The following feature was originally published in the September issue of Rider and tells the story of a young aspiring motojournalist in the early 1990s rubbing elbows with his heroes – Grand Prix world champions such as Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, John Kocinski, and Mick Doohan – at the famous Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey County, California.
It was that shriek. Something wicked this way comes.
On a foggy spring morning in 1989, my teenage self eagerly pressed against a spectator fence overlooking the Turn 1 summit at Laguna Seca Raceway, and I could hear and feel the wickedness approaching. Wayne Rainey was winding up his beast.
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This was the era of absolute lunacy on brutally unforgiving analog 2-strokes. Before programmable powerbands, quickshifters, or even fuel injection, Grand Prix motorcycles dared riders to tame them by feel alone.
Soaring torque outputs with old-school carburetors. Tires struggling to provide enough side grip. Simply surviving on a 500cc GP bike required exquisite throttle timing with adroit pressure on the controls. And as Americans raised the ante, success demanded peak physical conditioning to precisely wrestle one’s mount into submission for an hourlong race.
Easily the most mesmerizing show on Earth.
I soaked it all up for three glorious days. There was Rainey’s howling two-wheeled drift over that hill at 150 mph. Shrieking engines and the rich smell of exhaust heavy with 2-stroke oil. Warm coastal sunshine after the fog burns off. The delightful exhaustion and feeling of brotherhood being among the cavalcade of streetbikes rumbling away from the track each evening.
Of course, I wanted even more. I wanted to get as close as possible to these superstars, the fastest men on the planet. Could a wide-eyed young fan like me slip behind the scenes into the rarefied air of international racing drama?
My personal motorcycling adventures had begun nearby just a couple of years earlier. Attending college in Santa Cruz had fortuitously put me at basecamp to some of the most wonderfully twisty asphalt on the West Coast, including State Highways 9, 35, and 84 near Alice’s Restaurant.
Real racers and wannabes sliced through these legendary routes, especially on Sunday mornings. For the most part the roads were smooth, banked, and lightly traveled – ideal for carving it up with weapons of dramatic lean angles and extreme acceleration.
Summer work had afforded me a hopped-up Honda 600 Hurricane in sexy charcoal gray and red. I fell in love with this rocket, and we became inseparable, exploring this sport-riding playground every chance we got. Exposure to racing taught me to approach those fabulous curves as combinations to smooth out the sequences and find a flow.
A stretch of Highway 84 running west from Sky Londa quickly became my favorite. The pavement was older, but its long constant-radius sweepers allowed me to settle in at high tilt and enjoy the roller-coaster ride.
No matter the destination, zipping up my leathers and mounting the throaty Hurricane made me feel like a superhero. I often rode up to campus late at night just to take in the twinkling lights below. I became Batman, brooding atop Gotham City.
But how does one go from hero to immortal? How could I get close to those racing gods?
My buddy Eugene had enrolled down south at UC San Diego. During a visit, he showed me his school’s notorious satire rag, The Koala. On a lark, their goofball writers had managed to secure an interview with one of the San Diego Padres.
Then it hit me. If those college kids could access MLB players, perhaps we could pull the same trick at Laguna Seca. It seemed a long shot, but Santa Cruz did have a rudimentary student-run newspaper called The Redwood Review. I convinced the sports editor to submit media requests for us on their crude letterhead.
Word came back – we had qualified as local press. We would soon be rubbing elbows with world champions!
And so, on April 19, 1991, trying to play it cool, Eugene and I eased through the first security checkpoint. No fans allowed – just teams, officials, and reporters. It was like being dropped into one of the highlight videos I’d been recording on ESPN.
Laguna Seca Paddock Pass
Racers were easily spotted getting ready for practice or debriefing with mechanics afterward. Between sessions, a few took refuge in motorhomes, but most strolled around to chat with one another or bask in the California sun.
As the action began, Eugene and I split up to maximize our all-access photography credentials. In certain corners, like the top of the world-famous Corkscrew, Laguna’s terrain allowed me to perch almost near enough to touch the riders’ leathers as they swept by. The bikes were so shiny, their engines spoke of such daring, and that acrid exhaust filled my nostrils. Best parade ever.
Then I started worrying about my amateur appearance. Would youth and lack of serious camera gear betray me? I tried to relax and learn from the professionals. I carefully observed how they chose angles and timing, hoping for something extraordinary. In the days before digital, we exposed lots of film and hoped for the best.
Eugene and I reconnected often at the main media tent to relish the busy scene made more interesting by international flavor. A variety of languages could be overheard as journalists from around the globe covered this sole American round of the World Championship.
As we devoured complimentary box lunches, high-quality press kits filled with glossy photos began appearing like party gift bags. Hats, notebooks, and other promotional swag abounded. I greedily grabbed one of everything and, like a shameless tourist, donned a garish pink Honda cap.
Heat of Battle
The story on track was looking familiar as Rainey dominated practice. He masterfully prepared his Yamaha to run fastest on the capricious cold tires and full fuel load that spooked others at race start. Rainey’s plan was to break away early to dispirit the competition. Make them give up hope.
Four-time world champion Eddie Lawson often employed psychological warfare from the other direction, running quickest at the end of events while rivals suffered fatigue and waning traction. Unfortunately, Lawson was off the pace in a development year for his Italian Cagiva team. Suzuki’s ever jovial Kevin Schwantz struggled all weekend in search of rear-end grip.
The factory Honda squad always had a chance with their demon of power-sliding at the controls. Australian Mick Doohan enjoyed leveraging his distinctive sideways body position to get the NSR500 spinning and howling, but we wondered if his tire could endure that abuse on such a tight circuit.
Prospects for a challenge at the front likely fell to Rainey’s new teammate, John Kocinski.
Kocinski had undeniable natural talent and ample mental fortitude thanks to his successful 250 title campaign the previous season. Both Californians were pupils of Grand Prix maverick Kenny Roberts, training together at Roberts’ famed Modesto ranch, where riding 100cc bikes flat-track style kept everyone sharp.
Kocinski’s colorful character added to the intrigue. “Little John” liked expensive men’s fashion, and his fastidious nature even drew ribbing from team boss Roberts. When a Spanish rider bought Kocinski’s used motorhome, he complained the curtains had shrunk from over-laundering.
At Saturday’s headlining press conference, Kocinski made things clear. “Don’t bet against me,” he said with a seriousness characteristic of champions. “I’m going out there tomorrow to prove I’m king of this place.”
Eugene and I had arrived early for prime seats at the press conference, still in disbelief that we were about to address these titans. Alas, dreams of investigative glory quickly dissipated. My mind went blank under the pressure. I managed only tepid, conservative questions met by bland, professional answers, especially from Honda’s Wayne Gardner, who seemed to regard the assembly with a casual disdain.
Then a reporter behind me asked Gardner about his two consecutive crashes in Turn 6, and the mood suddenly became much livelier.
“You gotta be a real dick to ask a question like that,” Gardner mused. He turned to fellow Australian and teammate Doohan to back him up. “Don’t you have to be a real dick to ask that?”
Doohan smiled nervously. The reporter was now beet red, wishing he were somewhere else. After a bit more grumbling, Gardner furnished a terse reply about staying focused. As the press corps continued to murmur, I recalled watching videos of Gardner riding post-race victory laps, giving the universal “piss off” gesture to his competitors.
It’s Better to Burnout Than Fade Away
There was one more event on the afternoon schedule: a public burnout contest. With no idea what to expect from this hooliganism, I certainly wasn’t going to miss it.
Many of these bikes bore witness to their owners’ mania. Customizations included wheelie bars, ear-splitting pipes, and of course, massive rear tires. Not their first rodeo. Even more entertaining were those dressed in mischievous attire. My favorite was the Grim Reaper on a classic Kawasaki.
The most skillful burnouts included working up through the gears and spinning sideways, painting a full circle onto the concrete. Roasting the rubber until it popped brought a roar from the large crowd.
Other photographers hung back against the grandstand fence, but I had learned something about angles. I strolled out near the marshals to frame contestants against the boisterous audience. A perfect backdrop. One of the workers handed me a beer as I snapped a few choice pictures. Life was good.
We took in Monterey’s vibe after dark. Normally quiet and conservative – known for golf, seafood, and sanitized-for-your-convenience tourism – the city was transformed into a scene from The Wild One as thousands of bikes streamed in from across the country.
We’re not just talking crotch rockets. There were just as many hell-raisers on Harleys and other raucous low-riders. Downtown Alvarado Street became an impromptu dragstrip where all the rowdies could be seen and heard well into the night.
Laguna Seca Flag Drop
On Sunday, the time for fine-tuning was over. At the green flag, Schwantz and Rainey bumped while powering side-by-side over the hill, but by Turn 3, Rainey was in the zone, executing perfect lines in a razor-sharp dance of man and machine.
All eyes were on Kocinski carefully working his way into second place and a clear view of his teammate’s tailpipe by lap six. Rainey’s strategy would pay off once again, however. His imposing 4-second lead seemed to rattle Kocinski, who grabbed too much throttle out of Turn 2 and was slammed to the asphalt.
He instantly sprang up and sprinted for his bike. Watching from the media center balcony, I started screaming into my voice recorder, and Eugene was perfectly placed below to get the money shot: a photo of Kocinski desperately trying to bend his Yamaha back into shape.
Rainey sped away, and Doohan provided entertainment on his way to second place. Surely the weekend’s most astonishing sight was his Honda laying down 50-foot black streaks over Turn 1 at top speed, often with the front wheel simultaneously pawing the air. Gardner was decidedly less spectacular as he ran off course in Turn 6 for the third year in a row, though he stayed on two wheels this time.
Kocinski did not hang around to congratulate the winner. Infuriated by his mistake, he tried speeding away on the shoulder of Laguna’s exit road in his rental car. When stopped by police, Kocinski reportedly deployed the old “Do you know who the <bleep> I am?” gambit. This ended in his arrest. Three weeks later, a British reporter made the mistake of opening a Kocinski interview with: “I understand you had a run-in with the local constabulary?”
At the end of the weekend, we didn’t want to leave. This was now holy ground, a sprawling cathedral for what was fast becoming my religion. I’d even spent time with writer “Nasty” Nick Ienatsch, whose magazine articles had pulled me into the sport. Thrilled that Ienatsch was my first official interview, I listened raptly as he described privateer racing efforts on a 250 GP bike. Would this kick off my own journalism career?
My paper’s sports guy was enthusiastic for a big spread, but the editor cut our final layout down to one page. I pressed onward, eager to build on my momentum. I soon began writing for more appreciative audiences in larger publications.
But those are tales for another day. First and foremost, I remain a huge fan, especially of the guys who did it by feel alone.