Learning from Kevin at the Schwantz Suzuki school

Published: 14 January 2002

THERE’S a five dollar baseball cap hanging on my bedroom wall which is as valuable as anything I own.

Every time I glance at it I’m reminded of the day I rode with Kevin Schwantz. Imagine calling Old Trafford and asking for a knockabout with Beckham, or phoning Tiger for a quick nine holes.

It’s the stuff dreams are made of... and nightmares.

I remember it all so well. The morning sun was warming the Tarmac nicely at the Road Atlanta U.S. superbike circuit, home of the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki race school.

This was my first time around the track on one of the gleaming new GSX-R600s which had been lined up in pit lane. I’ve done a few track days, I have an ACU racing licence, I’m a fairly quick rider and I’m loving it. Until I spot another bike screaming up behind me.

It’s coming quickly, too quickly for one of the other students. " S***, that’s a No34, and that’s his lid... " Schwantz is now just feet away from my rear Michelin.

" B*******! Come on Jon, get it together. " I’ve just knocked it down two gears instead of one. " C***! " The back wheel locks momentarily before the motor screams and I lurch around the corner.

My palms are sweating, my heart rate increasing and I just wish my legs would work as the 1993 world 500 champion tries not to follow my line. As you’d expect, he doesn’t. He gets it spot-on and his exit speed takes him streaking past me in a blue and white haze as he goes on the hunt for another victim.

My dark visor is momentarily filled by the big " 34 " on the back of his leathers as Schwantz disappears into the distance, pulling away like he’s on a GSX-R1000. What an experience. It’s hard to describe just how fast he is. I thought I was quick, but he made me look like I was on a CBT.

As I pull back into the pits, it’s not hard to spot the tall Texan. There’s a huddle of people around him, yet he’s taking time to chat to them all.

And then he spots me.

" You looked good out there, but you need some practice through turns two and three. See you inside... "

" Er, thanks Kevin. "

That moment alone justified the £480 cost and the eight-hour flight. He may have been humouring me, but I don’t care. Kevin Schwantz had made my day, my year, my riding life. What a bloke!

As he unzipped his Joe Rockets, that oh-so-distinctive Arai dangling by his side, I was struck by the fact that he didn’t seem at all knackered. I’d been pootling around for 10 laps, he’d been caning it to get a glimpse of all 25 participants before a de-brief.

Yet while I was sweating like a bloke should be after consuming eight bottles of Bud and half-a-cow in the hotel last night, he looked as if he’d just stepped out of an air-conditioned room.

He’s 37 now and carries the scars of so many battles with fellow gods like Wayne Rainey, Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner. Yet he looks as if he could climb on an RGV tomorrow and take on the likes of Rossi. Ever since I saw him for the first time during the TransAtlantic races of the 1980s, he’s captured the hearts of the nation.

But his most famous moment came when he held off arch rival Rainey at Hockenheim in 1991 to win the German GP with a legendary outbraking manoeuvre. In his own immortal words he " saw God, then backed off. "

He quit racing in 1995 and, with some spare time on his hands, set up this school in 2001. Now it’s one of the most popular in the U.S. and every place on this event has been booked for weeks.

By now we’re a bit more relaxed after a few laps, but at nine this morning there was a nervous buzz as 25 pupils took their seats in the classroom, which was decorated with pictures of Schwantz dicking around on a 500.

Chief instructor Lance Holst stood in front of the class and introduced everyone, some of whom needed very little introduction at all. They included former U.S. superbike and Supersport champion Jamie James and a host of very quick national-level racers, all as famous as our Chris Walker and Neil Hodgson if you’re U.S-born.

But then the one man we’d all been waiting for walked in. A hushed silence fell on the room. I couldn’t believe I was here and I think most of the other participants felt the same way.

Schwantz stood in front of the class and welcomed everyone. " This is not a boot camp, " he insisted. " We want you to enjoy yourselves. If you have any questions, just ask. "

Something he probably wished he’d never said. But the man is so laid-back and friendly he looks as though he’ll never tire of answering questions.

He looks like he’s learning as much as the students firing questions at him and one thing is bugging me. Not the most burning question ever, but one I have to ask: " Should I use the rear brake when I’m on a track? " Schwantz grins: " I never use the rear brake at all, I just use the throttle to control the rear. " OK, I’ll use it when I feel like it.

Someone else wants to know about foot position on the pegs. Schwantz says: " I ride with the ball of my foot on the pegs, but because of an accident I have trouble with my left ankle. I have to take my foot off the peg then put it back on again to change gear. " I’ve always wondered why he did that.

During the day the banter never stopped between the instructors and pupils and you can see everyone enjoys what they do, right down to messing about on the track.

James, for instance, drew alongside me on the straight then pulled a wheelie the entire length of it. Being a bit of a wheelie man himself, Schwantz said: " We try to stop him doing that, but he just ignores us. " Later on Schwantz does exactly the same.

Everyone on the school has a chance to follow the star, from the quickest to the slowest. One even shouted: " I just overtook Schwantz! " It turns out he did pass him... while Schwantz was slowing down to let another rider catch up!

By the end of the day, the 25 nervous faces have transformed into huge smiles and every rider is noticeably faster and smoother than at the beginning, thanks to the combination of short, informative master classes and extensive track time.

During one classroom session on fear, we were asked to put our hands up if we’d been scared on a track day and everyone’s hands went up. Then someone asked what scared Schwantz? Pointing directly at me, he replied: " Following him! " Well, at least I’d made an impact on his life as much as he had on mine. And the riding memories will stay with me for ever.

There’s no substitute for being at his race school yourself. But if the wife has already committed your cash to a summer holiday in Spain, we persuaded Schwantz to talk us through the basis for his schools. This is his advice...

1: Look ahead:

" This is one of the most important parts of riding a bike and our instructors relate it to both road and track. Try to look as far ahead as possible, to give you the maximum amount of time to spot and react to any obstacles in your way. On a track, this means looking for the next corner and deciding where you want to be.

" If you don’t, corners rush up on you, pushing you into hurried, panicky riding. On the road, the farther ahead you’re looking the more time you have to brake and avoid a possible accident. By looking ahead and continually moving your eyes you should be able to avoid one of the most common causes of accidents – target fixation.

" If you stare at an object, the bike will follow your line of vision. If you can just drag your eyes off it and look around the corner, the chances are you’ll make it. But training yourself not to get target fixation is tough. Even I find it hard to avoid. "

2: Concentrate:

" Don’t allow your mind to wander. The key to riding fast is 90 per cent in your head. If you’re on a track and you screw up a corner, forget it. If your mind is still thinking about the last corner it isn’t concentrating on the next, and that’s when mistakes happen. Remain focused – this applies as much on the road as it does on the track. "

3: Relax:

" If your body is rigid and tense, it compromises your control of the bike. Think smooth and be relaxed. If your mind is relaxed your body will be, too. Take your time to learn unfamiliar circuits or routes. The familiarity will help you relax and ride more smoothly.

Flow with the bike, don’t fight it.

" And remember to breathe – it is surprisingly easy to find yourself holding your breath, which increases tension. "

4: Steering:

" Try using your inner thigh to pull the bike over when you hang off. You can actually force the bike down into the corner by pulling the tank towards the ground. Counter-steering is also important. "

5: Cornering:

" Try breaking down a corner into four stages: Braking point, turning-in point, apex and exit. If you run out of track on the exit then you need to apex later, if you have more track spare then either apex sooner or increase your speed. "

6: Gear selection:

" It is important not to have the engine screaming near the limit when you’re mid-corner, since minute adjustments to your speed are more difficult. If the revs are kept at between 60 and 90 per cent, it’s responsive enough to make those adjustments without upsetting the balance. I stress the importance of blipping the throttle between downshifts and letting the clutch out to take advantage of the engine braking. Clutchless upshifts make you smoother. "

7: Braking:

" I’ve found it’s best to break it down into stages A, B and C. A is that first squeeze on the lever. It’s the initial bite and so you run the highest risk of locking the wheel. By being gentle on the brakes at this point you bring the bike under control ready for part B. Once you’re balanced you do 75 per cent of your braking. Think what the tyres tell you before C – the gradual release of the brakes in the final section – to balance the bike before you tip it into the corner. If you’re still braking hard when you turn in, there is a much greater chance of the front washing out.

" I always point out the importance of picking a stationary braking marker on the track. I know a guy who used a trackside rock as a marker. He kept braking deeper and deeper into the corner before completely outbraking himself and cartwheeling into the gravel. He couldn’t understand what happened, until he walked over to the " rock " and discovered it was a tortoise! "

8: Don’t panic:

" In most schools we have someone who drops the bike. They runs into a corner faster than they expect, panic and end up in the gravel. The solutions to panic are easier said than done, especially when you’re travelling towards a trap. But they are the same for the road and track. Relax, look through the corner and trust your tyres. "

Those tips again…

Relax. If you’re tense your movements are jerky and you won’t go as fast

Don’t fling the bike around, the smoother you are the faster you’ll go

Don’t get distracted. Look where you’re going, not at what’s going on around you

Don’t slam on the brakes, feed them in

Take your time. Don’t go out and try to break records on your first lap

Use all your body. Try to use you upper and lower body in equal proportions.

Have faith in the bike. If in doubt, throw it in. You will make it round the corner

Try not using the clutch on upshifts and blip the throttle to aid downshifts

Look for reference points. Set yourself braking markers and look for the apex

Don’t panic.