The End of Big Racing At Laguna Seca? Not So Fast
With the World Superbike race weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca less than a month away, it’s worth reminding everyone that MotoGP will not be returning to Laguna Seca this year. But the disappointing end of MotoGP racing at Laguna Seca was not the end of the track’s life as a prominent and internationally-beloved motorcycle race destination. Fans will have a chance to watch the close and aggressive action of World Superbike at Laguna Seca this year on July 12th, 13th, and 14th. The track management is committed to continuing to showcase our unique track at big events, and to ensure that events like World Superbike (WSBK) remain feasible investments for the non-profit organization. A few weeks away from WSBK and nearly a year after what we hope was not the very last MotoGP ever to take place at Laguna, let’s take a look at what went wrong.
It’s undeniable that the Laguna Seca track, with its quirky charm, rich racing history, and famous curves and contours shaped by nature’s hand rather than computer imaging, has been having a hard time in its 70th decade. Things unravelled last year with the announcement that MotoGP would not be returning to the track in 2014, but the signs were all there already. Distance had growing between the aging track and the grand vision of Dorna, MotoGP’s parent company, for years. The paddock area and facilities were never large enough to support the huge MotoGP package, and the track itself would likely require significant renovations to meet Dorna’s ever-expanding track homologation guidelines.
In 2013, with MotoGP races on two other tracks on the American continent, the Indianapolis Speedway and the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, three weekends in the U.S. became one too many for MotoGP. While the Indianapolis Speedway, which has been hosting MotoGP since 2008, began a largely state-funded $140 million track and facility renovation last year, the non-profit Laguna track has little funding to draw on for improvements. Of course, when Austin’s beautiful new Circuit of the Americas track signed a ten-year contract with Dorna in 2013, it was easy to see which of the three American tracks was the third wheel.
But it wasn’t just Laguna’s lack of curb appeal that ended the era, it was a mutual decision between Dorna and the Raceway management to end their existing MotoGP contract a year early. In fact, the races at Laguna Seca hadn’t been profitable for the last four years, despite the fact that, although attendance dropped in 2013, local and visiting fans have been pretty reliable. Despite all the (justified) moaning about the over-zealous CHP and local police, horrendous motorcycle parking and routing, and insane local hotel prices, when compared to other GP races around the world, Laguna’s weekend numbers look decent. Still, they weren’t enough to pay the track’s nearly $10 million dollar tab. Despite bringing in an estimated $100 million a year in revenue to the local economy during MotoGP weekend alone, Laguna Seca, unlike Indianapolis and COTA, receives no funding or tax credits from the local or state government.*
Perhaps knowing it would soon be the end of MotoGP racing in Laguna Seca, the track signed up to host World Superbike through 2015. The first round took place in September of 2013, three months after the final MotoGP. Attendance was pretty embarrassing-just 41,00 for the entire three days (MotoGP had close to 120,00 earlier in July)-but we’ll chalk that up to a generally bad year. Devoted race fans had already shelled out a bunch of cash to attend MotoGP in the summer. They wouldn’t even find out it had been the last until the official announcement was made the Monday after the disappointing World Superbike weekend. WSBK was also at the tail end of September, not the best time of year to draw the motorcycle crowds.
So what are we left with after that long, depressing story? Well, we’re left with one of the most beloved, unique tracks in the world and one big race. Not the prestigious, glittering race series that MotoGP is, but a damn good second place. Though locally most of us aren’t very familiar with the riders and the race drama of the World Superbike world, many consider WSBK racing to be more exciting than GP racing because the rules allow for a larger pool of competition, a closer, more level playing field, and thus racing action of a kind that is rarely seen in the computerized world of MotoGP these days. Last year’s race at Laguna Seca was a thriller by all accounts, though so few Americans attended or had an opportunity to watch it on TV.
Hey, let’s face it, we didn’t appreciate MotoGP enough when it was here, and now it’s gone. And though the event had its flaws, many of us went anyway because we love the noise, we love the energy, and we love to hike up to the Corkscrew, take a seat on the dusty mound, and watch some good racing. Raceway CEO Gill Campbell has vowed to do her best to bring the event back to Monterey, but it’s hard to envision that happening anytime soon, and certainly without major improvements to the track and its facilities. Anyway you shake it, to keep big racing at Laguna Seca, Campbell needs support-support from fans, support from investors and sponsors, and support from the local community.
As fans, our job is to make sure we hit World Superbike hard this year and show Monterey and all the international WSBK followers and riders that the Bay Area is indeed one of the most enthusiastic and exciting places in the world for motorcycling. We love racing, we love our embattled Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, and we know we don’t want to live in a world that has one without the other.
*For a good read on the real deal behind Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s financial woes, read “Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca Addressing Budget In Transitional Year” by Marc Cota-Robles.