Archives Column | 1988 Laguna Seca U.S. Grand Prix

Cycle News Staff | January 10, 2021

Cycle News Archives


This Cycle News Archives edition is reprinted from issue #35, September 8, 2004. CN has hundreds of past Archives columns in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. So, to prevent that from happening, in the future, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.

The Dream Day

By Scott Rousseau

Even if there had not been an American on the podium, April 10, 1988, would have gone down as a good day in motorcycle-racing history because it marked the first time that a World Championship Grand Prix visited the United States in more than 20 years.

But Marlboro Yamaha’s Eddie Lawson and factory Honda fill-in Jimmy Filice made the first U.S. GP since 1965 oh so much more. The two Californians not only got on the podium on their home soil, they owned it, legitimizing America’s return to the world stage in front of 80,000 screaming fans at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California.

Eddie Lawson

After qualifying second, just 0.252 of a second behind polesitter and fellow American Wayne Rainey, Lawson, who would later say that the win was the biggest of his career, got off to a bad start in the 40-lap 500cc GP, his factory YZR500 bogging off the starting line. He was a disappointing ninth as the field sorted out, while Scotland’s Niall Mackenzie found himself in the lead, followed by defending 500cc World Champion Wayne Gardner of Australia. Kevin Schwantz was the first American, running third at the end of the first lap. By the third lap, however, Lawson was inside the top five, running fourth after following Rainey past Schwantz. Lawson was still some 3.5 seconds behind Mackenzie by lap six, and he was having a tough time passing Rainey. Finally, on lap eight, Lawson knifed underneath Rainey on the exit of tum two.

Lawson was still 2.14 seconds behind Mackenzie, who was still leading Gardner, but Lawson appeared to be picking up the pace while the competition slowed. Lawson was clocking lap times in the low one-minute, 30-second range as he caught up to Gardner, making a pass on the Australian in turn two the same way that he had overtaken Rainey. With clear track ahead of him, Lawson got down to the business of cutting into the two-second gap that Mackenzie still held over him.

On lap 17, Lawson was breathing down Mackenzie’s neck, and he made a pass for the lead in the exact same spot that he’d made his passes for second and third, out-driving Mackenzie off the exit of turn two. A footnote is in order here: Lap 17 was also the lap in which a young Italian named Pier-Francesco Chili, aboard a Honda, would crash out of the race in turn 11.

Lawson immediately pulled clear of Mackenzie, continuing to run in the low 30s en route to a huge win, his margin of victory a clearly superior 6.447 seconds by the end of the 40-lap race. Not one to display a lot of emotion, Lawson elected to stop his bike on the side of the track, jump the hay bales and throw his helmet into the crowd.

“I got a real bad start again, and I thought, ‘This was it, those guys are gone,’ ” Lawson said afterward. “It was a little bit tough to pass, but I was getting a good drive out of there [turn two], so I slipped it up the inside and it worked. I thought I’d worn the tires catching up, but they hung in there.

“This is the most demanding track we race on, without a doubt,” Lawson continued. “But I really like it now. This [an American Grand Prix] is what the sport needed to get it going in the right direction. Winning here to me is like winning the World Championship.”

While Lawson’s win was spectacular, pre-race speculation was that it would not be all that unexpected if the 1984 and 1986 World 500cc Champion were to pull it off. The same cannot be said for the 250cc result turned in by Filice, who didn’t even have a ride leading up to the event. Filice was tabbed by Honda to replace injured Japanese rider Masahiro Shimizu, who had suffered a broken wrist while testing for the Japanese GP. Even with such top-notch equipment as a factory Honda NSR250, no one held out much hope for a Filice victory in what was to be his first GP start.

Jimmy Filice

After a botched start, the field re-gridded for a restart, with France’s Dominique Sarron pulling the holeshot, only to yield to another young American, reigning AMA Dirt Track Champion Bubba Shobert—the Texan also making his GP debut—who came from row three to lead the first lap of the race.

Filice, however, cut through the field like a wedge after running fourth early, jetting past another fellow American, John Kocinski, and then Sarron and Shobert to take the lead. Filice ran in the 1:33s for most of the race, leaving the field in his wake, finishing 9.843 seconds ahead of Spain’s Sito Pons. Sarron was third, followed by Kocinski and Shobert.

“Do you think I’m on my way?” Filice asked on the podium. “Someone employ me, please. I’m unemployed… The only problem I had was when I started day-dreaming about winning and getting a job.”

That’s easily understandable. Laguna Seca ’88 was the stuff that dreams were made of. CN

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