Track School Review
As I watched American hero Ben Spies dominate an international field on his Yamaha YZF-R1 at Miller Motorsports Park, the location of the seventh stop on the Hannspree World Superbike Championship tour in Tooele, Utah, my mind was also on my upcoming attendance at the two-day iteration of the Yamaha Champions Riding School (aka Champs School and YCRS) at the same venue.
Not incidentally, my particular class was to include a guest instructor-1993 World Superbike Champion, and five-time Daytona 200 winner Scott Russell.
The philosophy at the YCRS is a potent one: 1. Replicate both the mindset and technique of MotoGP Champions. 2. Indoctrinate with wisdom borne from experience in an engaging, light-hearted manner. 3. Demonstrate each instruction with precision, clarity and consistency. 4. Collaborate with students on an ongoing basis-both on the track and with video analysis-to encourage proficiency and correct imperfections. 5. Infuse a healthy dose of practice laps. 6. Regulate class size to 20 students to maximize rider realizations. 7. Most importantly, have fun!
My first trip around the East Course was in a 15-passenger van driven by Lead Instructor Nick Ienatsch. My nerves were immediately jolted as Ienatsch carried a pace more suitable to a modified sports car than a fully loaded 15-passenger van. It was incomprehensible to me. How could he go this fast without landing us upside-down at turn 5, or any other turn, for that matter? I found myself laughing out loud a few times-a fearful laugh, to be sure.
"It doesn’t matter if you’re driving a car, a motorcycle or a van, the principles are all the same," Ienatsch later explained, making four critical points. "Focus, finesse with the controls, scanning ahead, and the ability to make adjustments at any point on the street or track. These are the skills you’ll need to not only win championships, but to wake up the next day and eat your pancakes! I want to become an old rider and eat lots of pancakes. Don’t you?" Welcome to the Yamaha Champions Riding School.
With a zest for the material he teaches, Ienatsch personifies prolific energy with knowledge seeping from his pores. He exudes a youthful spirit as he imparts this rich curriculum to us in a way that is easily assimilated. The YCRS stems from the legendary Freddie Spencer’s Racing School, and it is readily apparent that Ienatsch has been heavily involved for 11 years.
Ienatsch and the other instructors have amassed AMA, MRA, Club, Willow Springs and numerous other championships. They also share in excess of 26 years of teaching experience between them. During our in-class instruction, the concepts were cemented with lectures, whiteboard illustrations, and GP race video demonstrations, sometimes shown in slow motion. We had our choice of the latest track-savvy motorcycles from Yamaha-including the R6, R6S, FZ6R and the FZ1-and there were numerous performance drills implemented to familiarize and deepen our experience with the components of the bikes. We were continuously reminded of the four non-negotiable points that apply both on the track and on the street, due to their life-saving and race-winning attributes.
I was struck with the epiphany that to become successful here meant un-learning some of what I had been taught previously. For instance, the YCRS team heavily emphasized trail braking. Prior to this, I was taught the front tire is used for both cornering and braking, but not simultaneously.
Once I had shifted my paradigm about what was possible on a motorcycle, and I had the chance to apply their cutting-edge philosophies on the track, I was duly rewarded with a new level of knee-dragging confidence. One of the favorable qualities I admired about the YCRS was the fact that the instructors would stop us every few laps to convene, assess, and make adjustments. We were certainly not flying blind, yet the manner in which this was done definitely flowed seamlessly.
Phrases such as, "Load the tires before you make them work," "More speed, more brakes," "Maintenance throttle," "Blip every downshift," "Free speed," and "Look GP to go GP," are just a few of the mantras that have permeated my being since completing this exciting class designed to keep me safe, smooth, confident and fast.
I found that my foremost challenge aboard the #9 Yamaha R6 was to minimize the abruptness I would sometimes display with my control inputs. Still, their unambiguous instruction left no room for guesswork. For each flaw, there was a clear and purposeful solution that, when applied, resulted in immediate gratification. I felt very encouraged along the way.
In addition to the generous amount of time we spent honing our skills on the track, we also had the option to do two-up laps with the instructors on a Yamaha FZ1 to glean a feel for the best lines and smoothness on the track. After that, I followed Russell around for a few laps, and was immediately humbled. Weeks later, I listened to him on television giving expert, and experienced, commentary on the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Pix, informing the audience exactly how it is done in a sport where fast equals smooth.
I had the opportunity to speak at length with Russell between sessions, at which time I received a few gems that helped me a great deal. At times when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with new knowledge, he reminded me to focus on one aspect at a time. He helped me finesse my blipping for smoother corner entrance and he casually mentioned that, whenever possible, he would search out the apex first-as early as possible-and this would dictate to him his braking marker. Priceless.
As we wrapped up our class, one filled with the spirit of camaraderie, we received our certificates of completion. Having immersed myself in the Champs School, I have a better idea of how it is done. With much focused practice and deliberate attention generously paid to the skills I was taught, one day I will know.
Photography by Jeremy Henrie