by Tim Carrithers
The segue from pavement to excrement strengthens my suspicion that things have gone hideously wrong. Welcome to the end of a perfect afternoon. I'm tired. The track is cooling off and, after 200-plus laps, the tires, well.they're tired too. Bollocks. Had I focused on Reg's words not 20 minutes earlier I'd be slicing blissfully through Laguna Seca's Andretti Curve instead of improvising this 100-mph nac-nac out in the dirt. This, as we say in the trade, could suck. Eight horrific seconds later, the Editorial Sphincter returns to standby. The F4 and I are intact. Thanks to Providence, long legs and an innate aversion to emergency medical personnel, deliverance from the valley of the shadow of stupidity comes via my own two wheels rather than the ambulance. I did not crash. I did make Reg's words my personal mantra for the next four laps: concentration; awareness; consistency; smoothness.
"I teach control," says Reg Pridmore, CLASS Motorcycle School's founder and Professor in Chief, who also happens to be a three-time (1976-78) AMA Superbike Champion on the much-revered Butler & Smith BMW boxer twin. "And," he adds, "every time I get on the bike I'm searching for it." The biggest obstacle between the average street rider and the kind of control of which Rego speaks? "The biggest culprit," he says, "is that too many of us are riding around asleep. If I can wake you up, I can make you a better rider."
Time to wake up. Hackneyed E.F. Hutton tag lines notwithstanding, when some people talk, you really do listen. Especially if that person is Reg Pridmore and, like my 16 CLASS-mates and I, you mean to charm this 2.24-mile, 11-turn, asphalt snake called Laguna Seca for two days without getting bit. Bikes run on fuel. Riders run on accurate information-and maybe a nice barbecue spread for lunch. Few people in the world define and demonstrate what it takes to blast around a track better than Reg and his son Jason.
Truth: There are motorcycle schools and then there are motorcycle schools that book students in a nice hotel for two days, conduct them to and from the track via limousine and punctuate the whole affair with various four-star dining experiences. Welcome to Valhalla. Add almost as many instructors as students and you have a CLASS Premier Executive School. Both eight-hour days are more or less evenly divided between classroom and asphalt, but this is all about becoming a better rider. This is not a racing school. No stopwatches, no racing and no swooping under slower classmates on the inside.
Imagine the first day of school, but you're waiting for a black stretch limo instead the big yellow bus. After a short drive to the track, the Premier Executive phalanx, armed with overstuffed gear bags, great expectations and high anxiety, spill out of the long black Lincolns. Once inside Laguna's paddock classroom, Reg takes over.
"Today I want you to open your mind to the smaller factors most riders tend to discard. Mentally prepare yourself for going out on the racetrack," he says. "If you head out there with the idea that this is just a motorcycle, 'I've done this before,' you're starting out with the most dangerous attitude there is. Nothing in life works without preparation. You've got to have a plan."
Pridmore's plan takes us through all the basic and not-so-basic aspects of traversing twisty asphalt quickly on two wheels, then turning them into smooth speed on the track. A little thing: Grab the front brake as you swing a leg over the bike. No big deal - until you slip on a spent Moon Pie and crash in the Wattaburger parking lot back home.
Another little thing: relax. Flap your elbows up and down a couple of times to remind yourself. Tense up or hold your breath and you won't ride well. Remember to breathe out there. And keep track of what gear you're in every inch of the way. Talk to yourself if you have to. Riding quickly and well is to orchestrate thousands of little things into one seamless flow. Concentration; awareness; consistency; smoothness. Repeat.
Reg figures the motorcycle wants to be your friend and if you listen to what it says and phrase your inputs in a way it understands it will be. Take the twist grip, for example. "There's more to this bike thing than twisting the throttle wide open. The bike says, 'I don't like that ham-fisted approach. Pull that leaned over in a corner and I'll put you on your head.' Smoothness is the key; what I call throttle management, and I practice it on everything from those bikes out there to the tractor-trailer that brought 'em here. It's the same with shifting gears. The bike knows a smooth shift from a rough one, and reacts accordingly."
And now, here's braking according to Reg. "The smoothness of your approach is the key. I downshift before I brake, front brake before the rear, and I critique myself every time. Under hard braking, I can hear the tire just start to howl, not a skid, just a howl to say 'That's enough.' Talk to the brakes. Don't offend them by grabbing."
Once the CLASS classroom lets out, the first day starts with a few follow- the-teacher sighting laps to familiarize everyone with where the racetrack goes. Reg stops the class in various key corners while instructors flash past on the right line. Seeing makes doing a whole lot easier.
After that, the drill is the same for both days: 20-30 minutes in the classroom presenting a set of ideas like throttle management, shifting, braking, steering and finding the right lines. Then it's back out on the track for 20 to 40 minutes of putting it all together. Stay out for the whole session, come in when you're bushed or sit this one out and just think. Grab an instructor for a little one-on-one tutelage or just practice. Feel the force, Luke. Do whatever works.
Limos deliver us to the hotel, then a molto bene Italian repast in Monterey before bed. Then it's back to the track for another day of chalk talk and track practice. I wonder what the poor journalists are doing this morning?
Starting out on day two, we're joined by a group of what Reg calls local execs: riders from the area who've just signed up for one day of the full CLASS treatment. Most ride their own bikes rather than the CLASS Hondas ridden by those who've flown in from as far away as Arkansas, Montana, Oregon and Washington D.C.
Day two here starts with Reg teaching us how to dissect a corner into its component parts: entry.apex.exit. Cornering according to Reg is all about body steering, and draws from experience gleaned everywhere from horseback riding to riding a trials bike. Where you put your weight is more important to what the bike does or doesn't do than what your hands tell the handlebars. The whole push-the-right-bar-to-turn- left counter-steering equation is good as far as it goes, but you need to go further.
Gripping the tank with your knees keeps you in position under aceleration or braking. It also helps steer by accurately positioning body weight. Shifting a shoulder over the inside bar puts weight toward the inside of the corner, which makes the bike happy. A little talcum powder on the seat makes the seat of one's leathers look a little sketchy walking around the pits, but makes moving around on the bike smoother, and smoother is faster.
"Once you've taken a corner apart, it's time to put it back together out on the racetrack," Reg says. "Pick out your ugliest corner on the track and just work on that. If you get something wrong, work hard at not getting it wrong again. Consistency pays big dividends on the bike." In CLASS parlance, the optimal two-wheel learning curve climbs with a series of small, even steps.
Those steps are easier when you can buttonhole an instructor like club racer Gary Crandall or Milpitas Honda's wilde Irishman Andy Kettle for a little private tutelage. There's much to learn from the high-speed Reg-Cam as well. Tiny lenses mounted on either end of an otherwise innocent-looking VFR800F capture gaffes and strokes of genius for playback back in the classroom.
You watch, you listen, you practice, you learn. Two days and 600 track miles later, I can honestly say this is the most rewarding two days I've spent on any racetrack. Fun, too. Instruction is complete yet concise, with no vexing dogma, sermonizing or blather. Just the facts. The people are great, with accommodations and chow to match.
The only downside for proletarians like myself is, priced at $2750 for the two-day luxury immersion, Pridmore's Premier Exec School isn't cheap. So? For those who can't or won't ante up for the full treatment, take solace in the knowledge that less concentrated doses of CLASS wisdom are available for a less intrusive outlay of cash. There are other ways to learn about riding a motorcycle quickly. But for those who can afford it, two days with the Pridmores is still the best.
Used with permission. Copyright Motorcyclist Magazine
Note: Tim writes about the Premier Exec School which we ran from 1996 through 2002. We now have D-Day, which is an excellent and less costly total immersion.