Track Time: United States Grand Prix - The Cheap Seats

How I got paid to watch the USGP

By Kristi Martel, Photography by Tim White

I knew it was bad when, among my close-knit group of motorcycle-junkie friends, only three were planning to attend the United States Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. And two of those were motorsports rock stars that would be spending the weekend in an air-conditioned manufacturer's tent. Mere mortals, unworthy of the privileges extended to industry royalty and media darlings, had plenty of reasons to stay home. Tickets, transportation and lodging were priced well beyond their recession-era budgets. Those pretzel-dog things cost eight bucks apiece! None of them had received a hand-engraved invitation to Ducati Island, and you can see more of the race on SPEED-TV anyway.

But as your resident cheapskate, I'm here to share the secret of watching the race the way real fans watch races: by working corners. You haven't really watched a GP until you've dragged a million-dollar motorcycle out of an impact area and helped the rider restart it. People, it simply doesn't get better than that!

The United States Auto Race Marshals (www. enlists some 300 corner workers for the three-day event, each acting as a Handler, Flagger or Communicator. Handlers actually run out and pick up bikes, Flaggers communicate to the riders using various flags, and Communicators are in constant contact with Course Control via walkie-talkie, relaying the marching orders for their particular corner.

I've been a corner worker twice: in 2007 as an Assistant Flagger in Turn 2 and in 2009 as a Flagger in the Corkscrew. I had an unobstructed view of the action both times, plus a whole string of other bennies. There's free camping exclusively for corner workers at The Frog Pond, a little green oasis located right at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Just bring your own sleeping bag and tent or trailer. There are mobile shower units just down the road. A shuttle bus takes you to and from the track every day. The USARM delivers bottled water and lunch to your assigned corner, and there's a big celebratory barbecue dinner on Saturday night. No charge. Take into consideration the cost of vendor food at the track and you'll realize that the grub alone makes corner working the way to go.

Okay, you are stuck in one corner for the duration of any given race, but Communicators and Flaggers can listen to what's going on everywhere else by tuning their headsets to the Course Control channel. It's a little like watching the World Series in person while listening to it on a portable radio. Some of the action you see. Some you only hear about. Big deal: Paying spectators usually end up watching from one corner or sprinting to another in a desperate attempt to catch The Moment people will be talking about for years to come.

Last-and these days, far from least-they pay you a couple hundred bucks. That's enough to cover your gas getting to and from the track plus your bar tab for when you go to Cannery Row with your new corner-working buddies.

But corner working isn't for everyone, and there are a few drawbacks. For one, it's structured. Your wardrobe and daily itinerary are mostly planned for you. After work you can come and go as you please-just be back to the Frog Pond by midnight, no matter how many umbrella girls are asking for your number. That's not just a curfew for curfew's sake; you will get locked out if you're late!

Beyond that, toilets at the campsite and near your designated corner are almost exclusively porta-potties, although they're all very clean. And they don't call it the Frog Pond for nothing: Its amphibious residents are relentlessly loud and proud from nightfall to sunup. But it's nothing a good pair of earplugs can't drown out.

Working corners might not beat the free beer, Cheez Whiz and cocktail wieners in some industry moguls' Turn 5 chalet, but I found it to be a memorable, affordable and unique way to watch the USGP.

You might, too.

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