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Lead Follow: Pacing Races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is frightening, furious fun

Learning how to properly lead packs of race cars in specially prepped Mazda pace cars

Lots of tracks get fogged in. Few seem so determined about it as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on summer mornings. While race cars crackle to life in the infield, Robert Orcutt steers a Mazda6 out onto the circuit. A bank of lights flash yellow across the roof and light up the haze. It’d be beautiful if only we could see where this pace car is going. “Good morning, race control,” Orcutt says into a two-way radio, a declaration more than a salutation. It’s 7:45 a.m., and the chief pace-car driver’s long day is just getting started.

On Saturday morning, the first race day of the Monterey Pre-Reunion the week before the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion main event, I thought I had an idea of what it’d be like to drive a pace car. I’ve followed one around, after all, and watched them dart into traffic too many times to count. I thought I knew Laguna well, too, and believed that after many track days and driving schools I’d become reasonably quick there. By 8 a.m., I’d disabused myself of all those notions.

For 20 minutes you can’t see a thing. You can’t see the next corner. You can’t see the flag stands. You can’t see traffic or the two other pace cars circling in the mist. These early morning sessions are run for a reason: Asking someone to race in these conditions, on a wet and slippery track, would be damned dangerous. As the fog burns off and corners emerge, it takes an experienced set of hands to make the call when the track is ready for a race.

That’s Orcutt’s call to make.

Cantle waits for word the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is ready so that his chance to lead racers as a pace-car driver can begin.

After years dancing around the edges of professional racing in Porsche GT3s, Orcutt took on the role of coach as his day job. He’s quick, as you’d expect. What his resume doesn’t boast is how well he knows Northern California racetracks like Laguna Seca and Sonoma. He has almost a canine sensitivity to subtle changes in noise or pace, a knack for sniffing out an impending yellow flag and being ready for it. He’s a guy racers can trust with their ass whether they know his name or not, though a great many do.

For the weekend I attach myself to his small cadre. Early mornings are spent in three Mazda pace cars: the Mazda6, a hard-worn and much-loved RX-8, and a practically new MX-5 Cup car. Orcutt and the No. 2 pace-car driver, Matt Connolly, trade me between their right seats, testing my knowledge of flags and the race course over sessions of sighting laps. Connolly asks how much time I’ve spent at Mazda Raceway. Around a hundred laps is my guess. He nods appreciatively. I ask him the same. “About 4,000,” he replies nonchalantly.

Not long after, Orcutt and Connolly hand the wheel to me—literally. The tight confines of the rollcaged MX-5 Cup car dictate a removable racing wheel. Despite its pace-car livery, the MX-5 still has a “Put me in coach!” feeling to it. The car has kept its deep, stiff OMP race seats, five-point belts, and window nets. There is no insulation, and the doors have been transformed into flexy hollowed skins while a massive, gray steel cage takes over the work of keeping the car stiff. The two-way radio is tucked out of sight next to the driver’s left knee, and a little red button on the Momo wheel can key it. A line of switches reaches across the top of the dash: battery, trans cooler, a well-protected button for the fire system, and the toggles controlling strobes on the corners of the car and the Whelen lightbar overhead.

Orcutt watches me intently as I steadily build speed. He’s an intimidating presence—not saying a word—but whatever hurdle I was meant to clear, I do. When Orcutt and Connolly saddle up the Mazda6 and the RX-8 for VIP laps, they leave me in the MX-5 to chase them around and get a feel for the car on my own.

You don’t have to be a veteran racer to lead the field out. Don’t stall the car on the gentle uphill of pit lane. Take it nice and easy cutting across the blend line. Pace-car drivers keep the pace mellow.

To my surprise, Orcutt climbs in next to me early in the afternoon race sessions and points me to pit lane. He’s cool as can be, coaching me into position. I’m climbing out of my skin. In the rearview I can see a field of tiny Formula Junior cars filing in behind me in perfect columns. With a minute to go before we lead the field on track, Orcutt flips on the strobes.

You don’t have to be a veteran racer to lead the field out. Don’t stall the car on the gentle uphill of pit lane. Take it nice and easy cutting across the blend line. Pace-car drivers keep the pace mellow. About 30 mph seems to work. Their goal is a good start. At Laguna, that means a field of cars packed thick and orderly as they descend the hill between turns 9 and 10. A quick call from race control determines your actions: “Looking good, pace car. Lights out.” That means you turn off the strobes just after Rainey Curve and prepare yourself for a last-second dart into pit lane.

As the pace car heads off, all hell breaks loose on track. Three dozen egos funnel into the same corner at the same time, trying to sneak an advantage up the long hill toward the green flag and into Turn 1. Corner cleared, the racers give it everything they’ve got. The clamor is indescribable. All that madness happens inches away from you, and you put it there. It’s an incredible feeling.

There are others. The wildest is the one you get looking up into your mirror and realizing the thousands of Trans-Am horsepower bottled up behind you are making it shake. The trembling view of white Mustangs and Sunoco blue Camaros headed up the Rahal Straight into the Corkscrew is as magnetic as anything on Earth. Orcutt notices its hypnotic effect on me and reaches to jerk the wheel when my attention drifts, an effective lesson.

It goes on like that through the weekend and into the next. Connolly is driving the pace car when an E-type goes into the tires, and he hustles out for a long double yellow. I find myself weirdly jealous. Crowds descend for the Reunion. The line for hot laps grows. I get a little more track time. To my immense satisfaction Orcutt’s scolding is mostly limited to my reversing skills.

The big test arrives. We’re pacing Group 4A, one of the hottest fields. Out of our sight, a car goes off, then another. The double yellow drops with the leaders in Turn 10. Orcutt somehow already has our lights on. “Go, pace car, go,” crackles over the radio. Up the hill as hard as the Mazda6 can manage. Not panicked but urgent, because a pack of Porsche 935s and big-block Corvettes has trailed through Turn 11.

We’ve only got 100 feet to go, but they’ve got a 100-mph head start. The pack aims at our abbreviated track out—right under the bridge. Right where we’ll be tough to see. Pulling out seems suicidal. We pull out. We stick to the left, caning the ever-living hell out of the Mazda. It’s a safe car. Caged. Crumple zones. For an instant I’m aware of the idea that we’d come out ahead in a crash—mass being what it is—and that the Porsche hardly has any at all. But then I’m aware that a bullet isn’t especially massive, either.

We clench up a little. In an instant we have a rearview full of 935s. They’re all over the brakes, then sawing and weaving, goosing the throttle and braking. But they’re safe. Slowed up and tucked in, gnarly and snarling and unknowingly behind a very wide-eyed pace-car driver’s apprentice.

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