The Rich Oliver Mystery School | Seeing Sideways

Getting educated at the Rich Oliver Mystery School

By Ari Henning, Photography by Richard VanderMeulen

Attending the Rich Oliver Mystery School was a long time coming for me. The name intrigued me, as did the idea of learning to slide, flattrack style. Then there’s the compelling fact that many of America’s best roadracers have risen from the flattrack ranks. What is it about blasting sidelong in the dirt that can make flattrackers such outstanding roadracers? I hoped attending the Mystery School would help me figure that out, as well as teach me to pitch it sideways like a pro.

Few people have more appreciation for the benefits of flattrack training than Rich Oliver. Oliver didn’t grow up riding flattrack. In fact, he didn’t turn a wheel off road until well into his roadracing career, when he visited Kenny Roberts’ ranch near Modesto, CA, and partook in a flattrack training regime that imbued Oliver with the skills that enabled him to become one of the winningest roadracers in AMA history.

But first, what’s with the name? It alludes to the secret “mystery schools” of ancient Egypt, and also to the fact that nobody you are racing against is ever going to share all their go-fast secrets with you.

There are no secrets here, though. Oliver enthusiastically shares all the knowledge he amassed during decades as a professional racer. “This school is all about bike control,” says Oliver. “If you know how and why to make the bike do certain things—brake, turn, slide—it will benefit you no matter what you ride.” I’m already starting to see sideways.

The tools of the trade are a fleet of Yamaha TT-R125s and a half dozen well-groomed dirt courses on Oliver’s property in Auberry, CA, about 35 miles east of Fresno. Oliver’s house rests at the top of a slope covered with green stubble as streaked with tire tracks as a worm-eaten log. At the bottom is a concrete slab surrounded by cargo containers that serve as the school’s workshop, gear room, and Oliver’s trophy hall.

Lowly in performance, the tiny TT-Rs are powerful in terms of the amount of confidence and skill they foster, since they let you explore the limits of your abilities in relative safety. Oliver offers a variety of courses on the TT-Rs, from MSF-approved dirtbike schools to two-day Fun Camps and four-day Pro Camps, the latter reserved for serious racers. Oliver even teaches a camp for cops that he says has reduced crashes among on-duty motor officers. The nine participants at the Fun Camp I attended ran the gamut from a 10-year-old aspiring roadracer to a professional couple in their 40s with 30-plus Iron Man competitions between them. Dirtbike experience isn’t necessary to attend; as long as you know how to ride, Oliver will teach you all the skills you need to ride—and slide—off road.

Day one starts with a riders’ meeting in Oliver’s living room. Accustomed to convening in a garage, the personal flavor of the welcome meeting took me by surprise. Oliver introduces his family—wife Karin and college-age children Matt and Meghan—who serve as the school’s staff. From the living room we move to the porch for some warm-up activities and stretches, then we head down to the slab to get geared up.

Class begins with the basics: body positioning, proper throttle and brake application, and cornering strategy. It’s different from anything I’ve done before (leg out, elbows up, initiate every turn with the rear brake, and “roll off to go faster”), but Oliver does a tremendous job of explaining how and why these techniques work.

Drills are used to reinforce every lesson. Early on we execute left and right circles, figure eights, and U-turns. With the U-turn exercise I get my first taste of transitioning from a brake-induced slide to a power slide, and the feeling is addictive. We hit the same corner at ever-increasing speeds, learning to execute clutchless downshifts and feather the rear brake so the rear tire steps out smoothly. I could have spent the entire day sliding through that same corner, but as it turns out, the U-turn drill was just the start of the fun.

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