Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School - Back to School

Text: Neale Bayly • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

As I sit patiently waiting for the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School to begin, I am struck that it's nothing like I imagined. Secretly expecting a group of die-hard squids and road racers with weird color hair, scuffed-up leathers, and nose rings, I am pleasantly surprised to find that this is not so. My fellow classmates range from 26-year-old Seattle resident Becca Yucha, to 67-year-young Dirk Harden from Atlanta, and they are all mature street riders looking to improve their skills for street riding and occasional track days. There are also a couple of racers, Becca being one of them, here to learn specific tasks to help their racing. Another surprise, my fellow classmates have traveled from the four corners of the continental United States, which speaks volumes about the respect gained by Kevin Schwantz and his top-flight instructors in the three short years the school has been running.

For those of you who didn't follow road racing in the 80s and 90s, Kevin Schwantz is one of a small handful of American motorcycle racers to lift the coveted 500cc World Crown, accomplished in 1993. His dynamic style, never-say-die attitude, and phenomenal riding abilities thrilled race fans around the globe as he took 25 Grand Prix wins, 21 lap records, and 29 pole positions. It was a sad day for motorcycle racing when number 34, always a crowd favorite, finally retired.

Our main classroom instructor for the two-day school is Lance Holst, a highly accomplished journalist and road racer. His enthusiastic style, coupled with a deep knowledge of his subject, has the whole class hanging on to his every word as we all seek the secrets of going fast. Lance has broken the curriculum into easily digestible parts, and our classroom sessions are punctuated with 20-minute periods out on the racetrack under the watchful eye of the school's instructors. Here we are carefully monitored and at times videotaped, so that later we can discuss our lines and form back in the classroom. Our class is split into two groups, street riders and advanced, and we have a choice of mounts: a Suzuki SV650, or a higher performance Suzuki GSX-R600.

One of the things I like most about the school is the heavy emphasis on safety, underscoring the right way of doing things and not pushing too hard. Lance stresses keeping up our concentration, learning the track, as well as warming up our tires and our minds. Riding under these guidelines at no more than 80 percent of our abilities will help us learn the correct techniques, get smoother, and go faster than we have gone before. This works just fine for me and duly calms my nerves before we take to the track for our first session. My classmate, Jeff Jones, is riding on a racetrack for the first time and is about as nervous as I am. Moments later, we are all following our appointed instructors and it's time to start learning the track, finding our reference points, and getting used to our new machines. I choose the GSX-R600 and Jeff goes for the SV650. 

Lance spends a lot of time explaining reference points, the marks on the track that will help us choose the correct line for each corner. The secret is to choose what works for us personally, apply it while our pace is fairly conservative, so that later, when the speeds increase, we will be able to pick the points out without any drama. Should things start getting a little hectic, these points will help settle us down, get us back "on-line," and back into our rhythm. It happens to me during one session when I get separated from my instructor while passing some slower riders. I try to catch up too quickly, get unsettled, and have to remind myself to get back in the rhythm, focus on my reference points, and breathe. Forget to breathe? Sounds crazy, but it is easy to do when the adrenaline is flowing and you are concentrating intensely on the fast approaching racetrack.

The second classroom session deals with visual awareness, a skill that has infinite benefits on the racetrack and the street. Lance provides us with plenty of examples to carefully explain the benefits of looking two to six seconds ahead at all times and tells us to "pick up your eyes and look further ahead to slow things down." Apparently, if the bikes were fitted with lap timers, they would show most students lapping within seconds if not fractions of a second every lap. What this means is, that any problems you might encounter entering a corner too quickly are more than likely in your mind and, by looking ahead and slowing things down, you can get through the turn, even if you think you can't. 

One of my favorite drills is riding the track with no brakes. Kevin tells us this was what he always did when riding at a new racetrack for the first time, as it gave him an opportunity to learn his reference points, find the apexes and get comfortable. I am behind Jamie James and cannot believe how fast we are riding. With nothing more than a couple of hard down shifts we are taking the corners faster than I thought imaginable. It is making me concentrate on my track positioning, reference points, and apexes for all I am worth. Checking out the state of my knee pucks after the session, I am definitely carrying more speed through the turns. It stamps home Lance's words harder than any of the many exercises we will perform, and seriously helps me pick up speed. 

The flow of events is brisk during the two-day school, and when Lance quietly announces our final session, I can't believe our course is nearly over. Pulling out of the pit lane for the last time, I focus hard on the track ahead. With the tires warm, it is time to imprint the last two days of learning into my subconscious and set about the job at hand: riding the Suzuki GSX-R600 as fast I want around the racetrack. I find the magical rhythm and it all comes together as I simply flow through the turns and feel like I am running on rails. I know I am going faster than I have ever gone before just by the effort it takes to scrub off speed at the end of the main straight. But now, by using my braking techniques, body positioning, and looking ahead to where the bike needs to go, it all feels completely under control, and the increase in speed comes with no extra drama.

I extend a healthy dose of gratitude to Lance Holst, Kevin Schwantz, Jamie James, and all the instructors for making my time so memorable. If you have the desire to improve you riding skills, a hankering to ride on a racetrack, or just want to increase your confidence level for street or track riding, then the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School is most definitely for you.

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Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School