The Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca always delivers. In 2005, the race marked not only the MotoGP World Championship's return to America, but also the first career Grand Prix victory for Nicky Hayden, the latest in a long line of American GP stars.
2006 saw Hayden repeat at Laguna Seca, giving him the centerpiece victory of his magical MotoGP Championship season.
And last year Ducati Marlboro's Casey Stoner thoroughly dominated the weekend, offering a clear signal that no one would be able to stand in the way of his, Ducati's, or Bridgestone's first MotoGP titles.
But the 2008 event may have eclipsed them all. In front of a three-day crowd totaling over 130,000 spectators, a live network television audience on CBS, and luminaries such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the incomparable Valentino Rossi registered a virtuoso performance that may go down as career defining.
The most acclaimed rider of his generation and arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, Rossi authored a true masterpiece in California, an instant classic served up while facing overwhelming odds.
Leading up to the race, it appeared the battle would be for second as reigning GP king Stoner was thought that have first place all sewn up. Having recently rediscovered his '07 championship-winning form, Stoner came to Laguna Seca full of confidence after scoring four consecutive pole positions and three straight crushing race victories.
He was peaking as the 2008 season dove into its second half and no one had shown any sort of response for his formidable string of rides. Laguna Seca didn't look to be any different.
The first time the young Australian hit the track on Friday morning, he immediately destroyed his own lap record. He continued to pick up the pace aboard his powerful 800cc Ducati from there, continually lowering the mark throughout the weekend.
Try as they might, no one from the typically tight MotoGP field could even come close to matching Stoner's speed. In fact, prior to the race, no rider circulated within a half second of the champ on race rubber in any single session.
This race was won before the green flag even dropped, or so everyone thought.
Following qualifying, the Italian motorsport genius was asked what it would take for anyone to overcome Stoner on this weekend. Only half-joking, the five-time premier class champion said, "Start the race 30 seconds before Stoner!"
But Stoner's runaway act never materialized, thanks to the indomitable will and two-wheeled mastery of the Fiat Yamaha Team's living legend.
While Rossi certainly dug down deep and found a bit of additional speed just in time for the race, it was obvious that he still could not match the sheer pace of his rival. If Stoner could have just strung together four or five consecutive corners with clear pavement in front of him, he may have escaped off into the distance.
But 'The Doctor' would not let that happen. He constantly harassed and attacked Stoner, immediately countering any challenge Stoner offered, dive-bombing the red Ducati with some truly breathtaking overtaking maneuvers while riding at the absolute limit in order to corral the faster rider behind him.
The titanic struggle would effectively come to an end with eight laps still remaining when the frustrated Stoner was forced into a mistake by Rossi's tactics. Looking for a way past while entering the tight Turn 11, the rear of Stoner's Ducati snapped sideways, pushing him in too deep. He ran off the track and into the gravel, crashing his #1-plated machine at low speed.
Their epic clash pushed the two so far out in front of the rest of the field that Stoner was able to pick his bike up, remount, and hold onto a clear runner-up finish, but his aura of unstoppability had just been shattered, thanks to an all-time performance at the hands of one Valentino Rossi.
After taking the checkered flag, Rossi was his characteristically emotional self. A long-time critic of the American track he had never previously come to grips with, the charismatic global superstar jumped off his #46 YZF-M1 at the Corkscrew and planted a symbolic kiss on the circuit's trademark corner.
The battle set the stage for future confrontations between the current championship leader and defending champion -- the legend vs. the phenom -- as Stoner took umbrage with Rossi's racecraft and BBC cameras caught a terse parc fermé confrontation between the two following the race.
Afterwards, Rossi said, "It was a very exciting race because we knew we have to be perfect right from the start. We knew that Stoner is very fast and we made some important changes this morning that allowed us to find the last three tenths to go into the '21s. I was very strong in braking and made some hard overtaking. It was like an old-time race. It was a high-level battle and a great race."
Runner-up Stoner commented, "I'm really disappointed that at the end of the race I made the mistake. When I tried to come back on the track I seemed to hit a deep part of the sand and just lost the front. I'm a little bit disappointed with that, but that was completely my mistake and I have to deal with it.
"As for the race, most of the time it was very nice, very clean. Valentino was riding a great pace at the front, riding very well and very defensive. But I felt a few of the passing maneuvers were a little bit too much, and past the point of fair or aggressive.
“I've been riding for a lot of years -- even though I'm only 22, I've been racing for 18 years -- and I've had a lot of overtaking maneuvers and I've done a lot of overtaking maneuvers and it was some of the most aggressive I've seen in a long, long time. There were just a couple that I wasn't very happy with."
Rossi responded to Stoner's suggestions by explaining, "For sure, after a battle like this and with all the pressure and emotion of the race, it's quite normal (for Stoner to be upset). But everybody makes his race and my strategy was to never give up, so I make the tactics that I think makes it possible to win. For sure we made a lot of aggressive overtaking but we never touched each other. I enjoyed the battle."
Asked about his feelings about Laguna Seca now, Rossi remarked, "At the beginning the Corkscrew was a nightmare for me, especially in 2005 but also in 2006. It's a difficult corner. But this year I am able to improve every session and find the right line. It's a tricky place, but after today, I like this track more for sure!"
Chris Vermeulen backed up his first podium of the season for the Rizla Suzuki squad at the Sachsenring with another at Laguna Seca just seven days later. Even more encouraging was that fact that this one came in the dry, pointing to improving fortunes for the Australian and his British-based factory Suzuki squad.
Red Bull riders accounted for three positions in the top five, as MotoGP rookie Andrea Dovizioso piloted his JiR Team Scot Honda RC212V to fourth, just ahead of Repsol Honda's Hayden in fifth, despite Michelin's struggles during the weekend.
MotoGP title contender Dani Pedrosa was forced to miss the contest after attempting to ride on Friday and Saturday morning before pulling out, deeming his Sachsenring injuries not sufficiently healed to allow him to compete in California.
The MotoGP World Championship now goes on its annual summer break to catch a breath before picking back up on August 17 at Brno in the Czech Republic.