spectator rule. But Tony’s doing a major car corral; kind of a car show. We will have our food and beverage vendors. But we’re working hard to see what kind of attendance we can draw.

2019 was not a good year for SVRA and Laguna Seca’s partnership. It’s a new era as far as our team is concerned. So, we’re putting a lot of effort into promoting this event. It’s our first professional race of the year. Then IMSA is the weekend right after, so we have two totally different styles of cars back-to-back, which might be interesting as well.

BT – Speaking about the market, we’re looking at the drive market. The Central Valley has a lot of car fanatics and a deep racing history. We’re also exploring the fly markets where there are direct flights into Monterey. For instance, Dallas is a growing market for Monterey visits, so we’re looking at what we can do in that area to promote WeatherTech Raceway events. To grow, we need to open our vision and not preach to the choir. And as John said about the entertainment and family activities, we want to provide an entertaining experience, and hopefully, they’ll get hooked on racing as well.

Green open top car rounding curve at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Alex MacAllister’s 1967 Lotus 49 down the Corkscrew.

DG – Yeah. I’m from Turlock over in the Valley. When I was in grammar school, the first couple of years of high school, my family and I would come and we’d be on the hill behind what is now Turn 1. And that whole hill would be Turlock, Modesto, Atwater people. I mean, a few hundred people up there, they would just migrate over for the races, but no more. So, if you can pull those people back, that would be great.

JN – As Barry knows, we need to be in markets where there’s interest in racing. I don’t necessarily think that’s the Monterey Peninsula. Northern California, up in Redding, and those types of areas provide new opportunities. We are redefining where the race fans really are, the people who love to watch and enjoy the excitement of racing.

BT – Interestingly, INDYCAR came out with their TV numbers. The Sacramento/Modesto market was in the top 10 and was massive year-round. So really, that’s a market where we need to be doing promotions, we need to be getting into that market. Not just peripherally; we need to be active. There is a big market.

Red Joest Porsche leading two other cars around curve at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
William Connor’s 1980 Porsche 935.

DG – I used to be the IMSA series photographer. Twenty years ago, maybe. So, it’s changed. What is an IMSA event at Laguna Seca like today, for both cars and competitors?

BT – Manufacturers are coming back in. The Roar Before the 24 is this weekend, and then Daytona. IMSA has a solid package with NBC, so they’re doing a good job. And John Doonan is from the Mazda days and a close friend of ours. It’s a series that is continuing to go up.

The different groups and categories are a little bit confusing, especially to a new person, but IMSA is doing a great job at telling its story and making it relevant to the audience.

JN – Automakers seem to be supportive, and they’re getting additional automakers on board. So, going back to the April dates, it’s going to be our second race of the season. ALMS, the precursor to IMSA, used to run in April with good crowds. We weren’t competing with football or high school sports. So yes, we believe late April is going to be a good move for IMSA.

Three cars rounding corner on track at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
1961 Porsche RS-61L driven by Gunnar Jeannette exits turn five.

DG – Le Mans Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. It’s going to run Wednesday through Saturday. Why is it only running through Saturday? What is going to draw people to this event?

BT – We have a very esteemed group of advisory council members. We have been talking to them about how Sunday has been a tough day because a lot of people go to Pebble Beach, or people want to go home. So, we’ve been talking about it for a little over a year now, of what it would look like Wednesday through Saturday for the Rolex Reunion as we all know it.

Then on Sunday, what can we do that’s involving the community? We can’t yet announce confirmed plans, but we have some great ideas that we’re honing in on, opening it up to a variety of activities. So, the people who are not going to go to Pebble Beach have another place to go.

I think we’re going to get a lot of day-trippers, like Cars and Coffee, for instance. The type of thing where people can come out to the peninsula and enjoy the spirit of what’s going on. But they are not ticket purchasers per se, for a vintage race or a Concours or a car show. So, we wanted to try this out.

Our goal is to continue upgrading the Rolex Reunion on every level, every touchpoint, so that when you come in, off Highway 68, or up to South Boundary Road, we want a visual statement that says, “Wow, I’m somewhere special.” The Advisory Council and team here are committed to bringing the best of the best into Monterey.

DG – What’s been the response from iconic European Historic manufacturers, like Jaguar, Mercedes, Bentley, or whoever?

BT – Very good, very positive. In fact, Steve Fields, our sales director, and myself are working with various automakers on plans. Now that we’ve announced Le Mans, people are contacting us. I’ve had a conversation with one driver who asked, “When am I going to get my invitation? I’m a six-time Le Mans Driver.” I’m excited because it’s not only about the cars, it’s about the people who made them famous. And the feedback has been very, very good.

JN – Yes, we have some new sponsors that we’re talking to that are committed. You know, you hear a lot about lifestyle experiences. And we’re going to change up the paddock and how we get the cars on track. Food and beverage will be a big push, especially the hospitality component.

In 2021, we were judged on performance when we had a month and a half to sell tickets after California finally re-opened. We didn’t know if we could even do a Reunion in 2021 with spectators, so our focus was on the participants.

JN – There had been a lot of rumbles with me being the new operator coming in. 2018 and 2019 were tough years for the Reunion and the track. I’m from the hospitality industry. That’s my business. That’s Guest experience and services, and I was in it for 38 years. So we focused on the participants with the Advisory Council highly involved, and people left happy.

We brought in a new sanctioning body, HSR, who made tremendous strides in really bringing it back to what we believe a lot of the participants want. It’s a social gathering. They want to talk to their friends and enjoy the beauty and performance of the unique vintage racing cars.

We also returned to strict authenticity and period correctness with the entrants. That’s what this event is about. We can’t allow the non-compliant cars in; [we] must remain focused on the original intent of the event and our title sponsor, Rolex. And we’re well on our way for 2022, and we’re very excited for what the Reunion will look like. We must make a statement.

But we’re sticking to the niche of historic racing because that’s our focus. When Barry talks about Pebble and Quail, each major event is three players working to produce an overall excellent “car week” for our residents and visitors. Our part is, we have the iconic world-renowned WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and we will execute a professional first-class historic race with gentlemen racing. That’s the focus, while implementing several upgrades to the facility and guest experience.

JN – We will also be celebrating our 65th anniversary.

Burnt orange car on track at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Porsche 911S drops down the Corkscrew.

DG – My first race was in 1959. When I was in grammar school.

JN – You weren’t a racer?

DG – No, I did own a Lotus 11 Le Mans Series Two. David Love brought five or six of us down to run demo laps during one of the Can-Am races to explore interest in maybe having historic cars run here.

DG – With Laguna being unique to the U.S. racing scene, can you give me an idea of what our readers can expect from a Laguna Seca event? What can they expect when they come here?

JN – Most important is the Corkscrew. You need to see the Corkscrew with cars dropping down the track to understand why we say it’s a “unique racing experience.” Very good, competitive racing on a classic road course. Our goal is to give the spectator good, competitive, racing supported by a professional management team, excellent seasoned volunteers, and service clubs. With the guest’s experience being a major priority.

This year, “Bring the Family” is a major objective to build on that next generation of racing fans. The previous management never looked at what other sports were doing to bring the family experience to their spectators. We are introducing a Kids Zone, Go-Karts, and other kid-friendly events for all our major events in 2022. We will also have a variety of quality vendors involved in retail as well as food and beverage offerings.

But it’s still Laguna Seca. It still has that vintage, historic feeling with numerous racing attributes. We need to address restrooms within the park and track and continue to make capital improvements. We need to continue to improve upon our guest experience touchpoints and keep the track and park clean.

The shelf camping and parking between Turns 10 and 11 is a great place to park your RV and watch the race. With the new pedestrian bridge, entering the paddock will be simplified and accessible to all our guests.

We offer a unique track and clean park with open-air, which promotes health [and] safety, and a management team and volunteers that are focused on improving the spectator’s experience. All this in addition to our beautiful location and weather. We believe WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, no matter if a sanctioned event or just a good race, is a chance to come to watch superior competitive racing with memorable hospitality while being entertained with your family and friends.

Blue car on track at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Rob Walton’s 1965 Cobra Daytona Coup three wheels droping down the corkscrew.

DG – My final thoughts? There is no 4-year degree for managing a race track, and it’s a position of constant challenge. Sports Car Digest appreciates the time both John and Barry took out of their busy schedules to conduct this interview.

Dennis Gray, SportsCarDigest.com

Cars on track at Laguna Seca Raceway in California
Three Porsche 917 Gulf cars line up for Laguna’s turn eleven during a Rennsport 2014 race.