It's often been said that having an environment conducive to learning is crucial in a teacher's ability to convey a lesson's message to his/her students. The classroom needs to be free of distractions and configured so that every student can easily be involved in every step of the lesson. It must make the students feel comfortable-both physically and psychologically-so that the motivation to learn comes effortlessly, yet still be capable of challenging them to help build their confidence. The correct tools must be readily available in order to help facilitate learning any new skill or task. And lest we forget the most important of all requirements, the teacher must possess the knowledge, patience, and aptitude for affably guiding students of varying abilities through the curriculum.
Meeting all those requirements and molding them into a tidy riding school package is a tough job. It's easy to be slightly deficient in one aspect or another, and it doesn't take much to upset the delicate balance required to help students improve their riding skills. The number of riding schools we've experienced that manage to keep this balance can be counted on one hand.
Thankfully, we've found one more school to add to that list.
The Ragin' Cajun
Die-hard superbike racing fans will remember former multi-time AMA champion Jamie James from his racing exploits aboard the Vance & Hines Yamahas and the Yoshimura Suzukis. The Louisiana native-nicknamed the "Ragin' Cajun"-forged a reputation as a fierce competitor with a natural talent for sliding a motorcycle (he raced amateur dirt-track and motocross before taking up roadracing in '84) on his way to the AMA Superbike and 750 Supersport titles in '89, and the 600 Supersport championship in '94.
James' friendly and approachable nature off the track, however, earned him just as many fans as his racing exploits on the track. James was one of the original instructors at the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School, and we spent plenty of time with him during our visit there ("Cornering Curriculum," December '01); his extremely easygoing nature puts students at ease, giving them the confidence to ask questions, and it was easy to see that he was one of the more popular instructors at the school. The fact that he's ridden enough laps around Road Atlanta (and won many races there) during his career that he could probably ride the place blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back surely didn't hurt, either.
James had always kept close ties with Yamaha, and a few years ago he started his own business creating custom-modified YZF-R1s that were sold through Yamaha dealers. With all the brand-related riding schools that were already in existence, however, it was obvious there was one motorcycle manufacturer that lacked any major presence in this arena. Thus it was only natural that James and Yamaha would join forces to create a school that featured the company's racetrack-oriented sportbikes.
Barber Motorsports Park
When Barber Motorsports Park officially opened its gates in 2003, the USA gained a world-class road-course racing facility in the Southeast. Packing 16 turns into 2.38 miles of roller-coaster asphalt situated among lush grass-covered hills and forest deep in the heart of Alabama, BMP's layout is easily one of the most challenging circuits in the country. It basically throws everything at you: major elevation changes, differing cambers and radii throughout a turn, blind corner entrances, fast turns, slow turns...BMP's obstacles are multi-faceted and don't give you much time to rest. Noted racetrack designer Alan Wilson drafted every aspect of the circuit, so you know that any lap can and will test your skills to the limit.
Don't get us wrong, though; while BMP's layout will test the mettle of any expert rider, it's also forgiving and safe enough for novice riders to gain the necessary confidence that fosters the desire to push their comfort level and improve. There's tons of runoff area with well-groomed gravel traps in all the turns to keep a wayward rider out of trouble, and the modern supplementary facilities ensure that any problems can be handled quickly and efficiently. In other words, it's difficult not to look at BMP as one of the best classrooms we can think of.
Needless to say, having Barber as a home base for its activities would be a big advantage for any organization. So James didn't exactly take time to mull it over when he was offered the opportunity to host a Yamaha-sponsored riding school there.
Jamie James Yamaha Champions School
With many good friends who also happen to be past AMA champions, James doesn't have any problems getting at least one star rider as a guest instructor at every school date. Champions like Colin Edwards II, Dave Sadowski, Tom Kipp, Thomas Stevens, Rich Oliver and Jimmy Filice are frequent visitors who are more than happy to share their vast knowledge of riding technique with students. Of course, the school's permanent instructors aren't slouches by any stretch of the imagination-for example, not many can boast former World and AMA Superbike champion Scott Russell as part of their faculty. Former AMA Pro Thunder champion and factory superbike rider Mike Smith, plus WERA champions Brian Stokes, Chuck Ivey, and Scott Carpenter are just part of what is surely one of the most experienced and capable school staffs anywhere. Kind of easy to see where the Jamie James Yamaha Champions School title came from, isn't it?
As with all top-flight riding schools, the JJYCS will let you ride your own bike as long as it and your riding gear meet the school's requirements (the first being that your bike is a Yamaha, of course). If you wish to use the school's equipment, there's a well-maintained fleet of R1s, R6s, and FZ6s shod with Michelin Pilot Power tires from which to choose, as well as Pilot leathers and gloves, Arai helmets and TCX boots if you need riding gear.
If you could only use one word to describe the JJYCS, it would have to be relaxed. While it's virtually impossible to make any novice rider truly comfortable out on the racetrack, the JJYCS's overall feel is very friendly and easygoing (not coincidentally like its lead instructor's personality). The low-pressure environment reduces the anxiety level that often afflicts racetrack first-timers; trying to deal with the usual information overload that accompanies the combination of chalkboard lessons and then venturing into the foreign surroundings of a racing circuit can be intimidating enough for a newbie, but the JJYCS's low-key atmosphere helps allay those fears. There are no forced marches through riding drills or long, drawn-out philosophical classroom discussions here; just straight-ahead, easily digestible classroom lessons followed by plenty of track time.
One aspect of the curriculum that we thought stood out was that many of the ideas and techniques taught in the JJYCS continually have their application to street riding emphasized where appropriate. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of riding school students are still street riders, and delving past the standard "take it to the track" preaching is a good way to ensure that the lessons learned will sink in and have more potential to be put into practice by everyone.
Similar to other top riding schools, the JJYCS keeps the student/instructor ratio low to ensure that everyone gets enough individual attention during their two-day course if they need help with a particular problem or have questions. We often saw students getting some one-on-one instruction during the numerous track sessions, and a few even took advantage of a two-up ride with an instructor to get an over-the-shoulder viewpoint of the proper way to dissect a racetrack. As per usual practice, groups are separated by skill level and the JJYCS instructors keep a watchful eye to make sure that riders within each group are closely matched. And if you're an advanced-level rider or racer, don't think that you'll be forced to putt around with a group well below your speed; needless to say, the instructors are highly adaptable and have more than enough knowledge and speed in hand to help even the most seasoned experts.
Another teaching tool at the JJYCS that caught our eye was the on-board video bike that was used to capture students in action out on the track. While other schools also use this method, the unique setup on the JJYCS video bike also displays the instructor's real-time speed, rpm and throttle position, allowing students to view the instructor's control actions and hopefully compare them to their own.
A Fun Way To Learn
We've returned from some riding schools in the past knowing that we learned a few things, but feeling as if we just graduated from a tough four-year university; thanks for the education, but we're not exactly bummed it's over. We came away from the Jamie James Yamaha Champions School finding that we'd discovered a few new riding techniques without having to consciously think about it-we were having so much fun that the lessons seemed almost subliminal in nature, as if we were kids in summer camp. Real learning development is all about having the right teaching environment-and when you're rubbing elbows and getting an education from racing heroes like Jamie James, Scott Russell, and numerous other champions in every session at a superb classroom like Barber Motorsports Park, it's hard not to feel like a kid at play.
For more information on the Jamie James Yamaha Champions School, log onto www.jamiejamesyamaha.com or call (828) 337-7495.
Yamaha/Nesba Sportbike Demo Ride Program
Now You Can Test Ride An R1 Or R6 On The Track
Although much of the riding season will be over by the time you read this, Yamaha and track day organization NESBA (Northeast Sportbike Association) have teamed up to offer the opportunity to test ride a Yamaha supersport bike at selected track day events across the country in '08, with plans to expand in '09.
Test rides on a new-model motorcycle are usually limited to large organized demo ride events such as Daytona Bike Week, and even then you never get a chance to really discover how a sportbike performs due to the traditional demo ride's street-legal limitations and rigid "follow the leader" structure. With the NESBA/Yamaha Sportbike Demo program, however, you'll be able to spend 15 minutes on your choice of Yamaha (YZF-R1, R6, R6S, FZ1, FZ6) on clean racetrack pavement with no speed limits, radar-gun-wielding law enforcement, or wayward automobiles.
You'll need a valid motorcycle license, along with riding gear that meets the approval of NESBA staff (Snell/DOT helmet, gloves, boots, full leathers-some riding gear is available for loan, but strictly on a first-come, first-served, size-available basis). To sign up, call (877) 286-3722 a minimum of two weeks prior to the scheduled track day event (unfortunately most of the track days will be over by the time you read this, but check Yamaha Motor Corp USA's website at www.yamaha-motor.com or NESBA's site at www.nesba.com for details on scheduled events for '09).