Laguna Seca renaissance, Part 2: Passion

Photo: Michael Levitt / Motorsport Images

The venerable Laguna Seca Raceway Foundation exists to raise funds for the development of the Laguna Seca Recreational Area and is a separate entity from both the track operator and Monterey County. A 501c corporation, the LSRF has been rejuvenated of late with key additions to its board of directors — men who collectively posses a clear vision for WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca’s future with the energy and wherewithal to help secure it. In the weeks ahead, RACER will share the behind-the-scenes of this world-class raceway’s renaissance.

This story was originally posted on RACER.com and authored by Steve Nickless

Thomas Merrill is one of the stars of the “new era” Trans Am Presented by Pirelli series, notably its ultra-exciting standalone TA2 class which was a flagship event of the April 28-May 1 SVRA SpeedFest weekend. The 35-year-old Californian has also carved out a reputation as a premier race-driver coach, having inherited an enthusiasm for racing from both of his parents, and communication skills, likely, from his ex-high school teacher mom.

All in the Merrill clan claim Laguna Seca as their home track. Dad Ross is in his fourth decade of racing Porsches, a ongoing love affair triggered watching Mark Donohue hustle the beast of a 917/30 around the challenging Monterey circuit in 1973. Mom Lauren is no longer active, but son Thomas shared memories of “hurtling down the Corkscrew as a little kid, riding along on lunch break in Mom’s 914/6” on the Laguna Seca Trans Am telecast.

A third-generation vegetable farmer, Ross grew up just a few miles from the back gate at Laguna Seca, and was a regular visitor, often bicycling over after school on the trails through Fort Ord following the sound of engines.

Ross got both of his sons — and eventually their mom — started in karting in the 1990s and, while Thomas has made racing a career, younger brother Jonathan followed in his father’s footsteps and is now a Merrill Farms, LLC, principal.

Ross Merrill: “I like to drive race cars, but I’m not doing this because I want more track time.” Image by Richard Baron

Perennially active in the farming industry as well as community and college (CSUMB) activity, Ross was one of the prime movers behind the Friends of Laguna Seca working group poised to take over track operation duties in 2016 until it was elbowed aside at the final hour by a reorganized SCRAMP.

Undeterred and no less passionate about the racetrack, Merrill two years later was invited by long-time members Carl Anderson and Ken Schley to join the Board of the Laguna Seca Foundation, a 501c corporation separate from the track operators and the county.

Merrill was not only a welcome addition but, with his many community ties, was swiftly elected Board President.

Amid a group of a dozen movers and shakers sharing a common enthusiasm for WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway — many linked to the group and the racetrack for decades — Merrill stands out as a “doer.”

“Well, I guess the easiest way to put it, to explain my involvement in the Foundation is: I share a passion for Laguna Seca [with other members of the Board] and have a vision for it going forward, for what it could be,” Merrill explains. “It’s struggling; It needs help. I’m interested in helping in any way that I can, and it’s clear that now is a really good time for all of us to pull together. There’s a wide-open opportunity for cooperation, collaboration and effective partnerships between all of us — ownership, operations, volunteers and the Foundation — to work together toward our common goal of restoring Laguna Seca.

“I especially appreciate the Foundation’s approach. It’s focused on capital improvements for the benefit of the participant and the spectator equally, with emphasis on the visitor experience. We need to elevate the facility to the same level you would see in any other venue on the Monterey Peninsula. Visitors go to Pebble Beach for the amenities; Laguna Seca should be at the same level — the track is worthy of that.”

Merrill was off and running, and his enthusiasm was and is contagious: “It’s a world-famous track. [The layout] has such rhythm and quality to it — it’s a fun track to drive. But it also shares proximity five-star amenities on the Peninsula, right outside the back fence. We’ve got the hotels, the restaurants, the resorts, the shopping, the regional airport, the Monterey Bay sanctuary, Cannery Row. And then the list goes on.

“No other tracks that I know of share the combination of history, quality, weather and proximity to amenities that Laguna has. It’s an amazing combination. I see [the track] as an economic engine that could benefit our community; but one that has been underutilized as of late and is a victim of both deferred maintenance and ever-changing management.

“At the end of the day, though, we’re in a position to capitalize on a fresh spirit of cooperation. I truly believe we are all — the Foundation, the County, the track operator, the volunteers — all on the same page.”

Merrill was a photography enthusiast in high school, and this photo he took in Laguna Seca’s old Turn 2 sparked a love of Porsches that has lasted more than four decades.

Merrill, like others on the board, has brought solid entrepreneurial credentials to the Foundation task at hand.

“At the core, I’m a ‘fix-it guy.’ I fixed my family business and I’ve fixed other businesses. I’ve taken ranches that have been victims of deferred maintenance, rebuilt them and turned them into some of the best-running vegetable ranches in the Salinas Valley. And I see potential for my expertise at Laguna Seca — on the facilities side and the business management side. No, I’m not a motorsports industry executive and not a track manager — I don’t want to be. I like to drive race cars, but I’m not doing this because I want more track time or tickets to a race. I want to do it because I believe Laguna Seca could really be a five-star destination that could draw people from all over the world, not just to race but to enjoy events like Rennsport — festivals; experiences.

“Yes, it’s about the cars and the racing,” Merrill continues, “but it’s much more than just the hardcore racing. it’s a lifestyle event, I guess you could say. I could go on and on about the operational details, but Laguna offers a unique combination to do vintage racing, host lifestyle events, serve as a demonstration center for manufacturers and vendors associations — I mean, the list goes on. There are so many resources we can bring in to make it a five-star experience, not just for the race car driver and fan, but for the whole family. Just look at the campgrounds, with those amazing views…

“The businessman in me sees an underutilized facility with amazing potential; the racer in me sees the quality of the place; and the local resident just wants to do good. I spent my life here — I’m a third-generation Salinas boy. There were four guys that started the lettuce industry in the Salinas Valley, and my granddad was one of them. They brought the railroad in and built both an ice company and a box company. And that enabled them to ship their product east of the Mississippi where, at the time, 80-90 percent of the population in America lived.

“Monterey? It’s a beautiful location with a five-star racetrack, but that track is currently a sub-standard facility in dire need of upgrade. I share the vision and passion of a group of people interested in seeing that upgrade happen. I’m energized by the opportunity to bring resources together for the benefit of the track and, ultimately, the community. The track could and should be an economic engine for the whole Peninsula.”

For more information on the Laguna Seca Raceway Foundation, check out its Facebook page or log onto lsrfnd.org.

UP NEXT IN PART 3: Drive, with Foundation Executive Director Dick Renard