DEL MAR — John Morton remembers it well.
Morton, 45, who lives in El Segundo, was an amateur fresh from two years of study at Clemson University when he entered California Sports Car Club events at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 1963 and 1964.
Auto racing is back at the fairgrounds, and its return is especially meaningful to Morton, one of the favorites in Sunday's Camel Southern California Grand Prix. He drove in Del Mar's last auto race 23 years ago.
Back then, Morton won a novice amateur race in his Lotus, which he said was an exciting experience.
"The race was totally inconsequential, but it was a big thing for me," Morton said.
After he took a practice round Wednesday, Morton found that the track has been improved after 23 years.
"They built a temporary track in the parking lot, just as they did this time, but it didn't go around any buildings like this track does. It was all laid out in the open, on the other side of the horse track. It wasn't newly paved, and it was much bumpier than the track is now. Because the surface was on worn-out asphalt, it was also very slippery.
"Instead of the cement walls they have today, the corners were marked by hay bales. Of course, the speeds weren't nearly as high then, about 100 tops, and the crowds were much smaller. Actually, I can't recall seeing any grandstands at all. And we didn't drive for money. It was mostly a matter of drivers and their friends out for a pleasant afternoon."
Sunday, Morton and his rivals will be racing around a 1.6-mile course at averages of about 100 m.p.h., hitting 145 or so on the brief stretches that pass for straightaways. A crowd of 40,000 is expected, although the grandstands have a capacity of only 27,000. The winner will get a record sports-car purse of $85,000, the result of a five-race carry-over, which came about because promoters wanted to increase the purse for the season's last event.
"It shows how far the sport has advanced in 23 years," Morton said.
Morton also has come quite a ways, from the Lotus Super 7 he bought for $3,365 to a Jaguar XJR-7 that is valued at $300,000.
Although Jaguar withdrew its sponsorship of the car three months ago, the car will make a final appearance here with the backing of a San Diego dealership.
Morton, who has won nine Grand Prix races since he joined the tour in 1973, will be reunited with Hurley Haywood of Ponte Vedra, Fla., who ranks third on the all-time list with 27 victories. They have won two races this year, The Times Ford Grand Prix in Riverside and the Palm Beach Grand Prix in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Del Mar's new race course is challenging; it contains 10 turns, including one of 180 degrees, another of 120 degrees and a treacherous sequence of lefts and rights that drivers call a chicane.
A driver needs all the trickery at his command to weave his way through the sequence unscathed.
"I think everybody who sees the chicane will be concerned," Morton said. "You have to keep wheeling it one way and then the other--left, right, left, right. The turns are so close together that you can't see all the exits, so you have to be totally accurate. With blind turns, there is no margin for error."
Morton said the real danger comes from taking difficult turns such as the fourth at the fastest possible speed. On the chicane, all the drivers slow down.
"When you do have to slow down quite a bit, you have to accelerate back through the gears," Morton said. "Physically, that's a pain in the neck. We have a five-speed transmission, but we use first gear only for leaving the pits."
Morton said all street courses are challenging, but when they are lined with cement, as is Del Mar, it can be intimidating.
"If we had shown up in '63 and seen the track lined with cement, nobody would have wanted to race," he said. "They would have said it was too dangerous. On the other hand, if the guys racing today had seen the hay bales they had in '63, they would say that was too dangerous.
"The difference is that in the '60s, the primary concern was for the drivers. Now we are concerned with the safety of the spectators. I'm not implying that we're compromising the safety of the competitors. It's just that we are determined to keep them and the spectators separated. We've seen what can happen when a car plows into a crowd of people."
Another reason for having cement walls is to keep the course the same for the entire race. Hay bales could be knocked over when drivers went through them, and by today's standards, that's an unacceptable condition, Morton said.
What--Camel Grand Prix of Southern California
Where--Del Mar Fairgrounds, 1.6-mile street course.
Today--Practice, 10 a.m.; GTO qualifying, 3 p.m.
Saturday--Practice, 9 a.m.; GTP/lights qualifying, 11:15; Camel GT-IMSA GTO race, 2:15 p.m.; Single-car IMSA GTP qualifying, 3:45 p.m.
Sunday--IMSA GTP/GTP lights practice, 11:30 a.m.; Camel GT-IMSA GTU race, noon; Camel Grand Prix of Southern California, 2:30 p.m.