It may be the GEICO U.S. round of the Superbike World Championship, but Europeans, not Americans, own it.
Editor's note: beIN Sports has more than four hours of coverage of WSBK and MotoAmerica racing and qualifying on both Saturday and Sunday, and is also showing a one-hour special on Nicky Hayden in between the Saturday races.
The second of the two world-level motorcycle roadracing events to take place in the United States will come to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this weekend, but there’s no hope of hearing The Star Spangled Banner played during the podium ceremonies. And really, while that may seem like a drop in competitiveness, it’s closer to business as usual. While we may automatically recall glorious victories by U.S. riders at Laguna Seca and assume there’s a home-court advantage, the stats don’t really bear that out.
World Superbike came to Laguna Seca for the first time in 1995. Since then, 28 races have been run and seven have been won by U.S. riders, the last one coming 15 years ago when Colin Edwards took race two. That win is more than just a footnote. That race was the start of one of the most dramatic comebacks in motorcycle racing history.
Troy Bayliss had been dominant in the first half of the 2002 season and, after winning the first race at Laguna Seca, he had a 58-point lead. The season looked to be over. Instead, Edwards won the second race and that began a string of wins to finish out the season. Edwards stole the title from Bayliss in one of the most exciting final races of any season I’ve seen.
And that’s the thing about Laguna Seca. It has provided great emotional highs for more than one U.S. rider. Who can forget the tears streaming down Nicky Hayden’s face after his breakthrough MotoGP win at Laguna Seca in 2005 and his followup victory in 2006 on his way to his championship? Going back further, is anyone here (other than me) old enough to remember Ben Bostrom doing the double at Laguna in 2001?
Both times, we were sure this was the breakthrough that would lead to the next level of greatness. The Californian on the Ducati 996R winning confidently at home in World Superbike. The Kentucky Kid giving Earl Hayden the victory lap ride of his life on the back of a Repsol Honda in MotoGP. Yet in both cases, Laguna turned out to be a tease, not a taste of things to come. Sure, Hayden got his one title, barely, in 2006, but he was only able to add one more MotoGP race win to the two he gained at Laguna, and Bostrom’s 2001 five-race winning streak evaporated as unexpectedly as it began. He never finished better than third in the series.
It may be the U.S. round of World Superbike, but U.S. riders do not own it. More World Superbike races at Laguna have been won by Australians than by Americans. No, really. Since the series returned to the circuit outside Monterey in 2013, it has been all Europeans on the top step.
The U.S. flag flies in World Supersport, but not in the U.S.
The only hope for hearing the U.S. national anthem during a podium ceremony in the World Superbike series this year has been in World Supersport, where P.J. Jacobsen is in fifth place in points and has two podium finishes. But no wins, fifth place and 37 points behind is not what the MV Agusta rider from Montgomery, New York, was hoping for this year. Mechanical issues and crashes have made his season more dramatic — not in a good way — than planned. He expected to be contending for the title.
In fact, the entire World Supersport field squandered a great opportunity when five-time champion Kenan Sofuoglu missed the first three races due to a pre-season injury. The predicted contenders suffered DNFs and Sofuoglu has come back to win all four races he has run to vault into second place.
In any case, the Supersport field doesn’t make the long trip to California. The program is instead rounded out with MotoAmerica races. So Jacobsen won’t get the chance to try to pull off some of the same home-country magic that Bostrom, Hayden and Edwards did.
Jake Gagne and the Honda
There will be one U.S. rider in the World Superbike field, however, as Red Bull Honda announced that MotoAmerica regular Jake Gagne will make his WSBK debut at Laguna Seca as a wildcard rider. Gagne will ride the CBR1000RR SP2 that would have been ridden by Hayden.
It should be an easy switch, since Gagne has been riding the Honda in MotoAmerica this season, and I’m sure he’s excited to get a chance to race in his first WSBK event at age 23. In 1999, Bostrom won a World Superbike race at Laguna as a wildcard rider coming over from AMA Superbike, but only the most bizarre circumstances would allow Gagne to repeat that feat. Neither Stefan Bradl nor Hayden, before his untimely death, were able to get the Honda anywhere near a podium finish, and Gagne has had similar lack of success in MotoAmerica. Tomas Puerta will replace Gagne at the Genuine Broaster Chicken Honda team in MotoAmerica.
With a 50-point lead and more wins than the rest of the field combined, Jonathan Rea looks like a lock to become the first rider to win three consecutive WSBK titles. But then everyone at Laguna Seca 15 years ago thought Troy Bayliss had it all wrapped up, too.