“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School: Motorcycle Racing 101

Yesterday this whole thing seemed like a good idea but now that I’m blasting over the hill at Road Atlanta’s turn eleven at nearly one hundred miles per hour, I’m thinking that my recliner in front of the TV seems awfully inviting. Especially since the only thing between my body and the blurring pavement beneath my riding boots is an overpowered Suzuki motorcycle. I had gradually built up enough confidence over two days of classroom instruction and on-track riding to crank the throttle open and really lean my bike into the 2.54 miles of Road Atlanta’s twisting turns and curves. But like many novice racers, my bravado led me too far into the realm of speed and as I crested the hill I could feel my front wheel lift and lose touch with the pavement. Past turn eleven the race track begins a long right hand sweep into the front stretch. My bike was drifting inexorably toward the outer edge of the track and the pit wall that loomed twenty feet beyond. Two thoughts raced through my head: “This is gonna hurt.” and “Lean right, gently squeeze the brake lever, and don’t panic.” I slid off the track, fishtailed through the wet grass on the track’s edge, but—miraculously—slowed the bike, retained control and pulled back onto the track, shaken and stirred.

Before my two days of training at the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School at Road Atlanta, my first thought would have still been the same. My second thought would have been “No, this is REALLY gonna hurt” and I would have had an up-close-and-personal interface with the pit wall. Thanks to that training, I had been given enough instruction in body position, panic control, and braking technique that a near-disaster was averted and I lived through an adrenaline-pumping off-course excursion that became the object of gentle kidding from my classmates. Gaining the ability and confidence to control my bike in exactly these kinds of situations was one reason I came to Schwantz’s school.

Kevin Schwantz, a former World Champion motorcycle racer, offers low-stress, high-speed one-, two-, and three-day motorcycle racing schools at Road Atlanta. Don’t go expecting endless lectures interspersed with minimal time on the track. Classroom instruction is an important part of the class but there is plenty of track time. In my two-day class I spent more than four hours on the track, riding just as fast as I felt comfortable with. For aspiring motorcycle racers or adrenaline junkies, the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School is a dream come true—speed and lots of it on the same world-class track that real racers compete on.

I had high expectations when I signed up for the class. Unfortunately, on the scheduled day a heavy rain is falling. I am nervous enough about charging around a dry racetrack at triple-digit speeds and adding slippery asphalt to the mix is definitely a cheek tightener. As we assemble in the classroom next to the track, twenty-nine other jittery students share my apprehension and some are having second thoughts about this whole racing deal.

Chief Instructor Lance Holst calms our nerves. “Usually we have a handful of students who hit the track and immediately get in over their heads,” he says, “but rain makes everyone nervous and tends to slow everyone down and we have a better class with fewer incidents.” A wet track, a wildly overpowered machine, and my trembling hands—what’s to be nervous about?

Our first track session is a twenty-minute slow speed follow-the-leader parade, with instructors leading a gaggle of timid students around the curving track. The first thing I realize is that my motorcycle is much more surefooted in the rain than I ever thought possible. The other students come to the same conclusion quickly and impromptu racing duels break out all over the track. Twenty minutes later as we pull into the pits everyone is pumped up. Nervousness has been replaced with excitement and the ensuing track sessions over the next two days are an ever-increasing spiral of speed, passing, and competitive racing.

But don’t get the idea that the school just turns wild-eyed students loose to run wild around the track. This is serious business and at these speeds you can get seriously hurt. Classroom training precedes each track session, with a specific topic presented to build on. Braking, shifting, panic control, body position, and cornering are covered in detail, with Holst and his dozen or so other instructors providing expert instruction on each area

Individual instruction is a big part of the School and students are encouraged to ask for personal instruction. An instructor will accompany you around the track and provide one-on-one coaching by observing and critiquing technique. I can tell immediately that many of the students are much more proficient at riding than I am. Since I am obviously in need of help, I ask Opie Caylor, one of the instructors and another champion racer, to follow me and assess my riding style. Eight laps later, I pull into the pits with Opie close behind.

“So, how did I do?”

“Your elbows are sticking out too far and your knees and feet are pointed out to the sides of the bike. And you look stiff.”

A diplomatic way of saying that I look like a terrified doofus. So much for any hope of snagging the class award for best rider.

Fortunately, Opie gives me a couple of tips and I at least look like a racer by the end of the first day. By day two the rain has tapered off. Our first session is a warm-up run in which we are encouraged to utilize the skills we learned the day before. By mid-morning the skies clear and the track dries out. One student feels the need to test the limits of adhesion and promptly plows into turn nine too fast, crashing into the gravel safety trap on the outside of the turn. We inspect his crashed bike, the shattered bodywork reminding us of the seriousness of what we are doing. But the sobering effect wanes within seconds and the dry track is just too much temptation and we’re pushing our bikes even faster. The class soon sorts itself out into packs based on ability and speed and within each pack there are fevered battles to take the lead. Passing and drafting are rampant and the feeling of actually racing is real.

The remainder of the day my confidence increases. I find myself leaning over in the turns, my knee touching the pavement; I twist the throttle wide open and immediate and incredible acceleration pushes me back on the bike. At high speed the wind beats against my chest and tugs at my helmet and under hard braking and downshifting into the turns my bike bobbles and struggles to maintain traction. The class teaches smoothness and concentration and by late afternoon I feel it all coming together, the turns appearing in my visor just as I visualize them, each section of the track an individual ballet of leaning, accelerating, and braking. A rhythm builds and I begin to understand what it takes to compete at the professional level.

Of course, all of this is just wishful thinking on my part—I’m just an amateur and never will be a professional motorcycle racer. But then Opie screams by on his bike, glances over his shoulder and gives me a thumbs-up and just for a second I feel like a real racer.

(This article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

No comments:

Post a Comment