by 'press snoop' Lynne Huntting

MotoGP returned to the USA and Laguna Seca for the first time since 1994 last season, when there was severe criticism from some of the more vocal world championship riders regarding track safety.

SCRAMP, the Sports Car Racing Association of Monterey Peninsula, operates the track, which sits on Monterey Parks land and - over the winter - a massive remodelling effort was made at a cost of $7 million, which was underwritten by Yamaha, Red Bull, Mazda and Dorna.

Major excavations were done and walls were moved at Turns One, Three, the bend between Turns Four and Five, Turn Six and uphill between Turn Six and Eight on both sides. The track was also repaved. The old Media Centre sitting atop the bluff at Turn One was torn down during the excavation, and a new Hospital Centre was built behind the area of the old Media Centre. It is now the Red Bull Energy Centre and is open this weekend.

Dr. Claudio Macchiagoden, MotoGP medical director, said: "The track is much improved over last year. It is not still complete, but it is better." What Dr. Macchiagoden would like to see is widening the escape lanes and a ring road completely around the entire circuit.

A SCRAMP spokesman said that "The County does a great job in letting us do what we need to do, but we are limited. One of the challenges at Laguna Seca that it is a County Park and SCRAMP is a not-for-profit organisation. SCRAMP doesn't own the land and it is not ours to build on. If a new track is built on land it owns, all can be perfect. For a 50-year old facility, we're not perfect, but we're striving to get that way. In the last two years we've shown that commitment to Motorsports safety."

The Ring Road Dr. Macchiagoden wants is impossible, because there are parts of the outside of the track which are on hillsides where a road can't go. For years it has been a joke that if a rider/driver missed the corner at Turn Four (which is now Turn Six, the corner that leads uphill to the corkscrew), he would land in Salinas.

One of the most vocal critics of the Laguna circuit last year was MotoGP darling Valentino Rossi, who was the points leader at the time. However, Rossi is pleased with the improvements at the noted road course this time around.

"I think that they've done a good job on the circuit and done nearly everything we've asked for," he said. "The track is quite dirty at the moment, but the new asphalt has much better grip and by Sunday I think it will be OK. Turn One is especially much safer and much less dangerous. It has much better runoff. We're really happy. They've done what we asked. It definitely is a lot safer than last year."

The only real complaint the riders have this weekend regarding the track is the bumps. As usual Rossi weighed in on the subject, and Kenny Roberts had some comments also. Rossi said the track paved over the bumps. But a track local said at least two inches was ground off the track before it was paved.

The track repaving was done a year ahead of schedule, to suit the motorcyclists. But, as was said this weekend - "It is what it is." Nothing can be done about it until Monday and then it will be considered. In the meantime, it's equal for everyone.

Laguna Seca, celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, is an elevated road circuit in the foothills outside Monterey. It is considered challenging for the riders, who also compete on what some call "cookie cutter" tracks - new, purpose-built circuits with similar, flat configurations.