Thursday, July 14, 2005
From a superior perspective high atop puffy garbage bags piled in a dumpster near Turn Two at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the addictive qualities of world-class motorbikes are clear.
Only views from the roof of motor homes and from the Ducati Island grandstand of the Andretti Hairpin rival that from the ghetto-fabulous dumpster luxury box. The angle offers an understanding of the sinful speed and precision of last Sunday’s Red Bull US Grand Prix MotoGP World Championship. In the fraction of a second it takes the first rider to make the yogaesque 180-plus-degree bend, I’m hooked.
I’m no bike guy; lamely admitting my outsider status to each guy whom inevitably asks, “Do you ride?” only serves to make me less at peace with it. But something happens with the first earsplitting acceleration from the starting gate into the hairpin: I’m now willing to call a day where I just may go deaf, adopt a sleep-depriving sunburn and (for good measure) pickle my liver one of the best of my sports-loving life.
It is impossible not to recognize the singularity of the spectacle. The burst of speed splits my eyes open so wide so fast that the resulting twitch almost topples me from my perch. An automatic comparison process drops into gear: Mark McGuire hitting a ball over the outfield roof and into the parking lot at Dodger Stadium. Jerry Rice catching a ball on a slant and dusting an all-pro secondary at the ‘Stick. Phil Mickelson uncorking his driver at Spyglass. Rare are the days when you see something live that does not begin to translate on TV. Rarer is the event that renders those sights sleepy. Rarer still are the words to describe speed this exclusive.
Yet as quickly as the acceleration comes, it disappears even faster. And speed awe gives way to precision worship. Painstakingly calibrated brakes and suspension systems carry leader Nicky Hayden from his straightaway speed of around 150-plus mph to a 15-mph crawl without so much as a fidget. Leaning knee out, he dips within millimeters of the asphalt. The reality registers that this fluid dance with gravity is just one of 385 such dips he will make today, a surreal test of stamina. Hayden pulls out of his second turn of the day tightly, offering heavily favored Valentino Rossi of Italy no chance to pass. It’s a sign of things to come. On turn after turn, Hayden proves as hard to get inside of as a race-weekend hotel room without reservations.
And then the acceleration again. In the latest of a series of realizations, I find I cannot control how many times I say, “Whoah.” As the other racers sizzle by in pursuit, the luxury boxers turn to see the leaders zip up the sloped straightaway towards Turn Six. The minute break between their reappearance at Turn Two is an opening to talk about what exactly this scene means.
A race fan from Guadalajara beside me on the dumpster says it means the rich history of the US Grand Prix, once interrupted, is suddenly being reasserted—or scorched—on the asphalt in front of us, where Hayden set the track record at 158.8 mph on Saturday, and all around us, where a raceway record 57,932 fans look on.
And while the Grand Prix had left the US for over a decade, it is contracted to return to Monterey for the next four years. As Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s Ed Nicholls tells me later, that may just be the beginning.
“After the response we got, Carmelo Ezspleta, President of Dorna, the commercial rights holder for MotoGP, told [General Manager of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca] Gill Campbell that, ‘It’s yours as long as you want,’” he says. “The world championship has to have an American round.”
* * * * *
When Kentucky native Hayden tears back over the rise, brakes smoothly and executes another unflinching contortion through the hairpin, he’s more than a second ahead of his pursuers. He roars on to break Rossi’s streak of five straight MotoGP wins. On American soil, the Kentucky native demonstrates that he is the fastest of the fastest in the world.
Yet if history can be counted upon to hold, he may not be the fastest in his own family for long. In the AMA Supersport race that follows the MotoGP, Nicky’s 21-year-old little brother Roger Lee gets passed on the final turn and just misses a double brother victory day. (Older brother Tommy crashed in the Superstock around noon but did return to run in the afternoon.) According to CycleNews’ Dan “Dan-O” Legere, who hangs out with the dynastic family in Kentucky, Roger Lee has smashed both of his brothers’ time records in each of the age brackets on his way up.
“They all race in Kentucky, banging bars on a dirt oval,” he says. “Even the sisters race and win. But Roger Lee is the fastest.”
Track announcer Chris Carter agrees that the fast-coming future looks brilliant for both the MotoGP at Laguna Seca and the Haydens. The likeable limey could be heard crackling excitedly through the speaker just after Nicky’s win. “Just think: when Nicky Hayden wins the next four US Grand Prixs you can say you were there for the one that launched the whole run!”
And you can return to Laguna to see them. Just leave room on the dumpster.