Laguna Seca Raceway
April 10, 1988
by dean adams
Erroneously labeled the first USGP, the 1988 USGP was in fact the first USGP in twenty years and the first USGP at Laguna Seca, but it was not the first USGP - that distinction goes to the 1964 USGP at Daytona. The United States Grand Prix at Laguna Seca Raceway, the first of modern times if you will, was held in April of 1988 and stands out as the most popular and succesful Grand Prix in this counrty, ever.

eddie lawson on grid usgp 1988 by dean adams
Grand Prix racing in 1988 were the glory days of American supremacy, massive horsepower and popularity of the sport in the States. No less than five American riders rode in the 500 class at Laguna Seca, including two-time Superbike champion Wayne Rainey, RZ350 Cup Challenge champion Kevin Schwantz, then two-time world champion Eddie Lawson, five-time US Formula One champion Mike Baldwin and former AMA 250 champion Randy Mamola. Raymond Roche, Kevin Magee, Christian Sarron, Ron Haslam and Rob McElna were some of the non-Americans in attendance.

It was fun to watch: Pre-Big Bang engines powered the just-getting-a-clue chassis and tires, which made for spectacular crossed-up riding with both ends occasionally trying to lead. Pumped by plenty of magazine previews and a strong advance team from Laguna Seca, spectators came to the dry lagoon in droves. For many years the first Grand Prix at Laguna Seca was the all-time attendance-leader at the popular Northern California facility, beating out Indy cars and other multi-wheeled pursuits. Only a visit by the Pope outdrew the USGP.

The King, Roberts, almost rode the USGP too. Buoyed by letters to Cycle News,  Roberts considered coming out of retirement and racing the event but in the end found there wasn't enough hours in a day both to run a burgeoning Grand Prix team and train for a comeback.
He said to hell with riding again.

Assuredly, there was never a better day in America to be a fan of Eddie Lawson and Yamaha. With his California family and some friends in tow, Fast Eddie showed up at Laguna more focused and edgy than normal. Kel Carruthers had the Agostini Yamaha YZR500 crackling, and Eddie deceptively qualified second on the grid, letting Wayne Rainey, on Kenny's Lucky Strike Roberts Yamaha, take the pole and that brief moment of glory.

thanks, laguna secaErv Kanemoto's rider, Niall Mackenzie, led the race after Rainey dropped off, and the Scot stormed away to a Filice-like lead and almost had the race win in hand. He was chased by the aggressive and ever-charismatic Wayne Gardner on the factory Honda, and of course our man Eddie, who was a comfortable third in line from the front.

Eddie watched Gardner's antics on the exits as the 'let's put all the power right at the top' NSR500 tried repeatedly to kill the Australian, and Ed also saw Mackenzie starting to fade. Seemingly unstoppable, and with ten years of Laguna experience behind him, he double-apexed turn two twice, going up the inside as Gardner tried to maintain control, and again one lap later as Niall's arms went soft. He left both of the wicked Hondas in the dust and eased away for a comfortable win. While leading, Wayne Gardner, then the reigning world champion, tried to brake-check Lawson to keep him at bay only to finish second himself. Scotsman Mackenzie finished third.

Afterwards, the normally languid Lawson seriously let his hair down: whereas most of the time news that he'd won a GP would be met with a steely "I told you so" scowl, Lawson's win of the 1988 USGP showed a rare Eddie: On the cool-off lap he stopped the Yamaha in the Corkscrew and tossed his red and white Shoei GRV helmet and gloves to the frenzied crowd, screaming his head off the whole time.

Non-programmed events took place as well: three time world champion Freddie Spencer entered the race, but announced to the crowd that he would retire and he took a lap of honor on an old Honda four-stroke Superbike. When he stopped on the start finish line the crowd mobbed him. Grand National Champion Bubba Shobert, in only his second ride on a 250, qualified thirteenth on a Camel sponsored (and year-old) NSR, finishing fifth behind John-boy Kocinski, but impressively in front of Luca Cadalora, Jacques Cornu, Toni Mang and Reinhold Roth. In 500 practice, Randy Mamola tossed the Pirrelli-shod Cagiva away when an Italian mechanic made the novice club-racer mistake of not safety-wiring the countershaft sprocket on --Mamola was out of the race with a concussion.

Euro's found themselves confounded with the bumpy Laguna circuit, the Corkscrew and the hazardous final corner exiting on to the straight, which was then lined with a cement wall. They complained. John Kocinski, back then he had a personality, sneered to the complaining Wayne Gardner, "Whaddya race on in Australia, red carpet?".

Weeks before the race Freddie Spencer had recommended to Erv Kanemoto that 120 pound Jimmy Filice, who hadn't ridden a 250 since Daytona 1983, replace the injured Masaru Shimizu on Erv Kanemoto's Honda NSR250 for the USGP 250 race. Jumpin' Jimmy qualified on the front row (Kocinski on pole) and once the green flag dropped Jimbo was gone, ripping a hole in European dominance of 250 Grand Prix racing and netting himself a works Honda ride in the process.

image by dean adamsThe first USGP at Laguna Seca was successful, but for a variety of reasons it was never as well-attended again. It's no wonder why: Even with the top level, nearly one-hundred dollar weekend ticket, the paddock access was a joke, and once the races ended it took more than four-hours to exit the track. Most spectators expected better execution and didn't return.

On that day in April of 1988 though, Grand Prix racing in America was idyllic, pure and dominated by Yankees. And after Lawson's epic win, the hills were alive with the chanting of eighty thousand Eddie Lawson fans.

"Edd-ie! Edd-ie! Edd-ie!".


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