Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School - Schooled! - Speed Secrets


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

We quit at 3 p.m. for the track walk, which is yet another eye-opener, especially for students who've never walked a road course. We load into trucks and stop at just about every corner, Schwantz doing an increasingly humorous stand-up routine about the asphalt, the correct line-and which of the instructors might have crashed here during their racing career. We quickly learn good-natured verbal abuse is just part of the Schwantz School.

Then we move to the inside of the corner and watch as Martin, James and Harry Vanderlinden do the corner at three different speeds. James, on a GSX-R750, demonstrates the fast way through, and when he rips by us, the engine at redline and his knee on the deck, there's an audible gasp at the speed, sound and violence he generates. The experience is something none of us will ever forget.

By 5 p.m. the group is physically and mentally spent, and we're ready for the group dinner at the local Mexican eatery later that evening. The food is excellent, and though there's a no-alcohol rule in effect, there's a palpable buzz at the table despite a weather forecast calling for rain in the morning. Everyone's jacked about Day One and seems ready for more tomorrow, wet racetrack be damned.

The mood the following morning is more subdued, but the on-again/off-again rain isn't keeping anyone off the track. Still, the place is hugely spooky when wet; the cement patches look oiled-up and are big-time slippery, we hear, and the downhill sections look almost like blue-ice ski runs. Talk in the classroom and staging area is dominated by the need to be smooth with braking, throttle, steering and gear changes. By keeping speeds down and forcing riders to think about everything they do, there's considerably more concentration on the skills we learned the day before, especially body positioning, peg weighting and correct lines. It's an almost perfect scenario, one Schwantz comments on at lunchtime on Day Two. "Having some rain early or midway through a school is perfect," he tells me. "It cements some of the stuff the students learned earlier, and they end up retaining more of it. So when it dries up, as it looks like it's going to later, they ride a lot better because of it."

Schwantz is right, of course, having seen this happen many times before. When the sun comes out and the track dries after lunch, I see folks returning from their sessions with big smiles and even bigger stories. I see for myself when James punches me on the shoulder as we get ready to ride and says, "C'mon ... you and me this time!"

We take it easy at first, but heading down the front straight on lap two James gains speed, and I follow him into the blind, semi-uphill right-hand Turn One faster than I've gone so far. We're just feet apart through the uphill-then-downhill esses, and as we exit Turn 5-an uphill left with a roller-bump at the exit-I pull a power wheelie and hold it for a few seconds. James peeks behind him, sees me and shakes his head in amusement. We continue like this for a few laps, and it feels good to just ride.

Finally, James lets me lead. Exiting Turn 5 a lap or two later I'm startled by an image directly off my right ear; it's James' Suzuki's front wheel, hovering 4 feet off the deck! He holds it there for a while then accelerates past me, wiggling the front wheel like a snake, and finally drops it with a puff of tire smoke right at the turn-in point to Turn 6. I'm howling inside my helmet, and I can see by his body language he's not worried a bit about the reports of excessive wheelieing being radioed at this very moment to Ms. Lincoln back in the pits.

Watching James ride in such close proximity is an awesome experience, and it's something most students get a chance to do during a typical Schwantz school.

Later we're having a classroom discussion about Turn 7, a slow, slick, off-camber, cement-patched right-hander that's arguably the trickiest corner on the course, because it leads to the 140-mph, roller-coaster-esque back straight. Instructor Caylor appears almost on cue and give us an excellent overview-via a blackboard sketch-of the speed secrets there: a late apex (most of us are turning in too soon), a good portion of the turning right after initial turn-in, neutral throttle as early as possible to keep the chassis stable, hitting a particular spot at the inside curb just so, and smooth but forceful throttle at the exit as the bike straightens up, all while weighting the outside peg. It's almost shocking to think there are that many elements to just one corner. But there are. Which is why going really fast is such a tough nut to crack.

Schwantz, watching from the classroom's edge, pipes in with this: "Early to class is fine. Early to apex is not!"

We watch several Turn-7 scenarios on the video screen-good ones, bad ones, ugly ones. Some of us-me included-are occasionally hitching the throttle on and off as we search for the corner's reference points. "It's really important [to be smooth] if you're big," Caylor says, looking in my direction. "If you're not it upsets the chassis, and that compromises traction, which isn't good." Schwantz echoes this point. "Try to keep yourself from moving too much," he tells us. "Even picking your butt up off the seat can unsettle the bike and make the rear wheel spin and slide." By pointing out the precise steps, by breaking the corner down into digestible pieces, most of us have a better, smoother time of it later in the day.

Afterward, while suiting up for a session, I mention my latest Turn-7 discovery to James. He laughs and says, "Heck, I learn somethin' new every time I do one of these schools!"

Later still, we retread some key ground we'd covered on Day One-braking. On the board Martin jots down some factoids: Braking distances increase exponentially: 30 mph = 30 feet. 60 mph = 120 feet. 120 mph = 480 feet. "Pay attention to chassis feedback," he tells us. "Ease off the brakes smoothly as you lean the bike into a corner." Up goes an illustration showing a corner, the entry of it cut into three segments. Segment one (farthest from the apex) gets a 10 percent notation. The middle section (closer to the apex) gets 75 percent written in it. And the final segment (closest to the apex) gets marked with 15 percent. "This shows proper and smooth braking technique," Martin says, "which allows chassis pitch to be mellow, not violent."

"Get your hard braking done early, not late," Schwantz adds. "Don't wait till you see God! And don't cause late-brake panic by pushing too deep with your braking.

"A lot of my passing in the GPs," Schwantz continues, "was done late in the braking zone, by letting off the brakes sooner and carrying a bit more speed into the corner." James, sitting in the classroom, adds this: "Remember, release the brake slower than you initially grab it."

I ask Schwantz about the rear brake. "I remember all three times I used it in a race," he says with a laugh, "because I crashed every time! It's even harder to get it right in the wet. It takes a conscious effort to keep my right foot on the ball of my footpeg so I stay away from the pedal."

After a final on-track session we're done, toast, and it's time for Kevin's father Jim's renowned barbecue, which has taken him all day to prepare. Good food, good fun.

I wake up Sunday morning to find I'm really sore. My quads hurt so much it's painful just walking down the hotel steps.

By Dave Smith, Mitch Boehm
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