The Willow Springs International Raceway - Fast Fun - Higher Education

A day with Fastrack Riders at Willow Springs International Raceway

With the well-deserved nickname "Fastest Road in the West," Willow Springs International Raceway is the quickest road course this side of the Mississippi. Expert riders on fast racebikes apex Turn One at nearly 100 mph, and will carry half again that speed through Turn Eight at full lean, knee on the ground. Mistakes at these speeds can exact a high toll on flesh, bone and machinery. Small wonder, then, that this chunk of asphalt in California's high desert is one of the most intimidating and misunderstood tracks in the western United States. It's a 40-foot-wide, 2.5-mile-long ribbon of tarmac laid out on the natural terrain of the Mojave Desert, a region well-known for its climatic extremes. Add to that the uncertainties of time, speed and distance-coupled with the laws of physics-and you've got enough to give pause to even the most seasoned riders.

Still, motorcyclists of all persuasions make a monthly pilgrimage here, and in ever-increasing numbers. One reason? Fastrack Riders. Owned and operated by long-time rider and racer Tom Sera, Fastrack Riders provides motorcycle enthusiasts of every stripe a safe, reasonably priced opportunity to ride the Fastest Road in the West. And, despite the track's reputation for speed, Sera has designed Fastrack Riders to provide a closed-course experience that is as fun as it is safe.

"I wanted to create a place where riders of all calibers, from nationally ranked racers to first-time street riders, could come and hone their skills under controlled conditions," Sera revealed. "What we do, in a nutshell, is just like getting someone started in a batting cage. Basically, we show them where and how to swing. Then we leave them alone and let them work on whatever part of their technique they want."

In keeping with the "batting cage" philosophy, Fastrack Riders divides participants into five distinct groups, each with its own set of ironclad, inviolable rules. The "Superstreet" group is for first-timers, or those wishing to simply circulate the track at an easy pace with zero pressure. There is absolutely no passing in any of the track's nine turns in this group. Passes must be made on straightaways only, and must be clean, safe, and polite. Up the scale a notch is "Intermediate B." Similar to Superstreet, this group allows passing on the outside only, in Turns Two and Eight. A bit speedier is "Intermediate A," which is for quicker, more experienced sport riders and aspiring club racers. Slower riders may be overtaken in any turn, but only on the outside, and only in a safe, polite manner.

"The Superstreet and Intermediate groups were specifically geared to accommodate street and sport riders," Sera clarified. "We don't want experienced racers in any of these groups, and the last thing we want is to have a paying customer get the paint sucked off his or her bike by some would-be world champion. I tell my Superstreet group that they've paid to go as fast or as slow as they want, and I mean it. I don't want to see any rider upset because of close passing or high closing speeds in these three groups. That's not what they're about."

If you have the experience, or you're a licensed racer, you'll be wanting to sign up for the "Advanced" or "Formula" groups. These are for experienced club and national-level racebike pilots wanting to work on their program. Both inside and outside passing are allowed, and there are no guidelines for either distance or closing speed. The Formula group is limited to those racers who can consistently turn lap times in the 1:30 range or better (a 100-plus-mph average speed), and are thoroughly familiar with a "hot" racing environment. The Advanced group is similar, but geared for riders of slower or smaller-displacement machines.

Tom Sera, like many veteran roadracers, has lost more than one friend to the sport. He knows as well as anyone that high-performance motorcycle riding is not without risk. "Motorcycling is one of the roughest, crudest man-machine interfaces ever devised," Sera says. "We let riders explore this interface with a much higher level of safety [than on the street]. They can use more lean angle and more of the tire, they can hit higher speeds, and try different shifting, braking and turning techniques in a place where there's a lot more room for error." Sera adds, "I've seen bad accidents on both the racetrack and the street. In most cases, if the person had known what to do, they would have avoided the problem. This is a big part of what we offer: a controlled environment where you can work on techniques one at a time, so that when that moment comes, you'll do the right thing and live to tell about it."

For the first-timer, a typical day at Fastrack Riders begins with a mandatory Orientation School. The classroom sessions consume the first half of the day, with special track sessions for Orientation School students only. The second half of the day, these first-time students are included in the Superstreet Group. As they continue to build their skills and become familiar with the track, they can move into faster groups, or stay exclusively in Superstreet. "The Orientation School focuses specifically on Willow Springs Raceway," says Sera. "Our instructors include several local club champions as well as those who've competed at the national and world championship levels. Their goal is to help new riders avoid this track's trouble spots. Armed with that information, there's no reason in the world that a rider shouldn't have a great time and learn a lot in the process."

Ensuring riders have a great time, and are comfortable while doing so, is Sera's prime objective. Each day begins with a compulsory rider's meeting, where Sera lays down the law in no uncertain terms. He makes it abundantly clear that anyone who breaks the rules, makes an unsafe pass, scares another rider, or is generally not with the program will be summarily ejected with no refund and little recourse. "We don't tolerate crashers or hooligans," Sera adds emphatically. "We encourage all riders to ferret out those who don't follow the rules, and we have four staff members circulating the track watching what's going on. Flagrant or frequent violators will be asked to leave, possibly forever."

In addition to the staff, there are also several experienced corner workers (the same ones who work racing events) who monitor on-track conditions and rider behavior. These folks maintain constant radio contact with course-control personnel and will not hesitate to report unsafe or discourteous activity.

"We like to think Fastrack Riders is a place where people can continue honing their skills once they've been to a regular school with Keith [Code], Reggie [Pridmore] or Freddie [Spencer]. But it's not necessary to go to an established school before coming to Fastrack Riders. Our Orientation School prepares riders for the Fastrack experience, and there are extensive resources, like our own staff, local club racers, or even experienced friends that a rider can go to for help. We have an optional on-bike video program available at nominal cost so riders can see how they're doing out there. And we've added several dates at the shorter, tighter-and recently expanded-Streets of Willow for riders who are looking for a slightly slower, more real-world environment. First-time riders will find plenty of help here. In fact, that's why we offer a money-back guarantee. If a rider can honestly come to me at the end of the day and say they didn't enjoy themselves, I'll refund their money."

Fastrack Riders is sponsored by Yamaha Motor Corporation, which has stepped up to the plate in a big way to help educate riders, particularly those who buy sportbikes. Participating Yamaha dealers in the southwest United States are providing a free certificate for Fastrack Riders with every sale of a new sportbike. A $225 value, the certificate includes membership with Fastrack Riders, the Orientation School, and a full day of Fastrack Riders fun.

"I sell pleasure," Sera says with a grin that speaks volumes. "I want everyone who comes here to have a good time." Considering the ingredients Sera is mixing-motorcycles, first-class racetracks, and Southern California's generally excellent weather-that's a promise he's almost certain to keep.

If it's a curby, cornering-based curriculum you're after, Tom Sera and his Fastrack Riders school at Willow Springs can help you earn that diploma.