Laguna Seca

Text: Derrel Whitemyer • Photography: Derrel Whitemyer

Honda's International Superbike Classic and the AMA Superbike Championship.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Mexicans from Monterey ranchos used Laguna Seca as summer pasturage for cattle. Its basin served as a natural barrier and its spring-fed lagoon watered the meadows and livestock.

Today it is one of the premier tracks for auto and motorcycle racing. Although technically on Army property, the track is owned and administered by Mazda. This year, from July 10th through July 14th, the site hosted the Honda International Superbike Classic and the AMA Superbike Championship.

Beginning with mandatory inspection of each team's equipment, the subsequent practice and qualification, entries are picked and eliminated for each class. From Harley to Honda, from 250cc to 1000cc, from dawn till dusk, the area resonates with engine noise and the braying exhaust notes bounce in the adjoining hills like sonic ping-pong balls.

I'd been invited to attend Ducati Island's schedule of events on Friday the 12th, but thought it might be interesting to scout the area before the crowds arrived. So when I went there a week early, expecting nothing but a lonely track, I was surprised to see the manufacturer's tents and bleachers already standing, and the local hotels and motels were filling fast. Later estimates put the total of race fans attending at nearly 100,000. Ironically, Hollister's much more publicized July 4th Rally, the week before, only attracted half that amount.

Speaking of race fans, I found few who had ridden the interstates getting there, most preferring to take the back roads and travel in groups of 10 riders or less. This well-known fact had law enforcement roaming the countryside. Around every corner on almost any route to Laguna Seca, the area crawled with uniforms pointing their "blow dryers." This was especially true coming by way of Carmel Valley, Big Sur, or Hwy 25. Normally my Road Warrior doesn't attract any second glances (unless you ask my grandson who thinks it's the color of grape jelly), but this time out, when following my sport-biker friends (amend that to trying to follow), it seemed we were scanned enough to warrant a visit to a fertility clinic.

Friday found me watching the Buell Pro Thunder event. The bikes were evenly matched and what Harley lacked in power they made up for in spirit. Later that afternoon, starting out from the Ducati tent, Doug Polen led an historical track walk and recounted many of the major milestones in racing history along the way. Speaking of history, the Ducati museum would have been a bargain at twice the price with all the past glory detailed throughout and decorated in the reds and yellows the cognoscenti associate with Ducati. Using the Ducati tent as a base, I could spend the rest of the day touring the vendors, the other manufacturer's tents, and still watch the races.

There were crashes all weekend but no serious injuries. In fact, the worst thing I saw was a woman taken to the first-aid tent suffering from food poisoning. Perhaps the Highway Patrol should have been pointing their radar guns at the mayonnaise. Left out in the sun, it's killed far more people than any Laughlin Hell's Angel or Hayabusa wannabe.

Saturday, Eric Bostrom successfully defended his U.S. Superbike title despite two earlier crash stoppages. The crowd was on its feet all the way or, I should say, wanted to be. Temperatures closed in on 100 degrees and, with the Laguna Seca basin blocking the breeze, most spectators were more interested in finding a cool drink and a spot of shade. After Colin Edwards captured the pole position for Sunday's World Superbike race, I parked my lone ("Where's Waldo?") Road Warrior on Ducati Island. I was allowed to stay because my editor supplied a pass to attend the evening owner's party.

Monterey's Cannery Row also threw a party. More informal and held for several years, it gets started after most of the Laguna Seca events have ended. The Saturday evening before Sunday's final races, from the aquarium on down to where the hotels start, Cannery Row is blocked off for riders. Foreign bikes predominate, yet all are welcome. Bottle the positive energy and the goodwill here as cologne, require it to be dabbed on everyone who rides, and I truly believe there'd be a lot less bad-ass behavior.

Jazz bands set up on one corner, blues bands on the next. And should you get tired of looking at bikes on the street, you can look up and catch scenes from Easy Rider or The Great Escape projected on the wall of a building.

Picture Mardi Gras with the same smiles and its gaudiness supplied by colored motorcycles, leathers, helmets, and you've recreated the scene. Anyone with a skid-plate mentality had an epiphany and dropped their Gothic attitude, or they left.

Sunday's main events include a series of warm-ups, stunt shows, and races. Officials at Ducati Island, hosting its final concours, judge selected bikes at 11 a.m. and wind up with the winners award presentations at 3 p.m. Discerning, but no judge, I thought each entry perfect and worthy of first prize.

By late afternoon the races end and the fans depart. A sea breeze blows cool and fog follows close behind. It's amazing how quickly an event clears out, especially with the Highway Patrol directing traffic. And considering the nature of the enterprise, it's a tribute to their skill that no one was injured. Which, in simple terms, means you should treat yourself to an AMA or World Superbike race. It's worth enduring the lines in and out, the noise, and all the other little annoyances that usually accompany a real value. Often you'll derive as much satisfaction from the atmospherics - experiencing the people and surrounding events - as you will from the races.