This was originally published in American Roadracing in 1997
(1997 Laguna Seca Raceway)
Racing on a world championship level is war. The photographs of the series tell that story – only when a team wins will you see smiles on the participants faces. Until then the facial expressions are unmistakable loathing wrapped in a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses. The motive that brings people to the highest level of the sport is not usually an enthusiastic love of racing, but a deep-seated competitive urge that transcends rivalry. Is World Superbike war? Yes. Its history as a friendly, happy place to ride or work is slowly being extinguished. The incredible media attention brought on by increasing involvement from the Japanese and Italian factories means that millions of dollars are spent trying to win. With money comes responsibility and promises that must be kept. WSBK has not yet raised its animosity level to that of the Grand Prix series, but it’s increasing year by year.
Feel the power of the dark side
As one World Superbike competitor said recently in a private conversation when asked why he became a rider, “I don’t like racing. I don’t like riding, hell, I don’t even like motorcycles. I just like beating guys. And riding motorcycles is the one way that I can beat guys.” Many riders would concur with the theory of hate being the companion to success in racing. Gary Nixon never had a better day of racing than the weekend his wife left him and his business partner closed their business and took all the inventory. Carl Fogarty said not too long ago that his results started suffering the moment he stopped hating his rivals. Someone convinced him that hate was an unhealthy emotion, so he tried being Mr. Nice Guy for a time, but without that extra surge of motivation that comes from the animosity, he lost touch for a few races. “Let yourself go to the dark side,” wheezed the Rebel Master to Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. You can walk through the paddock of a World Superbike race and if so inclined, easily point out the riders who have stepped over to the dark side: John Kocinski, Carl Fogarty, Scott Russell and, at Laguna Seca, Miguel DuHamel. Now point to the nice guys, riders you wouldn’t mind your sister dating: Mike Hale, Neil Hodgson, Jamie Whitam. If you had to make a pre-race wager on a winner, where would you put your money?
That old time religion
“It’s not that I don’t believe in God, or think that religion is a bad thing. I don’t,” pontificated a Ducati rider who shall remain nameless in the paddock at Laguna Seca. He spoke of the mental edge needed to race at the front in AMA and World Superbike. He has watched his rivals praise the Lord in chapel meetings at the track and thanking Him for their success from the podium. He continued: “I believe in God. I think that religion is a good thing to have in your life. But if you believe you can be deeply religious and run at the front, you’re wrong. You can’t be thinking ‘be compassionate to all men’ and then come here and win. It can’t be done, man. To win in Superbike or in Grand Prix you have to wake up every morning hating the other riders and thinking that they’re hopeless. I do. I used to help people at the track when I was coming up and all it did was help people pass me. You look at all the guys who were good, really good, Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and those type of riders – not a Bible thumper among them. There was only one exception – Spencer. Deep down the others hated everybody.”
World Superbike racing is becoming a series inhabited by a two-class society –except the object in question separating the two classes is not funding or horsepower or tires. It’s antagonism.
The Scheme of Things
The third World Superbike event in as many years at Laguna Seca must have been a serious blow to the confidence of any long time Grand Prix supporter or USGP defender. Instead of the spectator crowds getting smaller as the years go by as they did with the illustrious United States Grand Prix, the crowds keep increasing as the years pass for the World Superbike event at the same venue. In 1997, 43,200 people attended the Laguna Seca World Superbike event and this year there were people parked by the side of the Highway 68 on race day holding signs wanting to buy tickets, as if there weren’t enough to go around. If the number of spectators wasn’t enough to start a GP guy’s shins knocking, then the number of ex-Grand Prix riders in the four-stroke series must have been a worry. John Kocinski, former Grand Prix 250 world champion and 500 race winner, is now solidly a fixture in the series as is former Lucky Strike Suzuki rider Scott Russell, Neil Hodgson, Frankie Chili and others. And more are migrating over every year.
Even the event program refrenced “500cc Superbikes”. But the crowning baseball bat against the back of the head to any GP conspirator wasn’t the spectator levels or the riders. No, the final blow came when none other than Mike Scott, editor of the Grand Prix annual <I>Motocourse<I> and a long time Grand Prix writer walked into the Laguna Seca pressroom. To have Scott, one of the most respected GP scribes in the biz, attend a non-European WSC race meant more to the benefit of the series than anything short of Mick Doohan showing up with his leathers for a WSC practice. Alas, Scott was at Laguna Seca at the invitation of the organizers and did not seem to be joining the rebel task force–not yet, anyway. But it did a body good to look over and see him tapping out those wonderful words on his Mac with four strokes going by on the racetrack.
Where the AMA support classes fit into the WSC schedule and hierarchy was evident from their spot in the paddock. The World Superbike teams were housed in tent garages next to the pit lane and the AMA Superbike transporters across from them. Then the WSC riders had their line of small campers and large motorhomes in which they could sack out during the day. Their rental cars and personal vehicles were parked behind the RVs. About one hundred feet back from there came the AMA support race teams, a good walk away from the pit lane.
Now on their third trip to Laguna Seca, most of the WSC teams did not have to waste time acclimating themselves to the circuit as they did past seasons. Many, including the Ducati and Suzuki team, had tested here in the pre-season. All had chassis baseline settings from the previous trips. All were fast out of the box.
It has been written here before, but the most remarkable thing about world championship riders is not just their quick speed and deft skill, but how quickly they get up to speed. On a green racetrack, with many of the riders still shaking the jet lag from their systems, and with no more than four practice laps on the first day, nearly every single WSC rider was in the 1:29s, good enough for the second row of the AMA Superbike grid last April. In six laps Kocinski and Fogarty were lapping at 1:28.8 and in seven laps they were doing 1:28.1’s – in just seven laps of the circuit!
Colin Edwards did not feel he’d be ready to ride on Friday morning and after just a few laps of practice he was off the bike and out of the race. The wrist he had broken at Monza would keep him off the Yamaha until at least the Suzuka eight hour world endurance race. Scott Russell was in attendance, on time too, and told reporters he was looking for a win. Yet when the first qualifying session ended it was none other than the reigning AMA Superbike champion Doug Chandler on his Kawasaki with the provisional pole. Chandler took the lead spot from Brit Neil Hodgson who led that morning’s free practice. Chandler turned a 1:27.4 which was impressive, but not the fastest he had lapped around the circuit – he’d gone faster at April’s Laguna AMA race. Kocinski, Russell and Hodgson rounded out the top four in the first session. Mike Hale was mired down in fourteenth spot and former Daytona 200 winner Dave Sadowski was nineteenth. The legendary Ski was riding a borrowed Gia-Ca-Moto Ducati, said to be Frankie Chili’s 1996 machine. “I think what they meant was it’s his 1996 streetbike,” Sadowski said of the fairly uncompetitive machine.
With a radar gun just at the crest of the turn one hill the fastest machines were as follows: Kocinski/Honda RC45 – 142mph; Frankie Chili/Ducati 995 -143; Steve Crevier/Honda RC45 – 143 and Mike Hale Suzuki GSX-R750 – 143mph. Tom Kipp’s US Yamaha machine was clocked at 139mph; Russell’s works Yamaha at 140 and DuHamel’s RC45 – 142mph.
The World Superbike riders continued to impress. Castrol Honda’s John Kocinski’s second full lap of practice on Saturday morning was an astounding 1:29.8 From there the times kept falling, with Mat Mladin and Scott Russell right with Kocinski. The Carl Fogarty pulled off a 1:27.969 to claim the bragging rights of the first rider in the 1:27s that weekend.
That’s the way Saturday went at Laguna Seca. In that afternoon’s final qualifying session, in just eight minutes from the time the tarck opened for the session, John Kocinski was under Doug Chandler’s first qualifying pole time and the stopwatch was headed into the 1:26s. Carl Fogarty crashed in turn three in the middle of the session, a popular place to toss your bike away that weekend as Tom Kipp, Jamie Whitam and Frankie Chili all crashed there as well–Kipp doing so twice. Fogarty was back out on his second bike in just a few moments and back into the 1:27s.
Doug Chandler stood by the pitlane monitor watching as the times fell and observed Kocinski leading the pack. With fourteen and a half minuets remaining, he jumped on his second Kawasaki Superbike and was away, trying to nab the pole if he could. Then times started falling in a hurry. Ari Yanagawa on the factory Kawasaki WSC machine came from nowhere to second fastest with twelve minutes remaining. At eleven minutes remaining Chandler had still not posted a quicker time than he did in the first session. He came back to the pit lane and jumped on his A bike to find some speed.
With nine minutes remaining the top nine riders were all within a second but it was Kocinski on pole with a 1:26. The track was a sea of sharks looking for clear water and chum. Nobody wanted to show their teeth too early but as the session began to close on four minutes remaining, all hell broke loose with everyone in the top ten putting in fast laps. Chandler went from ninth fastest in the session to second in one lap. Kocinski knocked off two tenths to secure what most thought would be a comfortable pole. Then Frankie ‘Hollywood’ Chili on Gattolone Ducati came from nowhere to take the pole on the very last lap. The seven fastest riders of the session did their fast lap on the final lap of the session.
Chili sat on pole with a 1:26.628 and was smiling big. He was the picture of happiness and conveyed that bliss in the post race press conference. He was happy to be on pole, happy to be in California, happy to be racing with his old friend Doug Chandler again and happy to be riding for Ducati. And if you walked up and stomped on his toe, he’d have probably been happy with that and would have given you that toothpaste commercial smile of his.
Kocinski was second fastest and was surprised that he didn’t end up with the pole. “I was certain I’d done enough but you can never be sure. There are some quality riders out there and any one of twelve could take pole position. It’s not a big problem. I’m on the front row and that’s what counts for Sunday,” Kocinski said through a Castrol press release. He could rest assured that although he didn’t have pole, he did still have the fastest motorcycle lap of Laguna Seca from the year before – 1:25.9.
Doug Chandler was third fastest at 1:26.914 and mildly unhappy that he didn’t have the pole for the race. “I thought we had a shot at the pole. Then we got behind and got caught out time-wise. One bike has been giving us trouble all week. Things will pop up and won’t go right. Then we swap to the other bike and I really didn’t like the feel of it. I could race either bike though.” Chandler’s Kawasaki was getting a new engine for the next day’s festivities and he had to go home to Salinas knowing that he’d been faster in qualifying for the AMA race in April–then he’d done a 1:26.7. “It’s bizarre, the conditions,” Chandler continued. “The 600s go faster than when we were here in April but the Superbikes are slower.”
Ari Yanagawa on the factory Kawasaki World Superbike machine rounded out the front row. Miguel DuHamel, by now suffering from his Supersport crash which had left him with a concussion and broken ribs, qualified fifth, 1:27.041 on the second row. Laguna Seca has not been a kind racetrack to either Miguel or his father Yvon for twenty years and nearly any time he’s had to come to Laguna to race or test, he’s just counted the hours down until he could leave the circuit, hopefully under his own power. Italian Piergio (spelling) Bontempi was beside him on the Kawasaki, Scott Russell next on the Yamaha at 1:27.049 and Neil Hodgson, his knee still smarting from being broken in a motocross crash weeks prior, sat on the last place of the second row at 1:27.159.
Row three, pole-side sat Yoshimura Suzuki’s Aaron Yates at 1:27.266 – the Yosh boys of Picotte and Yates had, just as everyone expected, completely obliterated the factory Suzuki World Superbike team, the second time this season the world team has had to eat crow fed to them by a bunch of cast down national guys. New Zealand native Simon Crafer sat next to Yates on the grid with a 1:27.470, out-qualifying former world champ Carl Fogarty and Yosh’s Picotte. Aaron Slight, Tom Kipp, Mat Mladin and Jamie Whitam held down row four, all with their own tale of woe. Steve Crevier, Mike Hale, James Haydon, and Dave Sadowski made up row five with three stragglers behind them on the last row. For Hale, this was another reality check. He blamed it on the bike: “We hit a wall in practice and we’re busting our balls to get the bike to suit the track. The bike is very unstable on the brakes. It’s hard to hustle it down through the Corkscrew to Rainey corner. It’s slow turning and hard to get through the corners.” Hale was mentally beaten up; but you’ll have that when Steve Crevier on your old bike out-qualifies your World Superbike spec Suzuki.
For America, even though an Italian pretty-boy sat on pole, it was shaping up to be a decent weekend with two Yanks on the front row, two more on the second row and all of them with a decent shot at a win or at least a podium.
Race day dawned foggy and the mist refused to lift. Because of this there was talk that the FIM would delay Superbike practice but they didn’t and the machines went out for the morning warm-up in slightly foggy conditions. Crews were fitting rain tires to B bikes just in case the skies opened up.
On the grid Kawasaki flew in a host of umbrella girls as usual but the most attention was paid to DuHamel’s Camel umbrella girl. She was the subject of intense courting by several riders any time she stepped foot out of the transporter, including DuHamel, Tom Kipp and others. DuHamel pulled the holeshot there and already had a Sunday night date lined up by that morning, even if the results on the racetrack wouldn’t require a celebration. But in the end, the injured DuHamel exceeded all expectations of what he would do on race day. The way he leaned on his bike on the grid, breathing in short measured breaths and complaining of a headache, made you think he was out of the game before the green light showed.
But the green light never showed on the starting tree–neither did the red light, depending on who you talked to, and the start was a mess. The AMA starter had pushed the timing knob too far and the green light never came. When it should have, half the grid left and then stopped, then left again, with all sorts of chaos resulting in that split second.
When the first laps had been completed it was John Kocinski out front with DuHamel behind him, Neil Hodgson in tow and Chandler in fourth followed by Chili. This was just the challenge that Miguel had been looking for and dreaming about for the better part of a decade or more, namely John Kocinski on fairly equal equipment. When he was a privateer Aprilia 250 rider in Canada, DuHamel had but one objective for his professional AMA 250 career – to beat then Roberts Viceroy Yamaha rider John Kocinski. He raced with Kocinski a time or two in America but was never able to get the job done. It’s been a sore spot with him since ever since.
DuHamel, when the day’s racing was done, agreed that there was a fair bit of animosity between Kocinski and himself, then and now, and he was extra-motivated to beat him. Kocinski, if one asked him about DuHamel would probably not cop to the situation but would instead fall into one of his feigned ignorance spells where he says things like, ‘Gosh, I don’t even know who Miguel DuHamel is … I’m just happy to be riding for Honda …’.
DuHamel took the lead from John-Boy on lap five at the top of the corkscrew just as Chili’s engine expired and took him out of third spot. Kocinski at this point was hanging tight to DuHamel and watching his pit board to see where his championship rival Carl Fogarty was in the order. All he had to do was look behind him as Foggy sat in third once Chili dropped out. Time to go then for Kocinski and he knew he should at least attempt to put a rider between himself and Carl before the checkered flag. Kocinski re-took the lead on lap eleven and, not long after, Foggy went under DuHamel in the same lap for second place. He would later try Kocinski for the lead and actually lead four laps before Kocinski got the position back. Hodgson sneaked by DuHamel for third, but then suffered from brain fade or tire fade on the closing laps allowing Miguel the position and the final spot on the podium. Kocinski had a two bike length advantage as the checkered flag flew and the top three were well distanced from the rest of the top ten.
Doug Chandler didn’t have the steam to run at the front and spent most of the race behind Scott Russell who had really flubbed the start and droned around in sixth place. Chandler knew to keep the team happy he must finish in front of The Man Whose Name Is Never Spoken at Muzzy’s. He did so, passing Russell for the sixth position.
The first race was over and it was time to celebrate. Only at that time Scott Russell, after taking the cool-off lap, screamed up the pit lane to the starting tower, revving his Yamaha’s engine and squealing to a stop in front of the AMA starter Bobby Lemming. He flipped up the shield of his helmet and unleashed a volley of abuse at Lemming: “Where the f**k was the red light?,” he screamed. Lemming tried to tell Russell that he had simply screwed up, and that he was sorry, but Russell cut him off each time. “What the f**k are you doing? You had f**king better get your f**king shit together.” Then he burned off to the paddock, revving his engine. The Yamaha Europe press release later would contain a diplomatic quote from Russell saying, “The green light never went on.”
Mat Mladin came to Laguna looking for blood but was unable to catch a scent. Qualifying went horribly because “I couldn’t get my mind trained to do one fast lap. It just won’t do it.” Then in the first race a tire problem took him out in seventeen laps. “We used a new tire this morning in that foggy session and decided it was the race tire,” said Mladin. It was the same profile but a different compound. We should have stayed with what we used yesterday.” He had this to say on the start: “I saw a red light then red flags and I thought it was going to be re-started.” Tom Kipp finished twelfth and was hurt by the start as well. “I saw red flags and let off and ended up second to the last into turn one. I thought it was going to be a false start and they’d re-start it.”
DuHamel was definitely in not messing around mode. Asked about the start he said, “I gave up a long time ago trying to gauge what the starter is doing. I just go. If anyone else goes, I go. If there is a hint that the race is starting, I go.” DuHamel was especially impressive in turn six, the fast left hander leading up to the corkscrew. He was visibly faster than anyone else through that corner, able to make time on Hodgson, Kocinski and Foggy in that section. He commented: “We really have the suspension dialed on the RC45 now, we found some things at Brainerd that helped – a lot.” Of turn six he concurred that it was a good section of the track for him, “I pitch it in there so hard it scares me. But the bike sticks every time.” Larry Pegram crashed his Yohimura in turn six in practice and escaped with a bruise the size of a small child on his leg.
There was drama on the warm-up lap as Doug Chandler decided that he’d swap bikes when the Kawasaki he intended to race decided to assume the fetal position and die. He swapped back to the bike waiting for him in the pit lane and took to the grid. All appeared to be well on the opening laps as Kocinski, Chandler and DuHamel went into turn two together, with Chili mixed in as well by the end of the first lap. Kocinski took the lead and would not relinquish it for the remainder of the race. Chandler was right on Kocinski with DuHamel behind and Chili, Foggy, Hodgson and Mladin tucked in and flying.
Chandler cruised to the paddock on lap three when the other bike decided to die, which put DuHamel in second and Fogarty into third. Chandler said later that day, “The bike didn’t run right in the first leg. It was lazy and started to lay down after a few laps. Then on the sighting lap the other bike didn’t feel right so I switched bikes. I was happy with it then, it didn’t seem too bad. Then it made some noise and either the clutch or tranny puked.”
Chandler was bitterly disappointed, “I was comfortable with the pace Johnny (Kocinski) was running. I’m disappointed not to be able to run with them. I thought I had a superior-handling motorcycle. It’s frustrating. We broke last week at Brainerd and now this. We did good here at the AMA race and now we have disaster. No matter what, we seem to have trouble at WSC races here. It was the brakes last year and the motor this year. I’m disappointed. I had all the confidence we could run with them.”
The order for the podium was set on lap nine and only outside the top three was there movement. Whitam crashed out and restarted in turn eleven. James Hayden crashed out in turn two. Mladin went backwards from such a good start and dropped out on lap twenty-one with a mechanical. Kocinski had three seconds by then and went on to a magnificent double win. Russell stalked DuHamel for the last half of the race but even the Yamaha works World Superbike YZF and arguably one of the best riders in the world couldn’t get around the Smokin’ Joe’s machine. Might be food for thought for riders casting their eyes on the US Yamaha bike and saying to themselves, “It’s not so bad.”
Russell tried a last lap draft move on DuHamel for third but was unsuccessful. DuHamel left the track with thw third places trophies, mucho respect and the Camel girl. Yanagawa, Chili, Bontempi, Kipp, Hodgson and Slight rounded out the top ten. Aaron Yates cooked his brakes after breaking a clip-on in the first leg and finished eleventh. Tom Kipp was running a decent seventh in the second leg and might have had sixth, but on the final lap the battery went dead and he was passed to finish eighth. The crew had forgotten to put the battery on the charger between races. But he kept them pretty busy …
Fogarty almost had a shot at the win at one point but he in the end had to settle for second. As for what made the difference for him this year, in that he was almost hopeless at Laguna in the past, he said he didn’t have a clue. Fogarty wore a half-grown goatee in the press conference and the hair on his chin was much darker than that on his head. He isn’t coloring his hair, he’d just been barfing in his helmet during the last leg. While running second mind you.
Kocinski was the master of the Laguna circuit yet again and proved that on that motorcycle he is certainly one of the best riders in the world. He left many spectators with a favorable impression and even impressed other riders with his expertise. At the end of the evening, after all the spectators had gone and a few riders and crew stood around the paddock drowning their sorrow in beer, Kocinski sat on his knees outside his motorhome and with a bottle of Simple Green cleaner, furiously scrubbing away at his white leathers, which had appeared showroom clean even before the cleansing began. That is the lasting image I will take from the 1997 Laguna Seca World Superbike race, of this magnificent rider, who at times looked positively bored with racing, who never put a proverbial wheel wrong all weekend aside from coming up short for the pole, sitting on the ground furiously cleaning a set of clean leathers, only to stop occasionally to make sure the fingers of his gloves, laying nearby, were not touching one another.
He’s a genius that John Kocinski.
But, as they say, all genius comes with a touch of madness.