1989: The Worst USGP Ever
the last race of american bubba shobert
by dean adams
images by craig sanders

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The 1989 USGP at Laguna Seca extracted a terrific price from US racing. It can only be considered the worst USGP of all time. Here Jim Filice and Bubba Shobert chat after practice.

Eddie Lawson finished third in the '89 USGP but never made it to the podium. The incident on the cool-off lap left a bad taste in Lawson's mouth to this day.

King Kenny Roberts. His rider won the '89 USGP, but never has a Grand Prix win rung so hollow for KR.
You'll never convince anyone with an intimate knowledge of racing that motorcycle roadracing is a safe sport. Even on the safest track, with a cautious rider wearing the best safety equipment, a life or a career can be extinguished in little more than a heartbeat when factors go wrong. It's easy to be swayed and believe that because modern bikes and safety equipment are so good and track safety—while still not where anyone would like it—has never been better, that the likelihood of a fatal or career-ending crash is remote, it's simply not the case. As history continues to show us, an amazing rider can be crippled—or worse—in an instant. The 1989 US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca proved it.

The 1989 USGP at Laguna Seca was an event marred by tragedy; it left the 500 grid in shambles, with at least three riders in the hospital—one in a coma—and it went a long way towards killing the popularity of GP racing in America. The '89 event is still a low point for those who were there that day. Even the rider who won the premier race probably wishes the race had never happened.

International Grand Prix roadracing made a glorious return to America in 1988, with packed hills and grandstands resonating with love for motorcycle racing. Californian Eddie Lawson won the event in front of an adoring audience. Supporters of the event hoped that the USGP celebration would continue for years to come with even more fans and appreciation for the 170-horsepower two-stroke missiles; but all that was sucker-punched in 1989. After '89 the USGP never regained its momentum, and the event just trickled away, with fewer and fewer fans attending each year.

Before his career-ending crash and resulting paralysis in late 1993, there was but one tragedy in Wayne Rainey's professional racing career—the 1989 USGP at Laguna Seca Raceway. Even though Wayne Rainey won the '89 USGP in front of friends and family, mulling the event—even years later—only made him shudder when he remembered what transpired

Doomed From The Start
The 1989 USGP was, in retrospect, doomed from the start. The 1989 Grand Prix series featured an amazingly aggressive schedule—it listed a Grand Prix at Phillip Island on April 9, and the USGP on the very next weekend—April 16, meaning that the entire GP circus would have to get their men and machines from one hemisphere to the next and be ready to start practice in just five days time. Even in those pre-9/11 days, when customs officers would help a racer in need if you found the right one, shipping planeloads of crates from Sydney to San Francisco and having them out of customs and at the track in five days was an impossible goal.

It was no surprise to anyone with knowledge in international shipping that the crated GP bikes were late in arriving in the US and slow to be released by US Customs (although an airport labor dispute in Australia started the sluggishness). Many of the GP machines didn't even arrive at Laguna Seca until Friday morning. Crates of parts and pallets of fuel trickled in all weekend long. 500 practice was blown off for most of Friday.

By Sunday afternoon, after the last race of the weekend, the Grand Prix series lay prone from injuries. Chief among them: 1987 world champion Wayne Gardner, mounted on an NSR500 V-4 Honda. Gardner was the gnarliest Australian rider of the era, well-known for his beyond aggressive riding (especially in light of the period, when a nasty 500 with a light-switch torque curve on Michelin tires regularly tossed riders fifteen feet in the air in typical highside crashes.) Even with the abbreviated practice schedule at Laguna, Gardner found time to crash no less than five times, including his race crash, which broke his left leg in two places.

Not When Will It Stop. If It Will Stop
All of the 500s struggled with brake problems at Laguna in '89 as the GP world experimented with carbon fiber brakes. Most of the Hondas overpowered their steel discs in a few laps at Laguna Seca, while the baseline set-up on carbon discs was still a bit of a mystery. Honda riders regularly switched mid-practice from a steel brake-equipped bike that refused to stop well to a carbon-equipped machine. With carbons, when the discs were properly heated up, the NSR stopped as if the very hand of God had grabbed it at the last brake-marker. It made for interesting trackside viewing.

Even though Wayne Rainey won the '89 USGP in front of friends and family, mulling the event—even years later—only made him shudder when he remembered what transpired.

Gardner, who should be commended for his never-say-die attitude, was not alone in having only bad things to write on the postcards sent home from Laguna. Eddie Lawson won the 1988 USGP in dramatic fashion, showing that the hot set-up at Laguna was a tight line, a docile bike and track knowledge. In 1989, he only had track knowledge to defend himself with. The off-season switch from Agostini Yamaha to Kanemoto Honda put him on a vicious NSR500—a bike that didn't steer well and had a powerband made for Hockenheim's long straights, not Laguna Seca's twisty terrain.

Spectator numbers in 1989 were well down from the 100,000-plus at Laguna Seca in 1988. The field was actually more competitive in 1989 than it was in 1988, but fewer spectators came to the event. Assuredly, many of them felt burned by the high ticket prices, lengthy lines no one had seemed to plan for and the excruciating four-hour wait to exit the track they'd experienced in 1988. One could attribute the attendance problem to any number of factors, but it remains conventional wisdom in US motorcycle racing that poor event management and unfriendly riders (several Euro-GP stars of the era blazed past autograph seekers when leaving the track) will kill an event cold.


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