How I strapped myself to the mast and survived the ‘boiling surf’ of motorcycle racing school

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Sixteen months ago, you say motorcycle racing school’s in my future, I spit in your eye.

Track riding? That’s for crazy people who care naught for life and limb. And besides, I’m not good enough.

But a couple of things happen, and here I am on a recent Saturday night, eating a cold turkey sandwich inside my little tent in Chuckwalla Valley Raceway’s pit paddock. Unable to drive stakes through the asphalt, I anchor one end to a 2013 Yamaha YZF-R6, the other to my saddlebags.

Having forgotten to include a foam pad with my bedroll, I face a long, hard night ahead. Noisy power generators supporting other campers won’t make it easier.

One day of Jason Pridmore’s Star School is over, and the turkey tastes fine. After some early struggles with Pridmore’s precepts, I find myself feeling relaxed and comfortable, commanding the R6 through the track’s twists and turns, hitting the mark at the end of each straightaway, holding the same line in every corner. I’m neither the fastest rider out there nor the slowest.

Where did my apprehension go? How am I able to do this? IMG_5769

Before crawling into the tent for the night, I drink a couple of beers with my neighbor Geoff, who belly-flopped off his Ducati Multistrada, injuring both the Multi and his hand, and was out for the second day. The contrast between his dejection and my ebullience can hardly be stronger.

Yet when I finally zip up my sleeping bag and close my eyes, all previous worries are mirrored in the images now playing in my mind: scenes of destruction, of running off the track, tumbling ass over appetite into the brittlebush, being pecked to death by roadrunners, my bones moldering with those of others who have failed to pass this shore.

I sit up, blink a few times, nestle down again.

How a bullhorn and a Siren figured in all this

A crow’s ugly squawk awakens me on Sunday morning. Even with the temperature in the 40s, no dew has formed on the tent, so I pack it up right away. Geoff invites me over for Korean noodles, a welcome hot breakfast. The bullhorn beckons all to attend the day’s opening classroom session.

IMG_5770When we had wrapped up with a similar meeting on Saturday afternoon, I told Pridmore, his instructors, and the three dozen other students–all but four of whom had raceway experience–that not so long ago my attendance here would have been inconceivable.

“Why?” Pridmore asked.

The answer, too long to give, stemmed from a frustrating excursion to Pebble Beach in August 2013. My girlfriend Sue, on a Ducati Diavel Strada, dazzled and frazzled me. Even though I’d first owned a motorcycle in 1974, I was a Midwesterner and had only done a few canyon rides since coming to California in 2011. My inexperience and lack of confidence showed distinctly in Carmel Canyon, when I missed the entrance to one corner, nearly meeting doom, and later came within an inch of running off the road when exiting another corner.

Sue is an elite rider, past teacher of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s course and graduate of the curriculum Reg Pridmore, father of Jason, offered at Willow Springs Raceway. She recommended I start with the most basic.

“And then you should go to racing school,” she said.

My friend Michael, a former racer, might have quoted Homer: “Woe to the innocent who hears that sound!” Instead, he concurred, while also suggesting Nick Ienatsch’s Sport Riding Techniques.

I did the MSF parking lot trials a few weeks after Pebble Beach, hating every minute of it. The preceptors, a husband-and-wife team, went out of their way to make insulting remarks about my “cute” Suzuki SV650. I resented them and harangued Sue for initiating this remediation. Yet, indeed, I picked up some helpful tips about posture.

A few months later, Sue stepped out of the picture, a heartbreaking situation. The rise of my learning curve was timely, though, because I soon found myself being assigned road test stories by editors. Last spring, for Robb Report, I climbed aboard the voracious 2014 Ducati Monster 1200 S and eased onto the low-slung 800-pound 2014 Indian Chief Vintage, the baddest, and the biggest bikes I’d ever been on.

So  I signed up for Pridmore’s Star School, pre-paying the $750 tuition last June.

Then came July 4. During an early morning romp over the Rim of the World Scenic Byway in the San Bernardino Mountains, I made a bold but injudicious move on the SV650, overbraked, and went down hard enough to fracture my left elbow. Worse than the physical injury, my confidence suffered another blow. Unwilling to spend anything to repair the 12-year-old SV, I sold it off to a very happy guy in his 20s. It wasn’t until another editorial assignment in October that I again gripped a handlebar, this one on the Harley-Davidson Project LiveWire prototype for BBC Autos.

IMG_5615Since then I’d participated in BMW’s “Escape from L.A.” media ride after the auto show preview, road-tested and reviewed the 2015 Ducati Scrambler, and sampled a couple of great Yamahas at a dealership’s open house.

On Dec. 18, two days before lessons commenced, Yamaha Motor Corporation USA offered the R6 from their press pool. Alpinestars shipped out gear, the whole kit and caboodle: GP Pro one-piece leather suit, gorgeous and comfortable S-MX 6 boots, GP Plus gloves, and a Winter Tech base layer.

So my earlier despair and apprehension had completely abated by 6.45 a.m. on the previously described Saturday, when I left home on the chilly 80-mile dash to Chuckwalla and the first day on track.

No attitude problem this time!

Perfect school supply: the Yamaha R6

Nor would anyone be ridiculing my mount. The R6 belongs in an underground silo with the other missiles. Breathing for the 599cc four-cylinder engine are 16 thumbnail-size titanium valves. If my reading of the tachometer is correct, redline arrives at 16,500 rpm. Four-piston calipers at each of the two front rotors provide powerful yet sensitive braking.

Whereas other students will complain of “false neutrals” in their transmissions, the six-speed gearbox was as sure as changes of season, with light-action controls like falling leaves and opening blossoms.

For track riding, this immodest screamer is perfect. Pridmore wants us in second and third gear and practicing downshifts where straightaways end, and the R6 is perfectly content with this. On the other hand, a fellow student, Jonathan, has come to regard his BMW S1000RR as too much motorcyle for the purpose, one that consumes the entire circuit in second gear.

Perfect learning environment or treacherous shore?

_Chuckwalla Valley RacewayA four-year-old track with a superior surface, Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, at Desert Center, presents 17 turns over 2.68 miles. This translates to no straightaway longer than 1330 feet. Compare it to leggy Road America, a 4.04-mile circuit with 14 turns.

Writing for Automobile Magazine about the satisfaction of mastering Chuckwalla’s double-apex turns and the esses, Michael notes the raceway’s remoteness: “It’s in the middle of the vast cat box that is the Mojave Desert, built on top of the airfield that General Patton’s troops used while training in this area for the invasion of North Africa in World War II.”

Before sending us out, Pridmore preaches the irrelevance of speed and lap times. He will look for good technique. Besides our using second and third, he wants us to build speed in the straights and enter corners mid-track, leaving a safety margin.

Classroom sessions focus on how and when to downshift, following the best line, and adjusting body position. We hear tips about finding the entry, apex, and exit of each turn and are reminded to keep a head-up posture.

IMG_5772After each lecture we fire up for 20 minutes on track.

Aside from a couple of early wiggles after poor downshifts, and a wandering moment in Turn 14 as the result of my head position, I start to feel a growing command. Surpassing 100 mph and then having to slow down and turn is not a crazy thing after all; when respected, the laws of physics govern benevolently. My arms are relaxed, hands soft on the bars; movements on the saddle feel perfectly natural.

“Get ready for the addiction of your life,” Pridmore has exhorted us newcomers.

Sue said she wanted to go racing after her experience at Willow, and Michael had done so. Nothing affixes you in the irresistible present like hurtling along on 415 pounds of two-wheeler with your ass hanging a yard above the pavement.

Hency, my bubbling over while drinking beer with Geoff.

The difference between spills and spilling it out

I’m not the only one seeking to compensate for past spills, to bring personal dolor trackside.

_CVR aerialOn Sunday morning, as we sit in the backs of pickups driving to points of interest in the 2.68 miles—a track walk without legwork—a pupil named Sean tells me that in addition to having crashed on the street, he’s also lost his mentor, a man who was “the best rider we all knew,” to an inexplicable road accident near Julian, California. He simply plunged over the edge.

For Sean, too, Chuckwalla is a way of inscribing anew, of revising the narrative thread.

Besides thinking about Sunday’s classroom topics of increasing awareness (“Look for the corner worker’s shack coming out of Three”) and controlling panic—I try to press harder and expand my limits. Now, during the 20-minute track segments, the harpy of a four ecstatically revs to redline in second, the upshift indicator twinkles green, and before letting up at Eleven, I glimpse the speed display: 108 mph.

The most crippling tentativeness is gone. In the banked hairpin of Thirteen and the flat one of Sixteen, I increase the angle of lean. I carry more speed into the previously baffling Fourteen.

Individual instruction is part of the deal, and because I’d had none so far, green tape marks my helmet. Finally, in the last session, a pedagogical rider follows. (I can always hear his blustering Ducati.) After three laps we pull onto pit lane to confer. He suggests rotating the hips even more and releasing the brake lever less abruptly.

We go out for two more laps until the checkered flag ends the day. After receiving a tutorial thumbs-up, I coast into the paddock. My visor is smudged with snot. And there’s seepage from my eyes. Not having stopped up my ears with “beeswax kneaded soft,” nor even foam plugs, I’d outlasted the Sirens’ thrilling cries.

The bullhorn’s call to gather, a summing up in the classroom, sounds like a trumpeted fanfare.

I must be champion of something.

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