Inside the Legal Feud Over Noise That Threatened California's Best Racetrack

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Inside the Legal Feud That Threatened Laguna SecaJonas Jungblut
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The view of the track from across Highway 68. If your ears could see, this is what sound would look like.Jonas Jungblut

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

This story originally appeared in Volume 23 of Road & Track.

So begins John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, one of fiction’s best running starts. Here on Highway 68, it’s grating noise at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca—with the stink of gasoline, as opposed to Monterey’s sardines of yore—that put a nostalgic dream track in legal crosshairs.

The Monterey County-owned circuit was built on a portion of what was until 1994 the U.S. Army’s Fort Ord, where infantry soldiers trained with rifles and artillery from World War I through the Gulf War. Now the track is defending itself against volleys from critics, who are responding to the booming exhaust notes of Indy cars and Rolex Reunion historic racers. Residents in the Highway 68 Coalition claim the rip-roaring has expanded beyond permitted bounds. Their lawsuit stalled a county-approved management lease agreement with Friends of Laguna Seca (FLS) that could run as long as 55 years. This was, of course, frustrating to FLS leaders, including longtime racer and restoration titan Bruce Canepa.

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Laguna Seca’s Turn 10, bathed in golden California light.Jonas Jungblut

The FLS nonprofit has envisioned a big-money makeover to rebuild Laguna Seca as “the world-class facility it needs to be,” Canepa says. County Supervisor Mary Adams calls the circuit a “tarnished jewel” that, nonetheless, generated about $290 million in area economic activity in 2023.

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Looking west from track property toward the gated community of Pasadera. Jonas Jungblut

California is ground zero for many NIMBY-­scented disputes. But Laguna Seca’s fight is familiar to racers around the world. Sunday racing has been banned at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park since 1959, following noise challenges from a church and chamber-music venue. Long Island’s Bridgehampton was worn down by sound restrictions in the Seventies and gave way to a golf club in 1999. Ferrari abides by daily decibel limits at its Fiorano circuit, including no testing during lunch hour and just 60 days of unlimited decibels. It’s like telling the Pope he can’t punch it in Vatican City.


Speaking of His Holiness, County Supervisor Adams recalls seeing Pope John Paul II in his Popemobile at Laguna Seca, and “some fabulous racing.”

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The scoreboard in the distance looks a bit like a cross planted on a gravesite. But thankfully, Laguna Seca is in no immediate mortal danger.Jonas Jungblut

“Some residents oppose the track, but the majority are supportive,” Adams says. “I’m thrilled it’s in my district. The county wasn’t a good steward and put off maintenance” prior to a recent $18 million infusion that included a track resurfacing.

FLS president Ross Merrill is a third-gen Salinas farmer and Porsche 911 racer. He remembers sneaking in through Army land and photographing Mark Donohue during his legendary 1973 Can-Am season.

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Laguna Seca’s hilly terrain is part of its appeal but also a contributing cause of some of its sound-level challenges. Jonas Jungblut

I’m in Monterey, determined to avoid auto fans’ reflexive “So why’d ya move near a track, car hater?” While an “I was here first” defense works for siblings in a sandbox, 150 years of nuisance case law says otherwise. The coalition also includes folks who collect cars or are old enough to remember original Pebble Beach Road Races through pine forests. Ernie McAfee’s 1956 death in a Ferrari spurred Laguna Seca’s 1957 construction, over 60 days for $125,000. Resident Jerry Wilkerson says his family construction company helped build the track.

“The Army moved the dirt, and we paved it,” Wilkerson says. “But it’s gotten to the point where it’s deafening from morning till late afternoon.”

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Sandy Silveira has been monitoring sound level at the track for 25 years. Here she is in a hut near Turn 5.Jonas Jungblut

Ron Vandergrift bought a home in 1988 “overlooking Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven,” as he puts it, referring to a short-story collection that centers on Corral de Tierra, the area that’s now producing noise complaints. He cranks up big-band music on his deck to drown out the buzz. “If I had known the noise would get this bad, this constant, I wouldn’t have bought the house,” the retired Navy commander says.

Both sides agree that a sore spot is a ­full-throttle uphill heading to the top of the legendary Corkscrew descent, where sound spills down hillsides into graceful older neighborhoods. On the opposite side, in the Pasadera gated community—home of the Jack Nicklaus–­designed Club at Pasadera golf course, which opened in 2000—buyers sign a document acknowledging the track and essentially waiving their right to sue over noise, as long as Laguna Seca follows the event limitations of its permit.

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Highway 68 is the main way in and out of the track. It’s also the name of the coalition that sued the track.Jonas Jungblut

Ari Straus has heard this sad anthem play out too many times. The founding partner of New York’s Monticello Motor Club is wrapping a ­Disney-style legal moat around a planned P1 Motor Club in Florida. Straus won rezoning as a “special district,” similar to a theme park, to bypass local control and protect his facility from challenges over noise. Straus said he declined opportunities to develop tracks near San Francisco, as he worried that California’s NIMBYs would oppose one.

“There are too many examples of wonderful tracks where neighbors have been effective at creating difficult operating conditions or shutting it down,” Straus says.

At Laguna Seca, I watch Skip Barber Mustang GTs circle. I visit a hut after Turn 5, where Sandy Silveira has monitored decibels for 25 years. Laguna Seca is allowed 36 Unlimited days. Others are limited to 105, 103, 92, or 90 decibels, while California public roads have a 95-decibel max. Organizers pay extra for more aural freedom. I ask what a modern Indy car or a vintage F1 screamer puts out, but Silveira isn’t sure; for at least 25 years, the track hasn’t measured on Unlimited days. For an idea of cars cranked to 11, Jim Glickenhaus’s SCG 003 was black-flagged on the Nürburg­ring for topping 130 decibels. That matches the eardrum wallop of a jet fighter launching off a carrier deck.

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There isn’t a better place in America to watch a race than the top of a hill near the Corkscrew. Jonas Jungblut

Silveira says some drivers sandbag limits by lifting before they pass her booth. But she expertly nabs violators and alerts corner workers. After a black flag, miscreants are given one chance to put a sock in it. A second violation, and that driver’s day is over.

Some experts are skeptical that Laguna’s elevations lend themselves to quietude. Others say berms and bushes, as opposed to hard walls, can be an effective aural prophylactic.

Some experts are skeptical that Laguna’s elevations lend themselves to quietude.

Carmakers recognize changing sensibilities. Porsche designed its Cayman GT4 RS Clubsport with a relatively boisterous exhaust standard and an optional quieter muffler for restricted tracks. “That Clubsport is 102 decibels out of the box,” Straus says of the standard version. Every 10-decibel gain equates to double the perceived loudness, so that’s twice the 92 decibels emitted by some Jaguar F-types.

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Laguna Seca is still very much a track defined by its landscape, instead of the other way around.Jonas Jungblut

Dennis Macchio, a driving coach and longtime track operator, says that as suburban sprawl engulfs tracks, “a thin-margin industry is under attack and not well armed to fight noise ordinances.”

“Tracks have evolved into retirement areas where people have nothing to do but bitch,” he says. “It takes a thousand people to make a successful track and one individual to make problems.”

To some locals, that individual is Mike Weaver. His Highway 68 Coalition sued the county airport, which scaled back an expansion plan. It lost a bid to block a 185-home subdivision, though that project died.

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PVC pipes and zip ties aren’t state of the art, but they do hold a microphone in place.Jonas Jungblut

Some opponents concede that Weaver sincerely hopes to preserve the area’s character. Eric Phelps is not among them. I meet Phelps, who’s finally on track to start his Corral de Tierra shopping center after a 12-year battle for county approval and five years tied up in court by the Highway 68 Coalition.

Phelps drives me past Weaver’s Spanish-style hilltop home, across the road from the planned shopping center. We spot a 1958 Chevy Apache rolling down the steep driveway.

“That’s him!” Phelps says.

I approach the window of Weaver’s pickup. He’s not the man I’d been led to expect. Weaver greets me warmly, despite my ambush, and says he used to read Road & Track. Weaver spent a lifetime in cars, from a teenager reconditioning used cars to a career in sales. The lawsuit, he says, was never about wanting Laguna Seca to shut down. He’s lived on this property for his 73 years. He remembers track workers knocking on doors when he was a child, asking if the residents would mind expansion—from one annual race to two.

“My dad asked me, ‘What do you think, son?’” Weaver recalls. “I said, ‘Two races doesn’t sound so bad.’” Those one or two races, the coalition claims, have grown to roughly 200 track days a year, with little accountability at the publicly owned facility.

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Silveira often shares her sound-level hut with Eli, her Chihuahua companion.Jonas Jungblut

“We’ve been characterized as hating racing, hating cars, but that’s bogus,” says Weaver, whose personal cars include a Porsche 356 and an Austin-Healey 3000. “It’s the amount of use and intensity that’s the issue.”

Weaver says this is residents’ last chance to be heard before the county hands control to FLS.

“They seem like nice people. We wish them well. But can we just talk about this before 55 years starts?” Weaver says.

Days after my Monterey trip, the lawsuit was settled. FLS will hire an acoustical consultant to measure sound at races and rentals and spend up to $2 million on abatement. The county will pay the coalition $75,000 for attorney costs. Under the terms of its lease, FLS must put up $1 million immediately for capital improvements, plus $5 million for operations. As part of the settlement, neither the county nor FLS admitted to any impropriety.

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Private residences are nestled in the hills near the track.Jonas Jungblut

“Motorsports has to look at how to make cars a little quieter,” Canepa acknowledges. He expects that EVs will eventually stake a claim on tracks, but he doesn’t view silence as golden.

“Race cars need a heart and soul, and that’s the engine,” he says. “Electric cars are pretty bland. I’ll stick by my old standards. I love the sound of a race car.”

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