Photos: Michael Marino/Helix In-Car Camera
Saying that a school is going to teach you to “ride like Rossi” sounds
clichéd and hyperbolic. But, when you think about it, it’s really just
a case of breaking down the methods that are proving most successful in
road racing, analyzing what makes those methods work, then developing a
curriculum capable of teaching nincompoops like me how to use them for
their own benefit. Who better to do just that than the people who
invented the idea that, just like every other sport, racing is
coachable? Of course, the real-time video feedback helps too. Here’s
what I learned when I attended the two-day Skip Barber Superbike School earlier this month. >
Held at Laguna Seca, the Superbike School is just wrapping up its first year in existence, but don’t let its lack of age fool you, it benefits from the collective experience of the first and best performance driving school in the country and one of the world’s foremost riding coaches, Jeff Haney. The school operates a fleet of KTM motorcycles, including the RC8, RC8 R, 990 Super Duke and 690 Duke. Students are free to switch between motorcycles at their will or choose a bike that fits their skill level and previous experience. The $2,599 two-day school is currently the only motorcycle program offered by Skip Barber and it’s accessible to all levels of riders.
I’d always been skeptical of Skip’s hallowed reputation as the mostest car driving school in the country, but when I took part in a Two-Day Advanced Racing School in October I found much more than the typical expensive trackday with instructors showing off and occasionally teaching you something, that I’d come to expect from attending multiple other driving schools. In contrast, the Skip Barber car program was just like going to a really good college class, but on a subject that you’re actually interested in and with instructors with top-level experience in the field. My instructor at that class was Bruce MacInnes, the same guy that taught Paul Newman and Tom Cruise how to race. How cool is that?
At Skip Barber, no skill is considered too advanced, even to teach to novice students. That’s because they’re able to break down both the theory behind and practical application of those skills in informative classroom lectures, move to on-track drills that separate the specific skill being taught from the overwhelming mix of stimuli flooding into your brain when you’re riding on a track, then work with you on a personal level with real-time feedback.
One of the hallmarks of the Skip Barber car program, trail braking, is considered too tricky for any other major school to teach, but it’s crucial to lapping both quickly and safely; benefits that carry over to the road too. Trail braking also forms the lynchpin of the Superbike School, in fact, they want you to work towards never coasting, but instead always being on either the power or the brakes, switching between the two at the apex. Sound terrifying and counter to everything you’ve learned about riding safely? It is, but it’s also one of the key skills top-level racers are employing to wring the last iota of performance out of their bikes without crashing. Check out the photo in the gallery of a Moto2 rider using one finger to brake while his knee’s on the track for an example.
Of course, the school doesn’t start with trail braking. It starts with the basic skills newer riders will need to develop in order to work up to the level where never coasting will mean something to them. Those same skills are the ones experienced riders need to brush up on, correcting bad habits and learning better ways to do all the little things that add up to bike control. One of the fundamental basics that Skip Barber is going to teach you a little differently from everyone else is body position. Check out the shots of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi in the gallery above. Their riding position (and that of Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden — Jeff taught him) is nearly identical, forming the archetype of the ideal position for exploiting the physics of current sportsbikes. It consists of one butt cheek off the seat; the ball of your inside foot on the end of the peg with the toe pointed out; the chest open and pointed towards the corner; the head low, pointed into the corner and to the side of the bike’s screen and your outside bicep resting on the tank. This is naturally the most athletic riding position, allowing you to maximize your body’s ability to respond should the need to alter the bike’s position suddenly occur and takes as much lean as possible out of a given speed in any corner.
If you look at the shot of me riding in the rain a couple of years ago at Barber and compare it to the shot of me on the RC8 during the school, you can see that my body position has improved, but these photos were taken early in the day, before I finally managed to shake the bad habit of twisting my torso back over the tank while hanging off.
It’s no coincidence that Skip Barber is teaching the same techniques that are currently being employed identically by the top riders in MotoGP. They’ve studied the riding of Rossi, Lorenzo, Stoner et al and, in some cases (like Nicky Hayden’s), even taught them how to ride like that. Watching MotoGP race footage from Laguna this year and having it picked apart by the instructor is eye-opening, they’re seeing and analyzing things you never even knew were there. Watching on-bike footage of Stoner trail brake almost all the way through the corkscrew is a great example. Before you were just in awe of the speed, now you understand how he’s able to go so fast, so accurately.
Body position is taught both in the classroom and on stand-mounted bikes. Like all the other basic skills taught here, Skip Barber’s fundamental instruction is solid, meaning not much time needs to be spent on lines and whatnot, but the low student to instructor ratio (3:1 during my time there) means that you’ll receive personal feedback and improve in any areas you need to throughout the rest of the other instruction.
Heading out on the track, the instructors lead you through a few warm up laps, then the three or so students per instructor alternate following the instructor while being filmed on GoPro Cameras. Once everyone’s cycled through a lap or two, you head back to the pits to review the footage and receive personal feedback. I’ve never had the advantage of timely video feedback like this before and it’s amazing how useful it is. While laps are still fresh in your memory, you watch yourself riding and learn from your mistakes, then head out to try it again. Later in the day, the instructor will switch to following you around, to see what you’ve learned from following them. No matter what you do, the instructor remains on line, providing you with an immediate visual cue in the videos as to where you’re going wrong. Every other aspect of your riding is factored in here, from body position to braking points to tucking on the straights.
This kind of lapping alternates with specific drills focussed on instilling and honing particular skills free from the other concerns of lapping a racetrack. During the course of the school, these start with a cone slalom that breaks the sequence of events required to lap an entire track down into a tiny model, requiring you to focus on repetition and smoothness; trail braking in a straight line to perfect fine application of the brakes; blipping the throttle between downshifts to avoid locking up the rear tire; trail braking in a corner at speed; timing your shift in body position to maximize its effectiveness; and using the rear brake to maximize the bike’s ability to shed speed.
All of this is interspaced with lapping (to and from drill zones) and even the opportunity to watch instructors like Haney and current AMA Pro American Superbike racer Jason DiSalvo run at-speed demonstrations from literally the side of the track, like not behind the barriers but just on the other side of the curbing, as shown in this i
Phone shot I took. Remember this camera has no zoom function whatsoever.
Much more useful, if far less visually impressive, are the classroom lectures. These are co-taught by Haney and Michael Czysz of MotoCzysz fame and Hell For Leather reader (Hi Michael!). It’s unusual to have each aspect of riding that’s being taught broken down both from a rider’s perspective (Jeff) and an engineer’s (Michael), but that means you’re sure to have things explained in a way you understand, whether you’re a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner.
It’s in the classroom that Michael explains how trail braking works and what its advantages are. There’s no space for us to fully break it down here, but the Skip Barber principal of exploiting as much as possible of a tire’s given grip is the main idea. While not at 100% lean, the tire has extra grip left that can be can be used to shed speed. So say, at 90% lean, you have room to use 10% of the braking capacity or a little less to leave a margin for safety. By using the brakes while turning, you’re altering the suspension geometry of the bike to make it turn faster and loading the front contact patch, increasing available grip. Combine this with the proper body position and you have to the ability to respond to unexpected obstacles on the road or steer more accurately for the apex on the track. Once you’ve reached the apex and it becomes time to accelerate, you can swap that last 1% of braking for 1% of throttle, remaining within the 100% total of grip available, rolling on more power as the lean angle decreases.
You then take that theoretical knowledge to the track to put it into practice, combining it with blipped downshifts, correct lines and your body position (pushing the head down on corner exit to push the bike upright for more grip) to string together the corner. The first time you get it right, it feels like the kind of riding you always knew you were capable of, but never knew how to access. Faster, more in-control and safer. You might still be a a few minutes off Rossi’s lap time, but you’ve learned to use the same techniques he does to improve your own riding. I know I did.