1988 USGP: Coming to America

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Eddie Lawson above his Yamaha YZR500 at the 1988 U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca.
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Niall Mackenzie led the early laps of the 500cc race aboard his Honda NSR500. Lawson eventually caught and passed him for the win.
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Racer Kevin Schwantz (middle) consults with his crew in the pits.
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Randy Mamola aboard his Cagiva.
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Schwantz at speed riding his Suzuki.
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Niall Mackenzie waves to the crowd after finishing the race in second place.
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Kevin Schwantz follows Eddie Lawson during the 1988 U.S. Grand Prix.
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Wayne Gardner and his NSR500.
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Lawson finished first (middle), with Mackenzie second (right) and Gardner third (left).
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Kenny Roberts at the track.
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Crew and racers in the pit lane at Laguna Seca.

By the mid-1980s, America’s motorcycle community was primed and ready — even love-starved — to host a world championship Grand Prix race. Only one obstacle stood in the way: The U.S. didn’t have a suitable venue at which to stage such an event.

To obtain Federation Internationale Motocycliste (FIM) sanction for a world championship race a facility had to conform to a litany of standards including track length and width, adequate runoff room in the event of crashes, emergency response preparedness for injured riders, spacious paddock and enclosed garages for team transporters and race bikes, suitable spectator seating and viewing areas, and more. Few, if any, race tracks in America could fill all those prerequisites, and so for years America’s best road racers ventured overseas if they wanted to become a world champion.

Eventually, though, one race track organization decided to work towards gaining FIM approval for what would be America’s first motorcycle USGP since 1965. Laguna Seca Raceway, located near California’s picturesque Monterey Peninsula and operated by the non-profit charity organization known as SCRAMP (Sports Car Racing Association of Monterey Peninsula), committed to promoting a FIM Grand Prix featuring two classes — 250cc and 500cc bikes — for 1988. By the end of 1986 it was announced that Laguna Seca had secured a race date for the 1988 season. The Grand Prix circus was coming to America!

Looking back

In reality, though, the 1988 United States Grand Prix had its origins at the conclusion of the FIM’s 1978 500cc road race world championship when Kenny Roberts became America’s first-ever Grand Prix world champion. Even though Steve Baker won the Formula 750 world championship the previous year, that series didn’t carry Grand Prix status; every road race fan here and abroad knew that winning the three-quarter liter title didn’t compare to winning the FIM’s premier 500cc GP class. Some of road racing’s greatest racers — Geoff Duke, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees and Giacomo Agostini, to name a few — had their names affixed to that title. And now, so did Roberts who, in the process of becoming World Champion, earned a new and lasting moniker: King Kenny.

But the emperor had no home; there wasn’t a Grand Prix race in America where his loyal followers could pay their respects to cheer him on. The last USGP took place back in 1965 at Daytona International Speedway. And it, like the world championship event held there the previous year, was a failure in many ways, including low spectator turnout, making it an embarrassing footnote in America’s racing lore. That was to be expected, though, because American motorcycle race fans of the 1960s didn’t appreciate the art of road racing like they eventually would two decades later when the sport bike movement captured a whole new generation of enthusiasts in this country.

By 1979 King Kenny, with the blessings of Yamaha International, fanned the flames further for a USGP when he took a brief California vacation during the GP season to race his year-old YZR500 at the AMA Sears Point National, winning in fine style against the horde of heavyweight TZ750s. He followed suit the next year at the Laguna Seca National where he won again, and in 1981 Randy Mamola and his Suzuki RG500 joined in. Almost by chance a tradition was born — in subsequent summers more 500cc GP refugees appeared for each Laguna Seca race, making it a USGP by proxy for American fans to savor, love and enjoy.

But the fans wanted more, and so did King Kenny and Mamola, along with Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson and, well, everybody from the last ticket-paying spectator up to SCRAMP’s top dog, Lee Moselle, who was the organization’s executive director at the time. Roberts and Mamola, especially, played to Laguna Seca’s crowds, swapping race wins from 1980 to 1985 (Roberts taking the evennumber years, Mamola the odd years) aboard their year-old (and by GP standards, outdated) Grand Prix bikes. They also took the occasions to titillate the crowds with long, graceful wheelies when exiting some of Laguna Seca’s corners. Race fans loved it, the racers loved it, and members of SCRAMP loved it, too. After all, the more fans that packed onto Laguna’s scenic hillsides overlooking the track the more money to help feed the various charities that SCRAMP supported.

Meanwhile, Moselle and Roberts established a professional and lasting relationship, one in which King Kenny could speak what was on his mind to Moselle without repercussions or unfavorable consequences. Foremost on Roberts’ mind was that America deserved a world championship Grand Prix, and Laguna Seca should be the venue in which to have it.

Fixing the track

Roberts’ lobbying paid off. By 1987 the fun times and warm fuzzies that everyone experienced were temporarily set aside to make way for the small armada of bulldozers, dump trucks and graders that swarmed the infield to prepare the 1.9- mile track for its FIM-approved face-lift. First order of business was to stretch the track distance to conform to the FIM minimum length of 2.2 miles. To do that Turns 2 and 3, what had been the fastest corners of the track, were bypassed for a series of tighter turns that meandered through the former infield parking and camping grounds. The new Turn 2 essentially became a left-hand hairpin corner leading to the new Turn 3, a sweeping right-hander that fed another right-hander — now Turn 4 — that eventually led back onto the old (and bumpy) part of the course at the new Turn 5 left-hander. The rest of the track remained unchanged (and bumpy), but it was enough change to transform Laguna Seca from a nine-turn track measuring 1.9 miles to the 11-turn, 2.2-mile course that it is today.

Keith Code, who was among a small committee of experts instrumental in helping lay out the new turns, previewed the reconfigured infield section for Motorcyclist magazine’s April 1988 issue. In it he wrote, “Since the modifications, Laguna Seca has the best of both spectating worlds in the new turn two, a 60-foot wide, fairly tight, double-apex turn that will be absolutely packed with action as it leads into the new track section. The width and the double-apex design were changes that both Kenny Roberts and I called for in the new track. This slow- to medium-speed turn gives faster riders many passing options. In a single-apex turn like turn eleven (formerly turn nine), passing is possible but more difficult and risky.”

Off the track

Conforming to the FIM minimum track length was just part of the puzzle. By 1988 Grand Prix teams were accustomed to race facilities featuring wide pit lanes and spacious garages in which to work on their equipment. Laguna Seca lacked both; the pit lane was short and narrow and there were no covered garages. Motorcyclist’s preview issue for the USGP included a sidebar featuring Team Marlboro-Yamaha’s crew chief Kel Carruthers’ take on Laguna Seca as the site for America’s round in the Grand Prix series.

“In Europe the best tracks have garages for the big teams,” Carruthers stated. “The tracks that don’t have garages have electrical and water hookups for our transporters. I’ve heard the Laguna organizers [SCRAMP] may put up large marquees [tents] for us, but we’ll have to provide dividing walls for privacy and our own electricity. The organizers are making a good effort, but it takes a lot of money to put on a first-rate GP.”

Indeed, SCRAMP spent more than $1 million to upgrade the track as best it could to FIM standards. But in truth it wasn’t enough. The pits and paddock lacked the accommodations that Carruthers pointed out were found at FIM-certified tracks in Europe and abroad. In addition, Laguna Seca still lacked adequate spectator seating, although many diehard fans didn’t mind, because they enjoyed the vistas from the track’s natural hillside seating. These and other politically motivated stipulations eventually led to the USGP relocating in later years to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and eventually to the state-of-the-art Circuit of The Americas near Austin, Texas, that hosts the current MotoGP.

But as the race date for the 1988 USGP neared, everybody was committed to Laguna Seca as all eyes focused on the famous resort community along California’s scenic coast. For American road race fans, it was the racing itself, not the facility that hosted it, that mattered most. Perhaps Carruthers said it best when he told the editors at Motorcyclist: “In the past we’ve arrived at Laguna to do some wheelies, and the motorcycles have usually been a year old. Not this time. This is war.” It was time to race.

The race: Yanking the carpet from under the Europeans

The USGP featured two races, the 250cc and 500cc events, and both were won by Americans. Jim Filice kicked off the celebration with a dominating performance over the 250cc field.

Filice, who had never even seen a Grand Prix road race prior to Laguna Seca, was given his ride after Honda’s top 250 rider, Masahiro Shjimizu, injured himself in a crash a month prior. Freddie Spencer’s former tuner and longtime Honda-man Erv Kanemoto convinced Honda’s HRC division that it would be wise to loan Filice Shjimizu’s now-vacant NSR250 for the USGP.

Even though fellow American John Kosinski set the fastest qualifying time aboard his factory-backed Yamaha YZR250 to earn pole position, Filice never lost doubt that he’d win the race. He grabbed the lead on the third lap and easily cruised to victory, winning by nearly 10 seconds over runner-up and fellow Honda rider Sito Pons. Filice was reminded in victory circle that Kanemoto had secured the ride only a week or so before the USGP, to which the diminutive rider replied, “And I told him [then] that I’d win the race. And I did!” The American fans roared their approval, Filice responded with fist pumps into the air, and a general feel of euphoric mayhem overtook the crowd of 80,000. History had just been made, and now it was Lawson’s turn to contribute.

But that almost didn’t happen. Struggling all week with a quartet of stubborn Mikuni carburetors on his YZR500, Lawson got a terrible start when the green flag fell. As Lawson said after his win, “I didn’t get off the line so well, and I thought to myself, ‘this is going to be a long day.'” Emphasis on “long,” but as he always did, Lawson maintained his cool, getting down to business as he methodically moved to the front.

Kel Carruthers, Lawson’s Team Marlboro crew chief, told Lawson to keep the plugs clean by keeping the engine’s revs high. As Lawson told Cycle World magazine, “I had it [the throttle] pinned at 13,000rpm — and it only revs to 12,000.” With the plugs cleared and the problem solved, Lawson put his head down to eventually overtake Kevin Schwantz (Suzuki) and Wayne Rainey (Yamaha), putting him into third place, edging closer to the rear tire of defending world champ Wayne Gardner’s Honda NSR500. Gardner knew he had his work cut out for him. Earlier in the week he confirmed what most rail birds suspected, that the Honda didn’t cope well with Laguna’s old Kevin Schwantz follows Eddie Lawson during the 1988 U.S. Grand Prix. section of rough and rutty asphalt. The Yamaha’s twin-crank layout helped deliver power in smoother doses, and by contrast the Honda’s single-crank engine violently spit out its horsepower. As Gardner put it, “With its [NSR500] abrupt power, it just didn’t get along well here.”

And so Lawson caught Gardner, ultimately setting him up for a pass exactly where Keith Code figured a faster rider could overtake a slower bike, in the new Turn 2. Once Lawson resolved that issue, he smoothly motored up to race leader Niall Mackenzie, who was contending with his own hair-trigger Honda. The pass came again in Turn 2, and with that Lawson smoothly motored ahead to win by nearly eight seconds.

During the post-race press conference the European riders let it be known that Laguna Seca’s rough track surface wasn’t to their liking. When Gardner was asked where the worst stretch of pavement was located on the track, he stoically replied, “Laguna Seca.” Point made, but he added with typical Aussie humor, “Next year we’re going to bring a motocross bike here… a CR500 I think it’s called.” He then got serious: “Actually, we’ll have to work on something else [for this race], make the bike for it.” In the process, Gardner confirmed what practically the whole racing world wanted to hear: that the USGP was here to stay. MC

Calm before the storm

During a pre-race press conference that showcased the reconfigured Laguna Seca to a curious press corps, some interesting and rather humorous comments were made. Here are some of them:

Caught smokin’: Shortly before the press conference was called to order Bubba Shobert, who was set to ride the RJ Reynolds/Camel Cigarettes-sponsored Honda NSR250 in the support race, took the liberty to sit on John Kosinski’s Yamaha 250 displayed in the press room. Caught off guard, the three-time AMA Grand National Champion sheepishly excused himself from the bike, half pleading to the people in the room, “You didn’t see me on that.”

Close enough: As SCRAMP’s media relations manager Art Glattke described the track’s additional turns, he explained that the “new” Laguna Seca “measures slightly over the 2.2-mile FIM minimum,” at which point Kenny Roberts jokingly added, “Unless you have a track in Italy,” a coy reference to Autodromo Sanamonica that hosted the San Marino GP even though that track stretches to only 2.167 miles.

Final bid: Lee Moselle, SCRAMP’s chief operating officer, briefed everybody on the various expenses encountered to prepare the new track layout that required digging and shifting a lot of dirt. “It will cost $30,000 to get this excess dirt out,” he said, and as if on cue Lucky Strike team owner Roberts volunteered, “I’ll have my riders do it for $28,000.”

On time: Before any of the GP racers ever took to the track, some of the riders were asked what lap times to expect for winning the 500-class pole position. Roberts felt 1:35 would do it. Kevin Magee suggested 1:32 and his teammate Wayne Rainey said 1:30. Shobert figured a 1:22. In the end Rainey was closest, and in fact won the pole position with a 1:29.214.

Dusting the competition: The press conference concluded on the race course itself, where media members got a close look at the track. When it was time to go, Roberts said to his team riders Rainey and Magee, who were standing trackside with Shobert, “Let’s do what we always do — leave Shobert in the dust.”

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