Yamaha Champions Riding School has moved to the New Jersey Motorsports Park and RideApart details what the two-day course has in store for riders.
After several years splitting time between Miller Motorsports Park in Utah and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California, Yamaha Champions Riding School (YCRS) has a new home at New Jersey Motorsports Park, with sessions running from April through October. Winter locations have yet to be announced.
YCRS grew out of the Freddie Spencer High Performance Riding School, and has trained thousands of riders since 1997. Lead Instructors Nick Ienatsch and Ken Hill put together teams of world-class professional instructors and guest instructors, drawing from the highest levels of the motorcycling world. Scott Russell ("Mr. Daytona") and Lary Pegram are permanent guest instructors, and celebrity instructors like Josh Hayes, Josh Herrin, Tommy Aquino, Ben Spies and Eric Bostrom are often on hand. Class sizes average about 22 students, with a student-to-instructor ratio of 5:1, so there's plenty of individual attention.
Yamaha sponsors the program, supplying a lineup of R6s, FZ8s, FZ9s, FZ1s, and a few R1s. Dunlop Q3 tires are supplied on each bike, ensuring appropriate grip at all levels of training.
Last summer when the school was still headquartered in Utah, Yamaha invited me to take a slot in their two-day class. Over two days of classroom and track work, I had the opportunity to build a base of new skills and a new approach to riding that I've been able to apply to my everyday life on two wheels.
Day One began with a classroom session. Ienatsch has latched on to the phrase "Champions' Habits," and he extolled the instructors and guest instructors to share theirs with the class. Each instructor came prepared with a practical, incisive piece of advice, a nugget that went beyond the obvious or philosophical. "Have a plan," advised Scott Russell. "Lean angle equals risk," said Shane Turpin. "More speed, more brakes," was the statement from Bradley Smith, the 23-year old Superbike racer from the UK. Ienatsch conducted the classroom session like a maestro, coaxing details from his instructors and guests, then summing up with bullet points and clear direction. Students are encouraged to take notes -- indeed, a notebook and pen are provided. Lots of information is exchanged in each session, and notes help refresh and clarify recollection.
Finally, it was time to get out on the track. We geared up, and Ienatsch divided us into riding groups by ability and experience. My instructor on Day One was Ken Hill, a tremendously gifted rider with great patience and teaching skills. We worked on specific skills on each circuit of the track -- smoother braking, more assertive acceleration, finding the apex to each corner and maintaining the "umbrella of direction." I felt awkward and slow, watching the faster, more experienced riders in the group excel at skills that I had yet to acquire. Hill was supportive and direct, providing feedback, encouragement and tips that kept me focused on my own experience.
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YCRS integrates video into the teaching process as well. At some point during the day, an instructor follows each rider around the track for a lap, videotaping his or her performance. Later, back in the classroom, each student's lap is played back on a big screen, and the instructors analyze the riding to provide example and to give advice for improvement. Seeing exactly what I was doing on the track, I became aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and saw opportunities to improve. I learned a lot from watching the other rider's footage, too, and from listening to the expert analysis.
After video, it was back on the track to put our learning into practice. More riding, braking and cornering drills followed, and we rode to the edges of exhaustion before the end of the day. I steeled my nerves and climbed on the back on instructor Ken Hill's bike for a two-up ride around the track so that he could demonstrate some fine points of braking and acceleration. I had never ridden on the back of a motorcycle before, but after watching Hill ride all day and listening to his instruction, I knew that I was in safe hands. I learned a lot from the pillion, and even enjoyed the ride a little bit.
Day One ended with a classroom review, where we discussed the five reasons crashes occur on the track: Lack of focus or loss of focus; abruptness; rushing the corners; repeating a mistake; and cold tires. The same reasons apply to the street. Which is why we were fortunate to have some choice Arai helmets on hand incase we happen to experience any such occasion.
Bright and early on Day Two, we all returned, eager to ride more. I experienced a lot of muscle soreness from the exertion of Day One. I could barely walk up a flight of stairs to attend the classroom session. I have to admit that I was glad to see that I wasn't the only one who was sore -- nearly everyone was moving gingerly, even the youngest riders in the class.
Ienatsch introduced the concept of "Vital Points"– places on the track where you're traveling at more feet per second. First, identify vital points, then analyze the types of corners that you're going to encounter: Entry, Exit and Balanced. Entry corners are ones where deceleration is greater than acceleration. Exit corners are the opposite, and balanced corners have the same value of acceleration and deceleration. Managing corners depends heavily on managing braking.
YCRS is very big on using the brakes to slow your bike down, maintaining speed and throttle and applying the brakes lighter, longer rather than coasting and using engine braking exclusively. Using the brakes helps to settle the suspension, controlling rebound. We were encouraged to use both front and rear brakes on day two, and to brake deeper into the corners, past the apex. This runs counter to what many Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructors teach. Braking past the apex of a corner is actively discouraged. Ienatsch contends that braking lighter, longer and smooth application and release of the brakes is more effective than adhering to a guideline that is too simplistic for most situations. The most important factor is smoothness. "The tire will take an amazing, but not an abrupt, load," Ienatsch said several times during class, insisting that we include the phrase in our notes.
Back out on the track, I immediately felt more confident and capable than I had on Day One. Ienatsch claims that this is a common feeling for students on Day Two. Experiences from Day One get internalized overnight, and riding choices that felt new and awkward are on the way to becoming habits by Day Two. We worked on more exercises, rode more laps and were videotaped again by instructors.
I got talked into riding two-up with Scott Russell. I had convinced myself that I couldn't do it -- but the instructors assured me that any fear that I had would be overcome by the learning opportunity. They urged me to pay special attention to the smoothness of Russell's transition from braking to acceleration and back again. For the first lap of our three around the circuit, I was so scared that I couldn't breathe. Then I relaxed, and surrendered to the experience. I was able to pay attention to Russell's mastery of the motorcycle, and we went faster around the track two-up than I have ever ridden on my own. It was a remarkable experience that I will never forget. I had the presence of mind to turn on my helmet camera before we started the ride, so I have a point-of-view video, which I have posted on YouTube.
During lunch, we returned to the classroom for video review. I was very pleased to see that my riding was much improved. I was accelerating more confidently, braking through the corners, and using my body position to control the bike. My classmates and instructors reinforced the impression, complimenting me on my improvement. I was still the slowest rider in the class -- but I made a big leap that will translate to better riding on the street.
I have only scratched the surface of all of the great information that I got from participating in this two-day class. I flash back to my track riding experience every time I ride on the street, taking care to apply the lessons that I learned to my everyday riding. I'm more confident in the saddle, and I have identified areas where I can improve even more. It's hard to encapsulate all of that input and all of those feelings in an article, and do them justice.
YCRS gets my highest recommendation. The two-day course runs $2,495, which includes motorcycle rental, track fees, hotel and dinner after the first school day. Gear rental is also available. Booking can be completed online at http://www.ridelikeachampion.com, or by phone at 855-743-3927.