Skip Barber Superbike School Teaches Asphalt & Rubber How to Ride at Laguna Seca

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As a California native, I’ve always wanted to ride around Laguna Seca on a sportbike. However my passion for track riding didn’t manifest itself until I moved away from the Golden State to Pennsylvania, making a Seca track day all but implausible. Having just moved back into California, and the warm weather finally upon us here in the San Francisco area, track days and Seca have been on my mind. So when Michael Czysz, Lead Instructor at the Skip Barber Superbike School (and of MotoCzysz fame) shot me an email asking me if I wanted to ride for two days around the fabled circuit and take Skip Barber’s two-day superbike course, I of course took him up on the offer. With perfect 70°F weather, I made my way to the Californian coast, ready to take on The Corkscrew with the brand new 2010 KTM RC8 motorcycle and with the help of Skip Barber’s instructors.

I’ve always heard how Laguna Seca is a special track, and how technical the course is on a motorcycle (or any vehicle for that matter). Driving into Monterey from Salinas, you get about half the distance between the two cities when the track entrance jumps up on you. Most tracks you can see for miles as you approach them, but Laguna Seca is nestled behind a hillside from the roadway, and sits inside a Monterey County park. This topography not only provides a scenic venue to enjoy when you’re not going full-throttle around the race track, but also accounts for Seca’s 300′ change in elevation as you go through the 11 turns that comprise the circuit.

Driving into the park I can already feel my nerves acting up. I went through eight years of competitive sailing, two Junior Olympics, and three Nationals with this same physiological response. On a typical track day this sensation would subside after my first session, and be greatly reduced after the first full-pace lap, but upon entering into the Skip Barber office the apprehension quickly disappears.

Walking in I’m greeted by Christie Cooley, one of the class instructors, and later the rest of the instructors introduce themselves to me as I’m talking to other students and grabbing a quick bite to eat. The class size is small, 10 students in all (the optimal class size is 18 students), which for today means there will be two students per every instructor. This is part of the Skip Barber approach to teaching: small class sizes and personalized instruction. It’s the little things too, like people taking the time to actually learn my name that helped to ingrain the fact that Sean Goff, James Randolph, Christie Cooley, Ty Howard, and Michael Czysz were all there that day to make me a better rider.

After a briefing on the class, the track, and the day’s goals, we suit up and head into a large passenger van to site the course. I’ve heard about the infamous van ride with Michael Czysz. It starts out with the best of intentions: a discussion of vehicle mechanics, weight transfer, and a feel for the twists and turns of Laguna Seca. “Spirited driving” might be a good word for the experience that comes to a halt at the top of the entry into The Corkscrew. As we hop out of the van Czysz points out something that probably would have gone unnoticed. How often can you walk down one of the most famous turns in the US, in the world? How often do you get to ride Seca with only 10 other people on the track? Unless you have special connections, this opportunity is unlikely to occur outside of the Skip Barber Superbike School.

Walking down The Corkscrew we get to check the grip level of the corners, just like a GP rider would before Sunday’s races. The quick left-right combo drops 60′ as the race line continues through Rainey Corner. We can see where “the pass” was made, literally on a blob of leftover macadam outside of the rumble strips. Not a legal pass, but after taking a few laps on Seca you realize what a feat Rossi’s pass on Stoner was in the ’09 GP.

Hopping back into the van we finish our warm-up lap, and then we’re given our last chance to pile out of the vehicle before Czysz really shows us what this puppy can do. I was social sciences major in college, and what I learned in law school and business school did not equip me with the words in order to properly describe what taking a passenger van loaded with 11 people on a “hot lap” around Laguna Seca is like to the human body. I remember grabbing a metal bar underneath the bench seat. I remember realizing that I didn’t have my seat belt on about half-way through (my mother reared me better than this went through my mind at one point). I remember Michael answering his phone somewhere between the Andretti Hairpin and Turn 5, “Sorry…I’m kinda busy right now”. Really now? That would seem to be an understatement don’t you think? While I was waiting for this passenger van to flip-over with its high Cg, Czysz was giving us our first lesson in what he calls bandwidth.

Thinking back on it, bandwidth is a good term for what many people have experienced in life, albeit in different regards. For me as small boat sailor, it means being able to roll-tack under a windward boat at a mark, while still noticing the puff of wind coming across the course downwind. For Czysz it’s the ability to navigate the turns of Seca at speed with 11 people in a vehicle that was designed to only handle one of those factors well (I’ll give you a hint, it’s not the cornering). While none of us would be able to answer our phones on the bikes by the end of the day, one of the goals of the Skip Barber Superbike school was to increase our ability to process not only what was happening here at Seca, but to also increase our bandwidth to process events at later track venues.

Of course it’s not even our first session yet, and our bandwidth is extremely low. For someone like me who is anything but a morning person, but had to be up at 5am to make the drive into Monterey, the mental bandwidth is rapidly approaching a null set as we gear up to take our first lap around what used to be a dried lakebed.

Our class runs the gamut with experience. We have a rider who is taking to the track for the very first time, we have a racer from the UK who flew out to California specifically for this course, and we have nine other people who fall in-between those two points. “The school is best suited for a rider who is already moderately experienced but wants to improve their skills and knowledge.  We strongly believe that you can safely ride faster if you better understand the dynamics of the motorcycle. Skip Barber Superbike School is school not a trackday and caters to riders willing to put in the time to become a smarter, faster and safer motorcyclists,” Czysz explains to me. I tried the other day to remember how many track days I’ve done. A dozen? Two dozen maybe? At eight different tracks? Motorcycle journalists are notoriously poor track riders, even the guys that cover the sportbike scene. It’s the dirty little secret of the motorcycling world, and I’m really no different. Put me on my home track outside of Pittsburgh, and I at least look the part, but on a new track I’m garbage for at least the first few sessions, and maybe if I’m lucky I look like I know what a motorcycle is by the end of the last session.

For me, motorcycling, especially track riding, is a mental game. Talking to Czysz he confirms what I already know: motorcycling is a sport of subtleties. For all the male bravado, good riding comes down to subtle movements from the rider that require smooth throttle and brake control, which in turn can be greatly enhanced and destroyed with minute changes in body position. The irony of course is that the same can be said about small-boat racing, which I burned out on and left to start riding motorcycles. “FML,” as the kids would say, I left one sport and not knowing it, joined one exactly like it.

Hopping on the 2010 KTM RC8 for the first time (A&R doesn’t get invited out to many OEM press events *cough*), I follow Czysz and one of my fellow classmates out on a couple warm-up laps. Czysz makes our introduction to Laguna Seca a gradual one, and we ride at a modest speed. The focus isn’t riding fast, that’ll come later, but right now he takes us through the fastest line around the course. Over-emphasizing correct body-posture we gradually learn where the exit and entry points are for each turn.

The class consists of 30 minutes on the bike and 30 minutes in the classroom, which operates in inverse with the car class that runs concurrently with us. Over the two-days of the course, we’ll have a total of 8 hours on the track, with the last sessions of Day Two spent in an open track format. Until then though, we do drills on different parts of the course, focusing on objectives like weight transfer, trail braking, standing a bike up when exiting a corner, etc. Typically when we completed a drill we’d ride the course to the next stop, which may be another corner down the way, or the one we just left, meaning a full-lap around again. Our time seemed split between drills that introduced us to skills, and time where instructors lead or followed small groups of riders as we practiced the concept in the wild.

The most controversial subject is of course trail braking, which consists of the better part of the first day’s lessons. Many schools don’t condone the teaching of trail braking to novice riders, citing the belief that the technique is too advanced and better left un-taught, which leaves Skip Barber Superbike School as one of the only institutions covering this subject. Asking Czysz to explain Skip Barber’s decision to teach the controversial subject, he explains to me that “[he] told Skip Barber that we would have no taboo subjects. Knowledge is about understanding a subject not avoiding it.” Continuing Czysz explains that “[he] does not understand how a “motorcycle school” cannot teach trail braking – trail braking is the one of the fundamental techniques required to operate and control a motorcycle safely. The front brake is the single most powerful control on the motorcycle, of course employed incorrectly it may result in a fall, but the solution is not to avoid it – but to understand it.”

This is of course part of the reason why riders come to Skip Barber, as trail braking is a potent skill to have in the toolbox of track riding, and could potentially save a rider’s life. For me, I’m a point-and-shoot rider, which is basically how we’re taught to ride in the MSF courses and what many track CR’s impart onto their riders. Line-up your entry, brake into the corner, finishing braking, and then lean over to make your turn. Probably 95% of the riders I ride with on the track take this approach to riding, myself included.

This has caused me to have a plateau in my riding. If I go to my home course at BeaveRun, I can run a 1’03” with some consistently (the track record is something like 57 seconds). I know there’s time to be made up on my laps by cleaning up a couple corners, and entering a few turns faster, but none of this would account for the six seconds that separates me from Larry Pegram’s record time, let along the three seconds or so from the amateur racers that I ride with in the “A” group. Trail braking is of course the defining skillset that separates me from these riders. Comfortingly Czysz explains to me that “for sure a faster rider does not equate a better rider, there are plenty of “faster” guys that regularly crash until they become a better rider.” I’ll have to remember this quote for later, but the point is driven home as we watch footage of GP riders. Yes even the greats have room for improvement.

As Czysz explains in our classroom, the concept of trail braking has two advantages. By creating a braking zone that extends into the apex of the turn, we can begin our braking much later down a straight-away or corner entrance. Additionally, braking while turning allows for the motorcycle to turn a tighter radius, and make that turn much quicker than before. Czysz makes the technical benefits sounds easy, but instructors like Ty Howard break the concept down in the classroom in ways that even this rider can understand, and that’s the fundamental difference about Skip Barber and why people take this course.

Anything can be broken down into smaller components, even trail braking. Starting out with the bikes upright, we practice trail braking lever action going down the front straight of Seca. It looks like a drag race (and the little kid in all of us probably makes it one…maybe just a little bit), but entering the braking zone students practice increasing front-brake pressure, as the RC8’s weight transfers forward coming to a stop, the front brakes are modulated to slow the rise of the RC8 off the front forks, minimizing the bike’s disturbance. We are in essence going through the same mental and physical exercises that we’ll do later in the turns: hitting the brakes hard before entry, and delaying their release as we lean the bike into the turns, releasing on apex before we apply the throttle to the RC8 superbike between our legs.

This concept goes counter to everything I’ve learned as a rider, and it’s frustrating. I’m slower on day one than I was before. With this weather, and the power on tap with the RC8, I bet I could point-and-shoot my way to decent lap time here at Seca, and maybe even leave with a nice kneedragging photo to post up for this article, but that’s not the point of the class.

I remember the first time I met Michael Czysz in Portland, Oregon. We were talking about electric bikes, and in typical Jensen Beeler fashion I found some parallel to what we were talking about to something else. I talk in metaphor a lot, I like to look for ways things interrelate, it helps me analyze concepts and understand them more fully. For whatever the reason, I remember describing the rise and fall of tennis star Pete Sampras. The story with Sampras matches my own this day.

A rising star in the tennis world, Sampras was a good, if not great, tennis player, but he was no champion. Sampras’ weakness was his double-handed backhand shot. Despite this he still had a formidable backhand, but it was holding up his game, he could be better. After years of fighting with his coach over the issue, Sampras finally agreed to revaluate his form, and adopt a single-handed backhand shot. The move was devastating to Sampras in the short-term, he dropped in the rankings, but because of his commitment to improve his talent and select a mode of operation that would better allow him to grow as a player, he became one of tennis’ all-time greatest players because of this change. A similar story can be told of Tiger Woods, and a number of great athletes.

I have no illusions of motorcycling grandeur, but the mindset to better myself constantly is a quality I have to a fault. After misjudging more than a few turns at Seca, it’s easy to see now what my limiting factor as a rider is if I want to take the next step in this sport. It’s one of those things you have to experience for yourself. Taking your brake marker as if you were going to brake all before the corner, but instead trail braking, you find miles of road in front of you that you didn’t think you had before…and that’s not even when trail braking all the way to the apex, which is more than apparent as being my case when reviewing the video footage from each session.

One of the great tools Skip Barber employs are the mounted GoPro Hero video cameras. Photos and video do not lie, and show your body position, race line, and brake points whether they’re good, bad, or ugly. One of the real values in the class is being able to have someone who understands race mechanics helping you diagnose your video, showing you your strengths and weaknesses. For me, this tool was especially valuable as I could pick up things I knew I was doing wrong (not getting a knee out, blowing a line, letting off the throttle in Turn 1), but it also shows you things that you thought you were doing right, but weren’t (like not swinging all the way to the track’s edge on Turn 2). With such a small student to instructor ratio  (2:1 in my case), this also means someone is able to explain to you why you did something wrong, and how to improve it. When the tape continuously showed me not getting my leg out far enough, Ty Howard was able to look at my leathers and suspect that they were too constricting to move my leg freely (I may have gained some weight in the off-season…just saying). Because of the personal attention we could immediately hop on a secured RC8 and practice shifting my body over and getting my knee out for the turn. Try getting that sort of one-on-one time with one of the fastest guys on a KTM at your next track day.

The second day of the class focuses on corner exiting, the happy couple to the first day’s focus on corner entry. Again with the aid of video, and direct instructor feedback I was able to see where I was lifting my head and body, and where to correct it. Towards the latter half of the day everything comes together, and the instructors let the students take lap after lap unimpeded. This is both the most rewarding part of the class, and the hardest. It’s rewarding because you’re stringing together everything you’ve learned the past two days, but it’s the hardest because you’ve been in an intense classroom environment for two days, which taxes you not only mentally but also physically. However in that two-day span of time you not only see your riding improve, but also walk away with a substantial amount to ponder. True to their promise, there’s a tremendous amount of information that clicks after you’ve left this course, and I’ve already caught myself thinking about different techniques as I ride on the street, with less weight transfer being one of the more noticeable items in my day-to-day riding now. I long now to take my own track bike out for a session now to see on my own time how much farther I can ride the tuning forks off my battered R1 with my new found skills.

At $2,600 you might scoff at the price of admission, but consider a few points first. As I’ve mentioned the Skip Barber Superbike School offers you not only a chance to ride one of America’s premiere tracks, but you do it in an environment and at a level they few ever see, and in a class size that’s intimately small. I think in the entire two days I lapped a rider only two or three times. For 2010 Skip Barber is exclusively using 2010 KTM RC8 and RC8R motorcycles, which are being supported directly by KTM. A review is to come of these bikes, but I’ll save you a read and say the RC8 might be the best sportbike I’ve ever ridden. Each bike is basically brand new (mine had 200 miles on it, and was one of the “older” bikes on the grid).

If you approach this from a comparable track day perspective, you’d easily spend $800 in track costs and tires, let alone the bike fees, but you get much more than this from the Skip Barber course. The skills you learn here transfer over to any motorcycle you ride, and you will ride that motorcycle with more confidence and better control than before. Try and say the same thing about the full-system exhaust pipes that cost over $2000 these days. Once you mount them to the bike they’re sunk costs whose value you’ll never fully redeem. Besides, there’s something extremely rewarding in passing the guy with every aftermarket part in the book, with your stock bike of the same model. If you want to spend money to get your best ROI on performance, invest in yourself and take this course.

Still not convinced? Consider this: six of the nine paying course students signed up for another Skip Barber class immediately after the course’s completion. With more advanced class planned that are logical extensions of the current curriculum, I’d expect to see this return student percentage to increase even further in the future.

It’s hard to find fault with Skip Barber’s Superbike School, and I’ve certainly waxed some rose-filled prose in these paragraphs. For many riders, the course will be a destination event. Out of all the riders I was the only California native, meaning everyone else flew halfway across the country (or in many cases much farther) to come to Seca and Skip Barber. Half of the class came from abroad, which helps justify one of the great benefits of the course: the provided for KTM RC8 and RC8R motorcycles. For me though I would have loved the option to bring my own bike to the course. An added hassle sure, but it does take away the time it takes to come up to speed on a new motorcycle. It also takes away some of the fear factor in crashing.

Skip Barber offers a $400 full-crash insurance, with when coupled with the optional equipment rental, can takeaway the mental anxiety of crashing a $20,000 motorcycle. Of course if you’re a starving motorcycle blogger who has $10 to his name, this sort of luxury is non-existent, and I spent every first lap on Seca contemplating how long it would take me to claw my way out of personal bankruptcy if I stuffed the KTM in a corner. My track bike of course though is the A&R bastard child, and has the bruises to prove it.

The only other fault I can really find in the course is actually going to be a plus for many riders. The atmosphere off the track is extremely positive, and the instructors have tremendous amount of positive feedback for riders, they also are super vigilant about telling a rider when “they done good”. The positive reinforcement learning strategy doesn’t resonate with me because I’m always looking for a way to improve further. If a corner was good, I want it to be great. If it’s great, I want it to be outstanding, and so on. Your mileage may vary on this point, but judging from how quick the staff is to make your riding experience truly perfect, front-loading your preferred learning style would likely be welcomed with open arms.

The closing thoughts I have on the Skip Barber Superbike School is that every rider that wants to maximize their potential on a racetrack should take this course. Don’t buy lighter weight rims, forgo that full racing exhaust, and refrain from buying all the overpriced GP replica gear. Get yourself some beat-up leathers, a stock track bike, take this course, and smile the next time you effortlessly pass a rider on the same bike as you at your next track day.

Michael Czysz Takes a Lap Around Laguna Seca:

Facing Czysz Going Around Laguna Seca:

Asphalt & Rubber Tackles Andretti, Rainey, and The Corkscrew:

Photo: © 2010 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – Creative Commons – Attribution 3.0