The Yamaha YZF-R6 is an impossible thing. That’s a lie, of course. The tuning-fork company’s been selling the same basic bike since 2008. And each of the big-four Japanese bike companies builds what’s known in the industry as a “supersport”—a machine with a fairing that sticks your ass up in the air like a presenting baboon and places your hands roughly at axle height. But I had not ridden a GSX-R 600, a Ninja 636, or a CBR 600R. Nor had anybody been foolish enough to offer me a seat on one. Until Nick Ienatsch showed up at Thermal.
Left to right: YCRS instructors Nick Ienatsch and Kyle Wyman.
I left the line, upshifted thrice, and around the track I went. At one point, I looked down at the dash. I was only using 7000 RPM. There was, like, a whole ’nother tachometer’s worth of digits left! I got to the short track’s longest straight and whacked the throttle, assuring myself that if everybody else was braking from eight-hundred miles per hour, I could do the same. Somewhere around 11K, the little Yamaha turned into an unholy, time-eating, space-exhaling shrike. I’m not sure I exhaled until I hit the braking zone, at which point the sticky Dunlops and the Yamaha’s dual front disc brakes conspired to haul me down to a reasonable cornering speed.
I went around the bend mostly upright, kinda-sorta leaning toward the inside of the bike. Some dude on a Ninja 250 built for track duty went flying around me with his knee down. I pulled into the pits. Nick asked if I’d like to come out to New Jersey Motorsports Park for the full two-day Yamaha Champions Experience. I accepted.
Instructor Mark Schillinger attempts to mitigate your author’s healthy fear of the R6.
On my 550-mile ride home from Thermal, I put to use the two things I’d found helpful during the sessions. I started pointing my toe into the corner, which rather inexplicably made me much more comfortable at speed in the bends, and began moving my head out over the inside grip. Those two little adjustments improved my confidence so much, I couldn’t wait to see what the full course would bring me.
It turns out that I was only scratching the surface. One of Nick’s mantras is, “Be like Lorenzo!” As in Jorge Lorenzo, the 2015 MotoGP champion. Over the past few years, a new riding style has evolved at the highest level of racing, based on maximizing the amount of body weight on the inside of the bike in the corner. Ienatsch rationalizes it simply: “If that’s what the best guys in the world are doing, that’s what we should be doing.”
Ienatsch illustrates proper cornering posture.
The basic thrust of the posture is roughly the inverse of what I learned at American Supercamp. Instead of wedging the edge of the seat between your glutes during cornering, you should be as far off the thing to the inside as humanly possible. Your outside arm should actually touch the top of the gas tank. Obviously, this is much easier on a bike with low, clip-on bars than something like the Guzzi V7, with its traditional, upright bars. Instead of nestling the jewels up against the front of the seat, as I did during flat-track school, proper road-race form demands being back away from the tank. And finally, the rider’s head should be as far off to the inside as possible.
Figure your head in a helmet weighs somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds, and it’s the highest point on the bike/rider combo. It’s a critically-useful piece of ballast. Now, bear in mind that despite the fact that you’re hunched over, making it oh-so-tempting to rest the weight of your head and chest on the grips, the same light grip mandatory in other motorcycling disciplines is still very much of import here. Which means your core does the work of supporting the upper half of your frame. Well, and at 130 mph, the wind does a pretty good job of it, too.
The author attempting to be like Lorenzo. He’s not exactly doing a stellar job.
A cone set up at each of the turn-in, apex, and exit points is standard operating procedure at many a school or track event. That still, however, leaves plenty of room for bad lines. Yamaha Champions takes the idea a step further, placing a pair of cones about a sportbike’s wheelbase apart at the apex’s curbing. The idea is to have the bike parallel to the cones at the apex. String the entry and exit cones together when the bike’s pointed correctly at the apex, and you’ve taken the perfect line through the corner.
Nailing apexes, then, becomes the raison d’être of lapping during the sessions, rather than lap times. The math is pretty simple: Hold the right line around the track and your times will eventually drop as you learn the surface and gain confidence. On the other hand, if you head out chasing wanton, bloody speed, speed has a tendency to bite back with wanton and potentially bloody results.
So much of riding a streetbike comes down to managing the front contact patch. Brake and the size of the patch increases, due to forward weight transfer. Accelerate and it shrinks. Get over on the side of the tire and you’ve got both linear and lateral forces acting on it. Modern tires are astoundingly capable, but they can only do so much. One of the most vivid demonstrations of the limits of adhesion involved Ienatsch taking a tire and jamming it at a steep angle into the ground. Predictably, the tire bounced, skipped, lost grip, and slid out. Next, he set the tire on the ground at the same angle, gradually adding pressure. Suddenly, the thing was bearing a whole lot of weight. Abrupt motions rob the tire of its true capability. But by preloading the brake and adding pressure smoothly, you keep the fork from bottoming out while progressively loading the contact patch. And on a sportbike with serious calipers and sticky rubber, you can do that pretty quickly, making what’s actually a graceful act appear brutish and forceful.
Some might say that sort of finesse is less critical on today’s ABS-equipped bikes, but by grabbing a quick and nasty handful, you still run the risk of bottoming the fork—reducing the bike’s compliance while messing with the extreme end of the machine’s steering geometry. Releasing the brake smoothly is just as important, to avoid jerky fork-rebound moments.
Ienatsch explains it all.
In the MSF course, the instructors frown on braking while leaned over. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to scrub speed in a bend, you’re to stand the bike up and brake in a straight line. By adopting a GP-oriented body position while riding, the bike’s closer to upright at real-world speeds, allowing you quite a lot of braking latitude while still continuing around the corner. This doesn’t just work on sportbikes. Since YCRS, I’ve used the technique on standards, cruisers, and touring bikes, including an 800-plus-pound Honda Gold Wing.
At the end of the first day, the instructors offered to film us turning laps, followed by a critique of our skills in front of the class. Normally, this evaluation is a mandatory part of the course, but the track was wet, and the bikes riding on Dunlop Q3s, sort of the motorcycle equivalent of the barely-legal Michelin Pilot Sport Cups on a GT3 RS. The Dunlops are gummy as Haribo hell in the absence of moisture, but don’t fare especially well in the rain. Mercifully, the clouds seemed to be starting to run dry. The instructors asked for a show of volunteer hands. Mine was the first one in the air. I don’t know why. It wasn’t bravery. Nor was it stupidity. I just felt comfortable in my ability to get around the track without crashing, even if said lap turned out to be dead slow.
I took a flying lap, then an instructor took off, following me as I crossed the start/finish line. Before I hit the first corner, the skies opened up. I backed off a little, tried to keep my focus on the apexes, and kept the bike as upright as I could, getting as far off the side of the R6 as my limited skills and rattletrap knees would allow. Six months prior, I couldn’t manage a 5-mph left turn in the rain, and here I was lapping New Jersey’s Lightning course on the back of a tweaking ferret during a storm with sudden torrential aspirations. And you know what? I did all right. My body position on the bike was decent, although at one point I drifted fairly wide of an apex. Ienatsch admonished that if I continued on that sort of line, I was headed for a crash. Not wanting to break myself or pay the repair bill on a tumbled bike, I vowed to myself that I’d hew more religiously to the cones.
Former WSBK champion Scott Russell gives a student a lesson in two-up insanity.
On the second day, we moved to NJMP’s Thunderbolt course, a faster, more technical track. I hopped on the back of a big FZ-1 ridden by 1993 World Superbike champion Scott Russell. Russell threw the beast around the course, pulling wheelies, nailing apexes, and altogether making the barely bottled violence look wholly effortless. And with two of us on the bike, he couldn’t even hang off. Meanwhile, I was just mustering up the guts to open up the 600 on Thunderbolt’s front straightaway. Instructor Mark Schellinger led me around, signaling when it was safe to open the taps on the zillion-RPM zonker and when it was time to shut the thing down and go for the brakes.
At the end of the second day, the coaches gave us a problem to ride around. For example, sometimes students are forced to ride with only one foot. Our issue? We had to act as if we were glued to the center of the seat. I’d gone into YCRS hoping not to be the slowest guy in the class. And I wasn’t. But I was very near the bottom of the pile. Suddenly, however, I was passing guys who were much, much faster than I was when they could hang off. Not being able to move off the seat was unfamiliar to them; they weren’t quite sure how they related to their motorcycles without being able to do it. For me, moving my head and upper torso from side to side and pointing my toes into the corner had become second nature. Moving my ass out from side to side was still a habit I was trying to acquire. As a result, for a little bit, I forgot about trying to acquire it and just rode, using everything else I’d learned to get around the course.
The final session consisted of free lapping on a variety of Yamaha products. I had a fantastic time throwing around the middleweight-standard FZ-07, an upright, parallel-twin thing which could stand as the motorcycle deal of the decade if one can stomach the insectazoid styling. I got on the R3, which I’d timidly ushered around Thermal just a couple of months prior. I spent the whole time right up against the rev limiter, giggling the whole way around.
That healthy fear of lean angle has served me pretty well on the road, actually.
At the very end of the day, Nick wanted me to go for one last lap on the R6. But my bike had already been taken back to the garage. “Why don’t you just use that one. It’s got a GP shift, though, so it’s a reverse pattern.”
“Man, I’m worried about forgetting and going the wrong way with my foot.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine. Just remember, press down to go up the gears, just like it’s an accelerator.”
Sometimes, “one last session” is a recipe for disaster. That day, happily, it wasn’t. I took off down the straight, tapping down on the shifter, wondering why every bike wasn’t set up like this. But having to keep my mind on the gearbox and my left foot allowed my muscles to do what I’d spent the weekend training them to do. The course, which had been an “Argh! This section! Ack! That section” proposition a few hours before, simply flowed. I was so elated at my performance, I forgot to pull into the pits, waved sheepishly at Nick and Mark as I blew past, and went for one last turn around the course, crotch back, ass out, visible triangle of light between the bike, my thigh, and my calf as I shepherded the little Yamaha through corners, a supersport supernaut, if only by my own meager standards.