Laguna Seca: The Early Days

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The Happening has been taking place before each race at Laguna Seca since 1972.
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A John Player Norton plies the infield during the 1976 event.

Shortly after Kenny Roberts won his third Laguna Seca National road race in 1982, he declared that this AMA race, above all others in North America, was “a happening.” The race weekend on the Monterey Peninsula had, over the years, morphed into a festival of speed and sound, and the 1982 race was special because beyond the horde of privateer Yamaha TZ750s in the field there was a squadron of factory-backed 500cc Grand Prix race bikes on the grid, giving the weekend the festive feel of a Grand Prix.

But 1982 didn’t mark the beginning of Laguna Seca Raceway’s claim to being America’s road race happening. Things had been heating up at Laguna Seca — which, by the way, is Spanish for Dry Lake — during the years prior to KR’s 1982 victory. Indeed, the happening has its origins at the infield’s dry lake, which had been reserved for camping the night before each race since 1972. For 10 years running, road race fans used the occasion to gather and, well, party hearty. Bonfires, gallons of saucy libations, occasional firecrackers, loud music and even the distinct aroma of smoke from dubious sources (this is, after all, Northern California), filled the night air as revelers celebrated for the annual gathering of speed.

However, come Sunday morning and on cue, the mood among race spectators religiously shifted gears to watch as motorcycles, ridden by people from all points of California and beyond, flooded the infield. Indeed, the makeshift parking lot, which spread from the pit entrance to the bridge near Turn 4, transformed into a motorcycle show of its own.

Among the sea of slightly modified street bikes were Norton Production Racers and Rickman Honda 750s. You might also have spotted a John Player Norton or Ducati Sport among the many Mach IIIs that were outnumbered only by countless RD350 café racers. And since it was the Seventies, some choppers also helped fill the mix.

These photos were taken during the 1976 event. Hip-hugger and bell-bottom pants might have set the fashion tone, and the modern-day sport bike had yet to make an imprint on the motorcycle industry, but enthusiasm among motorcyclists was as energized then as it is today. True to King Kenny’s words in 1982, Laguna Seca Raceway has since transformed into an annual happening for motorcyclists eager to visit the legendary dry lake that is now, thanks to savvy marketing, flush with water that only lends more ambience to the Happening. This year’s party is slated for July 7-9. — Dain Gingerelli

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