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A Road racing school for kids

Published: 07 October 2001

Updated: 19 November 2014

The three R6 riders are giving it a handful, but it’s no use. The two Aprilia RS125s which have just appeared out of the murk behind them are closing fast.

Eventually, the trio realise the futility of trying to keep ahead of the Aprilias and pull over. In a maelstrom of two-stroke racket, the tiny 125cc racers blast through. Within seconds they’ve exited the fast right-hander and are swallowed up again by the mist, leaving nothing behind but a vague scent of two-stroke.

It’s humiliating enough to be stuffed by a pair of pint-sized race bikes, but it’s even more mortifying when they’re being ridden by a pair of pint-sized racers. Because, believe it or not, these riders are a few years shy of being able to legally take their miniature mounts on to the roads.

In fact, just a few hours beforehand they had never even ridden on Tarmac – they were more used to knocking around waste ground on motocrossers. But at the Mick Boddice Race School, they can aim for bigger things. As well as the well-known courses for adults, he runs a course which enables the racing talent of the future to hone their skills.

Boddice, British sidecar champion and TT legend, grins at the disbelieving look on the faces of the adults as they arrive back at the paddock to find their rivals aren’t even old enough to shave yet. " You just can’t beat catching ’em young, " he says.

He has a point. Valentino Rossi, Kevin Schwantz, Norick Abe, Kenny Roberts Jnr and Marco Melandri were all racing – and winning – at an age when most of us had only just been entrusted with our first paper round.

Many countries have established a way to turn schoolkids into GP champs. Italy and Spain lead the way, while Britain has the recently-established ACU Academy, in which hand-picked youngsters get a shot at the big time. The difference here is that any kid can come and have a go – and if they show promise, the Academy may invite them for proper training.

There are two ways for youngsters to get their start in national racing. There’s the British 125 championship, which runs high-spec GP machines costing tens of thousands of pounds and requires some serious sponsorship. And there’s the Aprilia RS125 Challenge. Here, everyone has an identical machine on identical tyres. It doesn’t cost megabucks and it gives the youngster a bike that’s ridden by adults.

Which is just what six kids are riding today at the Darley Moor circuit in Derbyshire. The Mick Boddice RS125s – which, ironically, stand taller than the R6s the school’s adult pupils use – are prepared to exactly the same spec as the Challenge machines.

Most of the youngsters are lads between 13 and 15 – but that’s not a requirement. Chief instructor Dave Luscombe – who also works with the ACU lads – says: " We can cater for as young as 11 and up to 17. Boys and girls are welcome. There’s absolutely no reason nowadays why girls can’t be as fast – or faster – than the boys.

" Really, though, we have to insist the kid is big enough to get on the bike. Not only is it a major embarrassment to the child, but it’s almost impossible for him or her to take anything away from the day. And, of course, they have to pass the first test. "

Ah yes, the first test. It’s the first hurdle for any prospective pupil to leap. They have to get on the bike – often a challenge in itself – ride to the end of the car park, turn around and ride back. But Luscombe is keen to dismiss any similarity between this and your CBT.

He says: " We teach kids how to race bikes, not how to ride them. It’s really sad when they fail, but some do. As far as we’re concerned, that’s the end of the day. Better to point them in the right direction after only half-an-hour’s work than after half-a-day’s. That way we don’t lose too much cash if they drop the bike and we can invite them back when they’re ready. "

The youngest on the course is just 11 years old and is more used to 80cc trials bikes than 110mph road racers. And not only is anything more than 30mph a little frightening for the poor lad, he’s so short he can hardly touch the ground. He’s been on the back of his dad’s bike plenty of times, though, and he comes pre-packaged in his own miniature leathers.

At the other end of the scale is 16-year-old Victor Cox. He already races his own RS125 in the Aprilia Challenge. Though his best position in a race so far has been fifth, he’s only been riding big bikes for three months, so he’s not doing badly. At the moment he’s leading the national minimoto championship and looks well on the way to a career as a racer. But he’s the first to admit there’s always more to learn. That’s why he’s here.

All of today’s pupils passed the initial test, although some were pretty shaky. But how do you transform a wobbly, stalling youngster into an R6-beating demon? Well, you start by getting into your leathers and getting on the bike. As far as this school’s concerned, there’s no substitute for experience.

It only takes a couple of minutes for the kids to pull on their provided leathers – though three of the six have brought their own. The parents are all ushered away, far out of earshot, while Luscombe gathers the fruit of their loins around the bikes and sets out his stall early on. He doesn’t take any nonsense. " This is a 100mph loaded gun, " he tells, them, " so you have to listen to me and do exactly what I say, when I say. Any backchat, anyone being smart and they’ll be straight off the course. You got that? "

The kids stand silently and just nod. Is it really necessary to be quite so hard? " Yes. You’re putting a kid on a machine that he could be nosediving into the Armco in only five minutes. Anyway, the kids are far better pupils than the adults. "

Well, being pupils is their day job, after all. Luscombe turns back to the now attentive kids and explains what’s going to happen next. They’ll be going out in pairs, behind an instructor. They have to follow his wheeltracks and look for the cornering cones – which mark the turn-in, apex and exit points – as well as looking for the braking and gear change indication boards. Then he explains the flags and track protocol like raising your hand and pulling over and how to enter the pit lane.

The kids stand absorbing his every word. It’s like talking to a group of sponges. " This is why I prefer teaching kids! " laughs Luscombe. " Every day people teach them things, in school, at home, with their mates. When somebody tells them something new, they take it for granted to shut up, listen and learn. After teaching blokes who’ve been riding 10 years, it makes a refreshing change.

" The worst kids to teach are the 16 and 17-year-olds with bikes on the road. They go straight out on track and try to show you how fast they are. They’re straight back off the track twice as fast – that is not the way we operate here! "

He motions for the class to start their engines and the air is peppered by the crackle of half a dozen two-strokes. As they pull away, it’s far from graceful.

One kid is too short to put his feet down when moving, and the combination of nerves and poor clutch control could prove expensive. So an instructor is running behind until he knows the kid’s OK. He is, and he pulls out on to the track, slipping the clutch to catch up with his fellow pupils and their instructor.

The parents are looking pretty worried by now. All eyes turn to the track. The first gaggle is coming around. They’re doing about 25mph and changing up through the gears about a decade too early.

I’m not too impressed – and neither are some of the more savvy parents. " I was expecting them to be a little faster, " complains one disappointed father. " I’ve seen him go around the field faster on an MZ125. "

He’s holding a stopwatch and shaking his head. The fastest lap of the session is 1:45s – over 30 seconds off the pace.

But these kids are buzzing. For many of them it’s the first time they’ve ever ridden on anything other than wet grass or mud. In next to no time, the lids are off and Luscombe is talking them through the next section of the course. Then they’re back on the bikes and heading down to the bottom of the track.

A slalom course has been set out on the back straight and Luscombe is teaching them how to hang off. These kids have been riding for less than an hour and very soon they’ll be getting their knee down. Some of the adult pupils taking a breather shake their heads. But then how many hundreds of riding hours did most of them have before they got their knees down?

Luscombe pulls in and his gang immediately huddles around. Once again, silence descends, only to be broken by the chief instructor’s voice. These kids’ teachers wouldn’t recognise them if they could see them now. They’re hanging on to every word Luscombe utters.

He nods to one of the kids and the youngster takes off down the slalom. He looks like a pro. OK, his knee doesn’t actually touch the Tarmac – but it’s the weight distribution that matters, and the body position is spot-on. He’s quickly followed by the rest of the class, one by one.

Within 10 minutes, the group is huddled again. This time they’re being taught a few basic racing tips, including getting off the line quickly and " hiding " your braking point.

When the class heads back to the pits, the change is obvious. All the engines are revved all the way through the range and at the first corner, every kid looks like a budding Jeremy McWilliams, bum off the seat and knee out.

There’s time for one last session before lunch, and lap times are down to a more reasonable 1min 34s. The parents are now grinning and pointing.

In the afternoon, every child gets as many instructed laps as the school can manage and the kid can handle. Lines are tightened, apexes tidied. Cox – the one who is already racing in the Aprilia Challenge – is buckling down to some seriously quick lap times on his own bike. He’s down to around 1:14s and his instructor has had to let him go ahead. The rest of the class finish the day with times around 1:24s – still pretty impressive.

Luscombe says: " Another day here or a weekend’s race meeting and most of them will be on the pace. There are a couple here who will need time more than experience, though. "

So just how do you spot the stars?

" It’s harder than it looks – some of our fastest guys almost failed the first test in the car park. But we know talent when we see it, and if you catch it young and nurture it, it’s unbeatable. These kids will be faster than you or me by the time they’re 17.

" Some of the brightest prospects will also be invited to join the ACU Academy – and then the really hard work begins. "

So if you’re overtaken by a teenage tearaway on your next track day, get a good look back in the pits– the next time you see him he could be standing on top of a GP podium.

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