Yamaha Champions Riding School
Some simply cringe when they hear the word school. But the wise understand that constant learning is a must to have a sharper mind.
And in the world of motorcycle riding and racing, a sharper mind equals additional safety, more enjoyment on the street, and quicker lap times at the track.
I was seeking the former, and like many other passionate motorcyclist who want to enhance their skills, I began researching various riding schools. After thorough investigation, I quickly realized the Yamaha Champions Riding School was much more than a motorcycle riding/racing school.
Quite simply: if the university is the mecca for future geniuses in the world of higher education, the Yamaha Champions Riding School (YCRS) is the venue for future motorcycle racing stars and safer everyday street riders. A few conversations with the schools moto professors, and I was about to embark on the shortest semester of my life – a two-day education session with YCRS.
And YCRS attracted all kinds to the April school I attended at New Jersey Motorsports Park, a different track from the school’s home campus in Miller Motorsports Park. At NJMP, future Yamaha Champions Riding School graduates were successful business owners, skilled title-winning racers, a filmmaker, a doctor, among others, and me, an editor within the motorcycle industry. We all carried various skills throughout everyday life, but were all united for one goal – riding a motorcycle safer and faster.
Regardless of former education within everything from the medical field to the arts, all 25 of us descended upon the Thunderbolt and Lighting circuits at NJMP to enhance our skills for a sport that outweighs all others when it comes to passion and skill – motorcycling.
But don’t think the YCRS stops at just skills for the race track; with it comes skills that will not only save your life on the street, but create a lifestyle to live by, one that constructs a psychological awareness of your everyday well being.
But more on that later…
So here I am, the last student to arrive at NJMP on day one due to a 12-mile slowed jaunt from the hotel to the track in the pouring rain. I piloted my Honda VFR from Northeastern, Pa., to the event, always taking advantage of riding whenever possible, even if it means riding through an umbrella of steady rain.
Upon entering the garage where my unknown classmates were mingling, my apparel soaking wet from short ride, I’m greeted by the lead instructor Nick Ienatsch, school. Surrounding one of the journalist I’ve always admired, mostly due to his book “Sport Riding Techniques,” were the other coaches – Ken Hill, an instructor of AMA stars such as 2010 AMA Daytona SportBike Champion Martin Cardenas, Shane “Tornado” Turpin, current USBA and MRA plate holder, Dale Kieffer, who set multi-lap records on tracks, and Mark Schellinger, another MRA plate holder.
And there was one more guy there you may have heard of. Enter Mr. Daytona himself, Scott Russell. Here’s a man I’ve studied before even thinking about riding a motorcycle fast. He’s up there with Rainey, Gardner, Rossi, etc…he’s a pillar to our sport, and here he was, assisting in the Yamaha Champions Riding School I was part of.
One of the highlights for me came on the second day of class; Russell piloted a FZ1, chasing me around Thunderbolt. Well by chasing I mean he was probably in Sunday-cruise mode, but it still felt good to hear the exhaust of a five-time Daytona Champion trailing me around the 2.25-miles circuit.
But back to day 1. Before the leg-crossing, classroom-setting occurred, we were all in the paddock garage, hearing each instructors “non-negotiables.”
After our non-negotiables, which taught everything from loading a front tire to the four reasons for crashing (one I would learn all too well), we were about to get on a gloomy Lighting course, the rain seeming to dance on the circuit like a river of clear skittles.
The class was split into two separate groups, and we got our first experience on the track. But not on a motorcycle, rather two huge white cargo vans the school rented. Ienatsch piloted my group around the track, showing the proper lines, braking into corners and discussing various on-track techniques.
He then did some laps smoothly in the van, and juxtaposed them with some sloppy and downright scary laps, ones where smoothness and proper lines were not followed. A few times it felt as if we’d be rolling…
After a short classroom setting, a few of us braved a soaked track. I kind of wish I stayed back with the others; a few laps in I wrecked one of the school’s Yamaha R6 sportbikes (yes…$4200 worth of damage). The waiver makes students pay for $3500, which I have to foot, but with the expense came a lesson from Mr. Daytona himself, Scott Russell.
After wrecking, I somberly walked into the classroom to grab a hot tea. Inside was Russell, talking to another student about his racing experience. We began dissecting every element of what lead to the crash, which was in turn four at Lighting, one of two left handers.
Cold tires, too much lean angle and one of the four reasons for crashing – making the same mistake twice. Two laps before the crash, I was telling Ienatsch that I almost lost it there due to the coldness in the left tire wall. Well, I pushed a bit too hard, and lost the back end, low-siding across the track. I was fine, although I tore up a student’s Alpinestars rain suit top (sorry buddy…I still owe you one!), but the bike slide quickly across the track. When the R6 hit the dirt, it began somersaulting, ripping apart all the expensive goodies: body, exhaust, left clip on, etc…
An obvious idol of mine, Scott Russell distilled all his experience, discussing the accident. It felt like one of those genius Master Card “priceless” commercials: Bruised Leathers: $1200; Smashed R6: $4200; analyzing a motorcycle crash with Scott Russell: Priceless.
Later that day, the track dried, and heeding Russell’s advice, I returned, putting it all behind. He told me that’s the way a champion thinks.
I returned on the R6, a number 33 this time; my previous bike was a Number 11, and I guess I let down Ben Spies. But I wasn’t going to let down Marco Melandri this time…
After a few solo laps, I had my first-ever two-up ride with instructor Ken Hill. The racer, who coaches AMA Superbike’s Martin Cardenas and Supersport’s Elena Myers, impressed with his smoothness. The two-up ride allowed me to visual the lines and braking without any concentration at the controls.
We then did some filming, analyzing the footage during a very tasty late afternoon lunch. I was still a bit bummed about the wreck, but as Scott Russell said about accidents (“you have to brush it off and look to the next corner”), I took his philosophy and adapted to my overall life that very second. We then did additional track time at Lighting, working on various skills, such as riding position. A word about this – their concepts were initially very unusual, and felt downright weird, but by the end of the school you realize what it all means…
Nevertheless, after a short dry ride home, the wine tasted good that night. I was so beat up from the track, I was asleep by nine.
The next morning, after a short run around the hotel’s parking lot, the sky was clear, and we were at Thunderbolt, the track where AMA Pro Racing holds their round. Classroom instruction was minimized, and we spent almost the entire day on the track, Ienatsch and the instructors having loads of great exercises.
The one that amazed me the most was the braking exercise. The YCRS instructors would have us come in hot, and brake hard at various points throughout the track. We would have to stop without upsetting the suspension, and I never knew how hard I actually could brake during my normal track days/sport riding.
We also followed that exercise up with just using the rear brake on the track. From the very beginning of my experiences of track riding/sport riding, the rear brake was a no-no. But now I employ it on every ride, on the track to scrub off speed and on the street to keep the suspension even, especially with a passenger aboard.
My second favorite exercise was when the instructors and Russell set up various orange cones, changing the lines on the track. This replicated an unknown obstruction on the street/track that would make us change our line, such as a downed rider, a tree, car, etc.
On Day 2, we again did some filming, and Russell is the one who trailed me around the track. I had something to brag about now…although my speeds were anything but quick. But this is what Russell stressed; he told me to ride below my ability to sharpen skills and concentrate on whatever issues I had.
And most of those issues were problems with the things we learned the very first hour of class – the non-negotiables. By the end of the Day 2, I had loaded the supplied-notebook with loads of notes, the white pages a sea of gray lead. These are of most importance to me, and as I re-read and re-read the notes, everything began to sink in.
At the very end of class before a short graduation ceremony, Ientasch gave a philosophical soliloquy, discussing how these lessons can not only affect your motorcycling lifestyle, but your overall well being. I slowly discovered this as the YCRS progressed throughout the two days, but Nick’s ending speech solidified these notions.
All in all, the lessons from the school – the motorcycle and life lessons – may seem like much at first, but it absorbed in a few days following the school as I continued practicing the techniques at home, and re-reading and re-writing my notes as I did while studying the greats of American Literature in my days at the University.
And once the two-day class was complete, I realized the Yamaha Champions Riding School was very similar to what I experienced while studying literature in college; YRCS wasn’t so much a school, but a rather a well-organized center for lifelong learning. The lessons will stick with you every time you ride, making you safer on the street, and a much safer rider on the track while adding mounds of speed to your lap times.
As for YCRS’s stats regarding 50-percent of the students returning at Miller Motorsports Park, the school’s home campus, I’m sure that number will grow. And I’ll be part of that statistic. The price of the school is above others, but the old adage of something “worth every penny” implies to YCRS.
I hope to ride with you there. But this time I’ll bring my own bike just in case I don’t adhere to the four reasons for crashing, and I repeat another mistake…
For more details, log onto Yamaha Champions Riding School. And make sure to talk to Ienatsch; he’ll take the time out and help you out however he can.