Forget about traction control and other electronic doodads on today's high-tech MotoGP race bikes. When 2-stroke engines ruled the roost in world championship competition 30-some years ago, GP racers relied on disciplined throttle hands and deft clutch hands to manage power output from their bikes; when the green flag dropped, wheelies were to be avoided at all costs.
However, wheelies were welcomed at the annual Laguna Seca AMA National, held mid-summer. Prior to the glory years of the USGP at Laguna Seca, the AMA National served as a summer break of sorts for American GP racers from their hectic European schedules.
Initially, factory riders Kenny Roberts (Yamaha) and Randy Mamola (Suzuki) headlined the Laguna Seca marquee, showing up on year-old GP bikes. They were eventually joined by Freddie Spencer (Honda) and Eddie Lawson (Kawasaki and later Yamaha). Despite riding year-old 500cc factory GP bikes, the castaway racers clearly out-classed the field of TZ750 dinosaurs that constituted a bulk of the AMA equipment used back then.
Roberts premiered the wheelie show in 1979 when he brought his year-old YZR500 to the Sears Point National, where he dominated the competition. The following year he showed up at Laguna Seca with another year-old YZR500, winning in style. As for the Laguna Seca wheelies, King Kenny said: "They [fans] want to see a wheelie, so I give it to 'em." And a tradition was born.
Mamola, armed with a year-old Gamma RG500, joined the show in 1981 and together he and Roberts (now riding his '80 YZR) put on quite a show, swapping the lead while sharing the wheel-stand act in nearly synchronized harmony. By 1982 Roberts had convinced Yamaha to let him ride the new OW61 V4 at Laguna Seca. Although more competitive with Mamola's square-four Suzuki, it proved a handful during wheelies. Remarked Roberts after the race, "The V4 is harder to wheelie because the power comes on suddenly, and the push/pull throttle is sensitive."
The 1983 race proved interesting as Lawson and Roberts were now teammates, showing up with over-bore OW69 models originally developed for the Daytona 200 (which KR won and Lawson finished second). Armed with a potent bike, Lawson figured he'd be the rabbit in this match during the second of two heat races. Although Roberts and Mamola led the field during the early laps — in the process assuming their usual script of popping huge wheelies for the crowd — Lawson had other intentions. Exiting Turn 9 early in the second heat, with KR and Mamola busy balancing their bikes on their rear tires, Steady Eddie blew past them on the front straight.
"Lawson came by us... tucked in," said a somewhat astonished Mamola later. Added KR, who finished second to the Suzuki rider, "I didn't want to go that fast, but Eddie set the pace." Eventually the chain adjuster on Lawson's OW69 broke — a similar fate sidelined Roberts in the first heat — dropping both out of contention for the overall win. At that point, and with the two-heat advantage in Mamola's favor, Roberts cooled the pace and the Roberts/Mamola Wheelie Show continued, business as usual.
Sadly, as the war clouds gathered for what was to be the USGP in 1988, the Laguna Seca Wheelie Show became but a footnote in American racing history. For a few fun-filled years, though, American road race fans were treated to some of the most spectacular wheelies ever.