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Apr 9, 2013

An Enthusiast Writes About Attending A CLASS Motorcycle School At Laguna Seca With A Special Guest: 1993 World Champion Kevin Schwantz

CLASS Motorcycle School: Former 500cc GP World Champion Kevin Schwantz (left) and three-time AMA Pro Superbike Champion Reg Pridmore (right) greet students at the beginning of a CLASS Motorcycle School at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Photo by Dito Milian/GotBlueMilk.com, courtesy of CLASS Motorcycle School.
FIRST PERSON/OPINION:

KEVIN TAKES A BREAK

By Joe Kerr

I was lucky enough to join CLASS Motorcycle Schools for their Laguna Classic held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on the last Monday in March. This was a special “limited to 20 students per group” two-group school made even more special because CLASS owner--and three-time AMA Superbike Champion--Reg Pridmore had invited Kevin Schwantz to come.

First, some history: Reg Pridmore was a baby growing into a child living in the heart of England during the blitz years of WWII. When his family was bombed out of London, he moved in with out of town relatives, who lived five miles from a Spitfire base. His dad bicycled little Reg over to see the planes, embedding a lifelong love of aviation, and probably also of going fast.

It was a period that created an interesting generation of Brits, including most of the famous musicians of the “British Invasion” of the early 1960s: The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, etc. It was a generation filled with guys who were looking for a full life, and not afraid to live it.

Back to current day: Reg had invited Kevin Schwantz to come to CLASS after reading Kent Kunitsugu’s editorial about the Circuit of the Americas/Dorna/Schwantz matter in the January, 2013 Sport Rider magazine. In the editorial, Kunitsugu had written, “...what really irks me about this situation is how one party refused to do the honorable thing and assist a person whose legendary stature in the sport is only matched by his integrity and tireless efforts at giving back to the sport.”

It irked Reg also, and when Reg invited Kevin to come to Laguna Seca for his school, Kevin asked Reg what he wanted him to do. "Just enjoy yourself, and have some fun," Pridmore told him. "We have a new bike for you to ride. You can talk in class, but I’ll do most of the work. Feel free to comment, give any advice you like to the students, but mainly just take a break!"

During most of my working years I had lived in Chicago, and even with cable, finding motorcycle racing in those days was somewhat hit or miss. I remember tuning in to watch a race I’d heard would be on, but the channel, ESPN I think, was still finishing a tennis match. SpeedVision began in 1996, but I don’t remember having it until later, and it wasn’t until I started doing track schools in the early 1990s that I began to get really interested. So I hadn’t followed racing back when Kevin Schwantz was one of the great riders, but I sure knew who he was.

Reg and Gigi had driven their rig up to the track on Saturday and I visited them and picked-up a set of Dunlops that were part of my Force5 benefits with CLASS.

Reg asked me to write about the special school, and offered to let me ride in some of the sessions, something I was interested in doing because I had a new Ducati Panigale that I bought last June and after finally getting the suspension set-up like I wanted it, it had been too loud even with stock mufflers to pass the 92 decibel limit at Laguna. I was meatball- flagged after less than 4 laps last October when I got 94.1 db riding intentionally to find out how much noise I was making, in second gear full throttle past the sound booth within 6 to 8 feet of the right side of the track.

Since then my friend Jay Murray had constructed an extended exhaust with a small muffler for my new Duc, and I wanted to get a reading on it. With Jay’s device, it got 90.1 db, which should even pass the 90 db days with a little care on my part.

This Laguna Classic CLASS day at the “dry lagoon” began with a coating of fog, which soon burned off and gave us a mostly sunny day that got up around 70º in mid-afternoon, with some breeziness at mid-day. Not bad weather for the 25th of March. It’s one of the main reasons I live near here, just 5-1/2 miles west of the track.

I have been riding since I was drafted and sent to Fort Ord in 1966. One day I took the bus into Monterey and in front of the Honda dealership I saw a line of Honda Super Cubs, those red and white 50cc “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” semi-scooters and rented one. It wasn’t long before I bought a used Honda Super 90 (it was claimed to be capable of 65 mph, and I always joked, “Yeah, if you dropped it out of an airplane!”) I’ve been riding ever since, but after 25 years of owning “standard” bikes, I got my first sportbike (a 1992 Honda VFR750) and suddenly realized that this was something new and I really didn’t know how to ride it.

I took my first track school that summer and I was hooked. Since then I’ve done over 360 track events at 30 different tracks across America, and 230 of them have been CLASS schools. So I’m not a stranger to CLASS, but this one was something special.

Kevin Schwantz arrived on Sunday, and he and some CLASS Instructors and friends got together for Sunday’s evening meal.

Kevin arrived at the track Monday morning without fanfare and joined in the procedures. Reg has an introduction to the day that lasts about 40 minutes including Instructor introductions, and Kevin also introduced himself to the students, telling us about his sister who was the successful member of the family, getting good grades, going to college, while he was the wild kid having fun and riding motorcycles.

Kevin can handle himself well in front of a large group but tends to move off the edge of the room when it’s not his turn to talk. Much of his help to students throughout the day was in one-on-one personal conversations with students. It’s a nice feeling to have someone who is an expert in what you are only learning to do, talk to you like a friend. Especially someone who has done it as well as anybody in history.

As a quick primer on Kevin Schwantz, he started road racing – and winning races – in 1985 with Yoshimura Suzuki Superbikes in the AMA, graduated to 500cc Grand Prix bikes in 1988, and was famous for his “fiercely competitive rivalry” with Wayne Rainey for several years both in Superbikes and Grand Prix. He won his only 500cc World Championship in 1993 and was the first GP rider to have his racing number – 34 – retired.

For this Laguna Classic school, Reg had 10 instructors plus himself and Gigi, and Kevin. There was a lot of involvement with the instructors, though none of it was forced--if a student wanted to work on something they knew they should be doing but still hadn’t mastered to the degree they wanted, they were left to their own desires.

Reg Pridmore has designed CLASS to be a track school that teaches you how to survive the dangers of street riding, and he teaches a relatively “tight line” that Reg used to great success in his racing days, and which will also help keep a street rider from becoming an unexpected hood ornament. Reg believes the quickest way around the track is closer to a straight line between points than a big swooping line that tries to enter every corner from the outside of the track.

He will tell students that if we are as fast as Rossi or Nicky we might also need to enter a corner wider, but even the fastest riders will defensively tighten their lines when the racing gets serious, to keep themselves from being easily passed. Plus, riders who have gained confidence entering a turn from any point on the track, even a tight line, are at an advantage over riders who only know the wide line.

I was lucky enough to be passed by Kevin Schwantz in an afternoon session. He was riding somebody else’s bike (Instructor Phil Cowden’s basically bone stock 2012 Honda 1000RR street bike, with Dunlop 211 GP-A tires, quick shifter, Power Commander and Brembo rotors with braided lines all installed by John Ethel at Jett Tuning) and I was able to keep him in sight for a couple laps because he was riding what for him at a “Sunday afternoon walk in the park” pace and being very polite when he came upon a cluster of students, which fortunately for me happened two or three times a lap, allowing me to catch up.

At his comfortable pace, Kevin entered some corners wider than Reg, but his lines were not as far out as some might expect. And while I was following him, Kevin was following Reg, and Kevin commented in the classroom that Reg really does use a tight line, running, for example, almost a straight line into the Corkscrew.

Reg has often commented that the straighter, generally mid-track line may slightly reduce his corner speed, but the ability to be harder on the brakes while his bike is still vertical, gets him to the corner first, and that’s to his advantage in many cases.

Reg also tells students that they should take all of the schools they can.

I have taken several different schools and, basically they are all going to teach the basics: Smoothness being the most important concept. There will be some slight differences in the techniques taught, but each experience adds to our knowledge, and sometimes simply hearing the same thing said in a new way finally penetrates our thick skulls.

I believe that most riders, after having taken a number of schools and paid attention, have a fairly good general idea of what we are supposed to do, though we also need to be reminded constantly of what we think we already know.

Unfortunately, most of us are not finely-tuned athletes and execution becomes what we work on for the rest of our riding lives. We each have a personal “comfort level,” a mental stage where we can perform best, and the primary way to increase our comfort level–-and thus ride faster–-is to keep everlastingly at it.

The best learning is often accompanied by a physical act. If you are not riding, it won’t make the needed impression on you. Kevin commented that how fast he could take turn 2 at Sonoma Raceway (AKA Infineon, or Sears Point) depended on how well he executed his downshift entering the corner. If it was smooth and his clutch release induced no pop-up of the forks and his use of the brakes was smooth he could accelerate without the rear tire fighting for grip and fish-tailing down the track. Riders at his level execute so quickly and smoothly that it is almost impossible for a normal rider to duplicate, but we can all try to do it the correct way, if not as well.

In a classroom session, Reg was asked about the order of using brakes and downshifts to slow for a corner, like turn 2 at Laguna. Reg said he rolls off and gets his downshifts done before coming on the brakes. Though Reg rode the famous Kawasaki Triples in the late 1970s and knows about the “no engine braking” feeling of two-strokes, he has spent most of his life racing four-strokes with their engine-braking. Kevin raced the 500 Grand Prix two-strokes in the latter part of his racing career, and said he prefers to start with some braking and then get the downshifting done. In both cases, these racers don’t waste any time, they get their business done very quickly (and smoothly!) so the difference is but a split second, and is almost a blended movement. And as Reg said, you should do what feels right to you.

For this special Laguna Classic school, Reg had some nice training tools. Afternoon big-screen HD videos let riders see themselves from behind, and see, for example, how one thing leads to another. such as when they were entering corners late and missing apexes, which made their now wider exits a problem, and got them a bit out of position for the following corner...

Today there was an extra kink in the braking drill. The length of the course was longer so riders could shift up to second, then down to first and brake at the final cones. It’s what we do several times a lap, but somehow it is harder when it is being watched by Instructors. Under watchful eyes it’s hard not to have a bit of “performance anxiety.”

One of the reasons so many riders who have taken a CLASS school keep coming back is not just because you can always learn something, and because there are only two groups, allowing more track time, but because Reg has so successfully created an atmosphere of friendliness. The phrase, “The friendliest and safest place to learn the riding skills we all need” came not from an advertising writer, but from the students themselves.

This school certainly fit that description. During the 64 miles I was on track (a normal day riding all sessions would easily be more than twice that many), there were no bad passes experienced or seen.

And a lot of riders got helpful advice from, and had their pictures taken with, a great World Champion--Kevin Schwantz!