A&R Goes Riding with the Army National Guard at Jason Pridmore’s STAR School at Thunderhill

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Back in October 2008, one of the first stories I ever covered on Asphalt & Rubber dealt with an interesting statistic: in the prior 12 months, more Marines had died from riding their motorcycles here in the USA, than did from enemy gunfire in Iraq — worst of all, all of those 25 of those deaths were on sport bikes. The statistic wasn’t a fluke either, as in 2009, the Army National Guard announced a similar trend, where it lost 36 Guardsman to motorcycle crashes that year, compared to the 25 lost fighting in Iraq.

Evaluating the causes for these motorcycle fatalities, the Army National Guard discovered an alarming trend in the paperwork. Almost without exception, the ultimate reason given for why a Guardsman died while riding his or her motorcycle was “a loss of control due to inexperience.” These crashes were typically in the 70-100mph range, and more often than not, the crashes featured soldiers who had recently bought a new sport bike.

Part of a larger program by the US military to better train and protect our soldiers with mandatory MSF courses and minimal riding gear requirements when on-base, the Army National Guard took things a step further, and setup a free program where Guardsmen could get their hands-on advanced motorcycle training in a track environment. The man for the job was none other Jason Pridmore, whose STAR Motorcycle School now features military-only school days around the country.

It was our supreme privilege here at A&R to recently attend one of Pridmore’s STAR classes for the Army National Guardsmen, and witness first-hand what the US military is doing to protect its soldiers — not only when on the field of combat, but also when they have returned home from duty.

Since its implementation, these safety programs have helped to steadily decrease the number of motorcycle related fatalities and incidents within the military community. The Army National Guard, as well as the military as a whole, have taken the issue very seriously. Unlike our civil counterparts, the military has taken a close look at why these accidents and fatalities were occurring, and then implemented honest and well-thought out solutions to remedy those issues.

The truth of the matter is that our soldiers go and serve our country, with the real possibility that they could give their life for that cause. Fortunately, many return home to their families and loved ones, but after facing the specter of combat, the risks associated with riding a motorcycle become diminished in their eyes. Add into the fact that while abroad, their cost of living diminishes, while their bank accounts back home increase.

Returning home from such an experience, who wouldn’t want to spend some hard earned money and live our short existence more fully? Really, it should surprise no one that these returning soldiers buy sport cars and sport bikes once they are back on American soil.

Ever the tacticians, the high-ups in the US Military understood the problem required that military riders 1) have and use the appropriate gear when operating their motorcycles, and 2) that they be trained on how to safely operate the vehicle…in all riding situations. The logic behind this was explained to me in basic military terms: you don’t send a solider into war without the right equipment, i.e. a helmet and body armor, and you don’t send a solider into war without teaching them how use their equipment, i.e. to fire their weapon. Motorcycles are no different.

Before we even step onto the track for our first session, a brief seminar is given to the class by Jason and his teachers about the virtues of riding ATTGAT (all the gear, all the time), and what that concept really means in terms of buying choices and everyday practice. “What I like about these soldiers: you tell them to do something, and they do it,” remarked Pridmore. The discussion about gear, like the class as a whole, is as much about teaching principals as it is alerting soldiers to the resources available to them.

The class itself is perhaps not well-known enough in the military riding community (something I hope this article will help solve, if you’re looking for my motivations in this matter). Free for any Army National Guardsmen that wishes to participate, other military branches have similar courses available through the STAR school and other programs. The goal for all these school is to fill the seats. Each serviceman riding in the course is one who has a statistically higher chance of not becoming another motorcycling statistic.

Picking up the bill for these classes, the US military has an economic incentive to justify the several hundred dollars involved with sending a solider through Pridmore’s class. A small expense to protect the nearly $1 million investment our military spends training each one of its soldiers, the hope is that with class costs waived, more riders will undertake the training, making them more prudent and capable riders, who will in-turn hopefully influence other soldiers to ride safer, or better yet, take the class as well.

Essentially the same curriculum taught in the civil version of the STAR Motorcycle School, Pridmore and his crew contend with military riders with a diverse backyard of riding experience. Some of the attendees are fresh from their MSF training course, having maybe only a thousand or so miles on their newly acquired motorcycle, while others are full-fledged amateur racers with track-prepped race bikes loaded into the back of their trucks. The course caters to both extremes, and everything in between.

Our time at Thunderhill is split 50/50 between the classroom and the track, with Jason and his instructors going over specific goals for each on-track session. “Our sport is about lean angles and speed, but we have got to get better at handling the bikes at these speeds,” Pridmore explained to the servicemen at the start of the school. Breaking his course down into six subject points, we spent our track sessions on the following items:

  • Sighting the course with the instructors
  • Entering the corners from mid-track and managing engine RPMs when shifting
  • Sighting exit points through turns
  • Reducing the traveled distance between throttle release to downshifts
  • Riding through T2 & T3 (two of the fastest turns at Thunderhill)
  • Working on rider body-positioning

If this doesn’t sound like your typical track school lesson plan, then bear in mind that this isn’t necessarily a class that is designed to make one a better motorcycle racer. It is designed to make one a better motorcycle rider, with there being some obvious carryover into motorcycle racing. Pridmore’s basic concept for the Guardsmen is that the race track is just like any road that these soldiers could be riding on in the future, except that it is the safest road they will probably ever encounter.

Absent of oncoming traffic, debris, and other obstacles, Pridmore’s philosophy is to teach ideas and practices that make riding on the street safer for his students, who then get to practice those techniques in the most forgiving environment possible. “[In racing] we are taught to ride on one line, but really we should learn to ride the line of the moment,” said Pridmore as he discussed how riding on the street, and the track for that matter, provides obstacles and situations that require a motorcyclist to adjust the direction of their motorcycle, even mid-corner.

Taking this idea into practice, Pridmore illustrates what he calls the “oh shit line” — a concept that every green motorcyclist has probably encountered. Traveling through a turn where there is uncertainty of what is around the bend, Pridmore asks the class which side of the road a rider should be on, the inside or the outside? Drawing a line perpendicular through the road, the outside position provides a slightly better view of the turn, but it is clear from the trajectory, the inside line provides the longest distance of road for a motorcycle to use for braking.

Where the rider positioned on the outside of the lane would almost immediately travel into oncoming traffic under an emergency braking situation, the rider on the inside of the turn not only has more distance within his/her lane, but also has more overall road distance to brake safely before going off the road. The concept is a bit counter-intuitive, but it could very well save one of these soldiers’ lives in the coming months.

Taking lessons like these to heart, the last few sessions are open to riding the Thunderhill Raceway, and doing two-up rides with Jason Pridmore. It is pure enjoyment to be on a track with such a small group of riders, and after being on the back of Jason’s two-up bike more times than I care to remember, the experience of seeing really how far a motorcycle can be pushed when in capable hands is pretty astounding.

Packing up at the end of the day, the hope is that the 18 attending Army National Guardsmen have learned some invaluable lessons, which hopefully will save them from becoming a line entry on a servicmen fatality report. More importantly, the hope is that the concepts and philosophy that Jason and has crew teaches to the Guardsmen is something that makes it back to the respective bases of those attending the class. A close-knit group by nature, the hope is that the wisdom of one solider will permeate through his or her riding group.

When looking at the efficacy of the program, it is hard to measure whether what is being taught at the STAR Motorcycle School is making a difference for the Army National Guard; after all, how do you measure an accident that has been prevented from even happening. I will tell you this though, since the military re-evaluated its program on motorcycle safety, each year the fatality rate for military personnel on motorcycles has gone down. The next time you see a member of our armed forces out on a bike, be sure to tell them about this class. They certainly won’t regret it.

Special Thanks to the Army National Guard, Jason Pridmore, the STAR Motorcycle School, AGV, Dainese, Suzuki, Thunderhill Raceway and too all the Guardsmen for their service to our country.