by ben younger
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Article was originally written for SuperBikePlanet in 2011. Some names, prices and locations have changed but the school still remains the same.
Being 38, I come from a generation of motorcyclists that were convincingly told to never, ever touch the front brakes once you initiate turn-in. To etch this idea in stone I once grabbed a handful of brake, mid-corner, on a week-old K-series BMW on a canyon road in California. It stood the bike right up and shot me off the pavement toward a cliff. A not-coming- home-for-dinner cliff. I couldn’t slow down so I had to purposefully hit a telephone pole so as not to die. Forks snapped instantly and my boys slammed into the tank so hard I thought I’d never have children.
Why am I telling you this? Because last week (and ten years after the wreck) I learned it’s time to start trail braking. Not just me, either. All of us. Trail braking. Ahh, Christ… Just saying it makes me nervous. I can just feel the front giving way and hear the sound of that beautiful bodywork grinding into the pavement. Always wanted to but never dared try. Knew the pros were doing it but I’m not Stoner. I’m a slow dude from Brooklyn. Want to find a great pastrami sandwich? I’m your man. Want to trail brake? Talk to somebody else.
In this case, specifically, a non-Francophile (more on that later) named Nick Ienatsch. It’s pronounced: “pipe down and listen to this guy.” Nick runs the Yamaha Champions Racing School. Nick used to be the lead instructor for the Freddie Spencer school. When that school dissolved Nick picked up where Freddie left off with YCRS. He still speaks reverently of the ex-champ and is fond of reminding his students that Freddie claims to have only ridden five perfect laps in his entire career. Yeah, let that sit for a moment. Nick’s mission in life is to get you one of those. And this guy loves his job.
It started with an email a few months earlier once I’d signed up for the school. It read, in part: You will hear the “non-negotiables” of riding a bike quickly and consistently. You will learn the four reasons we crash. You will learn that exits are most important, tire-loading is everything, aggressiveness hurts more as you try to lap faster, body-position is a lot less individual than you might think…that a few vital things work when the pace is up or the grip is down.
It’s something when a simple email gets you excited…
I walked into the classroom at New Jersey Motorsports Park on a cool, May morning. Nick and his staff are already pumped up at 7:00AM. Nick’s hand-picked instructors are Ken Hill, Shane Turpin, Dale Kieffer and Mark Schellinger. These guys are a slick, tight-knit group. Imagine a not-so-good-looking Oceans 11. But who wants pretty? I want fast. Combined, these guys have won more championships than I’ve taken craps. And I crap a lot. Point is, Nick has a deep bench.
So, I’m still wiping sleep out of my eye when I hear a ‘Mornin’ with a deep southern drawl. ‘Yeah sure, good morning’ I answer back half asleep. Oh, it’s Scott Russel. He’s just hanging out. Laid back. This dude is so relaxed it seems like he perpetually exists on a bass boat. It seems all the pieces are in place for a great program. But then again, I’ve been to other schools where they’ve had celeb racers. Really fast instructors, too. And yet, I didn’t leave those schools a changed rider. Don’t get me wrong, they were fun and I certainly picked up some great advice. But they didn’t change me.
YCRS is about breaking you down and building you back up. You may not like it. It may be uncomfortable. They don’t care. They make far-reaching remarks like, “if you’re not doing it this way, you’re doing it wrong.” But they back it up. It’s like being on the receiving end of an intervention. “Ben, we’ve all really been worried about your riding for some time. It’s enough. It’s time to change, time to let go.” That being said, you’re welcome to challenge anything. They thrive on it, and when appropriate, they adjust. For example, Scott mentioned how he exhales on corner entry to help calm himself and keep from tightening up. Nick jumped all over it and just like that, it’s in the curriculum. Bottom line, if it works, it’s in there.
This was a two day school (there’s also a three day program) and it was immersive. Has to be if you’re going to get people to start trail braking, crack their bad body-position habits and, ready for this, use the rear brake. That’s gonna take some doing – or in my case, undoing.
Unlike other schools I’ve been to, I actually didn’t mind the classroom time at all. Usually you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I know what an apex looks like, dumdum, can we get on the track now?’ The information these guys possess, and more importantly, are able to articulate is remarkable. And that’s the key. It’s being able to communicate race-craft into layman’s terms and this is where they excel. As much as I like Scott Russel, he is not the guy that’s going to break down exactly why he’s a riding god. He’ll be the first to admit it, too. The Lord gave him some incredible skills, Scott cultivated the rest and getting him to explain it is like asking Giselle why she’s hot. Some things just are. Nick and co. make it their business to verbalize and it’s one of the strongest assets the school possesses.
So what goes on in these classrooms? At first it’s the careful unwinding of your previous habits. For example, the whole trail braking thing is fully explained and demystified. Nick tells us that when we turn into a 7-11 parking lot we’re trail braking. In other words, don’t sweat it, you’ve already been doing it for years without knowing it. It even works in your car (as Nick demonstrated in a packed 14 passenger van at 100MPH). Trail braking is one of those things that once revealed makes so much sense and is so effective, you can’t believe it took you this long to get with the program. Think boxer briefs, iPods and sandwiches. It’s elemental. The real revelation is that it’s not a racer’s tool but rather a motorcyclist’s need.
The whole idea behind it is that when trail braking you properly load the front tire which then wants to do your bidding. The bike turns better, allows you to scrub speed, or tighten your line. Conversely, if you let go of the brakes at turn-in you give up the only control input you have until you get to the apex. You’re just along for the ride waiting to see that exit cone so you can get on the gas again. You’ve also got a front tire that isn’t loaded and will low-side you at higher speeds. Makes sense, right? But it runs exactly counter to the way I was taught.
To help in the transition they take us out on the track and videotape every student then dissect our laps in the classroom. Then they show us Stoner mid-corner. Simoncelli on exit. “You’re not Rossi. Stop trying to ride like him.” Ever hear that one before? I have. Conventional wisdom says since you’re not even in the same stratosphere as his highness, stop trying to emulate him. The thought process at YCRS is polar opposite. Just because you’re not Steve Nash doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch the guy take a foul shot. You may not end up on the NBA’s all time free throw percentage list (Nash is 3rd) but you might just learn something. Nick and company love to tell you that they didn’t make this stuff up. “The fastest guys in the world are trail braking. It must be worth doing. Get on board.”
One question they ask over and over, and one that I have never heard at another school is, “are you getting what you need?” They know what the school costs (pricing is $2295 and $3395 for the two and three day programs, respectively) and are determined to pass enough information and skills along to make you feel like you got the better end of the deal. In part, this is made possible by having only four students per instructor on track. The attention you get is extremely specific and tailored. They spend the time with you until you get it right. It’s not like they throw out a passing comment and then it’s up to you to implement or forget. They’re on you like white on rice. If you don’t do what they say you get Ken Hill in your face in the pits looking for answers. And you better hope he didn’t have garlic knots for lunch.
The on-track exercises are fantastic. They don’t want me to give away too much as the curriculum is proprietary but suffice to say they have this whole riding motorcycles thing figured out. To start, they make you get on your bike in the pits and they pull you forward while you barely drag on the brake lever. It’s amazing how light a pull it takes to make the bike immovable. It’s barely perceptible. They don’t want you clamping on the brakes mid-corner and crashing. This quickly illuminates how trail braking can be implemented with just the lightest effort. Next, cones are set up halfway between turn-in and apex and an instructor stands there as you enter the corner. These guys are watching you. This isn’t the US Minerals Management. If something don’t look right, they’re gonna shut you down.
Another great exercise involves cones laid on their sides that you must ride to the inside of on entry and the outside on exit. Trick is, they move them every lap. This forces you to drastically change your lines and solidifies the need for trail braking to help make those changes at speed. It’s a great exercise for real world riding where you’d need to avoid debris and simultaneously scrub some speed. It’s also a great tool for passing in a race where your lines constantly change when overtaking. I had the distinction of hitting so many cones that often there was no need for the instructors to run on track and move them for the next lap. You’re welcome.
Basically, Nick’s M.O. is to let you get comfortable with a specific skill set then turn you on your head with the next challenge. One exercise is called the lap of champions and I agreed not to reveal what it is but let’s just say they make you do some really insane crap on track. There’s a unpasteurized feel to the school that is unique in this otherwise intensely litigious society we live in. Still, there wasn’t a single crash over the two days. Says a lot.
Overall, the feeling that comes across is genuine interest. They really want you to improve. The one mystery is how they avoid becoming jaded. You’d think it was their first school measured by the level of enthusiasm.
The final exercise of the school requires that you do three laps without trail braking. I remember thinking this seemed like a dumb idea. After all, I’d spent every day of my life not trail braking and only the last two, doing it. And this is the finale they chose? Waste of time, right? Nope. What shocked me above all else was how out of control I felt NOT trail braking—like sitting in the passenger seat while my Mom tries to merge onto the interstate. The bike felt un-planted and the front wouldn’t communicate to me what it was doing. Two days, folks. Two days and I am reinvented.
After the first morning of exercises and lapping, we all stood on the front straight and had a major debriefing. One of the students commented on how hard it is to get some of these drills right. Nick, who normally has the mild temperament of a mid-western insurance salesman replied: “Hell, if it were easy a Frenchman would have won the World Championship by now.” And that’s what I like about this school. You just never know what’s coming next.
P.S. —I’ll finish up by telling you that I won my first ever amateur race a week after the school in the pouring rain. And yes, I still trail braked. Get on board, people.
Upcoming schools can be found at www.champschool.com