Track time. That somewhat expensive component every serious sportbike rider desires, preferably in large quantities. But getting quality track time that affords the maximum potential for learning is more difficult to obtain than you might think.
You could sign up for an open track day. But you often find yourself either searching for a non-obstructed path through swirling hordes of motorcycles packing the racetrack, or getting dive-bombed by local hotshoe racers so often you feel like a hapless flounder in a school of piranhas. Not the most conducive environment for learning, really.
Or there's the plethora of riding schools now available, offering up all manner of teaching philosophies and methods in an effort to sharpen your skills. I knew, however, that this particular one I enrolled in was going to be different--and the most rewarding yet--from the get-go. "This is the longest time you're going to be sitting in the classroom during your time here," said Lance Holst, chief instructor for the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School (KSSS), to the assembled students prior to the opening hour-long classroom session, "and we apologize for that."
There are a number of riding schools that offer two- or three-day courses, but when the invitation for the KSSS's "World Champion's Package" three-day camp appeared in the mail, I immediately exerted my editorial privilege. My selfish behavior was based upon several factors: First and most obvious, the opportunity to ride on the track with and be schooled by 1993 World 500cc Grand Prix champion Kevin Schwantz--unless you've been living in a cave for the past 15 years, Mr. Schwantz will need no introduction. Second, the prospect of riding for three straight days at Road Atlanta, one of the premier roadracing circuits in the United States, and easily one of the most fun and challenging to ride on, couldn't be passed up. And finally, I wanted to check out the KSSS for myself; Holst, a former SR staffer and Pridmore STAR School chief instructor, has extensive experience working on sportbike-rider education, and designed much of the curriculum with extensive input from Schwantz.
In fact, Holst briefly ran his own riding school at California's Willow Springs before joining forces with former AMA 750 Supersport champ Jason Pridmore and helping develop the STAR School's program. I was impressed with the teaching efficiency of the STAR School, and the KSSS tutorial reflects many of the lessons learned from his time with Pridmore's school. "One of our main emphases in the Kevin Schwantz School is major track time," said Holst, "because we want a rider to process the information that he or she learns here in the classroom; not be overwhelmed by it." This was reflected not only in the rotating 20-minute classroom/20-minute track time schedule (no skimping here--usually eight track sessions per day for the three-day camp and 10 for the single-day schools), but also in the two longer track sessions (30 minutes) at the end of each day. Called "study hall" sessions, these extended track periods give students some free time to try and put together the techniques they've learned during the day without any pressure.
It's this slightly casual approach to teaching that provides a more hospitable atmosphere for learning. "This is not a boot camp," said Schwantz, "so we want to make sure that this is a lot of fun for everyone. We're not going to sit you in a classroom for an hour each time, or force you to do drills all day; we want you to try these techniques and ideas while you're out there riding the track." Don't think for a moment that the riding sessions are loosely organized free-for-alls, however. The school's very low student/teacher ratio (three to four students per instructor) ensures that everyone is watched and receives an abundance of educational time with the instructors, with as much individual coaching as one desires. It doesn't have to be solicited either; right when I thought I was turning a record lap in the first session, an instructor slipped in front and motioned for me to follow him, so that I could see where a better line existed.
Which brings up another important difference with the KSSS. With all due respect to the instructors in other schools, you will not find a more star-studded teaching faculty. Where else can you find staff like former AMA Superbike and Supersport champion Jamie James? Or former WSB (and current Formula USA) competitor Tripp "Tree-up" Nobles? Or current Formula USA Sportbike champ Lee Acree? Or former F-USA champion Tray Batey? The list goes on and on. And no, they aren't a bunch of hard-nosed racers just looking for free track time; all are truly friendly and helpful people who freely dish out advice ("Kent, you're doing everything right except accelerating, turning and braking....") and answer any questions you might have.
But the school's biggest asset is the man who started it. Kevin Schwantz is one of those riders for which the term "natural talent" was coined. He would perform feats of magic on a racebike that no one else could, and was always a threat for the win, no matter where he qualified (which was usually up front). Yet Schwantz was always the underdog; he never really had the best equipment, or the biggest team behind him. He simply found ways to ride around the machinery and win. It is just that ability and knowledge to use riding technique to its fullest extent that makes Schwantz the consummate instructor. While one classroom session does an excellent job of covering the basics of suspension and chassis setup, the school wants you to focus on your riding first; the best-handling motorcycle in the world won't help you if your riding isn't up to spec. "I can count the number of perfectly set up bikes I've raced on one hand--and have fingers left over," cracked Schwantz.
His comments and teachings don't just deal with the old superbike and Grand Prix days, however. (Although they can be gems in their own regard: "I was always learning something every time I raced, whether it was following Wayne Rainey or Eddie Lawson or...well, some of the other guys, I dunno.") Schwantz also works as a consultant to Suzuki, allowing him to be at nearly all the AMA (and many GP and WSB) races. Working with many of the top riders gives him the opportunity to use many present-day examples to illustrate a point. For instance, when discussing the importance of using your legs and feet to assist in body positioning to help steer the bike, Schwantz recalled current AMA Superbike champ Mat Mladin's predicament at this year's Sears Point National event (an ankle injury prevented Mladin from full use of his feet). "Mat is one of the most physically fit riders out there, and I've never heard him complain of being tired," said Schwantz, "but at the end of the Sears race, he got off the bike and actually said he was worn out."
The KSSS's teaching venue is also an advantage. Road Atlanta is easily one of the most challenging racing circuits in the country, with nearly every type of track scenario to confront a rider. Super-fast sections, slow sections, off-camber and banked turns, major elevation changes, blind corner entries and exits, multiple S-turns--the 2.5-mile, 12-turn facility provides a fantastic arena for polishing one's riding skills. This track requires a student to string several turns together in order to get any one of them correct.
The curriculum's emphasis on visual skills helps immensely in this regard. Several classroom drills help students "visualize the track" in their heads, assisting them in picking out various reference points around the circuit. While there is always an ideal area on the track to be at a given time, the school doesn't require strict adherence to any exact corner apex or line, since the instructors want students to experiment with available options. I could see nearly all the students becoming more comfortable with bike placement by the second day; "We want you to be confident putting your motorcycle anywhere on the track," said Schwantz.
A good indication of a school's effectiveness is coming away knowing that you learned something important, even for an old dog like me. After a classroom lecture dealing with braking, I found that I was concentrating too much of my deceleration at the wrong point in my turn-entry during the following track session. By getting the majority of my slowing done early, my corner entry speeds picked up since I was more relaxed, resulting in higher exit speeds.
Shelling out $3495 for any school may seem pretty exorbitant, and while the KSSS World Champion's Package boasts some of the more elegant amenities (like four nights lodging at the incredibly posh Chateau Elan resort hotel, catered lunches and a fantastic gourmet dinner with Schwantz and the gang), it really isn't about mixing motorcycles with lives of the rich and famous. It's about learning to ride better with usage of a fully prepped Suzuki GSX-R600 or SV650 for three straight days under excellent supervision on one of the best racing circuits in the United States, with more track time than you ever thought imaginable. If you need proper riding gear, rental of seriously high-quality apparel--Arai helmets, Joe Rocket leathers, Alpinestars boots and gloves--is available. One-day schools are $695 ($495 if you use your own prepped Suzuki, although we figure you'd spend more than the additional $200 in tires alone); call for details.
Any riding school is about enforcing good habits while jettisoning bad ones, but one of the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School's mantras probably sums up its intelligent approach to teaching best: "Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent. Practicing perfection is what we teach." For more information, call (800) 849-RACE or visit www.schwantzschool.com.