Take one racing legend with a passion for bikes, add in a sprinkling of Derbyshire hospitality and you’ve got the formula for the world’s most successful race school
or a legend who has stood on the podium of everything from 500GPs to the Isle of Man TT, Ron Haslam looks overwhelmed. “We’re here today to mark an amazing occasion and a phenomenal achievement,” says Honda UK’s top man Nick Campolucci. “We’re talking about helping over 70,000 riders develop their skills and experience the thrill of motorcycles, over an amazing 20 years. No other riding school can rival it for longevity or professionalism.”
He’s right, nothing quite comes close to the Honda Ron Haslam Race School. Since its launch 20 years ago, the school has become a Great British biking institution. It’s a place where all riders, regardless of experience, age or ability, are given direct access to the knowledge of a man who’s taken three world titles, triumphed at the TT, and – after Barry Sheene – has the honour of being Britain’s most successful GP rider. And, as if that wasn’t enough, visitors are expertly guided around Donington Park’s historic curves by a team of hand-picked instructors, themselves current or former racers, on a fleet of brand new Hondas. They’ll even kit you out from head to toe in top-quality riding gear if you need it.
As that afternoon’s intake of school riders get kitted up in the background, the impromptu ceremony continues over the hubbub: “It’s been very hard to come up with a suitable prize to fit this occasion, so the Honda Racing workshop created this trophy – it’s made using engine components from John McGuinness’ 2015 Senior TT-winning Fireblade.” The unique accolade is handed to Ron and his wife Ann – effectively the team manager behind the race school’s star rider – and both appear lost for words. Like many of the other trophies in the Haslams’ vast collection, this one wasn’t earned easily or without digging deep.
In the mid 90s, after a 170mph Snetterton horror crash racing the Norton in the British championship wound up Haslam’s own racing career, then Honda boss Bob McMillan proposed a new challenge – running a riding school on behalf of the Japanese manufacturer, with whom Ron had enjoyed his greatest successes, at Donington Park.
“We were terrified. It was way out of my comfort zone,” Ron admits after the post-presentation handshakes, back slaps and photo calls. “Neither Ann nor I had any experience in business, plus we were on hard times. At first I thought Bob just wanted me to be chief instructor, which was fine as I’d coached riders like John Reynolds back in the late 80s, and also the young Team Britain riders like James Haydon and Karl Harris, as well as instructing at Yamaha’s school. I enjoyed helping people in the paddock, so sharing what I’d learned came easily to me. But then Honda dropped the bombshell, they wanted us to set it up and run it completely – the whole show.”
“We remortgaged the farmhouse – our family home,” continues Ann. “Times were tough and we were facing up to the fact we were probably going to lose the house anyway so, after a lot of agonising and stress, we decided to go for it. And we’ve not looked back.”
With no business plan and little financial guidance but a strong desire to offer everyday road riders the chance to share some of the highs that bikes had brought Ron throughout his career, the school was born in the spring of 1997. Honda supplied a fleet of CB500s, CBR600s and FireBlades for the On Track, Premier and Elite courses, and 20 seasons later it’s all still happening.
Out in Donington’s paddock a swarm of riders as young as 12 are getting their first taste of two wheels on CBR125Rs, learning machine control, quick turning, hard braking and even the thrill of what it’s like to be in a race situation, on the school’s On Track course. This is the entry point for the non riders or the very inexperienced, but it’s definitely an eye-opener; having Ron Haslam personally teach you how to pull the biggest stoppie of your life then bashing elbows with you on a low-speed first-lap race simulation is something you’ll never forget. Young riders are vital to the school.
Ann says: “Nine out of 10 of our customers are road riders who already hold a full licence, but we enjoy teaching the youngsters bike control so they have more understanding of what they’re doing before they get a bike on the road. They’re the future of motorcycling and we need to share with the current generation just how great riding is otherwise we’ll lose them.”
Words: Emma Franklin Photos: Joe Dick