It was halfway through the three-day Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School at Road Atlanta-mid-day Saturday, the rain gone, the track drying and my one-on-one session with '89 Superbike champion Jamie James in full swing-when it all finally clicked. Not only was I having a freakin' blast (especially when James went by me exiting Turn 5 with his GSX-R750's front wheel maybe 30 inches off my right ear), I was riding better and with more smoothness and confidence than I had in years-and it was crystal clear to me it was all down to the Schwantz School's superb system.
I have to admit, I wasn't expecting any of this.
Coming in, I was a touch blase about the whole school idea. For one thing, I'd known Schwantz for many years, having done my first Motorcyclist story on his first Superbike season in '85, and had ridden with him all over the world. So it felt strange to take part in his business-part of his livelihood-as an actual student. Call it a personal thing.
I also didn't think I'd learn much. Don't get me wrong; I knew there were things Schwantz and his championship-caliber instructors could teach me about getting around a racetrack quickly. But I simply wasn't sure I'd get much of that with 30 other students in the classroom and on the track.
And yeah, pride figured into the equation. I'd roadraced competitively for more than 20 years, and figured my club, endurance and vintage race wins-and top-15 finishes in AMA 600cc and 750cc Supersport nationals-gave me enough roadracing chops that any track school filled largely with street riders might not have much to teach me. Heck, I'd taught new-rider schools in the past.
So I figured I'd just come out, hang around, interview some students, get some laps and write my piece.
But operations manager Marnie Lincoln kept nudging me toward actual student status. "Just give it a try," she said. I was doubtful, and said so. But Lincoln is persuasive, so I agreed-which turned out to be the best decision I could have made.
A week later I'm driving through Road Atlanta's front gate and joining the afternoon reception the school hosts for students the evening before Day One. Of course, if you know Kevin, the get-together is exactly what you expect: Texas hospitality, good food and a loose, friendly atmosphere.
While Schwantz, Lincoln and the instructors meet and greet, I check out the goodie-filled Team Suzuki bag given to every student-a GSX-R-history book, Team Suzuki towel, water bottle, T-shirts, etc. Nice. For $2700 (the two-day school is $1000 less), which includes a GSX-R600 or SV650 to ride, I figure paying students ought to get something like this. I chat with several and find they're from all over the country, a few even hailing from Canada and the U.K. It's a diverse group, guys in their 30s and 40s, mostly, a few older, a few younger, and also a couple of ladies. Some have done several schools and track days, others none at all.
Woody Nepa, from upstate New York, seems really excited, and says he's ridden very little on the track. We trade stories about fast street riding, how dumb it can be, and I share my take that once you get on-track, you immediately slow down on the street. He seems to understand.
Then Schwantz jumps up on a picnic table, introduces his crew, and lays out what we're to expect these next three days. "Our goals here are to teach you as much as we can, to help you find your comfort zone, and to have a lot of fun," he says. Someone says there's rain in the forecast for Saturday (Day Two), which makes everyone go quiet. But Schwantz says some rain will be a good thing, and that we'll all see what he means. No one's biting, but I'm pretty sure I know what he's getting at. All in all, it sounds good. I'm even a little excited.
Friday morning dawns clear and warm-a perfect day. When I enter the classroom I spy a TV monitor playing video clips of Schwantz's career, and I'm suddenly reminded of this guy's weighty accomplishments: 25 GP victories in 109 starts, a hell of a Grand Prix record. Watching the TV, the students are mostly quiet, almost reverential.
Michael Martin, the school's primary classroom instructor, strolls in and gets things going in his easygoing manner. Martin had a stellar club- and national-level career, especially in the endurance ranks with John Ulrich's Team Suzuki Endurance team.
"What we'll mainly do," Martin says, "is cover basics. We'll talk about something, then head out onto the track and do it. Then we'll come back here and talk about it-and even watch some video of you doing it." This is a process we'll go through again and again during the weekend.
Martin keeps things basic early on, first dividing the group in half (roughly 15 each, one faster, one slower), then explaining how things will happen on-track with the instructors (three or four riders per instructor, who will usually lead) and the general idea of riding at one's comfort level and increasing track speeds incrementally, not going all-out right off the bat.
"If you ride as hard as you can right from the beginning," Martin says, pointing to a graph he's drawn on the board, "your speeds increase quickly, but then you flatten out-you stop learning. At an 80 percent pace you go slower early, but you end up learning more, and going faster than you would have."
"If you crash," he adds, "you're most likely done for the weekend." This generates some grumbling, but with a fleet of brand-new, 0-mile GSX-R600s sitting outside, it's pretty hard to imagine tossing one of these into a tire wall at speed and having the school laugh it off.
I head out onto the track for the first time with the slower group (I moved between groups all weekend long) and am reminded how impressive Road Atlanta is-and how intimidating. With several serious elevation changes and loads of blind, late-apex corners, it's a difficult track to get comfortable with. I've ridden here five or six times before, at new-bike intros, mostly, but I've never ridden particularly well here.