Cheating Death and the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca

Twenty years of indifference to motorsports ended on July 20, 2008.

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by Anders Carlson
Before the writing, the hard part of riding — the author in Turn 9.

By accident, I watched the U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca on a projector at the long-gone Lovejoy’s Bar in Austin, Texas. Rossi passed Stoner in the dirt on the last lap, accompanied by drunken Texan whooping and hollering. Lone Star beer fogged my visor on the way home and made me dip knees at every corner. Stupid, I know.

Growing up in the cable TV landscape of the 1980s, Laguna Seca was a regular on ESPN. IMSA, CART and even SCCA races played out over yellow scrub and blue sky dropping into grey snaking corkscrew pavement. Laguna etched itself in my brain, along with Watkins Glen, Road America and countless other tracks.

From the start

It took 60 days to build Laguna, or 3 months from when the ink dried on the lease. Carved from the eastern edge of the Fort Ord Army base, Laguna Seca cost about $3,000 to lease and about $125,000 to build. They hurried for a reason. Laguna’s predecessor, the Pebble Beach Road races, were a major draw, socially and economically. But they ended when Ernie McAfee crashed and died in his Ferrari LM 121. Pete Lovely then won next year’s inaugural race at Laguna aboard a Ferrari 500 TR.

Laguna was a nod to safety, economy and other sensible reasons. It’s been modified some over the years, for additional safety and length. But the spiritual heart of the track has always been the corkscrew, and by some accounts, the long-lost Turn 2. Born of the jet-age, it was an act of modernity, post-war affluence and a belief in the future of motorsports.

Sixty-three years later, Laguna Seca’s geography has become a disadvantage. The land around the track is attractive to people who, you know, like living in California. The newly minted residents don’t like noise and the pursuit of speed, freedom and calculated abandon. Like atheists moving in next door to St. Peter’s Square, they clutch their pearls upon hearing anything louder than 92 decibels. It rattles wine glasses and makes outdoor succulents nervous.

A tan shack between turns 5 and 6 is where the Politburo of Noise Compliance monitors the racing citizenry. Located on the right side of the track, it’s spawned a cottage industry of exhaust innovation. A “Laguna Pipe” is the solution for race cars. Add 2 or 4 feet of exhaust pipe, bend it to the left, and cap it off with a nice reverse megaphone. Expensive and complicated, sure, but it can save your race weekend from the Noise NSA.

Plenty of folks ride tracks they dream of. But few get to ride ones more than a coast away. Us Midwest types usually stick to our three-race season in Road America, Gingerman, sometimes Grattan and if you budget right, Barber. But we began to hear exciting rumblings. Laguna Seca was an option for the inaugural 2020 AHRMA season opener.

To fix a bike

Still licking my wounds over my October Barber debacle, I hadn’t even autopsied my Yamaha R5/RD. I was halfway through the winter book pile, Christmas booze and other non-motorcycle activities. But Laguna was a hard yes. Time to make May happen in January.

My hellaciously expensive magneto didn’t use a Woodruff key, so the rotor wandered from the magic 1.85mm BTDC setting. Ninety-two kickstarts will do that. I had three weeks to make a runner. The R5 crank was rebuilt and balanced. Time to split cases and transplant. RD cylinders and reed valves topped it off.

Dyno testing wouldn’t reveal horsepower figures, but it did help diagnose a slipping clutch at around 10,000rpm. The faux powerband raised a few eyebrows among the 4-stroke crowd.

“Jesus, is that normal for 2-strokes?” yelled Dan May, from the dyno. “Sure is,” I incorrectly screamed. “Are you sure it’s not a slipping clutch?” he yelled again. Time for a new Barnett clutch to harness the horsepower.

To California

You race the bike you have, not the one you wish you had. The R5 is leaving for Laguna, no matter. Thanks to Dan May organizing transport, we load all the bikes into a giant semi-truck headed to California. Technically, Dan and company had to actually load up the truck. Sorry, Dan.

A short flight later, we’ve got 4 days to make magic or mayhem happen on one of America’s premier racetracks. We’ve rented an RV to sleep, drink and keep beer in, plus we rented actual garages at Laguna. That’s key. There’s lights, shelter and space to wrench into the wee hours of the morning. Or my morning, rather.

Sunshine and warmth is magical. Tight shoulders and furrowed brows relax as California sun soaks into our leathers. And when reality sinks in, they tighten again.

We’re at Laguna Motherloving Seca. Best not screw this up.

Friday

Friday starts right, as the bike easily kicks to life. A last Chicago tuning with Brett Kurtz yielded a crucial needle height change that dropped the powerband right into 7,500-9,000rpm. Four or five rounds of practice today are the only chance to put memory to muscle. Time for nerves to meet nerve.

Pulling onto hot pit as late as possible, I finally get my green flag. And by the time I reach turn 1, the red flag is already out. The first of several get-offs claims an unlucky rider, which is a bit lucky for the rest of us. It’s a warm-up lap until we’re told in no uncertain terms to stop on track. Laguna does things a bit different, so red flag means stop and pull over. Back to the pits to line ’em up again.

I’m still “mastering” 2-stroke riding. I’ve got about 2,000rpm to work with. Anything below 7,500 is useless. Anything above 10K and moto-carnage ensues. One eye mans the tach, the other stays on track. As I improve, I just listen for the powerband. Or better yet, just feel it through my ass.

My RV companions are doing much better. Dan’s shaving lap times on his CB175. Matt’s shaving chicken-strips off the mammoth rear slick of his GS450 while Mark is just making memories on his venerable CB400F.

Then Mark’s 400F becomes a memory. I’m five seconds behind him. I hit the Corkscrew, where things get smoky. Did someone deploy a smokescreen? After turns 10 and 11, I can’t see the end of the main straight. Then the smoke pulls off to the side. Hello, Mark. He explains, “Power was fine, but the starting official gave me a red flag and a debris flag. I could read his lips, ‘Get off the track!’ But I didn’t drop any oil.”

A spare bike was brought, mostly for me. But Mark beat me to it, fair and square. Friday practice ends, and social hour begins. Truth emerges. During practice everyone’s tough and unfazed by Laguna. But four beers deep, eyes get wide and stories get longer.

“Starting to get the hang of the Corkscrew,” Dan confides. “Think I lifted my front wheel going down,” adds Matt. Mark chuckles and says nothing. He’s wise. If he thinks or does any of the above, only the track will know.

Saturday

Saturday practice wouldn’t be practice without race chances taken. Matt goes down in Turn 5. Too much throttle or too little tire, take your pick. But back in the pits, a spare foot peg and a filed crosshatch for grip is all it takes to make the Superbike Lightweight grid.

We’re reminded we’re close to the ocean. A blanket of fog rolls in and ends practice early. That’s a first for us Midwesterners. Things resume, and I’m in the Formula 500 race. As usual, I’m kicking a dead horse to take the grid. I miss the warm-up lap, and seem like a healthy scratch. But the R5 coughs to life so I start from hot pit lane.

I don’t trust the bike, but the real problem is I don’t trust my own riding. I need to set a pace, not follow it.

The R5 will take me to a 30-degree lean, no problem. The bike is set up beautifully. I just need to secure my beer gut behind the tank and get decent footing on the pegs.

On lap 4, I hear piston slap. Or pre-detonation, can’t tell. Heading into Rainey Curve, power escapes me. And something’s rattling. I’m dead set against crash trucks, so I flog it into Turn 10, and somehow cross the track into hot pit lane, no flags in sight. The racing portion of the weekend is over. Time to spectate.

Matt’s Vintage Superbike Lightweight race got red flagged, but he bumped up to middleweight. And he’s up next. No point in shedding race leathers, time to find a good corner to watch. Matt’s earlier crash is a passing thought as he takes 3rd place.

Dan had the first race of the day taking 8th from a field of 36 with 34 starting. His GP200 effort nets 10th from a field of 38, with 33 starters. He’s nonplussed as usual. “That’s amazing, top ten and everything,” I tell him. “Yeah, it’s something,” he says, disinterested.

No longer in Formula 250, Mark’s spare ride takes him to 24th in the GP200 race. Post-race finds him sitting in the sun in his leathers, a Midwestern lizard of sorts. “How’d you do?” I ask. “Not sure,” he smiles. An hour or two later, I ask again. He’s still doesn’t know. This afternoon, lots of things don’t matter. It’s living on velvet while huffing a race fuel rag. Everything is wonderful no matter what.

There are awards, a ceremony and plenty of tasteless jokes at everyone’s expense. And then there’s another beer and that’s it. Everyone’s exhausted. Goodnight.

Sunday

Sundays are bittersweet. Everything that’s been done, fixed and raced must be undone and packed. I autopsied the R5 last night, and it’s D.O.A. The No. 2 connecting rod was lubricated with bits of piston skirt and is frozen. I’m not racing today but I’m damn excited.

Time to explore.

I’m supposed to put something together for Motorcyclist, so it’s time to take pictures and steal stories. I borrow our pit mate Topher’s pit bike, and head anywhere that doesn’t have “No Trespassing” signs. I roam empty grandstands by Turn 11, explore the infield by Turn 3 and best of all, visit the Corkscrew. I ask the gate dude if my pit bike’s cool on the public roads. “I’m gonna look over here, OK?” he replies. That’s my cue.

I ride pedestrian paths to the Corkscrew and spend two camera batteries’ worth of time shooting 5 races. I talk to two kids who raced electric Zero bikes earlier, a track photographer and a picnicking couple on a gingham blanket with wine. Very California.

Matt’s bested his 3rd place finish with a 1st. If I can’t be a winner, I can still bathe in their glow. Dan almost gets a royal flush — 8th, 9th, 10th and 12th place between the CB160 and GP200 grids. Mark hits 24th and 23rd in the GP200 races, aboard the spare bike. His smile would have you thinking podium.

Finishing up interviews, I ask Dave Roper, “What’s your advice for cheating death at Laguna?” He laughs, and offers sage advice like, “People think they need trick stuff but it’s way more important to have a reliable bike.” Also, “Have your shit together.” Then he mentions the Corkscrew. “The first lap, I went through the corkscrew under a red flag and blew it because I forgot how tight it was. In retrospect, it was good. Kept me from doing something stupid.” Funny. A man better than me by 30 seconds a lap and 30 trips around the sun had the same thought.

The only stupid thing I accomplished all weekend was trusting 30-year-old pistons and spending two house payments at a track 2,200 miles away from home.

As I type this, life has changed a bit. A simple beer run involves risk metrics and minor PPE. Life has recalibrated itself some. Death is still the best punch line there is, but it’s stepping on the applause. Odds, chance and misfortune add up differently, for now.

Sentimentality is the most useless emotion we have. But it’s hard to forget the pungent race fuel hitting your nostrils and your heart entering your throat as you tumble down the corkscrew.

Luck and chance changes form, depending on circumstance. I can’t wait to meet them both again on a slightly more level playing field. MC

Laguna Seca — A Rider’s Primer

 

Turn 1: Cresting a blind hill, Turn 1 is just a kink. It’s supposed to trick you into braking too early for Turn 2. If possible, channel Freddie Spencer and use your front brake to gently drift through it.

Turn 2: It’s a nicely bowled double-apex left-hander. Also, Pit-Out enters on your left, so watch out. Don’t feel bad if you messed up. Wayne Rainey never got this corner right. Mostly because it didn’t exist when he raced here.

Turn 3: A slightly off-camber right-hander, it’s not difficult. But on cold tires, folks go off here. Unrelated, you go through a pedestrian bridge with a giant novelty plywood Cooper tire. Add 10 racer points whenever you race under a bridge.

Turn 4: This quick right-hander requires no downshifting. So feather-torture the clutch to stay in the revs. You’ll rebuild the engine soon, anyway. Also, there’s another pedestrian bridge and ad for Mothers polish and waxes. Race bikes don’t need polish!

Turn 5: Hard-left, then uphill, you can lose serious ground here. Or not, if you carry speed and momentum. Guys go down testing the limits of the latter. Hey, there’s another bridge over the track. FACT: More bridges equals more real racetrack.

Turn 6: Don’t bother slowing down. Heading uphill, it dips at the apex, and glues tread to pavement as you head uphill towards Turn 8. Maybe bigger bikes let off the throttle? Don’t ask me. I look better on smaller bikes.

Turn 7: I’m not wasting valuable words on Turn 7. This is a fake turn.

Turn 8: If you ignored Turn 7 like I told you, you’re riding over the curb that precedes a 30-foot drop. Throw yourself over the ridge, then immediately switch weight and directions for a turn you haven’t hit yet. It’s the Fosbury Flop of motorcycle racing.

Turn 8A: You are heading downhill, hopefully to the right. You might lift a tire, but regardless you’re riding over paint or pavement on your way to Turn 9. You just rode The Corkscrew. Nice job. Hey look, another pedestrian bridge.

Turn 9: Decreasing radius turns don’t “greet” you. They say “Oh, hey,” or “Sorry about that” as you slide into the grass. Turn 9, or Rainey Curve, beds into a left-hand sweeper that ends the downhill portion, then straightens quickly. They don’t name easy turns after racers.

Turn 10: It’s the most predictable portion of the track. Sightlines extend forever, so pick a line and pin it. Unless someone crosses the track to pit at the last second with a blown motor. Sorry, guy behind me on Friday practice.

Turn 11: The sharpest turn is the last, so getting to the flag is about horsepower. Time to start thinking about Turn 2. You probably screwed it up last time, so drop your nuts and start the track over. — Anders Carlson

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