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.

The Mystery School has an incredibly effective curriculum. Part of it is Oliver’s personality and empathetic teaching style, but there’s also the fact that each new technique is presented to you couched in a crap-ton of fun. It’s easy to be eager when learning entails such entertainment, and few activities compare to ripping around a TT course on a TT-R125 with a bunch of feisty riders.

Anecdotes from Oliver’s time at Kenny Roberts’ ranch are sprinkled in throughout the day. Oliver admits that his school is based on what Roberts taught, but “without the injury and humiliation,” Oliver says with a smirk. “That was okay for building world champions, but doesn’t work so well for the general public looking to improve their riding skills.” Oliver’s program is far from severe, but it’s still an intense experience. The two-day timeframe ensures plenty of opportunity for questions so you never feel hurried, but the action is nearly non-stop.

On Saturday afternoon we ride the “cop course,” the TT course, and the oval, incorporating everything we’ve learned thus far. The oval is small enough that it feels crowded with 10 bikes on course. (Oliver’s step-daughter, Meghan, joined us.) Packing everyone together is part of the training, since riding in close proximity demands a whole host of visual and strategic skills that Oliver goes over in detail during breaks. We ride the loop counterclockwise and clockwise, the latter direction posing the unique challenge of initiating slides with both feet on the pegs.

Late on Saturday we finally strap on the hallowed, steel “hot shoe.” And it’s awesome. “With the shoe, it’s almost impossible to crash in left-hand turns,” alleges Oliver. “You’ve got a triangle of support.” Bold assertions, but it’s true; you can carry a lot of weight on that slippery shoe and use it to vary the load on the front and rear contact patches so you can slide both ends through a turn. It’s exhilarating, and a great way to discover how transferring weight fore or aft affects a slide.

Even with just 10 horsepower, throttle control is critical. Lighting the rear tire is easy, but spin it too much and you lose drive. The dirttracker’s “roll off to go faster” adage didn’t make sense until I tried it. Sure enough, rolling off just a hair after breaking the rear tire free helped it find traction and improve drive. It’s thrilling to discover and employ that kind of throttle control.

Breakfast is served in the kitchen on Sunday morning, and after more stretching and some vision-strengthening exercises, we dive into a race start drill in preparation for the afternoon’s activities. In the afternoon, we return to the “cop course” for more timed laps, which we compare to times taken Saturday. Everyone went faster, some much faster. I cut 14 seconds off my run, yielding the biggest improvement of the weekend. During my first run on Saturday I felt lost and overwhelmed, unsure of what to do or when to do it. On Sunday I attacked the course with confidence, with a clear understanding of what I needed the bike to do and just how to make it do it.

And Sunday afternoon, bursting with newfound skill, we raced. We ran enough races of varying lengths on enough different tracks and configurations that I can’t recall them all. Elbow-to-elbow through turns was the norm, and it wasn’t unusual to have one of the faster riders use you as a berm on their way through. The races are a cumulative exercise, bringing together all the riding skills and strategies that we’d practiced all weekend. The back-to-back races also mix fatigue into the equation, testing your physical and mental endurance. The day ended with a 25-lap main, after which we were all exhausted.

If all this sliding business sounds like a thrill, it is. But if it sounds easy, you’re mistaken. “There is no perfect lap, because the track is always changing. This differs from roadracing, and it’s harder,” says Oliver. “If you can excel here, you’re going to have an edge on a paved track that offers consistent traction and reference points.” And there it is—the crux of the whole dirt-riding concept, and a concise answer to my question. While the specific techniques you practice at the Mystery School are largely unique to flattrack, the overarching skills and bike control you learn will aid you in whatever discipline of the sport you choose to pursue, whether that’s roadracing, carving up the canyons, or just commuting to work.

Oliver’s yard is a petri dish for culturing riding skill, and the Mystery School is an effective way to form the mental connections and develop the muscle memory needed to properly react to a sudden loss of traction. But as it turns out, sliding is just the medium by which you learn a whole host of skills that will make you a safer, faster, more confident rider.

As goofy as it sounds, “Fun Camp” is an appropriate name. Two-day schools are held on weekends and cost $600. That price includes use of a bike, gas, two lunches, breakfast on Sunday, and unlimited snacks and drinks. Head-to-toe gear is available for rent for $25 a day. Crashing occurs, but nearly all the falls are low-speed, low-side spills, and Oliver doesn’t charge a damage deposit. Break a lever or bust a strap on a roost guard and Oliver or one of his staff appear with a replacement.

How much of what you learn on a little TT-R carries over to your full-size bike? Just about everything. Sliding a 430-pound KLR650 requires the same actions as sliding a 175-lb. TT-R, and driving your weight into the outside footpeg helps a YZF-R1’s rear tire find traction in a slide just like it does for the little Yamaha. The skills you hone riding in a group carry over to riding in traffic, and who wouldn’t benefit from better throttle control? The Mystery School is ideal for racers or anyone that spends time on two wheels, and it offers a glimpse into why dirttrackers’ sideways view of the world is a good perspective for roadracers.

I’ve already seen the benefits of the Mystery School’s lessons while racing my CBR250R and testing bigger bikes for the magazine. Ready to unlock riding abilities you didn’t know you had, and have a blast doing it? Sign up for a Fun Camp (559.855.3089; www.richoliver.net), and get ready to get sideways.


Who Is Rich Oliver?

Besides being one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, he’s also the second-winningest roadracer in AMA history. With 71 individual victories and five 250cc Grand Prix championships, the metrics of his professional career nip at the heels of Mat Mladin.

Oliver started roadracing at 16 and enjoyed moderate success, but it wasn’t until he began training in the dirt at Kenny Roberts’ ranch that his top-three finishes turned into consistent firsts. In the late ‘80s, Oliver raced a Yamaha TZ250 for Randy Mamola, then joined the Roberts camp for the ’90 and ’91 season, winning the WERA Formula USA championship on a Roberts YZR500 in ’91. The following year he returned to riding a TZ250 for Wayne Rainey, and in ‘94 Oliver formed his own 250 team and proceeded to accrue wins at an outstanding rate, going undefeated in the ’96-’97 seasons with 20 straight wins.

Not only is Oliver’s career an inspiration for young racers (he struggled, worked hard, honed his skill, and became a champion), his post-racing career is worth studying. Oliver didn’t see racing as the only thing. He looked to the future, planned ahead, exited roadracing gracefully, and is currently enjoying a satisfying second career as an instructor, consultant, painter, sculptor, husband, and father.

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