As I rode on the back of a Honda Interceptor with three-time World Champion "Fast Freddie" Spencer at the controls while he took us on some fast laps of Miller Motorsports Park, I reflected upon the fact that other than one important aspect, it wasn't unlike many other "student rides" I've experienced at other riding schools. There was the same astonishingly fast pace for riding two-up, the ultra-smooth gear-shifting and application of throttle and brakes that made the laps practically seamless, and the precision selection of corner-entry points and lines resulting in a perfect exit to the corner. I've always felt that these two-up rides are very helpful in enabling many students to get firsthand experience in the actions and inputs that go into riding quickly and in control.
On these particular laps, however, there was one unique aspect to Spencer's two-up ride: He was riding with only one hand.
No, Spencer wasn't performing some sort of vain demonstration of riding skill. Using only his throttle hand enables Spencer to show students how the throttle and brake can affect the steering of a motorcycle without any inputs on the bars. Examining Spencer's very relaxed grip on the bar, and watching the bars wobble over midcorner bumps showed that he wasn't "cheating" by countersteering with his right hand while operating the throttle and brake.
A New Cool LocaleOrdinarily based at Nevada's Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Freddie Spencer High Performance Riding School is now conducting its summer sessions at Utah's newly constructed Miller Motorsports Park. This helps the school avoid the scorching triple-digit temperatures that are commonplace in Las Vegas during the middle of the year. The fast, flowing and very challenging layout of the Miller circuit is an added bonus, and Spencer was clearly enjoying its benefits. "I've ridden on a lot of racetracks in my career, and Miller is easily one of the best circuits to be found anywhere in the world," says the three-time world champion. "And its layout is good for teaching. It's a world-class facility that America should be proud of."
Spencer and Miller's noted track designer/CEO Alan Wilson actually first met decades ago when Spencer began his international racing career in Europe. Wilson was the president of the organization that ran three of the British racing circuits that were part of the prestigious Transatlantic Trophy series during the late '70s, pitting the best British and American riders against each other in a team competition. He watched incredulously as a scrawny 16-year-old kid from Louisiana riding a private Yamaha TZ750 diced it out with the world's best racers on works equipment-including Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene-and even beat them on occasion. And, well, the rest is history.
Besides Spencer's obvious qualifications, the instructors at the Spencer school are all highly skilled current and former racers with impressive rsums. Chief instructor Nick Ienatsch's name should ring a bell with longtime SR readers; as well as being the founding editor of this magazine, he was a perennial top-three finisher in the AMA 250 Grand Prix class and has an AMA SuperTeams endurance and numerous regional championships to his credit. Jeff Haney is a former factory AMA Superbike and dirt-track racer who currently helps mentor young riders like factory Yamaha's Jason DiSalvo. Dale Kieffer has countless regional championships under his belt and has finished on the podium at AMA Formula Xtreme and Superstock events. And Shane Turpin is the Mountain Roadracing Association's Number One plate holder who currently campaigns the AMA Superbike and Superstock classes.
A Differing PhilosophyLike most riding schools, the Spencer school covers the usual basics: concentration, vision, relaxation/smoothness, cornering technique and bike control. What's different is the innovative way in how portions of the school's curriculum are taught and implemented.
"You're going to get a ton of laps around Miller during your three days here," proclaims Ienatsch, "but we're not going to have you just going around doing 100 laps and continue pounding out the same old mistakes. Your mental approach to riding is critically important, so we want to get you to relax and think about what needs to be done-without obsessing on it-before you roll out there. If you know what you need to do beforehand, you get up to speed quicker. You won't waste time wandering around for the first few laps trying to figure things out." The school provides a fully set-up Honda CBR600RR with Michelin Pilot Power tires for each student; riding gear is available for rent.
Some riding schools have you spend time in the classroom talking about various subjects, then have the group run around the track for a session while the instructors follow as many students as possible to critique their riding. Other schools put students through numerous riding drills to reinforce their particular curriculum's techniques. The Spencer school combines both of these philosophies by incorporating the riding drills into each lap of the track. For example, one portion of the track may be designated for a braking drill during one session, so the riders can practice the technique at that spot, and then continue on for another lap while the basic premise of that drill is still fresh in their minds.
Another interesting practice is the instructor demonstrations. While most other schools also have their instructors perform a demonstration ride through a corner while the students watch close by, the Spencer school goes a step further by also having the instructors demonstrate the consequences of doing something the wrong way in a few different variations. For instance, while Ienatsch gives a continuous play-by-play narration for the students, one of the instructors will enter the corner too early, forcing him to run wide midcorner and lose speed. Then the instructor will enter the corner a little later, which shows some improvement in midcorner speed and exit position. And finally, the instructor will enter the corner at the right spot, displaying for the students not only the proper technique, but also how a little experimentation can yield results, and that they're not expecting the students to be virtual AMA-level pros overnight. "We want you to see how you can learn and improve by gradually stepping outside of your normal and comfortable habits," states Ienatsch, "so we're going to stay away from absolutes. We want to get away from the 'always' and 'never' terminology."
The Brake As A Steering ToolThe Spencer school is also different in how it emphasizes proper usage of the brakes, especially with regard to trail-braking (the act of continuing to "trail" application of the brakes as you lean into the corner toward the apex). "Trail-braking helps you change direction sooner in the lean angle and allows you to shorten the time and distance to get your steering done so you can get on the throttle sooner," reveals Spencer. Most schools tend to avoid too much emphasis on trail-braking because of the increased skill involved, but the Spencer school takes the opposite tack. "The brake is not just a speed adjuster; it's also a steering geometry adjuster," says Ienatsch.
Part of this philosophy revolves around "being able to control the bike's direction at all times"-one of Spencer's riding mantras that may sound obvious, but is actually an ability that very few can claim with any real certainty. Like many other schools, the Spencer school believes that there are many inputs involved in steering a motorcycle through a corner, not just one singular technique. Trail-braking into the corner helps a rider to enter a turn with increased speed by keeping the front suspension compressed. This results in easier, quicker and tighter turning because the bike's steering geometry is effectively steeper than it would be normally.
The only problem is that it takes a skilled hand to modulate the front brake properly so that you don't overcome the limited traction capabilities of the front tire due to braking and steering at the same time. In order to teach students how to control the front brake with the necessary precision, the school uses a few drills designed to help them develop a feel for accurately adjusting lever pressure while dealing with all the other physical actions involved in braking and steering. One drill consists of riding up at full chat in third gear to a waiting Jeff Haney standing trackside, then braking hard to a complete stop in front of him while he closely examines your technique; the point of the drill is to have your front fork rise very slowly as you come to stop, requiring a precise amount of modulation at the brake lever to keep the front end loaded through the last 10 feet of braking. Another drill involves slaloming through a setup of cones, which not only requires a level of trail-braking in order to negotiate the course with any level of speed and smoothness, but also requires you to look up (teaching proper vision techniques) and plan ahead (maintaining concentration).
"Too many riders look at the brakes like an on/off switch," says Ienatsch, "especially as the pace picks up. They end up stabbing at them in a panic and upsetting the bike. We show you why smoothness in all control actions is so critical. You will actually go faster by using the brakes more lightly and accurately than you ever will by going super-deep into a corner and then grabbing the brakes trying to gather everything up."
That smooth application of the controls is also the purpose behind Spencer's two-up student rides. Once the turn is initiated, a smooth and light application of braking helps increase lean angle and tighten up the turn radius; applying some throttle arrests the lean angle and helps pull the bike upright on the exit of the corner. "Learn to let the bike do some of the steering work and you save that energy for other riding tasks, opening up your control and safety margin," says Spencer.
The school also makes liberal use of videotaping each student from behind using a lipstick camera mounted on Haney's Honda CBR1000RR. Watching others and then yourself onscreen in the classroom with play-by-play critique from the instructors is almost like a visual data-acquisition system, allowing you to see in real time where and how any improvements can be made. It's an incredibly valuable learning tool that shouldn't be missed.
Vital LessonsAnyone who tells you he knows all there is to know about riding is full of hot air. Even with 25-plus years of riding/racing experience, I learned some valuable tips on trail-braking and riding position at the school that have already enabled me to go quicker with less effort. The Freddie Spencer High Performance Riding School has two- and three-day schools aimed at both the street and sport rider, as well as pro-level schools targeted toward racers looking to gain that extra edge. Log onto www.fastfreddie.com or call (888) 672-7219.