Both the MotoGP and its fans (including the author) are something to behold.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
It was 5am on a tiny little island, and we were still up. The latest MotoGP race at Assen in Holland was about to begin. The sheets were soaked, and I was sweatily stumbling about on gelatinous legs that seemed to belong to a drunken sailor, fumbling with the laptop and hotel monitor amid a confusion of wires. My beautiful wife was still writhing sinuously in a wreckage of sheets and pillows with the smile of a contented cat. Apparently she liked the Brazilian love drugs I had acquired.
“God, that stuff was great! You were just so… Wow! I mean, lately, making love with you has been like trying to shoot pool with cooked spaghetti and… ”
“Shut up. The race is starting.”
The race was kind of dull in comparison to what I’d been looking at while scuba diving in the Caribbean for the last week (or for the last several hours, for that matter). Then again, it has to be said that we are almost at the middle of the second dull season of MotoGP racing. On the surface of things it shouldn’t seem dull because the points chase for the title is closer this year than it’s been for some time. Three riders are within 20 points of the lead, but for the first time in about 30 years, not a one of them is an American. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an American racer capable of winning a race, let alone a championship. It’s a sad state of affairs and I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but like global warming, cheap oil, and a blinkered belief in the altruistic benevolence of American foreign policy, there comes a time to suck it up and face the music. Besides, I unwisely checked my e-mail after the race and found that this paper was asking me to write an article about the upcoming Laguna Seca race.
We were on Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles for one of those “save the marriage” vacations. That part of it seemed to be working for the time being, and the better half seemed to like the idea of me making a few more bucks to prolong our vacation. So here goes:
Last year they changed the rules again in MotoGP. Ostensibly, the engine displacement was reduced from 990cc to 800cc to slow theses beasts down in the interests of safety, but it didn’t work. Computer geeks stepped out of the shadows offering Faustian bargains– “Just let us have our way and we’ll give you another second a lap.”
Traction control. Wheelie control. Hot start control. Corner-by-corner suspension control dictated by GPS. The era of the pure rider was over, and coupled with tire rule changes, it was starting to seem as though Homer Simpson could win if he chose the right tire and team of motorcycle scientists. The event is more technical and less athletic than ever. That being said, the bikes are still so fast that they could beat the average Nascar driver riding side-saddle and sipping on piña coladas.
Last year, the comparatively tiny Italian Ducati factory took on the might of Japanese industry. Honda (the largest manufacturer) had muscled these new rule changes through for reasons thought to be arcane and sinister in the world press, but Ducati found better geeks and very wisely gave in to their legendary fascination with Australian riders. Casey Stoner is the real deal. He’s fast and he’s so cute that every woman I know gets weak in the knees when she sees him in interviews. He also won Ducati its first GP championship last year.
When he won at Laguna Seca a year ago, he wasn’t old enough to drink, but he is this year. He’s won the last three races in a row and he’s only 20 points behind the seven-time world champion Valentino Rossi. He’s on a roll and he’s coming to California this weekend. They all are, and they’re bringing 70,000 fans along.
Locals might find the streams of loud motorcycles blasting up and down the streets at all hours a bit alarming, but these fans will be pumping several million dollars into the local economy over the weekend. And, their numbers are growing: In the face of $5 gallons of gas, the appeal of vehicles that get 50 MPG and can park almost anywhere has spoken powerfully. As a result, motorcycle and scooter sales have gone through the roof this year. Some dealers in San Francisco are having a hard time keeping anything at all in stock. Normally staid accountants and their frumpy wives are discovering not only the economy but the thrill of life on two wheels.
When the lights go out and the race begins at Laguna Seca this Sunday, a championship hangs in the balance and several American riders are fighting to keep their rides for another year. After this race comes the summer break, when the managers and agents hammer out the details of next season– and the American riders know it’s either do or die at their home track. It may be the most interesting race of the year.
Preliminaries and races take place 8am-6pm/Fri; 7:30am-7pm/Sat; 7:30am-6:30pm/Sun (MotoGP 2pm). Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, 1021 Monterey-Salinas Highway, Salinas. $25-$55/daily; $80/two-day; $90/three-day. 1-800-327-SECA, www.laguna-seca.com.