In the heart of California and off the coast of the Pacific Ocean lies the iconic raceway of Laguna Seca. It epitomizes the values of the wild west, with freedom to roam from one golden grassy hillside to the next and with liberty to enter pit areas without restrictions. The American Dream exists here, giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy a day with friends, and a night spent honoring the traditions of the hard-working men that John Steinbeck immortalized, with a well-earned drink on Cannery Row. It is our home circuit and it is where I learned that Roo loves racing.
2019 World Superbike Experience
A brisk, overcast drive through winding roads leads us away from the dewy coastal trees near Cannery Row and up into the golden hills that will soon roast in the sunshine. Rolling our car windows down to scan our tickets reveals the sounds of motorcycles warming up, as the riders make the day’s first exploration around the track. As usual, we park near a fence that runs right along the circuit. We grab a refreshing beverage, post our flags on the fence and raise the American flag in our truck, as always. But this time is different, because The Kid and I have brought along a friend that came all the way from Bedford, England, and we are pleased to play host to Charles as he enjoys his first ever time at Laguna Seca Raceway.
I always wonder about people’s reactions to arriving at new circuits. To me, the transition from ordinary life as we approach the racetrack feels like entering sacred ground. The sounds, smells and terrain create an atmosphere that entices and exhilarates us. Yet it is this same energy that transforms into the triumph or defeat of a racer’s dreams. I didn’t really know what Charles’ expectations were for the weekend, but I insist that he took the front seat for our drive, wanting him to take in each precious view along the way.
He was pleased with our proximity to the circuit and patiently watched the bikes fly by while we applied sunscreen and shed our long sleeves in preparation for the warm day ahead. With hats, backpacks and walking shoes on, we head toward track center for Friday’s free practice. But it only takes a moment to distract ourselves. We stop to appreciate the view of the track just below the pedestrian bridge, where the bikes scream by only 10 feet away from us. I realize at this moment that we’ve brought a true fan along with us, and that we can all expect to have a great and memorable weekend.
We peruse the merchandise stalls, where Charles finds the Indian motorcycle booth. With his bike arriving in the UK only a few weeks away, the friendly woman running the booth loads him up with all the branded goodies she can find to give to him. We spend the day walking around, checking out booths and watching the track. The pit area at Laguna Seca is typically open to spectators, and we’re separated from the teams by only a short, three-foot fence.
Fortunately, our guest had made friends on his flight from England, and we were all welcomed into the Yamaha garage, where we spent some time admiring the bikes, enjoying the company of our hosts and observing the crew. Not wishing to overstay our welcome, Charles guides us to the margarita bar and orders a round for us all, making this my first time ever sitting down for a cocktail at the circuit. We sit and sip and appreciate the fact that we’re here together, when we realize that Michael Hill from MotoAmerica is about to interview racers and host a trivia contest. We take our drinks to-go and sit at the back of the audience, unaware that our friend is a ringer and that he knows the answers to every single trivia question. The next thing we know, he’s standing on stage with a margarita in hand, doing a math equation about rider’s numbers and ultimately winning the grand prize of a new leather riding jacket.
With the day’s riding over and feeling triumphant about our friend’s prized winnings, we return to an evening on Cannery Row, where The Professor joins us for cheeseburgers, pints and live music at the patio of what was our favorite post-racing restaurant. (This pub was forced to close during the pandemic.)
Overnight, more friends had arrived. We caravan to the circuit at our own paces, with The Professor riding his bike so he can participate in a lap of the course. As we greeted Derek, The Real Jerry and Brad and Jen, Charles remarked he’d never before had a party at a racetrack. Together, we set up a shade shed and chairs, positioned our cars for comfort near the track and made ourselves cozy with food and beverages. But we’d postponed our visit to the Cork Screw long enough, and Charles could wait no more. I grabbed his hand and began the walk towards our first hill hike of the day, knowing the others would soon follow. It’s a quick, steep walk from turn 6 and Charles kept a good pace while dragging me with him. At the top we have a view of the 15-story corkscrew and 20-feet away we also have an expansive vantage of most of the circuit. It had been a few years since we explored the hillsides, having learned how to expertly host our VIP trackside experiences- perhaps we’d grown a bit lazy. But Charles’ exploratory spirit rekindled our own and memories came back of all the friends and all the times we’d spent up in these hills. All the times we’ve sat in the dirt together, sored our muscles with too much walking, shared frog dogs, tall boys and bad cocktails and made that slippery step that forced us to run down the hills to avoid rolling down them. While Charles was so smitten with the Corkscrew that he was loathe to leave it, The Kid and I were ready to roam again. We left Charles in the expert care of The Real Jerry for safekeeping and started for the long way around the track.
The great part about gathering at the track is that we all know where to meet again, and throughout the weekend we hiked, meandered, wandered, and always rejoined each other at the comfort of our trackside shade-shed for cheese and wine.
We have far too many memories of days at Laguna Seca and it makes writing about it difficult for me. It was a tremendous joy seeing it anew with our friend Charles. My only regret is that Fuego and the Mrs. were only able to join us for a single whirlwind Sunday.
Typically, The Mrs. and I lead the group with our aimless wandering around the track, with Fuego acting as guide. He has an uncanny memory for everything racing and can point out everything and everyone of significance to us. As a result, we have photos and memories of meeting countless racers and crew members over the years. One of my favorite memories is meeting Bubba Shobert. He patiently visited with us while waiting endlessly for us to find his greatest fan Fuego, so the two could share one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever witnessed. Although my personal favorite might be the time Pippa Laverty remembered me and gave me Eugene’s podium rose arrangement, once we’d gained access to his pits after the race.
Of special note is our friend Jen, new to trackside experiences prior to this trip, who demonstrated admirable curiosity for the racing events of each day and extreme patience (and dare I say encouragement) of the weekend's shenanigans. She and Brad's gracious contributions of breakfast for all, a knife for the cheeseboard and non-judgmental enthusiasm for misbehavior guarantee them an open-ended invite always.
There’s an accessibility about Laguna Seca that I haven’t seen at other tracks. The hills really are free to roam, so grandstand tickets aren’t necessary for those that enjoy a good walk. The fans are friendly and will make room for you if you approach a spot on a fence line. Families are everywhere, and I’ve even seen pregnant women hiking the hills, with their spouses hauling children and coolers to their preferred spots. Children ride their bikes around the parking lots, getting in some practice between races. And we’re free to tailgate and pack our coolers and provisions anywhere on the circuit, so it’s easy to find a comfortable place to enjoy the day. The food vendors at this circuit are typically quite good, and we all eagerly anticipate our yearly frog dog (hot dog in a baguette).
Evenings on Cannery Row have changed over the years. The street used to be blocked off for bike-only parking and the crowds would wander and chat amicably with each other. The street is now open to traffic, and I get the impression that the gathering of countless bikes is discouraged for some reason. One thing has not changed: the fans retire to their beds early, around 8PM, so they can all have an early start in the morning. The evening crowds have always been mild and calm, more inclined to enjoy a nice meal among friends than a wild all-night party as we witnessed when camping at Silverstone. Lately we’ve indulged in take-out burgers around our hotel firepit on Saturday evenings, where we can relax, recount the day’s activities and be entertained with tales from The Real Jerry.
We ended the race weekend with a Sunday roast and then stayed up far too late talking, knowing our friend would be going soon. Reluctant to let it end, the next morning we took the road to Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside, a notable California motorcycle destination. It was then time for us to say our goodbyes as Charles began his road trip across the mid-western states in pursuit of Monument Valley. In typical American fashion, I wore my heart on my sleeve and tearfully hugged him, before he placed his cowboy hat a-top his head and drove off (practically into the sunset.) The Kid and I returned home to share a few London Prides in honor of our friendship, nostalgically sipping and remembering, but mostly plotting our next great adventure together.
Cannery Row, Then VS Now
ACCOMMODATIONS & DINING:
There are three pretty diverse options for staying near the track.
I’ve mostly noticed folks camping in trailers, but the website says some of the spots are for motorcycle tent camping only. Three-night camping prices range from $80 to $180 USD, and the campers seem to be parked shoulder to shoulder. In 2018 it they added showers in addition to the portable toilets. There’s no information posted about stove or open fire grill requirements. I can’t imagine that the evening festivities here could ever compete to races in Europe, but more importantly, the racing experience from here is exceptional. All campsites seem to line up along the hillsides with gorgeous views of the track. While visiting one year, we managed to watch Marquez’ triumphant pass to victory- right there at the RV camping fence line.
One year we met some folks that said they’d camped there and they raved about some notoriously generous Laguna campers. Apparently, they are a couple of truly kind gentlemen that host an all weekend party in the campgrounds. They welcome all their neighbors with great hospitality, but everyone feels compelled to bring them libations for their bar.
HOTELS ON CANNERY ROW
Anticipate pretty decent quarters on or around Cannery Row for upwards of $250 a night, plus nightly parking rates of around $25 per vehicle. It’s advantageous to stay here if you want to wander the street shops (which close fairly early) and have a rather spendy meal out. Personally, the restaurants on Cannery Row frustrate me, because they’re very seafood-oriented (which undoubtedly other people love.) If you’re not into seafood, plan on either an expensive steak, a hamburger or what I consider to be the adult version of macaroni and cheese, fettucine alfredo, as the only non-fish options. The area is generally packed with tourists, so even pre-pandemic the wait for these restaurants was horrendous and the service slow. Reservations are certainly recommended and outdoor dining is virtually non-existent due to the cool coastal temperatures.
There are some really good and more affordable accommodations in Downtown Monterey, and alternatively staying on Munras Avenue. The Downtown area has ample restaurants with a variety of types all within walking distance. Munras is a bit more isolated and you’ll likely want to drive to Downtown or Cannery Row for dinner. Additionally, the motels on Munras are the least expensive around, and they typically look in need of a bit of updating. The motels on Munras are a wonderful value for a young group on a budget, as nobody spends that much time in their room over a race weekend. These are very much in line with our humble beginnings, when we spent race weekends cramming up to 6 people in quaint, old motel rooms. The proprietors never gave us any trouble at all and were always kind in Monterey.
As a Bay Area native, I can’t imagine any public transportation route that offers friendly transportation to the track. Flying into San Francisco, Oakland or even San Jose (the closest airport to Monterey) won’t provide anyone with train or bus routes to accommodate travelers without cars- not without a million stops and changes, if even possible. Rental cars are a must-have, and I can’t seem to find many options for renting motorcycles that won’t break the bank.
Once in Monterey, Uber or Lyft could very likely transport you from your hotel to Cannery Row or the race track. This year, I promise to see what the time and cost is for a ride to the track from Cannery Row.