For any Californian interested in on-pavement motorsport, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is hallowed ground. I must admit the place has a uniqueness that has not faded over the decades. The track itself is very small by Grand Prix standards and is home to the famous “Corkscrew” corner, where many a pass and many a crash have happened as racers plummet its almost four story drop through the forested hills near Monterey, California. I have attended events large and small at Laguna, with World Superbike falling somewhere in the middle.
The WSBK teams put on some of the best racing I had seen all year, though this particular event was slightly marred by multiple red flags (what can you do?). Laguna Seca’s tight, hilly nature means it is more of a bull ring than the flowing seas of asphalt encountered by the European teams. But then that is part of what makes Laguna Seca a special circuit on their calendar. A double-edged sword no doubt.
Saturday’s action was mainly focused on the AMA national series which I only follow half-heartedly. The XR1200 series is still the most interesting. A now discontinued Harley-Davidson Sportster model that was raved about by everyone and bought by almost no one. Vance & Hines put together a race kit for the bike and the series runs strictly controlled rules to keep parity. Somehow they do not fall into the NASCAR trap and there is consistently good racing. The bikes are slow and heavy which means riders have to think as well as ride with heart. A mistake means losing the draft and catching up isn’t likely. A great formula that will probably go away now that Harley has no need to promote it and the AMA Superbike series is changing directions. I’ll lament on my own time, but if you are looking for a good track day bike or a fun club level racer, I would start looking for the fleet of XR1200s soon-to-be floating around, so long as they have low hours.
As a spectator the actual race track is only a fragment of the experience. What makes an event worth seeing is the experience: racing is only one piece of that… a pretense if you will. After all, the best place to watch a race is from behind the controls of a race machine, and a spectator can get a commanding view from his or her couch without paying $8.00 for a beer. Laguna Seca provides that “something extra” in several ways. Its location is key; there is some very good riding in close proximity, along with several small towns close by. Carmel Valley and Salinas are a stone’s throw along with expanses of farm roads or the Pacific Coast Highway. Alternately there is plenty of posh shopping, dining, and an awesome aquarium among other nearby sites, so the family atmosphere can be found quite easily as well. However it is Monterey – and especially Cannery Row – that most fans flock to.
Saturday night for a Superbike weekend assures plenty of action. The once rough-and-tumble waterfront has long since turned into a place to bring the kids for a meal or to see the aforementioned aquarium. In years past these events were much bigger and the scene more frenetic – a motorcycle race used to be reason to keep the kids at home. However this year ‘The Row’ took on the feeling of an oversized bike night at the local burger spot. There were many rare, vintage, or highly customized machines to look at or, if people-watching is your thing, there is plenty of that to do as well. This year saw a surprising police presence which I found strange. Either the locals overestimated attendance or they have an excess of Homeland Security grant money to get rid of. I suppose it should be expected with the well-monied coastal California vibe of Monterey. Most of the boys in blue were of the smiling variety though, taking pictures themselves and chatting with locals. The overabundance was hard not to notice though, as the police presence was at least equal to what I remember seeing a decade ago, when there were literally twice as many people on the streets and naked mobs riding through the center of town.
The sedateness of this year was fine by me though since I was viewing through the lens of a camera instead of as an active participant. I mostly gravitated toward bike watching, looking at older machines and trying to avoid the bright customs with their Easter egg paint jobs and fluorescent light kits. The sound of revving engines struck me as juvenile and I started to feel pretty old, so I snapped away with the camera and tried to interact as little as possible. I reckon I’ve wheelied down enough sidewalks at this point that the fire has been extinguished, and I’ve long since felt like an outside observer at bike events. Maybe that’s why I gravitate towards reporting on them.
Back at the track the calm continued. Those camping along the hillsides stood in small groups in the cold. Some stood among the trees, some around fires. Others still could be seen leaned against their motionless, condensation covered machines. Despite it being July we were still near the coast, and the famous coastal fog was slowly rolling in. It wasn’t thick enough though to halt a full moon from shining brilliantly throughout the valley. Staring out into the distance with the sound of the wind and a crackling fire, the valley bathed in light, a few distant lights shimmering… perfection. Well, so long as you keep your hands in your jacket pockets, or you have something to ward off the increasing nip of cold moving in. The winds eventually drove me to my tent and I drifted off to the crackling of the fire.
Sunday morning greeted me with the distant sound of race engines revving in the paddock. I crawled from my tent to see the fog never really settled into the low spots and was simply blowing through. This was good news since sometimes it can delay practice. I wandered my way to the media tent after cleaning up a bit and ran into fellow My Life At Speeder, Ken Stouffer. He was looking grim with a worsening cold but was trying to get through the day. That set me to worrying since if he had to pack up early the pressure was on me to get pictures worth using. I didn’t actually have the equipment needed to shoot trackside, let alone the know-how. With my ace-in-the-hole in jeopardy I set about scouting some locations that could get me closer to the track without being off limits.
I shot Race 1 without even paying attention to it, but that really doesn’t matter much since the season is over and you can just Google the results. If you follow WSBK you know it has been a battle between three or four riders for the last two years, but this year it was essentially Tom Sykes (#1) all year trying to put the Kawasaki on the top step for a second year in a row, with Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli (#50) trying to prove that Aprilia was still a winner, and not just because of still-retired rider Max Biaggi (you got all that?). Guintoli ended up edging Sykes at the end of the year by a narrow margin and I still maintain that people are missing the best show in motorcycle racing by ignoring this series (assuming you can get coverage).
The Laguna round was close racing with Sykes making an early mistake and fighting like a madman with Guintoli and his Aprilia teammate Marco Melandri (#33). Melandri seemed to be fighting the good fight, at least in the corner I could see. He was under immense pressure from Sykes, and I think it was more a desire to get away from him than a desire to win that caused him to pass his teammate for the lead and eventually take the victory.
I actually spent a lot of the race looking a bit further back, watching the Buell riders. Geoff May was still a youngish rider who I remembered literally racing the US series out of a van with his then-girlfriend and whoever he could convince to help out. He occasionally broke inside the top five and eventually got onto an indie team, but here on the world stage the EBRs (I guess we shouldn’t be calling them Buell’s anymore) were having a dismal first season. Down on power and suffering engine failures to boot, I was hoping for a miracle here at Laguna where the only straight bits still had you leaned over.
Amazingly though it was AMA dinosaur Larry Pegram on his AMA-spec bike that was doing the best. He was in serious danger of actually scoring a championship point despite being on Pirelli control tires he wasn’t used to when, with two laps to go, the engine let go. He cited a missed upshift – being ever the diplomat – and I suppose rev-limiters don’t save everything, but what a let-down.
One thing that didn’t let me down was Ken Stouffer. The ol‘ son of a gun had soldiered on and was packing up in the media tent when I returned. It’s great when people actually treat work like work. I’ve spent most of my life in technical fields driving or working on vehicles, ordering parts, or just being a laborer. My brief times in creative fields have shown me that creative-types are also creative at finding ways to not work when they don’t feel like it. It was a relief to see Ken had toughed it out and got the job done. Now I could shoot the rest of the day for fun… actually practice technique. That eased things more than you’d think because I had to switch hats and meet with some track staff about bringing sidecar racing to Laguna Seca in the future. The meeting seemed promising but nothing solid was hammered out. So goes business. I believe it was 1992 or 1996 the last time the sidecar organization ran there (in conjunction with European sidecars). I was still in school. Obviously I’d love to get our series on that bill, but let me stay on topic and slay one dragon at a time.
Race 2 was the same as Race 1, and Sykes had one more chance not you skitter off and blow turn 2 at the start. It turned out he was going to need to do it three times, as red flags were the center point of this race. I don’t have the details and again you don’t come here for those details (although the highlight reel below shows you the basics). I only want to give you the briefest notion of what happened on the track.In fact, I don’t want to talk much about the first red flag. It happened in the Corkscrew close to where I was shooting and I only saw the dust, but I saw the unmoving rider. The tension in the crowd, the waiting for a thumbs-up, the applause to try to coax something from him…anything. Suddenly I was back in Turn 3 at Willow Springs with Gina, trying to get her gloves off, wondering where all the blood was coming from. If you aren’t willing to accept that possibility, it actually might be better not to even spectate, let alone participate. There is a lot to do with machines besides race them, from building to touring to car shows. Alex Lowes, the rider involved, was later cleared of injury by medical staff at the track.
The restart didn’t work for Sykes, with Melandri taking the lead. Sykes fought to the front, but another red flag soon came. This meant another restart. I bet mechanics were getting seriously nervous about the clutches surviving race distance at this point. But I saw no one drop out and the results only list the crashes as retirements. Remember when you could expect your favorite racer to break about 1/4 of races each season? The re-restart was a carbon copy with Melandri in the lead over Sykes and Guintoli.
Skyes got down to business quickly though, taking the lead even building a slight gap, a sliver at a time. Further back I noticed this time Larry Pegram’s engine was holding together. He finished 14th on his Foremost Insurance EBR and earned the only championship point for EBR the entire season. This from a guy who wasn’t even racing in that series; he was just a wildcard entry. No wonder they hired him to run next year (and he is acting team manager as well, can you believe it?). Not bad for a guy in his 40’s, eh?
And with that I started to pack up, but then I remembered the AMA was still running. Needing the practice I decided to keep the camera out. I packed up the tent and loaded the bike, figuring this would keep me out of traffic anyways. I didn’t really pay attention to the 600 race. The Yamahas were up front, but I didn’t know who was riding them. As the only factory involved you have to give them credit for staying true to the sport I reckon. The Superbike race is always fun to watch simply because Josh Hayes races hard even if he is the only one on the track. It is more fun on the days when he is challenged though, but this wasn’t one of those. He had a lot of pressure early on and a fight for 3rd was interesting. There are still fast people in the series– names that matter– and I’m looking forward to next year’s TV deal and class restructuring doing some good.
And that was it for me. The gear was packed up, the sun was on the downswing of its arc, and I missed my garage. I’d had my $8 beer and walked the vendor aisles. The event definitely left the question teetering on the edge for the first time though: is it worth it? Without a crew of friends to create an adventure with, what was I here for? The racing used to be a big part, but at this point the spectator seems abandoned. Number plates are these artsy logos that are indecipherable at 20ft sitting still. Side number plates have long since been tossed for a single number mounted on the top of the tailpiece. Worse still is WSBK’s desire to add headlight decals on the front of the bike, making the front number plate smaller still. If you don’t know the helmet design of your favorite rider you are really sunk. Then again, they change helmet designs to commemorate the anniversary of… well, the release of a new Playstation game.
How can the World Superbike series feature about a half dozen riders with brazen skill who battle not once but twice each race day and still miss the mark? Their complicated rule structure has certainly caused diehards like myself to stop following closely. And of course once you become a casual fan and miss one race it doesn’t matter if you miss two. The difficulty of seeing who’s who transfers from the spectator to the television as well. After all, who wants to pay for all that trackside advertising if cameras are zoomed in on the action? And yet, the actual action on track is amazing. Those riders pour their hearts out the same as I’ve seen in all the grainy footage from before my time on forward. How does it not translate?
Without change the writing is on the wall and don’t they know it. The hillsides look sparse and we are all going to be staring at our cellphones like a horde of pale zombies in no time if someone doesn’t change gears. Game, set, match. On the upside when I was talking about bringing sidecars to Laguna the staff wasn’t lost on the fact and they were not taking it lying down either. They had eyes on an event, not just some racing and a beer tent, so perhaps a ray of hope? It all ran through my mind as a golden, endless California sunset bathed the valley on the ride home. While I leaned the bike through gentle bend upon gentle bend, I wondered what made the racing so exciting five years ago? Was it the racing or was it me, that changed? I had an audiobook of Garth Stein’s “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” and I kept flowing in and out of the story as my thoughts ran through the myriad things they cycle through while on the road.
And I suppose that is where I leave you dear reader. Although, I’d be doing you a disservice not to recommend Stein’s book if you have not yet read it. The audiobook did me quite well on many a long ride here and there. Don’t bother reading the back cover and trying to figure it out; just get the book. It works. I promise. As for me, I am off to lament more about what it means to pay $30 to sit on a hillside with $15 worth of beer and hot dog in hand while squinting, figuring out which of the two identically painted bikes passing by through the catch fence is which. Somewhere in that is the essence of what made me grin as a child. It isn’t the noise and the flash of color. It was something more, but it was something extremely simple, yet hard to define.
RACE 1 HIGHLIGHTS:
RACE 2 HIGHLIGHTS: