Well, it’s not the first time Valentino Rossi’s broken a leg and ruined a great season for us fans. When the same thing happened in 2010, our WLF hero made his comeback at the US MotoGP round at Laguna Seca. Strange, it was a far different landscape only seven years ago. Things change, but remain the same…
The MotoGP circus came to American shores last weekend at the historic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on the Central California coast near Monterey. As usual, the MO staff made our annual pilgrimage to the West Coast’s premier motorcycle event.We’re happy to report a three-day attendance total of 116,488, a modest but important increase of 10,671 over 2009’s total, especially considering the current economic climate. However, it’s still short of the 140K total from 2008. Laguna’s organizers were happy this year’s event didn’t fall on the Fourth of July weekend as it did in 2009, and it’s expected that the 2011 event will be scheduled around the same timeframe as this year’s July 23-25 date.
The MO crew ascended the Cali coast on Friday, getting our first look at Laguna on Saturday morning under warm sunshine after morning fog had broken. As we strolled into the track’s hilly grounds, there seemed to be fewer bodies to dodge in the large vendor area. A Saturday crowd of 40,802 was respectably sized but down from the early MotoGP years beginning in 2005.
No matter – more room to check out all the cool displays and vendors on site.
Along with the news of a slightly improved spectator count was the good news vendor support had also increased over last year. Perhaps this is some small indication that the economy and bike industry as a whole is on an uptick. We’ll take good news where we can get it!
American Honda showed its wild-card entry for the upcoming Moto2 race at the U.S. GP in Indianapolis. The Moriwaki MD600 will be ridden by Roger Lee Hayden, taking a break from his underperforming Kawasaki World Superbike. More American flavor is added with the team’s manager, none other than 1993 world champion Kevin Schwantz, one of the most popular Grand Prix riders ever. Schwantz won 25 500cc GP races with the number 34, now retired from premier-level competition, and Hayden will race the Moto2 bike with that legendary number in the support class. The team is racing for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s Ride For Kids program and its efforts to fight childhood brain tumors. Special collector apparel with the number 34 is now available through http://www.rideforkids.org/.
Saturday was also when Yamaha announced its renewed sponsorship of the U.S. Grand Prix, retaining the title of “the Official Motorcycle of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix.” The extension runs through 2014 when the current Dorna contract with Laguna Seca ends. Yamaha also contributed $2 million to track upgrades that allowed MotoGP to return to the track in 2005.
“It’s great to have such an iconic race track that we can call home,” commented Bob Starr, communications manager of Yamaha Motorsports Group.
Brammo made a splash by showing off its new Empulse, an electric bike claimed to be able to top 100 mph and go as far as 100 miles between charges. Just as significant, it looks like something an experienced motorcyclist might purchase. Sadly, the company’s entry in the event’s e-Power race had teething problems and did not compete. However, Brammo says it will likely make the trek to the Imola, Italy, round of the e-Power championship. Make sure to read our report on the e-bike race here.
On the track were a few new sights. The Yamaha Tech 3 team showed new Texas-themed livery for American riders Ben Spies and Colin Edwards you can see here. And the factory Fiat Yamaha team also got new colors for riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to celebrate Fiat’s return to the U.S. market with the 500 model. Their M1’s were adorned with the faces of 500 fans who submitted to a contest you can read about here.
The new paint seemed to help championship leader Lorenzo, who put in a pole-winning time during qualifying. Spies landed up in fifth place, but he was balked on his quick lap and was a scant 0.062 second away from a front-row start. At least he out-qualified the iconic Rossi and the three other Americans in the field: Ducati’s Nicky Hayden, Edwards, and Roger Hayden, the latter on a one-off ride with a Honda satellite team who disappointedly qualified in last place.
Regardless of Rossi’s trailing position in the GP championship, his fans remain fiercely loyal. This became clear as we roamed the track’s facilities in search of photo ops. From flags in campsites flying a big 46 to spectators wearing various Rossi fan gear, and even a woman draped in one of those number 46 flags, support for Vale seemed as strong as ever.
Supporters of Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and even Nicky Hayden were spotted here and there, but VR is still the people’s favorite. With rumors rampant that Rossi is headed to Ducati, ending a long, successful run with Yamaha, it’ll be interesting to see if Rossi’s fan base changes in any way. Safe guess is that support for and love of the charismatic Italian will swell, possibly more than at any point in his incredible career.
An American experiencing a career resurgence is the popular Ben Bostrom, who qualified on pole for the American Superbike race. It was his first pole in the class since 2004. A blinder of a lap was put in by Tommy Aquino to take pole in Daytona Sportbike qualifying ahead of his fast Yamaha teammate Josh Herrin. Yamaha machines nabbed pole position in the event’s three major races for the race-sponsoring manufacturer.
Track ingress and egress went quite smoothly this year, with no significant snarls. We still take issue with sending motorcyclists the long way around into the track (unless you pay for a parking pass), but this system is a major improvement over the first couple of years since the GPs return.
At night, Cannery Row again hosted a moto-centric block party of sorts, with a sampling of most every motorcycle style and niche. Vintage sportbikes stood next to Harleys, and ex-roadrace machines rested alongside stretched and blinged Hayabusas. Black leather brushed shoulders with Aerostich Roadcrafters. Neon-shining sportbikes were parked across from GS BMWs. It’s a wild and wacky mélange of cultures, with a diverse cast of characters and motorcycles unique in the moto world.
On our way into the track on Sunday, we dropped by the Zero Motorcycles booth where another demo ride was preparing to leave. Zero reps told us rides were booked solid for all three days, most of them pre-registering for the event, and some 40 people added their names to a waiting list to test the interesting electric bikes. When the subject of the Brammo Empulse came up, Zero’s reps extolled the virtues of the company’s four-bike lineup that Brammo has yet to match. They also hinted that a new bike might be in the pipeline.
Although Sunday began overcast and a bit cool, sunshine broke through in the afternoon, in time for most of the race action. The Daytona Sportbike guys put on a thrilling show in the morning, with Martin Cardenas taking the win on his M4 Monster Energy Suzuki GSX-R600. Steve Rapp rode his Ducati 848 to the runner-up spot, followed by Clinton Seller with his best career finish.
Shortly after we visited the Bell Powersports hospitality suite to watch the e-Power race, which one Bell rep described as “eerie” for its absence of engine noise. We weren’t necessarily expecting to find large fan support for the FIM e-Power event – the first FIM-sanctioned electric motorcycle race held in the U.S. since the series kicked-off at this year’s Isle of Man TT. But at least twice, once during staging for the warm-up lap and then for the full start, race fans in the grandstands gave the small e-bike field a standing ovation. It was encouraging to see such support for this rapidly advancing form of motorcycle racing.
If e-bike racing continues to grow, developing greater parity between teams and riders, thereby providing close finishes like the one during the Laguna weekend, stodgy ol’ geezers will sit up and take notice.While at the Bell suite, we were given a trick new faceshield for our Bell helmets than incorporate Transitions technology popularized in eyeglasses. The clear shield turns a dark smoke color when exposed to UV rays, eliminating the need to bring along an extra shield when riding from day into night. You’ll see them on our Bells in future photo shoots.
The day’s lunch break saw a gathering of legendary riders and their vintage Yamaha GP bikes in front of the track’s main grandstand. Between the trio is a total of 10 world championship: Kenny Roberts (3), Eddie Lawson (4) and Wayne Rainey (3). To any longtime roadracing fan, it was a memorable moment to see this group of admirable American racing legends together and with their 500cc two-stroke GP bikes.
Anticipation simmered as the MotoGP race time approached. Some thought points-leader Lorenzo would take another victory, while others believed Ducati’s Casey Stoner, a close second in qualifying, could give the Spaniard a battle. The quick-starting Dani Pedroso could be a threat, and Spies was the best bet for an American being on the podium. And then there’s the fan-favorite Rossi, still recovering from a badly broken leg but never to be counted out.
Pedrosa shook things up by scampering quickly into the lead of the race and holding the point position for the first 11 laps, but he succumbed to pressure from Lorenzo and crashed out of the race. From then on, Lorenzo had a comfortable lead over Stoner.Rossi performed another of his miracles by barging his way past Andrea Dovizioso for the final spot on the podium. Spies worked his way past Nicky Hayden for fifth place and was closing in on Rossi, but he out-braked himself while challenging The Doctor and dropped back to sixth place where he finished behind Hayden. Colin Edwards finished in seventh. Our full race report can be read here.
The weekend was capped off by the American Superbike race. Josh Hayes qualified second on his Yamaha R1, and many tipped the championship leader to get past pole-sitter Bostrom on his similar Yamaha. After all, Bostrom had only won two AMA Superbike races in his career before garnering success in the World Superbike series, and he had yet to beat Hayes.
The prognosticators seemed to be correct after Bostrom ran wide entering the Corkscrew and gave away the lead. But the likable Californian wouldn’t be denied on his home track. He charged forward and passed Hayes on lap 15, holding the point to take a Laguna Superbike victory for the first time since his 1999 WSB wild-card ride. Tommy Hayden rounded out the podium on his Suzuki.
Ben’s brother Eric also did well in only his second Superbike race since returning from a two-year racing sabbatical. He started sixth but dropped back to 16th after a poor start, then put his head down and made up nine positions to finish in seventh.
|A GP Newbie Again!By Jeff Cobb|
|The last time I went to a premier international motorcycle event at Mazda Raceway, it was called merely Laguna Seca Raceway. It was 1988, I was 23, and the GP class raced four-cylinder two-strokes back then. Remember those featherweight beasts handling 180 hp more or less, on then-technology tires? Only a handful of riders could throttle-steer them, and one was the winner at that special USGP – the first American GP after a 20-year hiatus – my then-hero, three-time world champ Eddie Lawson. |
Coming back to Laguna last weekend with the Motorcycle.com crew here after all these years was like coming full circle – except my age has just about doubled. My only weak excuse is I’d have come back sooner except Philadelphia, where I’m from, is kind of far away.
Random things that struck me this time was that the layout had changed, although the Corkscrew was still the same – otherwise I only vaguely remembered the place. Likewise the generation of new riders is completely different. Street machines now would have won professional AMA events back then, and modified ones might have taken the GP machines.
It may be cliché, but when it comes to high performance, it’s a frame of reference like mine that convinces me that these are the good old days! If anyone ever wanted to ride or race, now is the best time in history if your priorities are accelerating, cornering and braking as fast as possible.
This MotoGP weekend was in a way a demonstration and even a celebration of this fact – hot and dusty, and a little but lusty. Lots of tantalizing things to see – some on two wheels under swoopy bodywork, some on two legs with swoopy bodies under hot pants or a skirt.
Another difference was the electric motorcycle races. I never would have imagined them.
I think they are interesting. One day they may even supplant petrol machines, but for now the unmuffled MotoGP bikes are amazing and remain the premier-class status by a large margin.
In 1988, I was a part-time club racer and was envious of the really super-talented riders doing their stuff. This part of the experience hasn’t changed.
If you’ve never been, don’t hesitate to go next year if you can. If you have already attended, don’t follow my example and wait half your life to do it again. You won’t be disappointed.
We reflected on the event while riding home along some of California’s best twisty roads, and already we were anticipating the 2011 Grand Prix. Stoner will ride a Honda instead of a Ducati. Rossi will almost surely be taking Stoner’s spot on the Ducati, making his side of the garage an all-Italian effort. And Spies will be gunning for regular podiums if, as expected, he assumes Rossi’s seat on the factory Yamaha. And then there’s the impressive young Lorenzo who is likely to carry the number-1 plate next year.
We can’t wait to do it all over again and see how it all shakes out. We suggest you be there yourself.
If you still haven’t had your fill from the U.S. GP, make sure to check out our huge photo gallery from the event.