The legendary Laguna Seca road-racing circuit has produced some of the most famous motorsports moments.
Many witnesses rank Alessandro Zanardi's pass of Bryan Herta at the Corkscrew turn on the final lap of a 1996 CART race as the track's best moment. But there have been others, such as Bobby Rahal's four consecutive Indy Car wins in the 1980s, Eddie Lawson's and Wayne Rainey's sensational motorcycle victories, and great Can-Am wins from the likes of Phil Hill, Bruce McLaren, Peter Revson, Mark Donohue and Al Unser.
To that list, you can add the duel between two Acura prototype drivers, veteran open-wheel star Tony Kanaan and young charger Simon Pagenaud, in the American Le Mans Series finale last October.
Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion, had made impressive runs at the Monterey course dating to 1996, when he posted his first U.S. race victory in an Indy Lights event. In the concluding 2007 ALMS race, the popular Brazilian made a dramatic come-from-behind drive in the Andretti Green Racing XM Satellite Radio Acura.
This year, teaming with Detroit winner Franck Montagny, Kanaan was battling for another win at Laguna Seca, again in the AGR Acura.
Pagenaud, the 24-year-old Frenchman, was making his first Laguna Seca start, teaming with a previous Laguna Seca winner, Gil de Ferran, in the de Ferran Motorsports Panasonic ELS Acura. Pagenaud was the 2006 Formula Atlantic series champion.
After Montagny and de Ferran had piloted their Acura mounts to the front of the LMP2 division on the tight 2.238-mile Laguna Seca circuit, Kanaan and Pagenaud relieved their respective teammates for the run to the checkered flag.
Pagenaud jumped to the lead by Lap 88, with fellow Acura drivers Adrian Fernandez and Kanaan hot on his heels. After a caution period at Lap 102, Kanaan hit the pits and the Andretti Green crew got the former Sebring winner out in front. After one of the Penske Porsches caused another yellow in Turn Two, Kanaan and Pagenaud began their incredible battle on Lap 112.
Nose-to-tail action was the norm for the two Acura drivers for the next 33 circuits of the famed Laguna Seca track.
Both drivers made spectacular passes of each other for the lead that had spectators, team members and even the nationwide TV audience (NBC-TV) cheering in approval. The Frenchman got by Kanaan in Turn Six, but Tony's final move in the Corkscrew came on the outside of the famous corner. Pagenaud came back to finish within a couple of feet of Kanaan, just .054 seconds behind, one of the closest finishes in ALMS history.
The Acura 1-2 placing gave the manufacturer its sixth LMP2 class win in 2008, a season high for the division.
"I have had many great races here at Laguna Seca," said Kanaan. "But today's race was one of my favorites. The battle with Simon [Pagenaud] was as good as anything I have done in IndyCar racing. He raced clean and we swapped positions several times. I love driving these prototype cars. Winning today was a thrill for me."
Pagenaud had a similar feeling following the race, despite his runner-up finish.
"Wow! Tony and I had a quite a race today," he commented following the battle. "I think we passed each other twice for the lead. I know we were wheel-to-wheel, lap after lap. And we raced cleanly. No dirty driving at all. We had a car to win today, and it took a great drive by Tony to beat us. I feel good about our race and I hope the fans enjoyed the battle, too."
Simon, everyone enjoyed that one. It was a battle for the ages.