Mark Thompson’s track-riding journey continues. – February 25, 2020

Nick’s Introduction: Last week retired Marine Mark Thompson described the therapeutic positives of track riding for warriors suffering with PTSD. Within that description, he noted that without proper rider training, the therapy can hurt or kill the patient. The training at YCRS revolves around the practices of expert riders. In addition to that focus, we examine how riders of all levels crash.

Why would a school discuss crashing?

Because we know many riders quit after crashing. Or they slow down so much that the joy of riding is lost. Crashing and losing the joy of riding are the two main reasons riders quit.

Our push to bring overall understanding of the rider’s effect on motorcycle performance leads us to the study of why things go wrong and, even more importantly, how to avoid those episodes. It’s an underlying theme in our school because happy, healthy riders keep riding. Want to grow an industry? Keep the members safe and smiling.

In this column, Mark describes his only crash, and you will read his clear understanding of what happened and, more importantly, how to avoid a future episode. He re-straddled his bike with a modified plan that proactively addressed the reasons he crashed. His knowledge regarding the problem and the fix is what riders need in order to work through issues that could remove the joy of riding. Good therapy must be able to get the patient through the low spots.

Many of these columns are personal; this one, though penned by Mark, is no exception. Mark has become a lifelong friend to me and to YCRS. He, through his work as a combat Marine Corps officer, has given us the gift of a country where we can make a living riding motorcycles. We, in turn, have given him an ongoing physical and mental challenge with risks that can be mitigated through proper training and all-in focus.

Mark Thompson with motorcycle instructors at the track
Mark Thompson (left) coaches with instructors Ryan Burke, Chris Peris, and Nick at last week’s school at Inde Motorsports Ranch. –

I knew the instant that the front tire lost traction that I was going down. Several times in the past I had felt a loaded front tire push (slide), but this was very different. The span of time from that moment until the impact was less than a quarter of a second yet somehow long enough for me to have two completely formed thoughts.

“How can this be happening?” And, “It’s mortifying to be crashing in the slowest corner—during a school!”

The subsequent low-side impact separated me from the Yamaha MT-10 and my pride. After a short slide off the track, I came to an inauspicious rest in the dirt. Fortunately, I was uninjured thanks to my Alpinestars and Arai protective gear—and the controlled environment.

Every crash is the result of several interacting factors. These factors must be seen through the lens of a rider’s agency in order to produce actionable information. In other words, an internal locus of control allows the rider to examine factors that are within his or her control.

I recently came across an applicable quote while traveling to the YCRS school this last December, a month after my “tip-over.” In Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of the novel’s characters scoffs at the notion of safety while engaged in an inherently dangerous activity: bullfighting.

“How often have I heard Finito say that it is all knowledge and that the bull never gored the man; rather the man gored himself on the horn of the bull.”

To the intended point of the quote, it is objectively true to say that the abstinence of a specific activity is a foolproof method for avoiding its potential harm. However, once the decision is made to step into the arena, the bullfighter must completely assume the burden of agency. Likewise, a motorcycle rider must embrace the mantra, “It’s me; it’s always me.”

There are seven reasons that riders crash (road and track), which typically occur in two places—these reasons are premised on the fact that a rider is properly trained, not intoxicated, doesn’t fall asleep, isn’t hit by a meteor, or other completely unavoidable issue.

The Reasons We Crash

1. Lacking focus: The very element that makes riding cathartic is the essence of safety. A rider must be attentive to a myriad of operating essentials while being simultaneously mindful of external threats on public roads.

2. Being abrupt: Abruptness applied to any control—brakes; throttle; clutch (release); steering; and body movement—can result in a loss of traction. The faster we go (more lean angle) or the lower the grip, the more smoothness counts.

3. Rushing corners: Late braking efforts, or no brakes at all, can result in missed apexes; this can cause an overapplication of brakes and lean angle on the track, leading to a loss of traction and/or crossing the centerline on public roads.

4. Repeating mistakes: Failing to correct any of the riding essentials will eventually become a contributing factor in a crash. A huge part of our training revolves around students realizing when things are going wrong.

5. Failing to respect cold tires: Tires require heat in order to operate as designed. There are few track riders who have never fallen from a cold tire.

6. Being overconfident: Most riders overestimate their skill level. The further one advances the more one understands how much there is to know.

7. Failing to adapt to a change: A rider must account for, and rapidly adapt to, all changes.

The places where crashes occur:

1. Corners: Numerous studies confirm the fact that negotiating a corner is the leading cause of single-vehicle motorcycle accidents. Most street riders fail to understand the relationship between radius and speed, specifically how brakes can be used to control speed, traction, and geometry.

2. Intersections: Riders come into conflict with other drivers in intersections, most often in unregulated (in the direction of the rider) intersections.

The above list speaks to the only subject that can affect change: the rider. There is no actionable information that can be derived from interpreting events through the lens of an external point of control.

Mark Thompson riding on an R6 motorcycle.
Thompson drives off the corner at Inde Motorsports Ranch, head to the inside, eyes to the future, where his brain plans the next few seconds. This enterprise demands focus, punishes mistakes, and because it is so challenging, it encourages fitness and focus in all aspects of life. –

Riding Skills Lead To Riding Safety

The only way to achieve absolute safety from motorcycle riding is to simply not ride. However, once the decision is made to ride, we must assume all agency, become as proficient as possible, and pursue excellence as a path to safety. Again from For Whom the Bell Tolls: “It is like the bullfighter who knowing what he is doing, takes no chances and is safe.”

When thinking about how I “threw myself on the horns of the bull” in the fifth corner of Inde Motorsports Ranch, I started by reviewing the above list of “reasons we crash.”

  • Prior to the tip-over, I had been riding a Yamaha YZF-R6. During the last session of the day I switched to the Yamaha MT-10. The greater horsepower of the latter motorcycle produces quicker acceleration with the same throttle application of the former. The MT-10 is about 100 pounds heavier as well.

a. Failing to adapt to a change—reason #7

b. Lacking focus—reason #1

  • The MT-10 had not been ridden for several hours. The tires were cold, and I fell in the first left-hand corner.

a. Failing to respect cold tires—reason #5

b. Lacking focus—reason #1

  • Turn 5 is a double apex corner. I had been repeatedly over-slowing for the first apex resulting in increasing acceleration through the turn. That put me into the corner’s tightest point with an unloaded and cold front tire because the throttle was open.

a. Repeating mistakes—reason #4

b. Lacking focus—reason #1

Track Practice For Street Safety

Fortunately, my confluence of failures was on a track rather than on a public road. If there is a place to push one’s limits, a closed course is it. The same does not hold true for street riding. There is no difference in technique for these two venues; however, there is a difference in the degree of application. We tell students, “The motorcycle doesn’t know if it’s on a track, parking lot, or street—it works best with certain rider inputs.” My low-side crash on the track could have been fatal on the street.

Motorcycle crash on Angeles Crest Highway
Angeles Crest Highway was closed due to this fatal crash in a left-hand corner. Unlike Inde’s turn 5 where Mark crashed, this left-hander is lined with a rock wall. We teach on a track because it is the safest place to learn and mistakes are relatively pain-free in comparison to the street. – Nick Ienatsch

N2: My First Trackday

The track is the safest venue to rapidly develop riding skills and test the limits. This pursuit requires being hyper focused, which comes with all the beneficial byproducts that I spoke about last week. This past summer I had the opportunity to ride with N2 Track Days at Pittsburgh International Race Complex. I had been to more than a dozen YCRS courses, but had never participated in a trackday.

I suspect that all first-time track riders share some of the same apprehensions. What defines the culture of a trackday organization? How do they treat new members? At worst I envisioned the surfers encountered by Keanu Reeves’ character in Point Break. Perhaps someone would let the air out of my tires and tell me to “Go back to the Valley!” Of course, none of this turned out to be true.

Everyone was there to have a good time. I later met the founders and owners of the group, to include Rob Cichielo, who all turned out to be successful business owners and professionals. As for the unknown track, I would simply execute what I learned at YCRS: I would brake at the point where I became nervous; stay with the brakes until I became happy with my speed and direction; and accelerate when I could see my exit and take away lean angle. Between my sessions I would study a track map and focus on my weak points. A principle-based understanding of the fundamentals takes the stress out of riding unknown tracks and public roads. I had a fantastic time. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Mark Thompson with a large military gun.
Thompson on the morning of a two-day patrol, under an abandoned Russian artillery piece with a fellow Marine in the mountains of Afghanistan (both within arm’s length of their rifles). Are those rifles dangerous to operate? Yes, until the operators are sufficiently trained; then they become useful, reliable tools. At YCRS, we substitute “motorcycle” for “weapon” because the results of training are the same. – Thompson Collection

My second track experience was with Steve Johnson and Military Track Days at Jennings GP in Florida. Steve is a YCRS 3C (Champions Certified Coach), his training program designed to export “best practices” from the school to local track and street groups.

New Track, New (Used) Bike—Same Principles

This was my first track event with a newly purchased 2019 R6. Once again, I had never met the group or ridden the track. As before, I found the same collegiality. This is another great group of riders all there for the same reason—the joy of riding. The event was inclusive YCRS training for the “C group,” and exclusive of any close passes, or arrogance.

Retired marine, Rich Stampp riding a motorcycle for trackday therapy
Rich “Cowboy” Stampp (#31) caught mid-race in CVMA action. Stampp is also a retired Marine who works for YCRS/Yamaha and knows the therapeutic draw of two wheels. The beautiful thing about this therapy is that trackday organizations and roadracing clubs already exist in America, and are extremely interested in riders joining their ranks. – Photo by Robert

Unknown Roads, Unknown Bike—Same Principles

A rider can safely sharpen her or his skills on the track and apply them on the street—with a 30-percent reduction in application. This means leaving a 30-percent safety margin in braking, acceleration, body position, and lean angle for the unknowns the street can and will surprise us with. All the YCRS instructors street ride and this reserve helps them enjoy the public roads; read Nick’s The Pace 2.0 for more on this.

One of the best things about spending time with the school is getting to know the instructors. Last year after a school at the Streets of Willow, David Bober invited me to his house in Los Angeles to ride. I warned him I would actually show up if the invitation was authentic; he assured me it was. I arrived with nothing but my riding gear. David furnished the motorcycles and guided the tour through the mountain roads east of LA, along with YCRS grad David Michaels.

My plan was to apply the same principles as mentioned above, in addition to reviewing all the reasons and places riders crash. I would be riding a motorcycle that I had never ridden; on roads that I have never seen; guided by a rider who was quicker. If David pulled away from me, I could not let it affect my riding. This is the arena where one cannot “throw themselves on the horns of the bull.” Low-side falls end in guardrails or oncoming traffic rather than graded open fields.

Mark Thompson, David Bober, and David Michaels riding motorcycles on the street.
What Mark and David Bober (and David Michaels behind the camera) learned to make a bike perform well on the track transfers directly to the street, a rider’s highest-risk arena. With only a 12-foot-wide lane to negotiate, the Champions Habits that put these riders on-line at the track keep them consistently safe and exact with in-lane bike placement. Exact bike control every inch of the ride: the YCRS goal for all riders. – David Michaels

I was all-in mentally and physically. We had two fantastic days of drama-free riding on some of the best roads in the country. David skillfully guided me through two challenging days of riding. Best of all, being back in one piece, walking out to dinner with his family, their four-and-half year-old son on my shoulders; living life with good people in a challenging pursuit. Now I’ve just got to catch David on the track…

Mark Thompson riding R6 into corner.
Thompson trail-brakes into the front-straight chicane at Inde Motorsports Ranch after carving through the 70-mph left-hand kink. As the pace increases, the margin for error shrinks. More focus is demanded as the bike covers more distance in the same time. It’s a never-ending challenge that has caught this Marine’s attention like nothing since combat. –