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U.S. International Grand Prix at Laguna Seca : Best Field on Two Wheels Could Attract 80,000

Times Staff Writer

The most competitive field of international motorcycle riders ever assembled in the United States will compete today at Laguna Seca Raceway in three world championship events.

Premier race of the second Dunlop U.S. International Grand Prix over the physically demanding 2.196-mile hillside circuit will be the 500cc, which includes world champion Eddie Lawson of Upland, 1989 points leader Wayne Rainey of Downey and this year’s two race winners--Kevin Schwantz of Houston and Wayne Gardner of Australia.

One of the most intriguing elements of the race involves Lawson, a three-time world champion and last year’s winner here, and Freddie Spencer of Shreveport, La., a two-time world champion coming back after a year’s retirement. They have switched teams.

All of Lawson’s championships were won on a Marlboro Yamaha prepared by former world 250cc champion Kel Carruthers and managed by eight-time world champion Giacomo Agostini of Italy. All of Spencer’s wins came on a Honda.

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This season, after riding a Yamaha for six years, Lawson switched to a Honda, and Spencer, after being out of racing for one year, is making his comeback on the Marlboro Yamaha left behind by Lawson.

More than 80,000 spectators are anticipated for the event, No. 3 on the 15-race world championship series. Raceway officials estimate that there were more than 20,000 on hand for Saturday’s time trials.

The 500cc race will be 40 laps around an 11-turn course with its famous downhill corkscrew that drops abruptly through a wooded area where the riders sway back and forth on their bikes in a 100 m.p.h. ballet on wheels.

It figures to be a U.S. vs. Australia battle, although there are 12 countries represented in the entry.

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Off the results of two races, the contenders should be Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz and Gardner, two world champions and two second-year riders looking for one.

Lawson, 30, won here last year with a brilliant ride from seventh to first that was climaxed by an inside pass on a tight corner on leader Niall MacKenzie of Scotland. But Lawson is hurting this week, still recuperating from bruises sustained in a 150 m.p.h. spill last week in Australia.

“I’d be better off if this were a high-speed course without so many turns,” Lawson said. “I was fortunate to finish fifth last week, but Phillip Island (Australia) was more open. Laguna Seca is very tough on you physically.”

Gardner, 29, won the world championship in 1987 and is considered the most aggressive rider on the circuit. When he came out of the dirt tracks of New South Wales, he was known as the “Wollingon Wild One.” He won the inaugural Grand Prix last Sunday in his native Australia, where he is considered one of its leading sports personalities.

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Rainey, 28, finished second in both races this year after winning his first GP last year in Great Britain. He rides a Yamaha for Kenny Roberts’ Team Lucky Strike and finished third in points last year, the highest-finishing rookie since Roberts won in 1978.

“I’m looking forward to Sunday because I feel like our team is already in mid-season form,” Rainey said. “We tested so much that when we got to Japan for the first race I felt like I’d ridden half a dozen already. Last year we didn’t get our new bikes until just before the first race and it took a while to get used to them.”

Schwantz, 24, won in Japan and Germany last year in his first Grand Prix season. He also won the Daytona 200 Superbike race before leaving the U.S. to ride a Suzuki on the world circuit.

But for an unfortunate accident--a rookie error--he might have won both races this year. After winning in Japan with a come-from-behind performance to nip Rainey by 0.4 seconds, Schwantz was fastest qualifier at Australia and was leading when he fell on the first lap and damaged his bike.

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“It was a mental mistake,” the slender Texan admitted. “In Japan, I had a bad start and fell about three seconds behind Rainey and had to work all day to catch up. I didn’t want that to happen again in Australia so I went out fast, too fast. I forgot that it takes about a lap to warm the tires. I wasn’t hurt, but the bike was in no shape to continue.”

Other U. S. hopefuls include Spencer, who finished 14th after leading briefly in his first comeback race in Japan but fell and did not finish in Australia; Randy Mamola of Santa Clara, a four-time runner-up in the world championships who is riding an Italian Cagiva, the only non-Japanese bike in the race; and Bubba Shobert, a four-time U. S. dirt track champion who lives across the hill from Laguna Seca in Carmel Valley.

The Laguna Seca course is much faster this year after portions of it was repaved and widened following complaints last year that it was too bumpy.

“It is really smooth now, and much faster,” Rainey said after breaking his own year-old record with a qualifying lap at 90.742 m.p.h. His old record of 88.61 m.p.h. was bettered by 12 riders.

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Also on today’s program is a world 250cc championship race and the season’s first world sidecar championship.

In the 250cc race are Sito Pons of Spain, the world champion on a Honda, and John Kocinski of Modesto, Roberts’ 20-year-old Yamaha protege and fast qualifier with an 88.107 m.p.h. lap.


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