During the rider's meeting in the morning, Polen and partner Brian Larrabure discuss how the day is run and what to expect.
What separates this school from the rest is the use of two-way radios. Each rider gets fitted with a pouch containing a radio and different sized earbuds are available. The noise-cancelling earbuds also act as earplugs while riding and block much of the wind noise.
Each student's sessions are broken down into one of the three experience levels that run every hour. On average, this equates to at least three one-on-one sessions with Polen, usually more.
Included with each school are the services of a suspension specialist throughout the day. Basic sag settings are adjusted in the morning and each rider can come back as many times as they need during the day to fine tune to their liking.
Students follow Polen throughout the day at an ever increasing pace. Throughout each session he's on the radio describing the optimum line and what you should be doing on the bike.
At the half-way point in the day, Polen gathers the students together and discusses what he's seen so far, the improvement in lap times and what to expect next...which is putting your faith in him as you go quicker than you ever thought you could.
If you've been following the magazine the past few months you might have noticed a trend forming with SR's new guy: he's dropping bikes like they were going out of style. Big or small I've dumped them all and the trend gets old really quick. Doing what I do for a living and having some accomplished colleagues by my side, it's only natural that my skills would improve. And they did-no longer was I being left for dust by other riders I previously thought I could never catch. Now instead of catching a quick glimpse of someone's riding gear as they went past, I could maintain a pace that allowed me to notice what brand someone's helmet was or what sponsors were on their leathers. And wouldn't you know it; I'd even sneak in the occasional inside pass on said person as well. Yes, my riding was coming along quite nicely.
Or So I Thought
With improved skill comes increased confidence and mine was brimming quite high. A couple of podium finishes in the local club races was a definite ego boost, but soon after that bubble was about to burst. A whole string of falls and mishaps soon followed, no doubt spurred by this new found sense of (false) invincibility. But waking up bruised, battered and with sprained body parts was a quick and painful way to bring this editor back to earth. With confidence now looming at an all-time low and with my sense of mortality back in check, it was decided that a riding school would be the best way to get back up to speed and have a professional assess what it is that's going all wrong. Unfortunately, with the economy falling and budgets being cut, there was no way to afford flying out to a world class racetrack for personal coaching by a former world champion.
Well, sort of. Enter Doug Polen. Polen's 1ON1 Riders School (www.gopolen.com) runs in conjunction with trackdays organized by www.thetrackclub.com and offers almost everything we were looking for: one-on-one coaching by a two-time World Superbike and World Endurance champion (not to mention the '93 AMA Superbike champ) and a reasonable price. The caveat? Buttonwillow Raceway Park would be the track of choice for the coaching lesson. World class it is not, but its mixture of turns and track surfaces makes it an excellent course to learn on. And for $350 (not including trackday fees) the price is hard to beat. For those who truly want to ride on a world class facility, dates are also offered at Infineon Raceway ($450) as well as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca ($550). Lastly, for racers on the east coast, Polen is also offering his services at select AHRMA vintage races throughout the country. Participants needing to take a new racer program can sign up for the class the Friday before the event and be racing by the weekend. Likewise, seasoned riders looking for an advanced program may also enroll in the advanced racer school.
How It Works
As the name implies, each student receives one-on-one instruction with Polen. As such, group sizes are no more than six riders-so early reservation is key. What separates this school from the rest is the use of two-way radios between yourself and Polen (it's more like one-way radios, as you can't talk back to Polen). This way, as he's leading someone around the track he can give real-time advice for each turn as you approach it. Riders are divided into the different sessions of the day depending on skill level and are free to ride, alone, in their session when not being instructed by Polen.
During the morning sessions Polen will take a few students at a time onto the track (the only time he does this) as a warm-up-both for man and machine. Here he goes rather slow to demonstrate the proper lines on the track at a pace that's easy to follow. The entire time he's communicating through the radio exactly where you want to be at each turn and why you want to be there. From there it becomes a lead-follow ordeal (mainly follow) where Polen will gauge your pace and act as a rabbit to chase around. The idea behind this is to push you to the limits of your comfort zone. All the while getting instruction via radio in real-time. This method of getting instant advice while riding seemed to work for many of the students, myself included, as the classic case of "monkey see, monkey do" applies and the rider behind sees the rider ahead turning at a certain time and speed and figures they can do it too.
On a personal note, through the radio communication Polen stressed to me the importance of smoothness on a motorcycle; a basic fundamental element I seemed to have forgotten. Slashing apexes and applying fistfuls of throttle at maximum lean gave way to wide arcs, gentle acceleration and taking advantage of the tire's contact patch. As a consequence it also opened my eyes to the vast width of most racetracks and how little of it I actually use. This would come in handy later in the day.
As helpful as the radio communication and rabbit method of instruction was for everyone involved, there was still a major obstacle to overcome: one's personal comfort zone. At the mid-way point in the day Polen gathers everyone together and discusses lap times. On average, each student shaves eight seconds from the morning until this halfway point. While impressive, these times are a bit misleading as they were set earlier in the day, when students were still warming up and getting acclimated to the track configuration. Realistically, each student was capable of reaching their best times on their own at some point during the day as they rode to the limits of their comfort level. Polen just helped them get there faster.
The Turning Point
Knowing this, and knowing that each machine is capable of so much more, Polen then challenges everyone by asking them to ride outside their comfort zone and to do what he says over the radio. "Your bikes are nowhere near their limits. Trust me." he says. With this simple nugget in mind, I followed the Champ onto the track. Characteristically, Polen never pushes on the first lap to allow the tires to reach operating temperature. Come the second lap, however, things start to pick up. Doug is still leading the way, only now he has a sense of where I'm strong and where I'm struggling. In my weak areas he would point out where to be on the track, when to turn it in, where to be on the exit and even when to pick it back up and drive out. In the areas where I was strong his advice was simple, "Don't let up, stay on the gas, and driiiiiiive to the edge of the track." After putting my faith in his hands and following his lead, my best lap at the end of the school was six seconds quicker than my mid-day time. More importantly, I felt as though there was still more in reserve, I was much less fatigued after each stint, and I was slowly regaining the confidence I had lost prior to the class. Judging by the smiles on the other students-as well as their lap times-this was probably a sentiment shared by all.
That being said, there were some issues of concern. Firstly, because Polen is leading for the entire class, there's never an opportunity for him to follow the student and critique specific aspects of their riding. He's excellent in gauging where a rider is in his mirrors, but teaching in this manner is difficult in terms of giving detailed advice. Also, the flaw to this method is that some students become fixated on chasing the leader instead of focusing their gaze beyond him. The result of this tunnel vision is the student not knowing where to go when left to lap the track on their own. Along those same lines, another feature that would help the visual learners among us is having Polen follow on a camera bike. That way after each session the student can actually see what it was they need to work on for the next session. Video, paired with the radio communication while riding, can dramatically expedite the learning process. Further, with a curriculum largely based on proper lines around the track, other equally important details are omitted, like markers. While each track is different, knowing what to look for and how to choose positions on the track to brake, turn-in, apex and exit helps "connect the dots" for each spot on the course. Of course, concentrating on certain aspects is difficult when other trackday participants are buzzing by who aren't enrolled in the class.
Is It Worth It?
As with any school, you're only going to get out of it what you put into it. And for a few hundred dollars Polen will teach you something. There are some obstacles in the school structure that could be different, but the program is still in its infancy and is always evolving. During the day he's largely busy with students, but whenever there's a break in the action, and at the conclusion of the school he's available for questions and is always willing to shed some light from his experience. As for me, I ended up having a chat with Polen as we were all packing up. He noticed a dramatic difference at the end of the day from the morning sessions and reiterated some basic concepts that he believed were the reason for my string of bad luck. More importantly, he changed the way I approach riding. So now the question that is begging to be asked: is it worth it? Despite the issues and the methods that could be done differently, any school is a successful one if you can walk away learning at least one thing-the fact that it's light on the wallet doesn't hurt either. Is it worth it? In a word: yes.