2008 Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca
The MO crew brings the sights and sounds of the USGP
Get the Flash Player to see this player.It was another big year for the USGP on the Monterey peninsula, but this time it was devoid of massive lines, snarled traffic, deteriorating track surfaces or dehydrated spectators. And, even with a slumping national economy and the upcoming USGP at Indy in September, race fans still came out in droves to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Motorcycle.com again made its annual pilgrimage to the historic race circuit to be part of the biggest motorcycle race event in the country (at least until we find out how the Indy GP round turns out). There is nothing like the pomp and circumstance of a World Championship Grand Prix, and the attendance of mega-celeb Tom Cruise and mini-celeb Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer reinforced the event’s prestige.
In order to be at the event, we first had to traverse nearly half the length of California to get there from our SoCal digs. And to make it more interesting, we chose a route 400 miles in length over some of our favorite twisty roads. Our main man, Pete Brissette, unfortunately had to back out of the trip at the last minute, so we again recruited our most charming guest tester, Alexandra Bongart, to take Pete’s place. Alex and I traded off on a pair of saddlebag-equipped 800cc sporting machines (astute readers can guess which bikes) as part of an upcoming comparo. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Fonzie stuffed a Triumph Tiger’s pair of saddlebags, top case and passenger seat with enough photo and video gear to open a camera store.
We set off on Thursday to take in some of our best-loved twisty roads (Highways 33 and 58) on the way to SLO-ville (San Luis Obispo). We saw several loaded-up bikes undoubtedly on their way to Laguna, but traffic was pleasantly light on these backroads that automobile traffic never slowed us up. Alex and I reveled in the prowess of our bikes, and their 800cc engines – the same displacement as the MotoGP class – made our mouths water in anticipation of watching the GP bikes with more than double the power and almost 60% less weight. Less exciting but plenty interesting were the dozens of costume-attired Batman fans swirling around SLO’s movie theatre for the premiere of The Dark Knight. Of the college kids wandering around in costume, our favorites were undoubtedly the Catwoman replicas.
Meanwhile, up in Monterey, the noble Riders for Health organization held a live auction at the racetrack with several GP luminaries of past and present. A little later, motorcycle legends Kenny Roberts and Eddie Lawson were being inducted into the Legends of Laguna Seca, joining last year’s motorcycle inductee Wayne Rainey. They have a combined 10 world championships.
We had another long day of photo and video work on Friday, but our crew had one of America’s most spectacular roadways to do it on: the Pacific Coast Highway running between Cambria and Monterey.
But first was a fuel stop before we left SLO, and we were greeted at a Chevron station with bike-centric hospitality by the IMS Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix Pit Stop. We crammed some free Mothers detailing products in our bulging bags and filled out a survey to win prizes that included free gas, helmets and motorcycle gear. We even got free drinks and a USGP race schedule, part of a brilliant marketing ploy for motorcyclists that we hope will be repeated next year.
Traffic on the sinuous PCH was quite heavy, but we were grateful for the many cage drivers who courteously used turn-outs to let our marauding two-wheel pack past. We were happy to see that the coastal areas showed little effect from the latest ravaging wildfires, and we sucked in the magnificent surroundings during a lunch stop at the fabulous Nepenthe restaurant/store just south of Big Sur. The hills butting up against the rugged Pacific shoreline echoed a constant stream of sportbikes as they rolled northward. After our image-gathering work and traveling was done, we didn’t arrive at our Pacific Grove hotel until the evening.
On Saturday morning, we rolled out to the famed race circuit. As in past years, motorcycles were funneled to the bike-only entrance of the track through an old military station from the east. It’s nice not to wait in lines of automobile traffic, but it’s quite a convoluted and lengthy ride for anyone staying in Monterey or its nearby towns.
Thankfully, we were hooked up with parking privileges from Riders of Kawasaki (ROK), which granted us access to the convenient main track entrance. Not only did the ROK affiliation give us premium parking, it also allowed us into a sweet hospitality suite which included espresso coffees, grandstands, lunch, gear checks, TV viewing and more flavors of Monster Energy drinks than I thought existed.
Riders of all brands are welcome at ROK. “It’s one of the things that sets us apart,” says program coordinator Brian Gibson. “ROK is just happy you’re on a motorcycle!” A basic membership ($29.95) gets member’s benefits at 20 events in 2008. For just $10 extra, you also get free roadside assistance.
Other OEMs offer similar programs, but I don’t know of any that offer more for the dollar than ROK. Just $195 got ROK members a three-day pass to the USGP plus the special parking and access to the hospitality suite. ROK on!
While Friday’s on-track action consisted of just practice and some qualifying sessions for the lower classes (Red Bull Rookies Cup, AMA Supersport), Saturday presented races in the two aforementioned classes.
The Rookies Cup race was riveting, with the winner decided by an incredibly scant 0.0008 second! I’m happy to report that it was little Ben Solis Jr. who took his third win in a row in this KTM junior series, as I was once fast enough on a Honda NSR50 to beat the now-13-year-old on identical equipment a couple of years ago. He’d now spank me handily. In Supersport, Yamaha’s Ben Bostrom ran away from the field to ensure his place at the top of the points standings.
'The World Championship rounds at Laguna always bring out a cornucopia of interesting vendors for nearly anything a rider could need, and this year was no exception...'
Saturday also held the qualifying session for the headlining MotoGP class. Casey Stoner blitzed the field on his Ducati with a new track record – his 1:20.700 was 1.5 seconds quicker than his pole record from last year! Two fan favorites rounded out the front row: the irrepressible Valentino Rossi and Nicky “The Kentucky Kid” Hayden.
Colin “Texas Tornado” Edwards posted the seventh-best time. American MotoGP wildcards and AMA Superbike regulars Ben Spies (Suzuki) and Jamie Hacking (Kawasaki) ended up 13th and 17th, respectively.
The World Championship rounds at Laguna always bring out a cornucopia of interesting vendors for nearly anything a rider could need, and this year was no exception. Although, it must be said, the numbers of both vendors and spectators seemed to be down about 20% from last year, perhaps partly due to the overcast weather in the morning.
Nearly all the major OEMs had their displays, and most of them showed off a variety of customized bikes in addition to their stock lineup.
Helping keep the crowd entertained on this day was a concert by Crash, which is notable for singer/pianist James Toseland, who just happens to be a factory-sponsored MotoGP rider and a two-time World Superbike champ. The ensemble performed decent renditions of popular cover songs by bands such as The Police, Santana and ZZ Top.
At night Fonz and I went over to the Aprilia party at the beach near Fisherman’s Wharf where the Italian company had the American debut of two new bikes. The CVT-equipped Mana has a clever helmet-luggage holder in its faux fuel tank and retails for $9,899. Just as interesting was the racy RS125 two-stroker that is sold in Europe as a streetbike. Unfortunately, it’s not legal for our roads due to emissions regulations.
One of the non-racing highlights of the USGP is the gathering of street riders and their bikes on Cannery Row, with the largest turnout on Saturday night when the street is closed off to car traffic. We saw everything from LED-lit R1s to 1970s-era Kawi two-stroke Triples to high-buck MV Agustas to bad-ass choppers. It’s was a fun experience, although like the track, attendance seemed to be down about 20% and the festivities ground to a halt earlier than usual.
Like Saturday, Sunday morning dawned overcast, but it didn’t warm up like the day before. At least it wasn’t dangerously scorching like in ’05! In the morning, the AMA Superbike qualifying session was again the Mat (Mladin) and Ben (Spies) show, with Spies just nipping his Yoshimura Suzuki teammate Mladin for pole position by just 0.016 second. A little later, Benny Solis took his second Rookies Cup win of the weekend, this time by the relative chasm of 0.927 second.
Then came the big show and a clash of titans. Stoner scampered away from pole position, but Rossi wasn’t willing to let him go despite a clear speed deficit down the front straightaway. The duo had an epic battle, swapping paint as they diced for the lead, as Rossi’s sheer will to win on his slower bike kept him in front of Stoner for most of the 32-lap race until, with eight laps to go, the Ducati rider ran wide in the final corner of the track and tipped over in the soft gravel.
Rossi went on to score his first victory at Laguna and the Yamaha-sponsored event, and his joy was evident on the cool-down lap when he stopped at the top of the Corkscrew and kissed the asphalt to the delight of his rabid fans. Stoner remounted to score the runner-up position while fellow Aussie Chris Vermeulen brought his Suzuki home in third.
Two-time USGP winner Hayden, after running in third early, finished in fifth place as the second-best Michelin runner behind Andrea Dovizioso. Ben Spies delighted the American fans with his inspiring eighth-place result, while Hacking carded a very credible 11th place in his GP debut after running behind Spies earlier. Edwards struggled with grip and finished a disappointing 14th in his home race.
The AMA Superbike race that closed the day was a snoozer in comparison, with Mladin outpacing teammate Spies for the victory. Aaron Yates made it an all-Suzuki podium after scrapping mightily with Hacking and Tommy Hayden.
The stated weekend attendance of 131,250 was officially down only about 8% from last year. Sunday’s crowd numbered nearly 47,000, while a little more than 40K attended on Friday and Saturday. Considering the sputtering economy and the siphoning of eastern-U.S. spectators by the upcoming Indy USGP in September, Laguna’s largest annual event was considered a success by most measures.
“Our fans were treated to breathtaking racing this weekend,” said Gill Campbell, CEO/general manager of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. “Between the Red Bull U.S. Rookies Cup photo finish and Rossi’s first win in America, it will be a weekend they will never forget.”
As we pavement surfed our way home down PCH the next morning, we created even more memories for ourselves. Slicing past motorhomes and slower riders through the twists and turns of one of America’s greatest roads, we replayed visions of the modern-day gladiators of MotoGP riders dragging knees and elbows on one of America’s greatest racetracks.
PCH, and later plenty of other thrilling roads, capped off a moto-centric weekend you’d do well to replicate one year. See you in ’09!
Make sure to check out our extensive photo gallery below for a visual feast of cool bikes, hot umbrella girls and other highlights of MO’s trip to Laguna!