Championships Primer: Great Things to See and Do In Monterey, California

Chances are better than even you’ll fall in love with Monterey, Calif., the first time you visit. Chances are just as good you’ll fall in love all over again each time you return.

So, when you arrive in Monterey to compete in this year’s NASA Championships, understand you will be part of a long history of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula, a tradition that began in 1950.

The first road course was an irregular rectangle 1.8 miles in length around what is now the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center. Unlike modern oval racing, all the turns were right-handers because the cars ran clockwise. Racers sped down Drake Road, turned right on Stevenson Drive, then right on Portola Road and another right on Sombria Lane before it was  time to turn right back onto Drake Road. Drive those narrow and heavily wooded roads today — and you still can — you will see how dangerous racing would have been, and it was fatalities that eventually led to the cessation of racing on public roads and the construction of Laguna Seca Raceway, which opened on Nov. 9, 1957.

This year’s NASA Championships take place at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, which is located in one of the most beautiful places in the continental United States. That makes attending this year’s Championships a prime opportunity for some rest and relaxation and maybe a chance to take in a little history and outdoor activities before or after the event. If you don’t know what the area has to offer, here’s a brief primer on some of the great things to see and do in Monterey, Calif.

Cannery Row

Cannery Row was initially a place where factories canned the abundant sardines netted from Monterey Bay. When sardine populations dwindled, the street became somewhat derelict as the canning factories closed. Seeing opportunity, a group of entrepreneurs opened The Sardine Factory, a restaurant that still operates to this day, among lots of other shops and restaurants that line the bay and inland side of the street. Originally called Ocean View Avenue, it was renamed Cannery Row in honor of writer John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel by the same name.

Today Cannery Row attracts some 4 million visitors each year. For dining, choose from famous chains like Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Chart House to some of the local favorites like Louie Linguinis, The Sardine Factory, The Fish Hopper and the Whaling Station Steakhouse.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

No trip to Cannery Row would be complete without several hours spent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the finest in the world. Located at the northern end of Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has exhibits featuring ocean life of all kinds, from abalone and African penguins to the zebra shark. Sharks and sea otters are among the most popular animals, but wander around long enough to find the leafy sea dragon, the rosy rockfish and the California state fish, the garibaldi. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is worth the time it takes to see it all.

Wine Tasting

Once you taste a Monterey chardonnay, you’ll be able to pick one out blindfolded for the rest of your life. The Monterey Peninsula has tasting rooms in downtown Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, and also out where many of the vineyards are located in the Carmel Valley.

Hire a car and driver and use the days following the NASA Championships as a way to spend a lazy day. Nothing tastes better than champagne when standing on the podium, but a wine-tasting tour of Monterey County is a great way to expand your palate. Be sure to accompany those tastings with some of the small bites and culinary treats that often accompany wine tastings. When you get back home, you can have California wines delivered to your door from America’s most loved wine club.

Big Sur

Just a short trip down California’s Highway 1 lies Big Sur, one of the more unspoiled gems along California’s Central Coast. For car enthusiasts, just the drive down Highway 1 might be enough of a treat, but if you pull off the road, you’ll find lots of places to camp, trails to hike, beaches, restaurants, gift shops and art galleries. The scenery is breathtaking, and it’s a side trip you’ll remember forever.


Padre Junipero Serra founded nine missions along the California coast in the 18th century, and the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was the last one he built. In fact, his remains lie in the Carmel Mission under a sepulcher. The mission is how Carmel-by-the-Sea got on the map, and it even is home to the Blessing of the Cars and the Mission Classic, a car show held during Car Week in August.

Clint Eastwood also gave the town a big publicity boost when he served as its mayor from 1986 to 1988. Carmel-by-the-Sea also has one of the most charming downtowns of any hamlet on California’s coast. Lunching and shopping are first rate. Visit during the week to avoid crowds.

Pacific Grove

Just west of Monterey lies the tiny burg of Pacific Grove, a great little seaside town that would make an ideal home base for a few days to explore the area. Pacific Grove has great beaches and bed ‘n’ breakfast lodging, which are just a few miles from the world-famous 17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach and Carmel Valley and Big Sur to the south. Come race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, then unwind in Pacific Grove.

Pinnacles National Park

Work began in Pinnacles National Park by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, and their work is still evident to this day. The real architect of the park is Mother Nature. Some 23 million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted and flowed to form the pinnacles that give the park its name. In addition to hiking among awe-inspiring rock formations, park visitors can see prairie and peregrine falcons, golden eagles and the majestic if not homely California condor.

National Steinbeck Center

Literary fans will enjoy a trip to the National Steinbeck Center, one of the largest literary museums in the United States dedicated to a single author, John Steinbeck. Located at 1 Main Street in Salinas, Calif., the National Steinbeck Center celebrates one of America’s greatest novelists, and a champion for the common man.

Steinbeck is most widely known for his works, “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Pearl,” “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” and “Tortilla Flat.” Born in Salinas in 1902, Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, and died in New York in 1968.

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