Lessons From Legends: Scott Russell

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Lieback’s Corner (#2) / 5.5.11

The best lessons hurt, especially in the world of motorcycle racing. And yes, this was an accident, but one that hurt the pocket book, not necessarily the body.

The crash came Wednesday afternoon on a wet Lighting Course at New Jersey Motorsports Park. I was there on assignment, reviewing the Yamaha Champions Riding School, which was by far the best experience I’ve had thus far in motorcycle schools (a full review will be up shortly).

Out of 20 students, only a handful got onto the track Wednesday, the others deciding to forgo any riding due to the soggy conditions. And I was one of those students. With the rain falling, we worked on some drills with lead instructor Nick Ienatsch, a former moto-journalist I admired, known for his column “The Pace.”

After a few laps, we pitted, and I told Nick and the group I almost lost it at Turn 4, the first of only two left-handers at the 10-turn track. Well three laps later I became part of the statistic that created the school’s number four reason for motorcycle crashes – repeating a mistake. I expected the tires to be a bit warmer, and gave it too much throttle in Turn 4, and there goes the Yamaha R6.

There was a big problem, though. It wasn’t my R6, but rather the schools. If it just slid, it would have been cheap…but when it hit the dirt, it flipped once, and damaged some expensive parts (to name a few…exhaust, left clip on, left rearset, plastics…UGH).

I was fine. The corner, especially in the rain, is a slower one, and I slid on my back a bit, following the bike. My Joe Rocket leathers didn’t have a scratch on them due to the slick pavement. But that bike…that poor, poor bike.

I remained calm, though, trying to not lose focus on what I was there for during the two-day school – to enhance my philosophical thinking of motorcycles…and of course to learn how to go faster on track.

After I was asked a zillion times if I was OK, I walked into the clubhouse, about to brew some Earl Grey I had brought with me. I was hoping to be alone, but it wasn’t going to happen. This problem was immediately resolved, considering one man there was Mr. Daytona himself, Scott Russell.

He was sipping coffee, telling crash stories to a few students. After listening for about 15 minutes, I told him I had just hit the pavement. He asked if I was OK, and then what had happened. “I got on the throttle too abruptly on a left-hand wet corner…no heat in my left side of the tire, and no slow hand control,” I told him, my leathers caked with mud.

Why lie to the 1993 World Superbike Champion Scott Russell? I screwed up, plain and simple, just as we all do in this thing called life.

Russell began telling me his crash stories, and how he knew exactly what went wrong in each incident; rider error was mentioned in almost all of them.

He then explained the attitude a motorcycle racer needs not only to be competitive. He told me “get out of that moment immediately and look to the future.” This paralleled Russell’s adage taught throughout the remainder of the school: If you make a mistake on the track, look to the next apex.”

That’s just what I did…although instead of looking to the next apex I looked to the remaining time of class instruction. This would have been tough to do under normal circumstances, but that post-crash conversation with Russell had smoothed things out.

Before I could look to my next apex, though, the school had to fish me out another R6 because the one I smashed, which was number 11 (sorry Spies), was lacking the parts on hand. But soon I was up and running on another R6, this time a Number 33. I wasn’t going to let Marco Melandri down as I did Spies…

And man was I glad about getting back on the track. The following day we had class on the Thunderbolt track – no rain or wind, and blistering sunshine. During a filming segment before lunch, I lucked out. The same man who got my spirits afloat was going to film me: Scott Russell.

The five-time Daytona 200 winner recorded me lapping Thunderbolt. It was a unique feeling to have Russell chasing me…although in reality he would have lapped me two times during my one lap, even on the FZ1 he was piloting.

Talent of the champion aside, when we came down the final straight, throttle pinned, I had my caption for the photo: Ron Lieback Leads Scott Russell at NJMP…we all can dream, right?

Scott’s lesson about getting out of that bad moment, the crash one, was awe inspiring, allowing me to have that following good moment where he chased me around Thunderbolt.

This is a lesson we can use not only in motorcycling, but also throughout life; some moments we will want to embrace forever, some we will need to forget to simply move on to those better ones.

Leading Scott Russell at NJMP was one moment to embrace. But as for the other moment, the one that involved smashing a new Yamaha R6 that wasn’t mine, well that’s one I need to forget.

Stay Twisted; Throttle yr Soul
– Ron Lieback