When it comes to improving your riding there are a million different viewpoints. Ask the guys at the local coffee shop and they'll tell you one thing. Your usual riding buddies, another. But as your pace picks up there are a few constants that seem to remain. No matter who you ask. Even still, though the theme behind gaining speed follow a general path, the specifics still tend to vary depending on who you ask. Some swear by hanging off the bike like a monkey. Others, not so much. Who do you believe? Which information is correct?
For the answer we turned to Nick Ienatsch and the Yamaha Champions Riding School. Some may recognize the Ienatsch name as he was a frequent front runner in local and national level races a few years back. Others may remember him as one of the lead instructors for the now defunct Freddie Spencer Performance Riding School. Astute readers of the magazine will recognize that name as the first editor of the very magazine you hold in your hands. With such a knack for words and a natural riding ability, it was only logical that he'd be the man to spearhead his own riding school, as his method for teaching proper motorcycle technique is well known.
With the demise of the Spencer school, which ran dates both at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, and Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada, that left both instructors and facilities with a void. Dan McKeever, director of the various performance training programs for car enthusiasts at Miller, took the two-wheel school (under the Spencer days) for himself and enjoyed it so much he brought the cast and crew (minus Spencer, obviously) back to Miller to resume teaching riders everywhere. Yamaha also stepped up to the plate and provides the school with machinery.
When Ienatsch was put in charge of the school he chose a core group of instructors to help assist him. They include long-time sidekick Ken Hill, an accomplished AFM racer, Shane Turpin; lap record holder for Miller Motorsports Park; Dale Keiffer, a local Michelin distributor through his Racer's Edge Performance shop who's also quick to boot; and Mark Schellinger, another regional champion in Colorado. For our particular school we had a special guest instructor roaming the course and offering insight-none other than three-time AMA champion, Josh Hayes.
Class sizes are capped at approximately 20 students, making for plenty of personal attention as each instructor is only paired with four students. Before ever stepping foot on track, Nick leads the classroom session with his four reasons for crashing: a lack of concentration, making abrupt decisions on the motorcycle, rushing an entrance to a corner, and repeating these mistakes. The purpose of the school is to overcome these four obstacles.
There's no getting around it, shelling out $2600 for a school is a lot of coin. As such, not much time is spent in the classroom. The beauty of Miller Motorsports Park is that it's a huge racetrack, the full course measuring over four miles in length. It's able to be broken down into two separate and distinct courses, each with its own sets of challenges. Miller's East Course, ridden on the first day, is 2.2 miles and is tight and technical. The West Course, ridden the second day, is much more flowing and open, with fast sweepers leading to tight braking zones. Each morning students are loaded up into the school vans and taken for a spin around the course, with either Ienatsch or Hill the chauffeurs. Driving as though the Ford Econovan was actually a light and nimble sportscar, the van rides aim to familiarize students with the layout of the track. Proper lines are shown and students are encouraged to pay attention to Nick or Ken at the controls as early on the notion of using the brakes to help steer the vehicle (van or motorcycle) is engrained into everyone.
Each morning starts with a...
Each morning starts with a ride in the school vans circling each track. Instructors take a few laps showing both correct and incorrect lines around the track with the resulting rewards and penalties for each. Attention is also paid to what the driver is doing at the controls as some of the dynamics carry over into two wheels.
All the instructors are distinguished...
All the instructors are distinguished riders in their own right and have been coaching together for quite some time. It's clear they're all comfortable with each other...
At the end of the first day,...
At the end of the first day, and just before lunch on the second, a video lap is done. During the review instructors deliver both praise and constructive criticism during the lap. This instant review allows students quick feedback that they can apply each time they hop on a motorcycle.
After the sighting laps each...
After the sighting laps each group takes turns behind their instructor at a pace that borders on the edge of each person's comfort zone. Each instructor is adept at picking a proper pace based on what they see in their mirrors.
After the van rides each student suits up for a lead/follow session with their instructor. It's here where the personal attention begins as each instructor has a decent gauge on their student's skill level based on what they see in the mirror. Though the van ride gives students a general idea of where to go, actually getting on the bike and experiencing the track is the quickest-and best-method for learning. Early sessions in the morning take students around the track to familiarize for no more than five laps. It's the belief of the school that it shouldn't take more than five laps to learn which way to go. After that it's about perfecting technique and trying to get around the track faster. Since there are a few basics, or what Ienatsch refers to as "non-negotiables" to cover on the first day, small portions of the school are conducted in the wide parking lot. Topics covered here are proper downshifting, U-turns (or tight turning maneuvers), body positioning (which is later emphasized on the track), and threshold braking with both the front and rear.
Once the basics (err...non-negotiables) are covered it's back out to the racetrack for more track time. Due to the lower overall speeds on the East course, the first day is conducted here to get students accustomed to proper technique like keeping the eyes up and seeing through the turn and using all of the racetrack. By this point some might be thinking "How is this going to benefit me during a street ride?" The answer to that is simple. Yes, the school is conducted on a racetrack, but the skills learned here are transferable anywhere you ride, which is a point emphasized by all the instructors. Keeping the eyes up and scanning is useful not only on the racetrack, but also when navigating a new canyon road and not knowing what's ahead. Threshold and trailbraking drills come in handy during emergency braking situations...like finding your favorite canyon turn being blocked by a tree branch.
Hayes made sure to spend time...
Hayes made sure to spend time with as many students as possible as our guest instructor. Here he tells me to slow down, otherwise Yamaha might find out and hire me to replace him. OK maybe not, but his advice was sound and very helpful.
Instructors take everyone...
Instructors take everyone around for initial sighting laps, pointing out proper lines and apex points for each turn. Being able to take the left hand off the bar with a knee on the ground demonstrates how little weight is actually on the hands.
The curriculum is flexible,...
The curriculum is flexible, with instructors making adjustments as needed. For instance, the "cone drill" is usually reserved for three-day schools but was put to use here as the instructors felt it necessary. Here cones laid on their sides at different points on the track and riders need to ride around the narrow portion of the cone. This drill forces riders to keep their vision up for unexpected surprises in the road, like a sofa lying in the middle of a blind canyon road.
As the name implies, many past and present champions have had their input in the school, and part of what sets this one apart is an active effort for guest appearances by professional riders. To date, the likes of Ben Bostrom, Scott Russell, and even Ben Spies have all been guest instructors at the school. And now we had the pleasure of riding with Josh Hayes. During the lunchtime break, a roundtable discussion is had with the Yamaha champion where students fire away questions.
Before each session, if there isn't already a predetermined exercise on track, the instructors have the group focus on a particular goal as they circulate. Meanwhile, Turpin is on course taking students for two-up rides. If you've never done one before, it's a real eye-opener as to the capabilities of a motorcycle. To close out the day each student gets one lap ahead of an instructor. But not just any lap-this is a filmed lap-where every nailed apex is celebrated, and every mistake is scrutinized for the whole class to see.
Right, so after a successful first day, the lessons from the previous day are still fresh in everyone's minds. Muscle memory has set in and a second day riding around the same track should be cake for everyone, right? Exactly, that's why for day two the west course is put to use. Here students don't have the luxury of following the same lines as the day before and going through the motions. Instead proper technique and actually paying attention the previous day are vital, especially as the West Course has a higher average speed. Other than that the second day runs much like the first. Drills expand upon the previous day's lessons and there's even more (semi) open lapping. Despite the fact that all students, regardless of skill level, are out on track at the same time, congestion never really becomes a problem thanks to the rather liberal passing rule: use safe and courteous passes. This is not a race.
One of the braking drills dares everyone to find the limits of the front brakes before running into Ienatsch. If applied correctly, when nearing the limit the front tire will slightly chirp and the rear will slowly come off the ground. All of these factors can be controlled with slow and steady hands at the controls.
Personally, I've always been timid in finding the limits on the brakes, especially during trailbraking. Despite numerous drills and explanations from various people and various schools, I had a nasty habit of braking while completely vertical. Oddly enough, when Ienatsch started his lesson on braking it sounded like every other spiel about brakes I'd heard before: squeeeeze the brakes, don't jab, and release as you lean the bike over. Good advice, but I needed more. Ienatsch tells the class not to worry about braking markers, but instead to brake "as much as you need to, not to a certain point." He also dispelled the myth about braking later if entering a corner with not enough speed, but instead to brake at the same point but use less of the lever until you need more stopping power. A side effect of this method is gently compressing the suspension (because abruptness causes crashes, remember?) But what really drove the braking drills home for me was an exercise with instructor Hill. At a complete stop, standing in front of my R6, balancing it between his legs, he had me squeeze the brake lever so he couldn't pull the bike forward. He then had me slowly release the lever until the bike moved. The revelation came when I realized just how little I released the brake before the bike moved. All this time I was just grazing the surface of the braking abilities on each bike I've ridden before. With this newfound knowledge I became much more comfortable (and confident) with the amount of brakes I could apply while leaned over.
Body positioning is another topic that is touched upon early in the school. With proper placement, manipulation of the motorcycle and its controls becomes that much easier, and there's a better chance for recovery if the limits are crossed.
This is the drill that opened...
This is the drill that opened my eyes. With the brakes fully engaged the bike obviously won't move at all. But just a little less pressure from Ienatsch and Schellinger could pull the bike forward. Realizing the braking power and how even small percentages could be used at almost full lean puts a whole new meaning to "late braking."
Morning proceedings are also...
Morning proceedings are also accompanied by demonstrations by lap record holder, Shane Turpin as to right and wrong ways around a turn.
Two-up rides with Shane Turpin...
Two-up rides with Shane Turpin give students some perspective of what the machines are truly capable of. "I'm only riding at 60 percent," Turpin later admitted.
Connecting The Dots
Since riding schools are all...
Since riding schools are all about, well, riding, instead of gathering back in the classroom instructors will pull over on the front straight and tweak the lessons depending on what each group is struggling with. This ensures maximum track time.
So the burning question: is it worth it? Well that depends on how seriously you take motorcycling. If improvement and survival skills are important to you then there's no price you can put on proper education. That said, the Yamaha Champions Riding School ranks as one of the best courses I've enrolled in and is definitely worth a return visit. Speaking of which, by the time you read this courses at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will already be in session. In fact, talks are also in place for a variety of options like an "Arrive and Ride" Program where students can rent the school's Yamahas during any trackday held at Miller Motorsports Park and have an instructor meet them for one-on-one instruction. There's even a Yamaha Champions racing series in the works for new racers to cut their teeth before actually jumping into an established club racing organization. Graduates of the basic course are automatically eligible for any of the advanced courses-even the Pro school, tailored specifically towards racers and track riders. And yes, that one definitely caught our eyes.