Thursday, July 24, 2014

Laguna Seca

Laguna Seca Raceway  --  Monterey, California

I have been to Laguna Seca Raceway many times to take in the spectacle of world-championship motorcycle racing. The first trip was in 1994 when my friend, Dave, and I flew down to watch the Grand Prix of the United States. These were 500c.c. and 250c.c. two-strokes during the era of “black art” engine tuning. The 250s were ridden by the up-and-comers like Max Biaggi and Loris Capirossi. I brought home a large poster of Max doing a wheelie in his black Aprilia and still have it hanging on my office wall. The 3-time 500c.c. World Champion, Wayne Rainey had been permanently injured the year before and Kevin Schwantz had taken his place as Number One. I was hoping to see Schwantz race but he had been injured earlier and retired as the reigning champion. This marked the beginning of Mick Doohan’s 5-year dominance.

While I was rooting for American, John Kocinski, riding a Cagiva, it was Luca Cadalora who won the race. I will never forget the first time I stood alongside the track between turns 4 and 5 and experienced the speed and ear-splitting, raucous cacophony of the 500s under full throttle. My body reacted as if it was under attack and my heart rhythm seemed to be upset. I loved it!

Laguna's Famous Corkscrew

Grand Prix racing in America was halted with that 1994 race. In the succeeding years it was World Superbike and AMA Superbike that came to Laguna Seca.  As I was riding a Ducati at the time, I was following keenly the production-based race series. Champions like Doug Polin, Scott Russell, Carl Fogarty, Troy Corser and Troy Bayliss all came to Laguna and I was there several times to watch them.

We often spent Saturday night on Cannery Row and strolled up and down the street that was packed end-to-end with interesting bikes. One night, Dan Gurney was there with one of his Alligator recumbent motorcycles. Another time, I met the curator of the Monterey Aquarium who had a Ducati 907 like mine. He had us come back on Monday morning and gave us a free back-room tour of the aquarium and then let us out front to see the public exhibits.

My favorite Laguna year would have to be 2005. The 2-strokes had been replaced by 1090c.c. 4-strokes in 2002. These bikes were torque monsters not much more manageable than the high-strung 2-strokes. Most were 4-cylinder motors but Aprilia had tried a triple and Honda was using 5 cylinders. I had read about the wild sound of these completely unmuffled monsters and was dying to hear them for myself. When Laguna was put on the calendar for 2005 I planned my trip.

We had just bought a new Mazda 3 and made a road trip of it, stopping at my wife’s class reunion in Ely Nevada. My son, Heath, who was in the Army and stationed in Virginia, flew out and we picked him up at the San Jose airport. As usual, we got a motel in Salinas for the weekend. The motels there are much cheaper than in Monterey.

Valentino Rossi

 Italian racer, Valentino Rossi, had won the 4 previous championships and was well on his way to a 5th.  American riders, Nicky Hayden and Collin Edwards were doing well and really gave us someone to root for.

Nicky Hayden

Arriving at the track, I stood at the same fence where I had watched the 500s blast past 11 years earlier. I was not disappointed by the incredible sound made by the 1090s. Extremely loud and fast! I love it. They did not sound at all like production 4-strokes. They sounded like angry bumble bees about to go super-sonic.
This was before the economy took a dive and Laguna was a huge event with endless vender tents and lots of extra entertainment. Jeff Arron was there to demonstrate his Trials-riding skills and stunt riders were showing off on the front straight. Supercross jumpers were hanging off the rear fenders 30 feet in the air. Ducati Island was full of gorgeous bikes, new and old.  An F-16 even did a fly-by. I thought it just couldn’t get any better but it did.

We had met Nicky Hayden at Laguna when he was just a kid moving up to AMA Superbike. I had also rubbed shoulders with Collin Edwards and seen him race many times. The man they had to beat was Valentino, who seemed nearly invincible and was worshipped as a kind of motorsports god around the world. Listening to the PA announcer during practice and qualifying, we were getting good news about Nicky’s fast times. He was putting his local experience to good use, but could he stand the pressure of the aggressive Italian in the heat of battle?

Watching Rossi chase Hayden and Edwards, unsuccessfully, to the finish line was just the greatest sports moment for me since Phil and Steve Mahre won Gold and Silver in the 1984 Olympics. In fact, it was so much better because this was my favorite sport and I was there to see it. Nicky came back around to the grandstand and called for his dad, Earl, to climb on the back of the bike with him as he took his victory lap, holding the American flag. The crowd went wild. I have since met Earl and his wife. What a great American racing family. This win gave Nicky a real confidence boost and he went on to become world champion the following year.

 Earl and Nicky Celebrate

Other than that one trip by car, I had always flown down for the races. In 2009 I had a Concours 1000 and a Ducati Multistrada in the garage and decided I’d rather pack a couple thousand miles on the old Connie with a bike trip to Laguna. I mounted up with my friends, Steve and Doug and headed for Weed, CA for the night, and then on to Salinas the second night. We had another great weekend at the races. My cousin Darrell had ridden down separately from Spokane and joined us at the track.

By then, Rossi had stiff competition in the persons of two Spaniards, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, in the contest for the championship. These three were so dominant they had been called The Three Aliens, as if super-human beings from another planet. The races were again marvelous and Pedrosa took home the trophy. Nicky Hayden managed a 4th-place finish.

 Ducati Island

We decided to take the scenic route home, taking Highway 1 north of the Bay Area, through Fort Bragg and joining Highway 101 at Leggett. This is where I began to regret bringing the Connie instead of the Ducati. I didn’t know which was more spectacular, the seacoast scenery or the luscious curves of the road. The last stretch of Highway 1 running from the coast inland to Leggett was simply the best motorcycle road I had ever ridden. I’ve been hankering to get back there ever since.

We continued up the Oregon coast and met Heath riding down from Corvallis to meet us and lead us back to his home there. I was impressed with the road from Waldport heading inland, and a little-used country lane twisting through dense forest to Alpine, Oregon. Heath let me ride his Aprilia Tuono there. Wow!

The final day of the trip, Steve took us through the Gifford Pinchot National Forrest on FR 25 to Randle. This was another road I knew I had to get back to on a sportier bike.

Riding a motorcycle to a motorcycle race is always going to be the preferred method of travel. No mater how you get to Laguna for world-championship racing it is going to be great fun, but I knew I was bound to get back there again on two wheels. Doug and I have been thinking about a return trip pretty much nonstop since 2009. 2014 was the year to make it happen. To be continued…