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.

  • JoeD

    All riders should be properly trained. I started riding 40 years ago and even then, I studied the MIC/AAA guide. In 2008, I enrolled in the MSF RiderCoach Prep and completed the BRC. I learned I had some bad habits which were corrected. Four years teaching and hundreds of students later reinforces my belief in MANDATORY training for ALL riders regardless of bike style. While qualifying as an expert witness for trial, the judge questioned “why any one needs to be trained on how to ride a motorcycle”. Stupidity has no limit.

  • Very cool of you to cover this effort by the military and Jason Pridmore to make soldiers safer on the street. I’ve got a brother in the Army that rides and have been impressed with their requirements for rider training and appropriate hi-viz riding gear.

  • Jake F.

    Great article.

  • W Petersen

    Jason is the MAN for the job. I’ve been to his STAR School several times. He and his staff do a great job. You can learn more about riding a motorcycle in two days in his class, than you will learn in ten years of riding on the street by yourself.

  • Mark Lancaster

    Kudos to the Army National Guard for including Jason Pridmore’s Star School in their training program.

    The type of person who volunteers to serve in the military is a risk taker. Surviving combat is a rush, unlike any other. When the risk is over, some look for an activity that replicates the rush. Motorcycling is such an activity. Risk sport accidents are nothing new to the military. At the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force encouraged the establishment of on-base motorcycle clubs with experienced riders teaching new riders. Motorcycle accidents declined on bases where clubs were founded.

  • Pingback: Jordan Motorsports()

  • Good comment Mark. That’s one of the things I love about the military rider programs. These men and women already belong to special community that looks after each other, transferring that into riding groups that help mentor and teach new riders…man that’s a powerful tool.

    I wish in the civilian sector we had something more organized along those lines. It would do a world of good.

  • Dan

    As a former active duty and national guardsman, veteran and sportbike rider, I am very pleased to see the proactive approach the Army is using. Now if only I still qualified to get a free track day… :)

  • Pingback: AMA Pro Road Racing()

  • Faust

    I am an active duty Army soldier (14 years and counting), a motorcycle safety mentor for my unit, a veteran of 4 Iraq deployments and I ride here at Fort Hood, Texas. We have a LOT of guys crashing down here at Fort Hood (the largest US Army post in the world). I really hope that training of this type can come to this area. The number one killer of soldiers on bikes down here has been guys losing it in the corners. More people have died here in single vehicle cornering accidents than any other type of accident, yet our training doesn’t address this. Don’t get me wrong, the MSF classes are informative, but given the nature of modern sportbikes, how does going through cones at 15 MPH in a parking lot apply to the type of accidents that are killing our guys? They don’t. Track schools, however, do. I recently did a track day and school at MSR Cresson, and learned more in that one day that all the MSF training I’ve received. There’s also other issues at work here.

    Some of the dealers here are responsible in giving advice, and some are not. Guys coming back from deployments (especially their first one) are often young, and find themselves with more money in the bank than they ever had before (it’s hard to spend money in the desert, trust me). Everyone wants to go out and get something cool. Several years ago, when I first purchased a sportbike, I was looking at getting an SV650SF. I wanted something user friendly, not overly expensive and not super aggressive. The dealer at the Honda/Suzuki dealership immediately told me that the SV was not a good bike because I would want something faster and then tried to sell me on a GSX-R 1000. I explained that I had ridden a Honda NIghthawk 450 but never been on a sportbike, and insisted that I see some SVs. He replied that the SV had been discontinued (which was not true at the time) and that I could easily handle the GSX-R. He even got some pretty attractive sales girls to come tell me that I could handle it (in a brazen attempt to bait me into it). I asked him to pull up the website for Suzuki, showed him that the bikes had not been discontinued, called him out on it and left. I started to think the dealers were trying to kill me. I mean, how many young guys actually fell for that stuff? I went to the Yamaha and Kawi dealers to see if this was true and was surprised to find that they actually inquired about my riding experience, and told me I would need a sit down with the owner before he would agree to sell me a 1000, and directed me to more reasonable bikes. I ended up getting a Ninja 650R, and now that I have a CBR600RR, I am happy I didn’t start on a supersport.

    My point is this: The military community is like no other. There are 48k troops at Hood. About 75% of them are in their early to mid 20s. This whole town is full of fast cars and fast bikes, and the demographic is not even close to a normal town. Does it make more sense why so many guys crash now? The MSF courses are not sufficient to stop the senseless deaths of troops running off in corners on bikes that they cannot handle, and shouldn’t have even bought in the first place. I have explained this to our leaders to no avail. I really hope a track school comes here, but I’m not holding my breath. We desperately need this.

  • There was a National Guard STAR class at Texas World Speedway in College Station on May 22nd. I haven’t seen the 2013 calendar yet, but it would surprise me if a top in Texas wasn’t on the list.

  • Excellent article, Jensen. Absolutely excellent.

  • barry munsterteiger

    Kudos to Jason and the National Guard for putting together such a program. I felt honored to be able to help document it.

  • Faust

    @ Jensen

    Going to the event in May would have been great, but my entire brigade (3,200+ soldiers) was living in tents in the Kuwaiti desert at the time. Due to the lack of schedule flexibility, it would take involvement by someone in the chain of command at a high level (at least the 3rd Armored Corps level, since they set the motorcycle policies and training requirements for Fort Hood) in order to actually guarantee we would be allowed to attend. I guess I should have clarified that.