Nick Ienatsch sitting on his motorcycle

Nick on his Yamaha FZ1.

Tammy Schellinger

Many roadracers will contemplate quitting sometime in their careers, especially in the amateur ranks. The pain and expense of crashes often spark this contemplation. You probably know racers who have quit. I do. Quitting is different from retiring, or put in another way, quitting is forced retirement

Street riders quit riding too, often for the same reasons or simply because “it’s not fun anymore.” Anyone involved on my side of the motorcycle industry is extremely interested in racers and riders not quitting. My belief, often stated, is that a school like YCRS resparks the fun and significantly increases the safety of riding through proven riding techniques…but this isn’t a YCRS sales pitch! Advanced rider training sells itself because a little expert knowledge goes a long way toward our goal of safer fun

Successful riders and racers must have a very short memory for the bad things, as long as they make a plan to not repeat those bad things.

This column is aimed at racers/riders thinking about quitting, or racers/riders who have quit, by citing several examples of racers/riders who didn’t quit, with additional thoughts at the end.

Rider #1

A guy finally landed a Grand Prix factory ride and his first race weekend at Le Mans was freezing cold. In his very first session it began to sleet and his bike ran out of gas. He coasted to a stop off the track and put his feet down…in puddle of ice water. While shivering so hard his teeth were chattering, he thought, “Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” But he ignored that thought and soldiered on.

His name was Eddie Lawson and he went on to win the Suzuka Eight-Hour, the Daytona 200 and four 500 Grand Prix titles. The drama and difficulties of a GP ride, and an ice-covered mud puddle on a sleeting day, couldn’t overshadow Lawson’s belief in himself, a belief based on his years of successful racing in America. Rather than dwell on his present situation of being a rookie teamed with a three-time World Champion sitting in a mud puddle a few thousand miles away from his warm California home, Lawson focused on his past success and these memories gave him strength. It’s okay to think about past success.

eddie lawson race action

Eddie Lawson

Cycle World

Rider #2

A guy finally got a 500 Grand Prix ride and crashed as he left the pits on his very first lap on his very first day. He had to limp all the way back to his garage in front of the entire GP establishment.

His name was Freddie Spencer and he went on to win the Daytona 200 and three world Grand Prix championships, including the 250 and 500 titles in the same year. Successful riders and racers must have a very short memory for the bad things, as long as they make a plan to not repeat those bad things. Spencer knew what he did and knew how to not do it again. What’s the definition of insanity? Right, do the same thing expecting a different result. Spencer reviewed the mistakes and made a technically-based plan to eliminate those mistakes.

Rider #3

A guy landed a dream job at a magazine. The day before he’s supposed to start—while looking for a place to live in Los Angeles—he low-sided in inner-city Laurel Canyon and had to return to the magazine office with a bleeding hand and damaged bike.

Yeah, that was me in 1984. Motorcyclist magazine Editor Art Friedman overlooked my indiscretion and hired me anyway. I stayed nine years, left to start SportRider magazine, then on to Cycle World. Laurel Canyon was my first street crash and I knew better than to be “enjoying myself” on heavily-trafficked city streets. Too much lean angle on polluted asphalt almost guarantees a crash. It wasn’t the asphalt’s fault, it was the rider’s inability to constrain himself in low-grip conditions.

freddie spencer race action

Freddie Spencer

Cycle World

Rider #4

In the final qualifying session for World Superbike at Donnington Park, a guy highsided himself to the moon, cracking both his tailbone and ankle in the not-so-gentle landing. With three events to go in the season, he laid in the gravel “in serious pain and doubt” about being able to even finish the season.

His name was Scott Russell, in 1993. His Muzzy team rebuilt the “tweaked” ZX-7R; Russell borrowed a bigger boot from Tripp Nobles to fit over his enlarged foot and remounted the next day to win both races. He won the championship, too. Russell knows the components of grip (lean angle combined with brake or throttle pressure) and knew he’d added too much of one of those components, or added one of those components too quickly. A tire will take a tremendous load, but not an abrupt load. And we must not forget: traction is finite and the limits must be approached with caution, no matter who you are.

Rider #5

A guy worked his way into the AMA 250 Grand Prix points lead with steady riding and strong finishes. While leading the race at Heartland Park, he crashed his TZ and lost the points lead. Sitting against the cement wall watching the rest of the race was a low spot in his career.

Yeah, that was me in 1991. Crashed my beautiful Jim-Granger painted, Steve-Biganski tuned, Mike-Worshum tweaked Yamaha out of the lead of the race and the championship. Went on to take third overall that year, with more success in the ensuing years. I continued to race because I knew what I did wrong. More specifically, my focus turned to the points lead, rather than the piloting of my TZ in that exact moment. When the mind wanders, grip is often lost. At corner entries the majority of a racer’s focus should be on the front tire, at exits on the rear. Simple…and vital.

Rider #6

A guy arranged a big magazine shootout for unlimited street bikes. While testing these bikes he shifted the Dublin Kawasaki ZX1100 (build by Doug Meyer) the wrong way while charging down the hill between Willow Springs’ Turns Four and Five. The rear tire locked and hurtled him through the air as first gear was selected instead of third…and slipper clutches were yet to be in production. The guy landed on his back hard enough to bust the skin open on his elbows, necessitating 14 staples in each arm.

Yeah, that was me again, in 1993 or so? The next day I went 217 mph (might have been 234, I forget the year… it was FIM certified) at the Honda Proving Center, staples and all. We went on to do the Unlimited Flying Objects and Superbikes from Hell stories for years, but we added a new rule: all bikes must have street-bike shift pattern!

I continued the next day because I had to; it was my job. But more to the point, I continued because my crash was the result of two things: a momentary loss of concentration, and the resulting back-shift into the wrong gear. Fix that, and I would be fine. At this point in my life I was hanging around with Lawson and his technical, functional, logical (non-excusey) approach to racing had rubbed off on me. I never sat and blubbered about my crash. I moved on the next day with a plan: develop a mantra to help me focus and mandate the shift pattern for UFO and Superbikes from Hell. Done, let’s ride.

nick ienatsch race action

Nick Ienatsch


Read more before deciding

Your decision to quit riding is certainly valid and yours to make. Don’t let me or anyone else sway you to quit or continue. But maybe read just a little bit more?

Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, Scott Russell and I might share something with you: we love motorcycling. Our joy centers around two wheels propelled by an engine. Motorcycles shaped us, hurt us, thrilled us, enriched us and affected our lives in ways that would fill several books.

Am I describing you, too?

Don’t worry, I’ve met you. I’ve met riders and ex-riders with the passion. You’ve found something that can’t be produced elsewhere, can’t be copied and can’t be matched: motorcycling. When you’re on two wheels you are alive like no other time and your soul sings. Riding challenges you, enthralls you, satisfies you. The jewel-like nature of a motorcycle seduces you in the garage too.

Some of you have struggled through low spots, some of you have quit, some of you are thinking about quitting, some of you know a passionate rider who has quit. If you don’t have a passion for riding, quitting is about as easy as taking off a jacket. If you have the passion, quitting can remove a chunk of who you are.

And here’s my message, backed up by Lawson, Spencer, Russell and every other veteran of our sport:

The majority of crashes are the rider’s fault and we must look at our actions in regards to:

  • Focus
  • Decision making
  • Hand movements
  • Bike speed and placement
  • Practiced riding technique, especially braking and steering
  • Maintenance protocol

For “meteorite strike” crashes where the rider is not at fault but simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, proper protective gear is huge…like when the deer jumped the guardrail in front of me and a Suzuki GSX-R750 in 1996: no damage to me thanks to a full Kevlar-reinforced suit, gloves, boots and helmet. For more on this type of crash, please Probably the Stupidest Riding Technique Ever Written.

Of the above, focus must be closely examined because crashing on a cold tire or in gravel after a rain or on your friend’s bike that drags its pipes comes down to: you didn’t think about what you were on or where you were riding.

This sport is explainable and understandable. Grip is finite and composed of lean angle plus throttle or brakes. A warm tire will take an amazing load, but not an abrupt load. Cold tires are out of their design-parameter and need heat to “work properly.” An accelerating motorcycle opens its radius; a slowing motorcycle tightens its radius. Brakes and throttle can be used at lean angle but can’t be grabbed. Grabbing, stabbing, flicking, hammering…all verbs that don’t work because they each add lean angle or throttle/brake percentages too quickly. Coaches, you especially must get the verbiage right.

Take a tip from my father-in-law, Gene Perez. His opinion: You don’t need to quit a sport/hobby/undertaking completely; you can simply realign your priorities. For instance: if, at age 56, I couldn’t be happy without winning the MotoAmerica SuperSport title, I’m bound for frustration and disappointment and possibly pain; I’ll want to quit. Instead, I’ve found joy in competing in vintage races with friends and much-lower stakes and expectations.

Empty and refill your garage. You might not need to return to our sport with a 1000cc racer-replica; instead choose a smaller sport bike, adventure bike, standard or cruiser. Please read my column describing my wife Judy’s reconnection with riding after the purchase of a fun and light (and fuel-injected and electric start) Yamaha XT250.

Yes, she has a 600 and 750 sportbike, but the joy returned on the XT. Joy is the main reason you should be riding. Find the bike and environment that restores your original love of two wheels.

Get schooled. If you’re gonna do this, do it right. Find a school or instructor you respect and commit to improving the on-board engineer. The only reason Lawson, Spencer and Russell (and every world champion you will ever know) continued after a “low point” is because they knew what worked and what didn’t. If you don’t know, you need to find out or perhaps just stay in your traction-controlled, ABS-equipped, yaw-controlled, paddle-shifted car. Boring.

Remember insanity? Don’t get back in the saddle without learning about your last “low point.” Quitting is an option, but if you have the passion I guarantee that the answers to your dilemmas are available.

More Next Tuesday!