If you’re a race fan you can appreciate what a dream weekend it was: Three days of watching live MotoGP from Mazda’s VIP suite located atop the pit garages of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, just one floor above where the likes of Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Rossi and the other performers of the MotoGP circus prepared before taking to the track.
I’m probably an anomaly among race fans, because although this was my first MotoGP race, it wasn’t my first exposure to a MotoGP machine. In 2006 I got a rare opportunity, via Yamaha Canada, to ride Rossi’s YZR-M1 following the final round at Valencia, Spain.
Ironically, even though I had access to the machine on Monday following the races that year, I couldn’t get tickets or passes to Sunday’s sold-out event and watched the race live on TV in the comfort of my hotel room.
The invitation to the 2012 U.S. MotoGP came via an unlikely source, Mazda Canada. Now, you might wonder why a distributor of Japanese automobiles would invite me to watch motorcycle races, so I’ll first explain the connection.
Mazda, who’s got the coolest tagline I’ve seen in a while — If it’s not worth driving, it’s not worth building — is the main corporate sponsor of Laguna Seca, hence the track’s longer name (if you disagree with corporate sponsorship of legendary racetracks, maybe a look at the improvements being made at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park — formerly known as Mosport — will change your mind).
Now, many CMGers might not know this, but when I’m not writing about two-wheelers, I moonlight writing about cars (I just heard the crunch of my moto fan base crashing). Not long ago, I attended the launch of the Mazda3 Skyactiv, which you can read about here (expect a few underhanded plugs for the brand in this story—they did, after all, pay for my unforgettable weekend…), and while I was there, I met Sandra Lemaitre, Mazda Canada’s national PR manager.
The connection between Sandra and motorcycles is, well, she’s one of us; that is, she rides. She owns a Yamaha R6, and her hubby, Paul, also rides – a Ducati S4RS to be exact. How very convenient.
AT THE TRACK
I don’t care if you don’t care about motorcycles, but if your heart doesn’t skip a beat the first time you hear a bona fide MotoGP bike fire up, you’re a heartless bastard. I certainly experienced a measurable amount of arrhythmia when, just before Friday morning practice, Ben Spies’ team was the first to roll out his YZR-M1 and rhythmically warm up the engine.
Deep, offbeat and intimidating, the inline-four’s crossplane crankshaft makes the engine sound like a cross between a V-twin, a V-four and a fire-breathing dragon.
It’s even more heart-palpitating to watch the bikes blast down the front straight, their front wheels skimming across the pavement like a stone skimming across water, due to their wheelie control systems.
For a different perspective other than our VIP balcony view of the front straight, during practice we went to the Corkscrew, where vendors and a live band were set up to keep spectators entertained between sessions and races.
This is probably the most spectacular vantage point to watch the races from, as the bikes transition dramatically from left to right down the steep descent. It’s where Rossi made an impossible, near-crash pass on Stoner during that epic battle in 2008. This, folks, is racing.
Although I felt quite special, I wasn’t Mazda Canada’s only guest. Aside from two other media guests, a quartet from Nova Scotia was along also – Stephan Tait, Peter Robinson, Andy Robb and their boss Mike Landry. The four are from a Mazda dealer in Kentville.
The first three are true riders, while Mike has never ridden a bike or been to a race — any race — before attending the MotoGP. The others convinced him to come along and the constant exposure of his pearly whites throughout the weekend was proof positive he didn’t regret his decision one minute.
Stephan, who raced amateur in the 1980s on a Yamaha RZ500, is a huge Rossi fan. He showed his devotion to the Italian by purchasing a Dainese Rossi replica leather jacket and getting it signed by the man himself. He later bought an AGV Rossi replica helmet (apparently business at Kentville Mazda is quite good) and got that signed too. Nova Scotia produces some hardcore fans, for sure.
Morning mist is normal by the coast in Monterey, though it doesn’t usually make it inland, over the hills to the racetrack. Except it did on this weekend, and Saturday morning’s weather was a repeat of Friday morning’s, only colder and wetter.
Because of this, practice was delayed; when the clock did finally start the one-hour practice countdown, no one got out onto the track. It was only with about 15 minutes left on the clock that Ben Spies took to the track, the first rider in the premier class to do so. He broke the seal and within minutes the rest of the MotoGP and CRT regulars hit the pavement.
There’s a fair amount of off-track drama in MotoGP, with top riders this year announcing their retirement (Stoner) or abruptly announcing their departure from their factory teams (Spies). It’s been reported that Rossi will be going back to Yamaha after unsuccessfully trying to win a title for Ducati. Fortunately, when these riders hit the track, none of this drama is evident and they ride the wheels off these machines.
Afternoon qualifying was fortunately run in clear, warm weather and was rather spectacular to boot. Stoner took the lead from Lorenzo late in the session and it was only in the very last lap that Lorenzo replied by posting the fastest lap, nailing down pole position and breaking the lap record three times in doing so.
This, folks, is racing.
As an added bonus to our VIP treatment, we were given a private tour of the Yamaha factory team garage, where we ogled over the bikes of Spies, and in the next stall over, the bikes of series leader Lorenzo. I couldn’t contain myself, and with apologies to Spies, I may have drooled on his machine.
As we gazed on in awe, a couple of familiar faces dropped by to say hello, including Spies and Kenny Roberts, the elder. One of Lorenzo’s mechanics then rolled his machine out and started it. I felt some movement in my trousers.
To show my gratitude for the hospitality shown to me by Sandra, I used my motorcycling connections (thank you Tim Collins) to get us into a fashion show presented by Ducati at the track. Sandra has a thing for Nicky Hayden (it’s alright, her hubby knows this and admits he has a weakness for Angelina Jolie), and I was told he was going to be in attendance to celebrate his recent signing for another season with the Italian race team, as well as his birthday the following Monday.
We schmoozed, Nicky waved, Sandra beamed.
Sunday morning mist turned to early afternoon sunshine with temperatures in the low 20s C – ideal conditions for both spectators and racers.
As if all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, lunch, beer, pit tours and weekend paddock access — all courtesy of Mazda — weren’t enough, Jeremy Barnes, Mazda’s director of PR in the U.S., had one final unexpected surprise for us: a grid pass.
This highly sough-after and extremely hard-to-get pass allows you access to the racing grid, just before the race. I would be within arm’s length of all the riders, their machines and their respective umbrella girls.
I was speechless. As Jeremy handed me the pass, all my mouth could muster was a muddled grunt. If I’d already managed to drool on Spies’ bike, there’s no telling what bodily fluids I might expel onto my favourite riders’ umbrella girls.
Needless to say, aside from actually riding a MotoGP bike, walking along the pre-race grid among MotoGP greatness counts among one of my career highlights. It was a fitting cap to a weekend watching the pinnacle of motorcycle competition in true VIP fashion without having an iota of VIP-ness in my bones – I work for CMG, after all, and I have a certain substandard to uphold.
Now go out and buy a Mazda …
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