Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School - Schooled! - Speed Secrets


By: Dave Smith, Mitch Boehm, Photography by Dave Smith, George Roberts

As I follow instructor Brad Coleman in this first slow session I'm surprised to see stuff I've never noticed before: pavement marks, paint lines, reference points, etc. Within a few minutes I conclude my inability to go fast here is down to what Martin had said earlier-the bit about going berserk right away hindering learning and thus smoothness and speed. Bike intros are like that. Going slow now makes me see the track in a whole different light, and even after a few laps it seems to make more sense. A little Obi Wan voice in my head says, "You've taken your first step into a larger world."

Back in the classroom there's a major buzz-we're all smiles and excitement. Martin asks how everyone's doing, then launches into some skill specifics, beginning with the whole idea of looking ahead and not directly in front of your bike. I'm terrible at this, so I pay attention. A few minutes later Schwantz walks in, as he'll do all weekend. (The class sessions are very informal, and Schwantz seems to want it this way.) He puts his hand out in front of his face at arm's length and asks students to focus on their palms. "You can see your palm clearly, right?" he asks us. "But how well do you see the stuff beyond your palm? It's all fuzzy, right? Now focus beyond your palm; now you can see way out in front of you, but you can also see you palm reasonably well. It's the same on the bike. By getting your vision out in front of you, things slow down, and slowing things down helps keep panic away. When things are happening quickly, as they are when you're staring at the asphalt right in front of your front wheel, it's easy to panic."

Early on there's discussion of basic lines ("Follow the instructors," Martin says, "and you'll slowly but surely see and learn the ideal line"), gear selection and body position, and it's here where Martin jumps onto the classroom's platform-mounted GSX-R750 to show us what he means.

"Get set [for corners] early," Martin says. "Be loose on the bike, with your arms bent, not rigid, so there's no steering input from being tense. Stay relaxed. Don't death-grip the bars, either; be loose on them. You'll get less tired, and the bike will appreciate it."

Schwantz jumps up on the bike to add his perspective on ideal body positioning-how to slide forward and when ("Early, so you don't upset the bike when it's carving."); on the straights (He sits up higher than most, "It helps me see things better," he says, the vision thing again.); and how to properly hang off the bike, which allows it to corner with less lean angle, and which helps maintain traction by letting the wheels and suspension work independent of the rider's total body weight. I notice Schwantz and Martin use only their legs to move them around on the bike, not their arms. I flash back to times I've gotten tired during a race and done it the wrong way because my legs got tired. No wonder these guys all ride bicycles to stay in shape.

Schwantz then tells a story about his first test of the GSX-R750 at Daytona in '85, and how his straight-arming the bars made the bike wobble on the banking. "Looser is better," he says. He then adds a story about the way he learned new tracks in the GPs. "I'd always go real slow at first. Guys would come up afterward and ask what I was doing. I was slowly but surely seeing where the track went and getting a rhythm, putting everything together so I could link all the sections up later on. Then I'd add pace. Not too soon." Just two more anecdotes Schwantz will dispense these next three days, all of which are humorous, memorable and, therefore, quite helpful.

Martin then talks about two more keys to going quickly: Riding with the balls of your feet on the pegs-always!-and the idea of weighting either peg depending on the situation: the inside peg while arcing into a corner to help get the bike turned, and the outside peg while adding power from the apex onward.

"When I was young my dad took me to a trials demonstration," Schwantz tells us, "and I watched [trials champion] Mick Andrews ride sideways on a very steep hill. He said he was able to do it because he weighted the downhill peg. It definitely translates to roadracing. It's hard to know exactly how much it helps. But even if it's only a few percentage points, it's well worth it when traction is scarce, as it sometimes is exiting a corner or in the wet."

I'd find out how right Schwantz was the following day when the rains came.

For now, though, during several on-track sessions that first day, our heads are full of such basics, which many put to good use. Most students I speak to that first day say they're learning a lot, and riding better, especially as they get used to the circuit. The comments I hear from instructors back this up.

Woody is jacked. "I think I've learned more in these last three sessions than in the last 10 years!" he tells me.

Going into the on-track sessions, I wasn't a fan of the school's follow-the-leader system. I figured the instructors would get a better feel for what students were doing right and wrong from 5 or 10 feet behind, not up front. But I'd underestimated the skills of the instructors as well as the beauty of the KSSS system itself. Because the instructors grouped like-skilled riders together and were exceptionally good at using their mirrors to see how each of us was doing behind them, the sessions turn out to be highly invigorating. Not only is the pace plenty fast, but having the instructor out front means you get a constant visual reminder of the correct line, body position, braking points, etc. The Right Stuff is directly in front of you, and you can't ignore it.

After lunch I hear instructor Ted Cobb use the words "muscle memory" while talking to a student. I listen in, and a bell goes off in my head; like swinging a baseball bat, or pitching or any other physical sport, developing muscle memory is key to the repeatability you need for maximum performance. So the school's format of talking about correct technique, doing it on-track, having the students watch it being done and then critiquing it on videotape 30 minutes later seems perfectly situated for muscle-memory development.

Another key to the KSSS system is the video footage recorded by instructor Opie Caylor, who sneaks up behind each student and shoots them in a series of corners before moving on to the next rider. This footage is downloaded after each session by Huey Stewart, then shown to the classroom 10 minutes after it's recorded. At first I'm reminded of film day during high school football, Coach Sheck pointing out my poor blocking and dropped passes for the entire team to see. Fortunately, Martin is mellower, and comments humorously on both good and bad technique as he runs through the tape.

In the afternoon sessions I ride with various groups and can sense generally higher speeds and comfort levels. Folks seem to be learning, most of them slowly but surely, with very little over-your-head riding. Not so for Woody, unfortunately, who crashes late in the day due to, in his own words, "pushing too hard ... a mental error." He walks away from the highside, seems mostly unhurt-except for his pride-and decides to drive the more than 1000 miles to his New York home the following day. Not until he visits his doctor a day later does he learn about the two broken bones in his foot, a broken ankle, a shin broken in two places, a broken finger and a dislocated collarbone. Still, he says he'll be back next year. Honesty and toughness; Woody's got 'em both!

Back in class, Schwantz relates some crash stories of his own, one that happened on the final lap of a GP while he had an 8-second lead. "'Bonehead' doesn't even come close to describing it," he says with a grin.

By Dave Smith, Mitch Boehm
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