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The Need for Speed

Once a year, MotoGP - the fastest motorcycle racing circuit known to man - arrives in Monterey, California, disturbing the peace in a big way

Author Jeremy Korzeniewski Illustration Brian Stauffer

THE CITY OF MONTEREY is nestled on one side of placid Monterey Bay, along California’s central coast. On Cannery Row, the idyllic downtown area that got its name from the sardine canning factories that once thrived there (and inspired John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name), tourists amble along the sidewalks leading from the old canneries to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the finest in the world. Walking these streets, with the gentle breeze lifting the fog off the water, you’d never suspect that just a few miles away, past the rolling, straw-colored hills in the middle distance, lurks one of America’s wildest, most notorious temples of internal combustion.

Commonly known as Laguna Seca (it’s been called the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca since the automaker bought sponsorship rights in 2005), this 2.2-mile track may not be a particularly long or fast circuit, but it is one of the most highly respected-and feared-by drivers and riders alike.

For one weekend every year, the world’s best motorcycle racers arrive for the U.S. Grand Prix, one skirmish in the battle for the MotoGP world championship. Here, the biggest name is Valentino Rossi, a 31-year-old Italian who’s won seven world championships. He broke his tibia in a crash earlier this year, and though he’s made a remarkable return to the saddle, he’s considered out of contention in this year’s race. The new top rider is Jorge Lorenzo, Rossi’s Spanish teammate with Yamaha Fiat. There are also three Americans circling the track: Nicky Hayden, known to his fans as the Kentucky Kid, who won the race at Laguna Seca in 2005 and 2006 astride a Honda; and two Texans, Ben Spies and Colin Edwards, who ride for the Yamaha factory team.

These riders are only part of the draw for the hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists and MotoGP enthusiasts who descend like pilgrims on two wheels to witness the event. (So complete is Monterey’s transition from picturesque seaside town to hive of motorcycle fanatics that the entire downtown area of Cannery Row is shut down to automobile traffic for the weekend.) If you don’t understand the huge draw (and judging by MotoGP’s TV ratings, which are somewhere around professional dart-throwing, you probably don’t), stand beside the motorcycle paddocks the morning of the race. The answer will smack you in the eardrums the first time the riders scream down Rahal Straight.

The fury of internal combustion never sounds so malevolent as it does when a modern MotoGP racebike screams past at full throttle, hitting nearly 20,000 revolutions per minute. It hits you in the chest like a rubber mallet. Then there’s the race hardware itself. Only at one of the 18 MotoGP events around the world will a motorcycle fan be able to see such complex, cutting-edge, expensive and astronomically fast machinery circling such a thrilling racetrack in person.

Today, as the sun climbs into a perfectly blue sky, morning practice ends and spectators gather in the stands for the main race. Lorenzo- presumptive champion of the 2010 season-is the center of attention at Laguna Seca. Crowds gather for hours in the California heat to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the star rider passing on his way to the paddocks in his shell- armored, kangaroo-skin racing suit.

The 23-year-old Lorenzo stops for a moment in the Yamaha Fiat VIP tent to have a quick snack. He is surprisingly slight, even in his armor. Sitting down, he quickly composes a tweet to his nearly 62,000 followers. “Coming to America is very good for MotoGP,” he says. “There is a lot of potential to pick up a large number of fans.”

With that, he makes his way to the paddock, where his gleaming red, white and blue superbike awaits, and starts going over every contour of the track in his mind. What Lorenzo doesn’t say is that Laguna Seca is short but dangerous, a nightmare for most riders. The nastiest section is called The Corkscrew. Over the 450 or so feet required to make it through The Corkscrew’s two turns, the rider drops roughly five and a half stories in elevation. For one sick split second, he is convinced he’s left earth and will potentially never return.

The race that follows is one of the season’s best. Lorenzo, who took pole position in qualifying, wins it by three seconds against Australian Casey Stoner, who rides a bright red Ducati.

The final spot on the podium goes to Rossi, who shouldn’t have been on the starting grid at all. A fan favorite no matter what country the MotoGP circus happens to be visiting, Rossi draws howls of adoration as he steps his place on the podium, on crutches. He announces in the press pool afterward that he’s going to leave his team at the end of the year and form a sort of superteam with American Hayden and Ducati.

The American riders-Hayden, Spies and Edwards-all finish in the top 10, pleasing the fans who then file slowly into parking lots, mount their own steeds and head home.

Lorenzo is happy to have won, but he’s more relieved to have made it through in one piece. “I have some painful memories of this track,” Lorenzo says. “In 2008, I crashed on cold tires in the first corner and injured my feet, which meant no dancing during the holiday!” The press around him laugh. “Then last year I crashed twice on cold tires-once on the front and once on the rear-but then went on to get pole and finish on the podium. Laguna is certainly a special place, very different to the rest of the circuits we race at, but I like riding here, especially The Corkscrew.”

He’s only being half sarcastic. Maybe if he hadn’t won he’d be less cocky.

“Really, it’s best to race here in perfect conditions, without injury. That always helps.”

Autoblog.com’s JEREMY KORZENIEWSKI went through The Corkscrew once-on foot.

TRACK STAR

The many perils of Laguna Seca

1. THE RAINEY CURVE

Former motorcycle Grand Prix champ and Monterey native Wayne Rainey christened this turn.

2. THE ANDRETTI HAIRPIN

This tricky, 190-degree double- apex hairpin is named after Formula 1 great Mario Andretti.

3. THE CORKSCREW

Considered among the toughest turns in the world, turns 8 and 8A drop down a twisting blind crest at top speed.

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