Monday, June 27, 2011

Track's cool. Track schools, not so much...

I get emails from the Yamaha Champions Riding School every now and then.

YCRS is a track school set up by Nick Ienatsch (who founded then sold Sport Rider magazine at the right time, and developed the curriculum and was lead instructor at the old Freddie Spencer school in Vegas.) After Freddie's deal fell apart, Ienatsch reestablished himself up at Miller Motorsports Park, aligned with Yamaha instead of Honda. I recently got an email from Chainsnatch's school offering a 10% discount if I booked a session with a friend, and I just got another telling me that Scott Russell and Melissa Paris would be guest instructing at an upcoming 'all girls' school.

Now, although I ride like a girl, I'm definitely not eligible for that session, because I can't afford it. It's $2,200 for a two-day school. If you're flying in and staying at a hotel, call it three grand. Recession? What recession?

As someone who makes a living (such as it is) by riding motorcycles and writing about them, I'm often asked for advice on learning to ride. The executive summary of my advice is, avoid schools charging over $1,000 per day. There are ways to have more fun, and learn more, for less.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I've never attended the Yamaha Champions Riding School. But, I've seen Ienatsch in action on several occasions; I attended the Spencer school on no less than three different magazine assignments. For good measure I've also attended the original version of Kevin Schwantz' school, at Road Atlanta, and Reg Pridmore's school at Infineon on assignment too. So I've got the celebrity/champions angle covered. By way of comparison, I've sat in on Keith Code's California Superbike School (the ur-track school), the short-lived KTM school at Laguna Seca, Michel Mercier's race school in Canada (which, at the time, was kind of the 'default' Canadian track school) and came through the old Calgary Motorcycle Roadracing Association 'new racer' school.

There's a huge range in cost represented by those experiences. People pay thousands of bucks for high-end track schools. And I'll give Ienatsch his due; he's a smart guy who created a solid curriculum for the Spencer school, which was then carefully wrapped in Spencer's brand and presented as stuff only Freddie knew or did. At one point, Ienatsch told the students that the reason the specific techniques they taught were the best techniques for use on modern sport bikes was the Freddie had developed the modern sport bike at Honda. This news will come as a shock to the people who did develop the modern sport bike.

One thing that always baffled me at Pridmore's school, Code's school, and Freddie's place was that a lot of the students just keep coming back over and over. The bread and butter in the track school business is a core clientele of middle-aged repeat customers. (Typical profile: high tech exec, or maybe an orthodontist who started riding eight years ago; owns a Ducati Desmodsedici, a professionally restored BSA Gold Star, and a professionally set up GSX-R1000 for track days; bought a Sprinter van just to transport his bike to six track days a year; if he lives in the northern tier, he keeps a bike in California for winter riding. He doesn't really ride on the street, except to take the Desmosedici to the occasional bike night or up to  the Rock Store. His daily driver is a Porsche Cayenne. Yes, they have it all, and blowing two or three grand on a track school, two or three times a year, is pocket change.) What they don't have is anywhere near they speed they should have, considering the mid-six-figures they've sunk into equipment and training. Some of these guys have yet to get the knee down. They're not learning to ride; they're attending a motorcycle fantasy camp where they can fawn over a few 'real' racers who are titular instructors. I noticed a real evolution of the years of Freddie's school, in which track sessions got shorter and more chopped up, and bench-racing sessions got longer. Over the years, I've felt a little guilty about the softball publicity I've ginned up for the schools which, I must admit, make for a pretty fun writing assignment.

Five or six years ago, when I worked at Motorcyclist, I wanted to run a monthly feature called Riding School Report Card, where we'd evaluate track schools and objectively rate them. That was just before they fired me.

But it's finally time to get something off my chest -- something I've wanted to say for years now: Those repeat customers are just a bunch of posers, so I guess that since they keep re-upping, they're getting their money's worth. After all, they are the final authorities on what they themselves value in an experience. But anyone who spends over a grand a day in the hopes of actually getting fast is wasting most of that money. 

For the cost of attending a couple of those track schools, you could buy five year-old 650cc twin, race prep it; join your local racing club and attend their new-racer school where you'll hear all the same theory as you'll get in a more expensive school. Then, you can do a year or two of novice racing.

Trust me, you'll learn far more and get way faster actually racing with a bunch of rank novices than you ever will by just listening to and lapping with anyone - I don't care how fast he is or was. For good measure you can probably spend some of the money you save on a ratty old dirt bike from Craigslist, and convince a friend with place in the country to let you work out there in between races. Don't worry; the worse your tires, the better the practice. And for the record there are a lot of guys who are (or were) hellaciously fast world-championship level riders who actually have no idea how or why they were fast. It may come as a shock to you, but motorcycle racing is not actually a selective filter for introspective self-knowledge or intellectual rigor.

I'm not saying that such well-known track schools have nothing to offer. All of them have something to offer, and several have their own little unique takes on training. A few years ago, someone told me that Jason Pridmore's Star School had a cool system that allowed you to compare data traces from one of your laps, to an instructor's data trace. Keith Code's got that elaborate 'skid bike' with outriggers, which might help you get a feel for braking grip at the limit. I know that I really got my money's worth out of a two-day American Supercamp school where grip is explored almost every session on little dirt bikes. Ironically, Pridmore's Star School and American Supercamp are among the more affordable schools. Supercamp, in fact, is a real bargain.

What you won't get, in a season or two of novice racing, is the chance to impress your friends by saying things like, "Well, Freddie Spencer told me..." or "When I was riding with Josh Hayes..." But I can guarantee you'll have even better stories, even if none of them involve people who are famous motorcycle racers.

So hmm... $2,200 for two days of lapping and class talk? Or a whole season of racing some crapped out twin in the novice class. I guarantee you'll learn more, be faster, get more seat time and have way, way more fun actually racing. It is, after all, how all the guys teaching those expensive track schools learned to ride.


  1. Racing, as they say, improves the breed.

    Riding schools are a great way to build confidence but as you've stated, for a capable rider, a season of club-racing will improve your riding out of sight. Just don't mention that it's more addictive than any illegal drug and will empty your wallet just as quickly!

    Riding schools depend a lot on the quality of their instructors and I think this is why the California Superbike school has been so successful, the rigid adherence to a curriculum takes the individual out of the equation. I feel some of these schools are of more benefit to someone who already has some racing experience to help iron out the kinks.

    I'm not sure if it's the same in the US but my Motorcycle Racing Club runs trackdays with club coaches in attendance, the main coaches are A grade road-racers and accredited coaches, with assistant coaches who are generally racers progressing through the learning coaching system. They run specific coaching days but the primary focus on a trackday is to observe and advise, always on hand to answer question. It's a low-stress environment that means everyone from the first-timer wobbling around in the slow group to the guy who regularly gets on the podium and just wants help with one corner, gets the information they need.

    It's interesting that you mention the American Supercamp, one thing that a lot of people don't realise is that riding other disciplines can really help with your road-racing and for the price of a few of those schools you could pick up a decent dirt bike or attend a weekend at the Supercamp. The pros all do it and it's easy to see how someone like Casey Stoner has benefited from his Dirt-track heritage. I've been lucky to ride Dirt-track (slowly), Supermoto, Road-race, occasionally fall of a motocross bike and even spent an afternoon on a trials bike and I know the experience gained from each helps me as a rider.

    Thanks for making Riding Man available on Kindle, it's loaded up ready to go.

  2. I got my bike licence at 17 and my car licence at 32 so I've put in the street time. I worked as a professional motorcyclist. Just like Wayne Gardener, on a Honda, except I was delivering pizza and ribs. I don't have a Porche but I did do the Australian version of the California Superbike school. I was already getting my knee down on the street, but I got *way* faster and *way* smoother in just 4 days. I did see the Ducati rider you mentioned as I rode around his bran new 999R on my 1000 dollar cross ply equipped CBR1000F, so I know what you mean, but really for the cost of 4 back tyres I benefited a huge amount in a very short time.