1988 USGP: Coming to America

Road racing in America came of age at the 1988 USGP, held at the famous Laguna Seca race course.

| September/October 2018

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    Eddie Lawson above his Yamaha YZR500 at the 1988 U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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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.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Racer Kevin Schwantz (middle) consults with his crew in the pits.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Randy Mamola aboard his Cagiva.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Schwantz at speed riding his Suzuki.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Niall Mackenzie waves to the crowd after finishing the race in second place.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Kevin Schwantz follows Eddie Lawson during the 1988 U.S. Grand Prix.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Wayne Gardner and his NSR500.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Lawson finished first (middle), with Mackenzie second (right) and Gardner third (left).
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Kenny Roberts at the track.
    Photo by David Dewhurst
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    Crew and racers in the pit lane at Laguna Seca.
    Photo by David Dewhurst

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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.






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