1989: The Worst USGP Ever, Part Two
the last race of american bubba shobert
by dean adams
Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Bubba Shobert: probably the best dirt-tracker to go roadracing since Kenny Roberts. His career ended at Laguna Seca in 1989.

Kevin Magee's Roberts Yamaha ran out of fuel on the last lap of the race, setting off a cataclysmic series of events.

In 1990 Kevin Schwantz was teamed with Kevin Magee, a situation 34 took little pleasure in.
Countdown To Infamy
The '89 500 event itself was a decent race, at least initially, with Lucky Strike Roberts-mounted Wayne Rainey showing what was to come at future USGPs he raced in. Rainey threw down an unmatchable lap for pole in qualifying, and in the race pulled a textbook Rainey—lapping so fast at the front that no one could hang with him. Texan Kevin Schwantz on the Pepsi Suzuki actually led for a brief moment (as did Honda-mounted Eddie Lawson), but Rainey went to the front and his pace was devastating.

Schwantz finished second at Laguna, showing he did indeed have the perseverance to finish and not win when circumstances demanded it, although that was not his early reputation. Schwantz had started the 1989 season with great hopes of winning the 500 title—he won the Japanese Grand Prix opener—but a fiendish lap one highside the week before in Australia knocked him out of the race.

The circumstances of, and the brawl over, third place eventually branded 1989 as the worst USGP ever. Late in the race, Rainey was out front, having almost effortlessly left the pack. Schwantz owned second place comfortably.

Third place, though, was a different matter, as three or four riders disputed the position for most of the race: Kevin Magee on the second Roberts Lucky Strike Yamaha, Lawson on the Kanemoto NSR Honda, Gardner on the factory NSR and even a distant Niall Mackienzie on the second Agostini Marlboro Yamaha.

Gardner left the fight for third in an ambulance after a wicked lap ten crash. Anyone who has tried to break a green tree branch in half can imagine what Gardner's femur looked like post-crash, the bone broken and twisted in two.

Lawson succinctly describes the post-incident scene: "It looked like a plane had crashed."

Lawson had third place by the halfway mark, but even the steady one started to ride wide in corners when the piggish Honda's chassis and brakes wheezed. You can't ride anything but the precise inside racing line at Laguna and expect to do well. Lawson's uncharacteristic wide line eventually let Australian Kevin Magee past, and with just a few laps left in the race, Magee appeared to have third place under his belt and an all-American podium was off the books.

Rainey rode a red-hot pace at the front, and the riders behind him pushed hard as well—so hard that they were lapping into the back half of the top ten as the laps slipped away.

Just one lap from the end, with Lawson behind him, watching, stalking, Magee's Yamaha began to burble and pop, his fuel supply diminished. The Yamaha never ran out of gas, but it starved for fuel as the remaining pints in the tank splashed away from the petcock. The fraction of a second that Lawson needed to pass Magee appeared with a Christmas bow on it. He didn't waste a thousandth of a second passing the Yamaha and cementing third place. Rainey won the race—his first-ever USGP win, Kevin Schwantz was second and Eddie Lawson third. The all-Yankee podium actually would have happened, if what followed on the cool-off lap hadn't.

Magee was presumably enraged that his Yamaha had let him down and run low on fuel. Thus, on the cool-off lap, the Australian stopped his machine in the middle of the racetrack to do long, billowing brake-lock burnouts, taking out some of his frustration on his rear Dunlop slick.


Great Expectations: Don 'Bubba' Shobert

Bubba Shobert possessed all of the qualifications to become an international GP star.

An American dirt track champion, Shobert actually had better dirt track credentials than any American GP rider since Kenny Roberts. A member of the illustrious Grand Slam club, he'd won the Grand National dirt track championship three times in succession and followed that up with the AMA Superbike championship in 1988—beating Doug Polen's Yoshimura Suzuki. Not enough to impress you? Consider that he still finished second in the dirt track championship in 1988, the same season he won the Superbike title. Shobert was a better dirt tracker than Wayne Rainey, John Kocinski, Freddie Spencer, Kevin Schwantz and Eddie Lawson—combined.

Shobert's strength in his versatility. He'd won races on all sorts of motorcycles—from big, gnarly F1 Hondas, to Superbikes, to short-track 600s. Indeed, perhaps his most impressive (yet least known) race of all time might be the 1988 USGP at Laguna Seca: Riding a Honda 250 in Camel colors, Shobert, so adroit at tossing around big giant Superbikes and crude dirt track machines, finished fifth on the tiny 250, a bike he'd barely even tested—coming from thirteenth on the grid to do so. He beat several 250s masters of the era that day, including Reinhold Roth, Tony Mang and Luca Cadalora. No one who knows racing was anything less than impressed by that.

So great was the expectation that Shobert might have had a future in Grand Prix that a team was formed in 1989 for the 27-year-old American racer. A year-old NSR500 Honda was procured for Shobert and a sponsor—Cabin cigarettes—signed. American Honda funded part of the effort, but HRC were keen to see what Shobert might be able to do. The effort wasn't a yellow brick road to a ride on the factory Honda team, but it was an extraordinary opportunity for Shobert.

And three races in, he'd done okay with it, given he was on a GP bike now responsible for more gray hairs in riders' scalps than perhaps any other—the late 1980s NSR500—a nasty single-crank V-4 two-stroke.

Shobert crashed and hurt himself in the pre-season in Australia, but finished eleventh in Japan at the opening GP. He crashed out of Phillip Island, the second race, damaging his ankle. Thus, ninth place at Laguna Seca was a very credible result for Shobert.

He had genuine reason to be happy. He was smiling, right up until the end.

Kevin Magee did two or three burnouts in the turn five/six area of the track on the cool-off lap of the 1989 USGP, each a little longer than the previous. Magee sat almost dead-center on the track when doing so. Smoke billowed off the Dunlop and gave the backside of the track sort of a fog at dawn appearance. At the same time, inexplicably, after the aforementioned lapping and then post-race shuffle, third-place finisher Eddie Lawson had finished the race riding next to Bubba Shobert on the cool-off lap. They obviously weren't racing at this point, and were in fact sitting up, but after a rider has been racing at 170mph and his body is vibrating from adrenaline overload, even 100mph on the cool-off lap seems pathetically slow.

Shobert had just scored the best finish of his young GP season. He'd moved from Texas to Monterey and performed well in front of not just fans, but people who might have been his neighbors. He had a lot to be happy about, and not just for his own sake—his best friend, the man who he had stood with as best man at his wedding, Wayne Rainey, had won the race.

Lawson and Shobert, side by side, rode up and through the wisps of smoke from Magee's burnouts, Shobert looked right over at Lawson, their eyes met and they smiled at each other. "He sort of motioned to me, with three fingers, asking if I finished third. I nodded yes and put up three fingers," remembers Lawson. "He was happy and he gave me the thumbs up and grabbed a big handful of throttle." They were, naturally, near the center of the track, not far off the racing line.

At the last nano-second, out of the corner of his eye, Lawson saw something solid in front of them and he quickly counter-steered, slamming the clip-ons left to quickly swerve right. Fortunately, he narrowly missed Kevin Magee's still smoke-spewing Yamaha.

Shobert was not as lucky.

Still on the gas from his exuberance, Shobert's Honda hit the back and left side of Magee's Yamaha with full impact; there wasn't a moment for Shobert to grab the brakes. "He was still looking at me until the last moment," recalls Lawson today. "I don't think he ever saw Magee's bike through the smoke."

Shobert torpedoed Magee's machine and the two went careening up the track, bodies and bikes tumbling and sliding in a sickening scene. What moments before looked like a typical foggy morning in Northern California now looked like the morning-after scene from the film Platoon. People were screaming, tire smoke wisped in the air and smashed motorcycles and parts littered the area.

Lawson succinctly describes the post-incident scene: "It looked like a plane had crashed."

Shobert lay motionless on the ground. Magee had tumbled off his bike but he crawled up, pulled off his helmet and walked back to the scene, limping badly from a now broken ankle.

Lawson rode off the track after avoiding Kevin Magee's Yamaha. He hoped Shobert might get up and need a ride back, but knew in his gut what he had narrowly missed was bad, thus he slowed his Honda to walking speed and then quickly killed the engine and simultaneously dropped the bike on the ground. He sprinted back to the scene, his pace quickening as the horror he saw through his face shield came in focus.

Shobert lay face-down on the ground, unresponsive. His breathing was erratic and his color darkening. Lawson thought that perhaps the chin strap on Shobert's Bell helmet was preventing him from breathing, and with the ambulance still in turn two, he reached in and very carefully undid the strap, being implicitly careful not to move the Texan's head or neck. Cornerworkers, fans and riders walked among the debris as ambulance sirens wailed on their way to the scene.

Kevin Magee stood in the middle of it all, fat tears streaming down his face; he tried to walk, hobbled by his broken ankle. He would miss three Grand Prixs because of the injury.

Bubba Shobert suffered a major head injury in the crash and tragically would never race again. After months in the hospital, he recovered well from the incident—he now leads a normal life, is married and has two children. He's a familiar face around America's dirt track paddock as the team manager for the Custom Chrome Harley-Davidson team.

Even years later Wayne Rainey refused to remember the 1989 USGP for his breakthrough win at the racetrack near his home and closer to his heart than any other. He confessed several times that if he ever lets his mind wander to the 1989 event, his first thoughts were not of his win, but of the tragedy involving his friend, Bubba Shobert.

A year after the incident Shobert told me that he had no feelings of resentment for Magee and what had happened, in fact quite opposite. He said that in the racing life some risks are accepted no matter how unfair they might seem. Magee was torn apart by the incident and it was clear afterwards that he regretted what happened.

Be that as it may, some members of the American contingent in Grand Prix didn't let the incident simply drift away. Kevin Magee and Eddie Lawson were involved in several on-track incidents that season and after one such episode, Lawson says he made his feelings clear on Magee's ability to control a racing motorcycle, and his judgment in doing so. Lawson said Magee accused him of really being angry over the Shobert incident. "I told him no, 'it's just that you're an idiot."

"I'll never understand why he chose to do that right in the middle of the racetrack," Lawson said of the 1989 Laguna incident.

Kevin Magee finished fifth in the world championship in 1989 and switched to the Suzuki team in 1990, teamed with Kevin Schwantz. Shobert and Schwantz, fellow Texans, had grown close in 1980s Superbike racing. I wondered if Schwantz found it difficult to be teamed with Kevin Magee after the incident with Shobert.

"It was," Schwantz said last March at Daytona. "Clearly if Magee had known the ramifications of what he would cause he would have never done it. Burnouts on the cool-off lap weren't really that common then and I guess I've always wondered why he did it in the middle of the track. When we were teamed, we had a decent relationship. But I really never felt completley comfortable with what he did and I really didn't cultivate a close relationship with him. I saw Bubba at a race not too long ago and I was signing autographs for fans and they were just sort of walking past Bubba, not knowing who he is. It's then that it hit me, what a terrible price that incident had."

Schwantz didn't actually have time to cultivate a close relationship with Kevin Magee in 1990. Magee crashed at Laguna Seca in essentially the same spot where the collision took place in 1989, suffering head injuries that put him out for the season.


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