Tuesday, July 12, 2005

MotoGP, baby

I just came back from watching the greatest motorcycle show on Earth [in my opinion]: the first MotoGP race in the US in over 10 years. A bit of explanation is probably in order for those of you who aren't motorcycle fiends: the MotoGP class is the Formula-1 of motorcycle racing -- the most advanced bikes, made from the trickest bits that factory money can buy, ridden by insane men at crazy speeds [210+ mph]. MotoGP events in Europe regularly draw crowds of over 50,000 people, especially in bike-crazy countries like Italy and Spain [it doesn't hurt that some of the top riders are Italian and Spanish ...]. There hasn't been a GP race in the US since 1994, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, but this year the sponsors, the people who own the series and racetrack managers etc finally managed to put together a deal that saw the MotoGP class come to Laguna Seca, California. I got to attend this festival of two-wheeled speed courtesy of my boy Brandon, as a birthday present.

We got to the track on Saturday just around the start of the first practice session for the MotoGP class, and I finally got to hear and see a MotoGP bike at full throttle. It is simply amazing how loud these things are; from the bit of motorcycle racing that I did as a hobby, I've developed a reasonable tolerance for the sound of superbikes [a class of bikes exemplified by bikes like this and that] at full throttle, but MotoGP machines make superbikes sound like a whisper. The noise pretty much had me reeling and I would have speedily put a large distance between myself and something that obnoxiously loud if I hadn't been glued to the spot, entranced by watching them whizz by. Eventually, the trance wore off, mostly because their practice session ended, and we wandered off to try to find me some earplugs. There were no earplugs to be found, but there was, of course, plenty of other overpriced merchandise, mostly T-shirts with fairly juvenile pictures and slogans on them, catering to the mostly young, male, entranced-by-fast-loud-shiny-things crowd [like me ;-)]. Now, I'm all for the occasional juvenile T-shirt [that's actually one of the tamer ones], but, c'mon, at least get your grammar right -- slogans like "Chick's with Slick's" made me want to grab the vendor by the collar and urge on them the necessity of figuring out the difference between the possessive and plural "s" ending.

On Sunday, we got a somewhat later start and ran smack into what happens when you have 50,000+ people trying to get to the same few square miles with only 3 access roads: insane traffic, starting a couple of miles from the track. After spending 45 minutes going 0.2 of a mile, we decided to just park the car and walk the rest of the way, something Brandon had suggested earlier. At the time he suggested it, though, we were at the bottom of a hill with a 16% slope, I'd just had breakfast and I really didn't feel like trying to keep up with a freshly-minted Ironman going up a hill of that sort, especially given my current lab-rat-somewhat-out-of-shape-man status. Once we got to the top of that hill, I was much more willing to entertain the idea and so we hoofed it the rest of the way [which turned out to be a huge timesaver both getting in and out after the race].

The first race was the Superstock race, which allowed me to fine-tune my picture taking. Here's what a freight train of bikes, just after the race start, looks like:

[click for bigger picture]

The Superstock race also gave us a front-row seat to a pretty spectacular crash: Tommy Hayden, the fellow on the green bike who is in second place in the picture above, did something a bit silly later in the race, ran out of racetrack in exactly the spot above, ended up running off the track and crashing. It was a grisly-looking crash -- the bike buried its front wheel in the sand and tossed him off and he ragdolled a good 30-40 yards, bouncing all over the place. In a true testament to the amount of punishment the human body can endure, however, all that happened was that he broke his hand [and raced again later in the afternoon. These boys are tough].

Further attesting to the fact that the MotoGP race was a big deal, celebrities started arriving during the lunch break, like this fellow:

[In case you can't tell, that's Brad Pitt.] His appearance provoked a lot of [male] conversations that went like this:

"Dude, Brad Pitt is here !"
"Did he bring Angelina Jolie with him ?"
"No, doesn't look like it ..."
"Then I don't really give a damn that he's here. Let me know if Angelina shows up ..."

Brad was, of course, being given the royal treatment, getting to meet all the MotoGP racers, something denied us mere mortals. This, in turn, led to to the general consensus that it'd be hilarious if he were to walk into Valentino Rossi's trailer unannounced and Valentino greeted him with "And who the f!ck are you ? Get out of my trailer !" [Valentino Rossi is the undisputed star of MotoGP -- he's 26, has won 6 world championships, has thoroughly dominated the premier class for the last 4 years, and does it all while being a merry prankster, often staging elaborate jokes after races, like riding around with an inflatable doll on the back of his bike. He's probably the single biggest reason for the current interest in MotoGP worldwide.]

Other, lesser, luminaries also showed up, including Matt Leblanc, Orlando Jones and Adrien Brody. Orlando Jones got to do something I'd pay a lot of money for, if I had any at the moment: ride [on the back of] a MotoGP bike. At each MotoGP race, assorted VIPs get to ride on the back of a Ducati GP bike that's been modified to be a 2-seater, ridden by Randy Mamola, a former GP racer, and this time, Orlando was one of the lucky ones. Watching Mamola ride, it was clear that he was taking it pretty easy -- not braking too hard, not really getting his knee down in the corner, not getting on the gas all the way etc. Even with all that, though, all three people who got a ride with him got off the bike and started jumping around and gesticulating like little children, with a huge grin on their faces. That's a feeling I can totally empathize with -- few things are as much fun as getting to go fast round corners on a motorcycle.

The MotoGP race finally got under way:

It ended up being a decent race, though the outcome was never seriously in doubt: Nicky Hayden [the guy in the lead in the first picture], a young American rider [the younger brother of Tommy, the fellow who crashed earlier] had dominated the qualifying session, led from the first lap and was never seriously challenged for the lead. His win was a pretty momentous occasion, in some ways -- it was the first time in a looong time that an American had won a MotoGP race, it was Nicky's first MotoGP win, and it was at his "home" racetrack, at the first MotoGP race on American soil in a while. Needless to say, he was pretty damn happy about it.

And that, so to speak, was the 2005 Laguna Seca MotoGP event. Other random bits and pieces:

- If you ever have the chance to go to Salinas, CA: don't. It is a barren wasteland. The only food we were able to find was either fast food [ie Wendy's, Jack in the Box etc] or the next step above that, chain restaurant food [Applebee's, Outback etc]. Couple that with the general lack of vibrancy of the area and you have a place that doesn't have much going for it.
- If you ever go to one of these events, spring for the more expensive tickets. We had tickets that gave us access to something called the "Flagroom", which was a tent in which they served breakfast and lunch, had free drinks, places to sit and clean rest rooms nearby. These little things make a big difference when the alternative is having to compete with 50,000 other people for these sorts of amenities.
- Why do men take pictures with umbrella girls ? It's not like you can proudly show them to your significant other [at least not without wishing you hadn't] ... are they aiming for fond memories of "Hey, there's me with that girl whose -job- it was to take pictures with strange men and smile. I think she really liked me, though" ?
- MotoGP riders are really small. Like, 120-pounds-when-wet-and-wearing-all-their-gear small. You'd think with a machine that puts out 220 hp and weighs about 300 lbs, weight wouldn't be that big an issue, but I guess every little bit counts.
- The racing world is reasonably small. Even in the insane mass of people, we managed to run into several people we knew from the racing/motorcycle scene in Seattle.


Blogger Corey said...

[edit] Nicky is the middle brother, the younger brother of the crasher in the Superstock race.

Not sure what Tommy was trying to do there - but I guess they get paid to not roll off. Fascinating to me that was his first crash in any test, practice, warm up, or race in 3 YEARS. That's like forever in motorcycle racer years...

Glad you had fun, and I'm insanely jealous. Someday I'll be Mr. Cash and take you to MotoGP in Italy! OK, we'll take B too..

12:32 PM  
Anonymous jack said...

Brad pitt is probably the most adventurous hollywood actor alive. reminds me alittle of Steve McQueen with all the bikes and cars. Must be nice to be able to spend £50,000 pounds on motorcycle and not have to worry about the cost. one thing is for sure, I bet the motorcycle insurance will be pretty hefty on his new machine. not that brad has to worry about that I he must be obsessed with bikes, I think he already owns more than a dozen of them.

11:08 AM  

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