Memo Gidley returns to Laguna Seca with high hopes and happy fans.

OUTSIDE: Born to Run: Fast Fellas: Race studs Paul Newman and Memo Gidley appeared together a few weeks back on the Tonight Show. Gidley, who learned to drive a racecar at Laguna Seca 15 years ago, returns this weekend. TnT Photo

Fourteen years ago, Memo Gidley, then 25, accompanied his uncle on a trip from Novato, Calif., to Laguna Seca to watch his first auto race. This was back when Indy racing was huge, and there were, Gidley says, 100,000 people at the racetrack. He’d been a dirt bike and motocross racer since childhood, but this was something else. Gidley was immediately blown away.

“It was awesome,” Gidley recalled this week in a telephone interview from his home in Novato, where he is preparing for this weekend’s US Sports Car Invitational series. “I was like any race fan at his first race: ‘So this is what happens here!’”

The story of what happened next has since become legend to Gidley’s fans. A flyer for the Jim Russell Racing School, which operated out of Laguna Seca for years, blew by, and Gidley grabbed it. He decided right then to learn to drive racecars.

Because he didn’t have any money, he enrolled in what was called the Mechanics’ School at Russell, where he worked on the school’s racecars all week in exchange for an opportunity to take one out on the track on weekends. He got credits from Monterey Peninsula College, got a grant from some folks up in Marin. He rented a room from a retired schoolteacher in Carmel for $200 a month.

“She’d even cook me dinner sometimes,” he says. “It was nice to have something like family down here.”

Nine years later, Gidley stood at Laguna Seca again—this time on the winner’s podium, having placed second in the Champ car series.

“It was awesome,” he says. “I was standing there on the podium and overlooking the shop where I’d started out as a mechanic.

“I remembered being back there during races, and all the other guys would be talking about the top drivers, and I didn’t even know who they were talking about—I’d never even heard of Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti. And now here I was. That was a really cool day.”

Gidley had followed an unusual path through the world of professional motor sports to the winners circle. He had no family money, no sponsorship, most of the time he didn’t even have a team. Nowadays, many drivers come to the sport with most or all of the above. Gidley became famous as a kind of gypsy driver; he was the “super-sub” who, when a team’s regular driver went down for whatever reason, could fly into town, hop in a 900-horsepower carbon-fiber-framed supercar he’d never driven before, and compete with the best in the business.

It may sound enormously difficult, but Gidley dug it.

“I was living the dream,” he says of the time.

It may be that Gidley’s upbringing left him well-suited for life as an itinerant racecar driver. He was born in La Paz, Mexico, where his parents stopped off for a few days during a fishing voyage. Then it was back to the boat. For the first eight years of his life, he says, he and his family traveled up and down the West Coast between Northern California and Mexico on a sailboat.

“My dad was a commercial fisherman, and he’d always lived on a boat,” Gidley says, as if that’s enough to explain it.

After his family settled down in Novato when he was eight, they continued to travel—but on land. Almost every weekend, Gidley says, his father would hook up a trailer behind his big old Hondamatic street bike, mount a dirtbike on the trailer, and take his son to the racetrack.

“My dad was kind of a nut,” Gidley says affectionately.

Gidley’s days as a gypsy may be behind him. This weekend, he comes to Monterey with the Findlay Racing Team, with whom he has landed a starting position. The team has placed well in the first three races of the Rolex Sports Car series; at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., last week, they ran in first place of 22 laps of the 84-lap race before finishing seventh.

Gidley will be driving a BMW M3 on Saturday during the GT division race. On Sunday, he will drive a Daytona prototype, a new concept car introduced to racing five years ago. These cars are not quite as powerful as a Champ or Indy car, but feature the same open-wheel construction. The engine of each car is strictly calibrated at 500 horsepower, so races are ordinarily very competitive. This is the first-ever appearance of Daytona Prototypes at Laguna Seca.

Gidley comes backed by an unofficial fan club for whom Memo (his name, pronounced “Maymo,” is short for Guillermo) is a blue-collar hero.

“They look at me like I’m a average kind of guy, because that’s what I am,” he says earnestly. Guess it depends on how you define “average.”  

PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING ROUNDS FOR THE FORMULA BMW, MAZDA MIATA CUP AND DAYTONA PROTOTYPES TAKE PLACE FRIDAY FROM 8AM TO 5PM.

ON SATURDAY, PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING ROUNDS TAKE PLACE FROM 8AM UNTIL THE START OF THE FORMULA BMW RACE AT 1:45. THE 200-MILE GRAND-AM CUP, FEATURING BOTH GT CARS AND DAYTONA PROTOTYPES, BEGINS AT 2:45.

THE 250-MILE ROLEX SPORTS CAR SERIES RACE TAKES PLACE ON SUNDAY FROM NOON UNTIL 3PM, WITH BMWS AND MIATAS RUNNING THE REST OF THE DAY.

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