From 2005: Upscale Cacophony

(Bill Heald)


<i>”When I gun the motor, I don’t want it to just be loud. I want people to think the world is coming to an end.” -Loosely Attributed to Homer Simpson</i>

Laguna Seca, Saturday AM. I had been warned, but I have to admit I really wasn’t prepared for the shock that awaited me when I arrived. I had heard some deep rumbling when walking to the track from the parking lot, but didn’t think it was anything too out of the ordinary.

Then, it happened. I entered the pedestrian tunnel that spans the track just past the start/finish line, and I was frozen in place by a horrific sound. For those of you familiar with the Lord of the Rings, I thought a freakin’ Balrog was coming at me from below. Apparently the MotoGP bikes were engaged in morning practice, and as they passed under the tunnel there was such an explosive din my internal organs all tried to switch places with each other. I looked at my companion and he, too, went pale. What fresh hell IS this?

Of course, it should be noted that this deep rumbling wasn’t just an auditory sensation but something I could physically feel as well. For a brief passing moment I hoped it was just the breakfast burrito I had hastily scarfed down before arriving at the track. But no. It was a relatively small machine ripping through the atmosphere at great speed and releasing an auditory emission no doubt more devastating to your person than the foul flatulence of Darth Vader.

Intense, man.

The return of GP racing to Laguna Seca was an event worth heralding by the mufflerless trumpets of the 4-strokes that power these exceptional motorcycles. It’s the first time the top dogs of the sport have ventured stateside in over a decade, and I was fortunate enough to be present for the event. I had never had the pleasure of seeing the non-buzzy MotoGP motorcycles in action overseas, and expected the bikes would sound different to other race bikes but not by much. After all, weren’t these just Superbikes with a bit more development and some trick bits?

Oh, what an impudent fool I was. Still am, too, and likely to remain so as long as the grass grows and the water flows. Once I recovered from my tunnel experience and made it down to the pits to see what was causing all the racket, I was launched into the world of MotoGP and all its frippery. Here was a great opportunity to compare my last World Superbike/AMA Laguna experience with the megabuck GP war machine, and I had heard all kinds of opinions about the differing atmospheres in things in their respective paddocks but wondered if it would really be that big a deal. I did know that ticket prices would be higher; indeed one of the first things I noticed was that everything was a lot pricier. Stratospheric, actually. But more on that in a moment. First, the machines.

It seems like only yesterday that the GP Overlords decided to give the 2-strokes the boot and usher in a whole new era of 4-stroke development. When this happened one of the good things was a bit of diversity, for the current crop of factory bikes is a minor potpourri of engine types and flavors. Honda has the venerable V5 in their RC211V, Ducati has the Desmosedeci V4, and there’s another V5 in the Robert’s Proton machine. No wait, that was last year. It’s a V4 this time around, supplied by KTM. There’s another smallish team known as Blata that runs a violently vocal engine that, I think, is a Yamaha R1-derived motor they’ll use until their own V6 is ready to rip. Speaking of Yamaha, their M1 has the screaming shrieker known as your basic Inline Fo’ (or “four” to less-than-down with Cannery Row street dialect) and Kawasaki has, shoot I don’t know what the hell is in that thing. OK, I know the ZX-RR Ninja is supposed to have a 990cc Inline Fo’ as well, but I don’t know what planet it’s from. I only know it’s the scariest freakin’ creature with pistons I’ve ever heard in my life. It had to be the Balrog I heard circulating the track when I was in that damn tunnel, that’s for sure. Listening to the Ducati and the Kawi throttles being blipped in warm-up fashion in the pits was like listening to tree frogs communicating, only these tree frogs were clearly the size of the new double-decker Airbus.

The fact that these priceless motorcycles are dramatically louder than the mere mortals of the Superbike class is actually a very suitable metaphor for the atmosphere of the GP itself. There is so much more pomp and circumstance that at the other series, and a certain whiff of exotic exclusivity in the air that is either off-putting or entrancing depending on your point of view. Everywhere you look you see expense, then great expense, and you have to wonder how much money is really tossed around in an enterprise like this. For the consumer who attended this event this year, this outlay of dinero trickled down and caused pain. This was no mere flesh wound, oh no. This was a deep, raucous, Uber tree frog-sized pain found in the wallets of those who purchased anything from tickets to earplugs.

But allow me an aside, here. Despite all the American Express Black cards on display there was a bit a contradiction in the bikes themselves; not in dollar signs really but compared with the 500cc 2-strokes of old they are more “normal.”

I know, the grass still grows, the water still flows and I am an impudent fool.

But stick with me, here. Despite their unique vocal signature, rare earth parts and flawless construction the MotoGp machines don’t really seem so far removed from their street counterparts. This may seem like an impossibility, but it is so. Obviously, this is important for bonding the image of what the companies race to what they sell, but it’s interesting to note how the pinnacle of the motorcycle racing world is different from its four-wheeled counterpart, in this case Formula One.

These motorcycles are the ultimate expression of road racing technology; there isn’t a class above this one or a more exotic technical theater than a spectacle like the Laguna Seca GP. Yet once the engines are off and the fairings removed, the hard parts are pretty familiar for the most part. Contrast this with what Michael Schumacher gets around the track in, or (if you have to) those crude-ass NASCAR buggies that have zero in common with the “stock” cars they’re supposed to be and you see what I’m saying. It’s one of the more remarkable aspects of this sport that everything from the basic suspension design to the fairing and associated bodywork are pretty close to what is available to mere mortals for a comparatively modest price. Of course, all these things are optimized beyond belief on the GP MotoHellbeasts, and carbon-carbon brakes are absent from their civilian counterparts as are (for the moment) V5 engines.

So while there’s boatloads of big bucks going into the bikes, the sense I got when watching these teams at work is that the real cash is spent in realm of human resources at this level. The riders, obviously, are some of the best compensated around and rightly so. Valentino Rossi’s not just an incredible rider but he has truly achieved rock-star celebrity in his field. Considering he’s never raced in the US before, he’s even pretty huge here and that’s quite an accomplishment. But unlike AMA Superbike and to a lesser extent WSC, the riders are pretty much isolated from the rabble. That is, unless you’re Brad Pitt or Mat LeBlanc. Then, they are Accessible.

Even more hidden from the punters and a big part of the human talent/expense dynamic are some of the most amazing technicians anywhere; the mechanics, tuners, analysts and assorted artisans that compose a small army that makes things as perfect for the riders as they can be. Their smoothness with tools and the ritualistic preparation of the machines rivals that of the men who they endeavor to put them on top of the box. I felt privileged to be able to watch some of this activity, and again was struck by the fact that most fans won’t have a chance to ever see much of it.

But, those fans showed up anyway. A wildly patriotic war machine of just under 60,000 revelers jacked up on Red Bull Energy Drink watched Nick Hayden storm to victory over Colin Edwards, Valentino Rossi and, I think, Brad Pitt. It was a great race, although Nicky never really left the outcome in doubt from the moment he first pulled out of the garage. He spent a good deal of time on his own; from the first practice session though qualifying and then during the race he was never following anybody. He really made short work of it all, and looked more like an old pro than an up and comer. Nicky said they barely touched the bike at all once they rolled it out for the first practice, and it really looked that way. Mr. Hayden is his own man, but in a lot of ways this was a Mladin-style victory (except with a Kentucky accent and considerably more emotion, understandably). Everything went right by the numbers, from his setting fast time at practice right away to his flag-to-flag lead, to his victory lap with his dad and finally some very real and well-deserved tears at the podium. He was brilliant, human, and yet totally professional which bodes very well indeed for his GP future. Amazing stuff.

Which brings me to that damn Balrog again.

You would think this really was the perfect weekend, and for many it was. The weather was perfect, the podium was perfect and the national anthem may have been botched but American pride was ultimately (and perfectly) satisfied. Nicky told a true American Dream story of his roof at home leaking like a sieve, but his dad spending the money that should have been used to fix those leaks on getting him to an amateur race at Daytona instead. Earl shared his victory in the California sunshine, with the ovation of at least 60,000 fans.

But the thing about the Grand Prix that left me unsettled was the very thing that makes it the preeminent race series: a certain distance from the live racing experience for most fans, and a weird focus on the cult of celebrity. The cameras spent more time on visiting Hollywood stars then it did on most of the GP riders, whether the former were cruising through the paddock like a Pope without a Popemobile or riding on the back of Randy Mamola’s Ducati. They certainly gleaned more notice than the AMA Superbike “support” race. Our local heroes looked almost like club racers, forced to pit without elaborate garages or even pit row awnings and getting precious little track time while the GP folks enjoyed their awesome garages that looked like upscale ad agency offices (with motorcycles instead of aquariums).

Now, I don’t want you to think that I thought the return of MotoGP to Laguna Seca was an evil elitist thing, and that I’m trying to turn a fairytale (I use Colin’s 1-word spelling in honor of our common Texas heritage) into a Tolkien nightmare. But there was a slightly sinister weirdness compared with what we normally consider roadracing in that there’s a wall between the teams and the fans that only the Pitts seem to be able to bust through. No, I’m not saying anybody should be able to waltz up to Rossi and admire his cape. I’m saying it’s really crazy when you have to shell out such major cash just to get a paddock pass, yet not being able to actually see one of the bikes or riders up close. The only time the fence was open was well after the race, when some of the fannage got to see the bikes as they were being crated up for shipping by a vast army of Moto Ooopah Loopahs. Then the walls came down a bit, and some lucky folks got to see and photograph some very special machines.

Shoot, I don’t know. I was a very lucky fellow this weekend in that I was on assignment for a magazine that was able to get me excellent credentials, which allowed excellent access. I got to see some extraordinary hardware, and some supremely talented people practicing their art at the highest level of motorsports. But I sometimes felt I was at a polo match and the real show was for the CEO set, while the vast majority of the hard-core racing fans weren’t choppered in to avoid the traffic and didn’t get to see the teams at work, even though they paid enough to see a decent concert with floor seats.

Yes, am bitching about the thorns on this rose, but I can’t help but wishing there was a way that things were a bit looser so that it was more open. But then, one must consider that everything, everywhere, is done for the TV these days. The riders and teams are more isolated so they can concentrate more on winning, because everybody wants their bike to win on the tube in front of billions of viewers in all the company’s markets. And when you realize that this is the oil that runs the machine that allows professional racing in the first place, and by focusing on this people all over the world can enjoy the spectacle, then I should just shut the hell up about all this elitist crap.

Yeah, I should. Shut. The hell. Up.

It was a superb race after all, and three outstanding guys were on the podium. But I will never forget that the sound I thought was a Balrog was the roar of the MotoGP Beast, which in its way has become just another type of Hollywood banshee if you look too closely under those Elvis shades. That weirded me out. I just wish there was a way for more people, for less money, to come get weirded out by it in person, too.

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