World Superbike Championships Laguna Seca 2016

Up close at the US round of the motorcycle race

by Justin Kaehler

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is one of the premiere racetracks in North America, if not the world. A perfectly crafted ribbon of asphalt carved through the picturesque hills of Monterey, California, this track has hosted top-level racing series for over 60 years. Though just a little over two miles around, it covers over 180 feet in elevation change and 11 turns. It also features one of the most famous corners in all of racing: The Corkscrew—a blind left-hander that takes racers down a high-speed six-story drop. We’ve sped around this track a few times ourselves, and each time has been a thrilling—if not slightly terrifying—experience. For us, each go-round has been on four wheels.

The men and women who take to Laguna Seca each year to compete in the US round of the Superbike World Championship (WorldSBK) do it on two wheels. The event took place earlier this month and official timekeeper Tissot gave us access to experience what this two-wheeled racing series is all about.

First: a little bit about the bikes, and a little analogy for those of who follow racing. If MotoGP is Formula 1 for motorcycles, then World SBK is a top-tier GT3 series. In other words: the bikes in MotoGP are highly specialized one-off creations whereas the machines in World SBK are all built atop manufacturer-supplied, production-based platforms.

CEO and General Manager of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Gill Campbell, says, “Motorcycle fans are probably among the most passionate. They’re the most vocal.” She continues, “These people are much more knowledgeable. And World Superbike, you know, it’s the bike you can go out and buy tomorrow and soup up and race. And so they can relate to that machine.”

And when Campbell says that fans can go out and buy the machine, she means it. The chassis and engine are factory units, and even the engines have to use stock internal components. The rest of the stuff is fair game, and teams fine-tune just about every other component for racing. That said, World SBK homologation rules state that a minimum number of these race-prepped components must be available for public purchase.

It’s not just the bikes that get the fans excited for World SBK, it’s the riders. Campbell tells us, “The riders are a lot more accessible. They will go out and mingle with the crowd. They will do autograph sessions. And these guys are very, very human.”

But this year, there’s one particular rider who’s presence has supercharged the flames of fan interest. MotoGP champ and “local-by-way-of-Kentucky” rider Nicky Hayden made his World SBK debut in 2016, and the fans packed Laguna Seca to give him a proper American welcome. Hayden’s inclusion alone helped bump overall ticket sales by approximately 30 percent.

Campbell, predictably, lights up when talking about Hayden’s World SBK debut. “Having Nicky back in this series is phenomenal. And we love him dearly. He won his race here when he was with MotoGP and that helped spur him onto winning the championship. It is a homecoming for us.”

Hayden is stoked to be back as well. “It’s the only time of the year I get to race at home in the US. And for me it’s pretty special. I had a lot of support from this home crowd and I like this track.” Signs proclaiming love for Hayden could be found throughout the track—in the hands of fans, hanging off trailers, and in the names of children. “Signing autographs, a lot of kids come through the line named Hayden. And that’s pretty cool, when parents say, ‘Oh, when you won here (in MotoGP), we named him Hayden.'”

As for the racing itself, it’s incredibly fan-friendly. Races are quick, with this US Superbike race lasting just approximately only 35 minutes—a sprint for those accustomed to other hours-long racing series. Each event hosts two World SBK races—one on Saturday and one on Sunday—plus a number of supporting races, meaning there’s plenty of action to be found.

But for this weekend, it was all about Nicky Hayden. With the way the local track announcers were going, it seemed like this World SBK event was Nicky Hayden’s race, and everyone else was just along for the ride. Hayden pushed his (admittedly outdated) Honda to the limit, and thanks to a combination of luck and skill, secured a third-place finish in Saturday’s race. On Sunday, red flag conditions spoiled Hayden’s flow, but he still managed to muscle his way to a respectable fifth-place.

That’s not to discount the talent of the other riders. Each of them battled bravely for position, and once the checkered flag dropped, they all rode in harmony, thanking the fans for taking the time to watch them race. As Campbell says of the riders, “They’re very skilled, and they’re great athletes, and they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. And they’re crazy. I always tell people, ‘The only thing between God and them is asphalt.’ They amaze me.”

Images by Justin Kaehler