Riding the devil’s own motorcycle in MotoGP

Watching the leather-suited gladiators of MotoGP racing is thrilling enough. But howling around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on one of the world’s fastest motorcycles is much, much better.

With fans packing the stands prior to the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, that’s what I’m about to do. Fortunately, I’m sitting behind Randy Mamola, the retired MotoGP ace, for a once-in-a-lifetime, freak-show ride aboard Ducati’s latest MotoGP bike.

This red-and-white Italian devil generates 240 hp, more than the average automobile, from a mere 1-liter, V-4 engine. Yet the Ducati weighs just 340 pounds, or one-tenth as much as your basic family sedan. The result is an ear-numbing artillery shell that can hurtle to more than 210 mph, and corner with more force that you could imagine from something on two wheels.

That literal balancing act requires riders of singular talent, akin to Formula One superstars. Except that riding a MotoGP bike exacts a far greater physical toll, as demonstrated by the signature position of its riders: Hanging over the bike’s side through every turn, while dragging a polyurethane-protected knee, and sometimes an elbow, across the speeding pavement. In those corners, the motorcycle is pitched over at an angle that can exceed 60 degrees – flouting physics, fear and common sense. Then the rider shifts his weight, yanks the bike upright with a powerful move of arms and legs, and pitches into the next corner.

For the 2013 season, no one is performing those athletic feats as well as Marc Márquez. At a baby-faced age 20, the Spanish rider for Honda’s Repsol team is the youngest-ever to win a race in MotoGP’s top class, in a series that began in 1949. The rookie is also leading the championship point standings heading into the next race at August 18 at Indianapolis. And in what looks like an inevitable passing of the torch, Márquez is stretching a lead over Valentino Rossi, the 34-year-old Italian legend and seven-time world champion.

The typical Nascar or Indy fan might not know those names, with MotoGP running below the radar of many car enthusiasts. But the world’s oldest motorsports championship drew 2.2 million spectators to 18 races on four continents in 2012. Top riders are handsomely compensated, with Yamaha’s Rossi – the Michael Jordan of motorcycle racing -- making about $12 million in salary this season (taking a huge cut from the reported $30 million he earned at Ducati), followed by roughly 10 riders who pocket anywhere from $1 million to $9 million.

The series is gaining in popularity here with three races now in the States: Indianapolis, Austin, Tx. and Laguna Seca. The latter has quickly become the biggest spectator event at the northern California track, easily outpacing the Monterey Motorsports Reunion vintage racing that’s tied to the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours.

MotoGP got a homegrown boost when Nicky Hayden, born and bred on dirt tracks in Kentucky, won the championship in 2006 for Honda. But Hayden hasn’t won a GP race since, after years of uphill struggle for the underdog Ducati factory team. And during race weekend, the buzz makes the rounds that Hayden will leave Ducati at year end as his contract expires.

I ask Hayden, who’s sampled some serious cars -- including Michael Andretti’s Indy racer – to compare going fast on two wheels and four. People usually assume that a top motorcycle would beat a race car around a track, but it’s mostly the opposite: The bike accelerates faster in a straight line, but the car’s four huge tires and aerodynamic advantages help it corner at much higher speeds, resulting in faster laps overall.

Still, I’ve driven several fast cars around Laguna Seca, from the Audi R8 supercar to an open-wheeled Formula Atlantic, and I couldn’t imagine attacking Laguna’s perilous downhill Corkscrew on a motorcycle.

Hayden, not surprisingly, prefers it that way.

“I have a hard time getting comfortable in cars, because I’m strapped in, and on a bike you’re free,” he says. “Motorcycles are definitely a lot more physical than cars. We use our bodies a lot; it’s one of the biggest masses on the bike, so you have use it to turn and to keep the front wheel down.”

As the Sunday race approaches, fans stream through the gates of Laguna, their bikes forming a multi-hued constellation against Monterey’s brown-baked hillsides. (You’ve never seen fewer low-tech, chugging Harleys than at a MotoGP race, where Japanese and European sport bikes dominate, along with tourers from BMW and other makes.

We get a private tour of Ducati’s high-security garages, where a 40-many army – engineers, mechanics, technicians – works with military coordination to prepare the two factory Ducatis for battle. They’re surrounded by banks of computers that monitor an array of sensors on each bike.

Soon, it’s time for my pre-ride medical check – how fast is my heart beating, I wonder? – and to suit up: A full leather Alpinestars racing suit, back protector, boots, gloves and helmet.

I chat with one of our group of riders, the model and television host Tyson Beckford, known for his Ralph Lauren underwear ads, but also a motorcycle buff and Ducati rider.

We stroll from an RV to the pits in our red-and-white leathers, drawing a round of applause from race fans. But it’s time to get serious. Mamola puts us on the back of his bike, one after another, for a chalk talk on how to precisely mimic his movements to get the most out of our ride. We get one lap, one chance, to make it good. The better riding position we’re in, the faster Mamola will go.

Pacing a bit along the pit wall, awaiting my Lap of Doom, I encounter another familiar, square-jawed face, the actor Josh Brolin.

“Oh, man, are you gonna love this,” Brolin says, grinning. It occurs to me that this is the only time in my life that Josh Brolin will be jealous of me.

And suddenly it’s my turn. I hop aboard, wrap my arms around Mamola, and grab tight to a pair of handgrips on the fuel tank. And he’s off, pulling a wheelie down the track.

Per Mamola’s instructions, I try to synchronize his movements into turns, leaning like a toboggan rider, staring at the blurring, blue-and-white curbing that seems to be about 12 inches from my face.

The acceleration is thrilling, naturally, but not dramatically different from what I’ve experienced in racecars. And despite my precarious perch on this Ducati rocket, in Mamola’s expert hands I feel entirely safe. But the braking is something else entirely. Despite bracing against the grips with all my might, I can’t stop myself from sliding up my pilot’s back, my body rising at least four inches off the seat.

I can’t fathom how MotoGP riders endure that kind of braking force without their muscles turning to jelly within a few laps. These guys aren’t just brilliant riders, but serious athletes.

Mamola has assured me that he won’t let me fly over his shoulders: This master rider can feel, within centimeters, where I am on the bike. After each brutal braking episode, which seem to squeeze my internal organs like ripe fruit, Mamola settles me back onto the seat before ripping toward the next turn – including the roller-coaster Corkscrew, which Mamola takes at a pace that leaves me hooting with delight.

After this adrenaline rush, the race itself is almost anticlimactic. But then Márquez pulls a spectacular move, out-braking Rossi in the Corkscrew and actually cutting across the dirt to leave Rossi literally in his dust. Márquez than sizes up the pole sitter, Germany’s Stefan Brendl, and seizes a lead that he never relinquishes, winning the race by 2.2 seconds. With that, Marquez becomes the first rookie to win back-to-back Moto GP races, and on track to a potential championship.

My daylong euphoria beginning to fade, I remember what Mamola said to me as a climbed off the Ducati, my muscles weary but a grin plastered on my face.

“Now, imagine doing that for 31 more laps, or in the rain. And now you know what MotoGP is all about.”