No one can deny the special place that Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca holds in the international racing world. The fans like the track because of the multiple viewing positions – many of which are quite close to the action. And that’s before we even consider the five story drop of the Corkscrew. While some racers love and others fear the course’s 11 turns, none take the track for granted. The tight 2.238 mile course offers no places for the rider to relax and provides multiple prime passing locations. Races here are frequently closely fought, exciting cut and parry affairs.
Still, despite the heartening news that World Superbike (SBK) weekend attendance was up 20 percent compared to last year, 49,408 people spread across three days can hardly fill the venue. Compare that to 2013’s last MotoGP weekend attendance of 118,696. Although SBK (and its 41,175 fans) shared last year’s calendar with MotoGP, losing the larger of the two international motorcycle racing series has got to hurt.
For people who’ve attended events at Laguna Seca over the years, the signs of the lessened expectations – and accompanying belt tightening – were palpable. The vendor area, while still providing the type of services and purchasing opportunities riders expect from the event, was a shadow of its former self. Where in the past, exiting the tire foot bridge placed you in a canyon of tents crowded with people, this year the first display was about 50 yards from the bridge. Seeing some portable toilets locked until race day was a sign of reduced expectations. Even in the pressroom, someone commented that the lack of cookies in the media lunches showed how thrifty the organizers were forced to be.
Don’t take this as criticism of Mazda Raceway or its event. The organizers put on a great, though reduced, show and are clearly trying to find the right balance as they grow SBK attendance in its second year back at Laguna Seca after an eight year hiatus. Still, as someone who saw his first GP race at Laguna Seca in 1990, I can still remember the feeling as the 500cc bikes crested the hill at Turn 1, leaving the unmistakable smell of two-stroke race fuel wafting across the hillside. The upgrades to the track and its facilities are profound, so it pained me to see so few people in attendance.
On Track Action
Fans who came to see the best riders on the best production-based motorcycles in the world weren’t disappointed with the SBK racing action. For those lucky enough to be in attendance during superpole, the last minute shenanigans proved to be even better than usual. With the clock ticking down and Sylvain Guintoli (Aprilia) holding a 1:22.339 lap time that looked unbeatable, Kawasaki rider Tom Sykes stopped casually talking with his crew in the pit box, mounted up and unleashed a 1:21.811 scorcher of a lap that had people shaking their heads.
The fireworks between Aprilia and Kawasaki continued during Race 1. Although Sykes got the holeshot from the pole, Aprilia-mounted Melandri took over the first spot after Sykes’ Corkscrew mistake. From there, Melandri was never headed. Still, the race was close-fought as Guintoli attempted to prod his teammate Melandri into making a mistake while Sykes finished a comfortable third.
Race 2 was a crash-fest marred by two red flags and almost a third. The start saw Sykes secure the holeshot again, but he held the frontrunner position for a few laps. Alex Lowes of Voltcom Crescent Suzuki had a problem in the top of the Corkscrew that sent him through the gravel trap and back onto the track where he collided with another rider and tumbled spectacularly, bringing out the red flag. Shortly after the restart, more rider contact, this time in turn 11, had BMW Motorrad Italia Superbike Team rider Sylvain Barrier follow his bike, feet first, into the pit wall.
The second, and final, restart saw Melandri take the holeshot. Although Sykes could reel in Melandri in the tighter sections of the track, his Kawasaki didn’t seem to have the power of the Aprilia which pulled away from him on the front straight, making him work his way back for the rest of the lap. However, Melandri lost the front in turn 11 and handed the win to Sykes and Kawasaki – a nice ending to the Ninja’s 30th anniversary weekend festivities.
The AMA Pro Racing classes in attendance at Laguna Seca provided supporting entertainment to the two SBK races. In the AMA Pro Superbike class, Monster Energy Graves Yamaha’s Josh Hayes made it look easy as he pulled away to a 3.5 second margin over his rookie teammate, Cameron Beaubier, and notched his fourth consecutive win. In Daytona SportBike, Jake Lewis of MotoSport.com/Meen Racing Yamaha lead from flag to flag to score his first class win. JD Beach placed second. The close racing for third carried all the way to the line with only 0.135 of a second separating Danny Eslick and Jake Gagne. Saturday’s running of the AMA Pro Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson saw fan favorite Danny Eslick (Ruthless Racing) cross the line in second but still get the win after perennial racer, Steve Rapp, anticipated the start and received a 10 second penalty.
One of the best parts of attending a race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca has always been its proximity to the city of Monterey. Attendees know they’re in for two things when visiting: great seafood and a vibrant bike scene along Cannery Row at night. This year did not disappoint. With the length of Cannery Row closed off to all but motorcycle and pedestrian traffic, people and motorcycle watching was the activity for Saturday evening. While past years might have made one feel like the contents of one of the sardines products from which the street gets its name, the attendance on the street was strong – and entertaining.
The eye-candy was in place. I spotted my first BMR R nineT in the wild. The popularity of the Grom was apparent from the clusters of the parked together. Additionally, a flock of Honda Mini Trails were on the scene. I spent the better part of an hour searching for a Porsche Boxster-powered Honda Rune that two separate people told me was parked on the street, but I’m calling it an urban legend until proven otherwise.
Laguna Seca is one of those race tracks that holds a special fondness in many people’s heart. No, it’s not as plush as the newer, more well-appointed tracks that the international racing series frequent. Still, the upgrades over the recent years have moved the accommodations – and rider safety – closer to the current standards the world of racing expects. The track, itself, is challenging and provides an exciting fan experience. Let’s hope the good folks at Mazda Raceway can continue the growth of the SBK attendance to build it back to what it has been in the past. Perhaps they can even lure MotoGP away from Indianoplis, bringing the big show back to the West Coast to a track that has a long history of international motorcycle racing.
If you’ve ever attended a racing weekend at Laguna in the past, plan on going to whatever motorcycle events are scheduled for next year. We’ve experienced epic racing there in the past, and the future surely holds more. That is if attendance continues to grow enough to support the events. Let’s all do our part.