Lately, I’ve been dissatisfied with my riding. I didn’t necessarily feel like I was doing anything wrong, but my mojo was definitely flagging. I felt like I was stagnating and needed to freshen up my technique. Perhaps some school was in order.
While considering this idea, I remembered what a profound effect Jason Pridmore’s STAR Motorcycle School had on my riding technique when I took a one-day class some 15 years ago. Pridmore’s 14-year professional racing career saw him become AMA 750 SuperSport Champion in 1997 and Formula Xtreme Champion in 2002. Internationally, he won the 2003 and 2012 FIM World Endurance championships. Being the son of the first AMA Superbike champion, Reg Pridmore, means most of his life has been immersed in the world of motorcycle racing. This background helped Jason to develop a strong curriculum for rider training that elevated my level of riding during my previous attendance at STAR.
Soon, I found myself impatiently awaiting March 13 and the beginning of a two-day STAR School event at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Since the STAR School requires that you bring your own motorcycle, this event would also allow me to spend some quality time with my beloved 2003 Yamaha R6.
Like many riding/track schools, STAR School divides its time between classroom instruction and track sessions with riders placing themselves into either Street or Advanced groups. While the same information is taught in both levels, Pridmore delivers it in a way best suited for each grouping’s needs to improve their skills. The structure of these class periods is informal, with Pridmore sitting in front of the class asking leading questions which he uses as a springboard into the material he plans on covering.
Saying that the classroom sessions are informal does not mean the STAR program lacks structure. Quite the opposite. Pridmore, who says he has no formal training as a teacher, was essentially raised in a riding school. Jason’s father, Reg, runs the CLASS riding school, and sitting in on it throughout his youth has clearly left a mark on Jason, but it’s more than the techniques he imparted me this week that he’d first learned from his father. Pridmore is a natural-born mentor who clearly takes pride in the accomplishments of his students. (So, it should come as no surprise that an increasingly large portion of his school’s focus has shifted to 1-on–1 training where a student gets paired with an instructor for an entire day.) The list of racers who have benefitted from his guidance is a lengthy one, and his pool of instructors draws from these same students/racers. Benny Solis and Caroline Olsen are two of the up-and-coming MotoAmerica riders who are both students and coaches of Pridmore’s riding philosophy.
In the very first classroom talk, Pridmore states, “I want to do my best to help you understand what’s going on beneath you.” With that he jumps into a discussion of rpm management. His experience tells him that the vast majority of riders are entering corners a gear too high. This is particularly common among riders of open-class bikes. However, this, says Jason, leads to a couple of problems.
When talking about rpm management, Pridmore uses the word “proactive” quite frequently. In the case of engine speed, he means that if the rider is in the proper gear, the engine will be at its most responsive when rolling the throttle either on or off. This is the crux of being proactive. If the rider needs to slow down a bit and is in too high a gear, rolling off the throttle does very little to slow down a bike. Conversely, when it’s time to dial in more speed, being in the proper gear gives the rider’s right wrist more granular control over the response from the engine.
The tendency to carry a gear too high, particularly on the track, may be a holdover from the days before TC where people on big-bore bikes worried more about spinning up the rear tire. Pridmore states that there are two problems with this approach. First, it’s harder to detect – and therefore mitigate – wheel-spin in the meat of the torque curve. Second, when the revs jump from a torque-curve spin, it could put the engine in the horsepower curve, thereby compounding the problem.
If there is one myth that Pridmore would like to dispel, it’s that of the one “fast line” around a track. Lines are determined by many factors, including speed, lean angle, rider comfort, and motorcycle capabilities. Instead, he suggests that the rider consider what is the best line for him, his bike, and current pace. To point out his perspective, Pridmore asks if a hypothetical rider who is running a pace that is 20 seconds off of that of the local fast guys would be served by forcing himself/herself to adhere to someone else’s line.
Also, Pridmore asserts that the proper line for a particular corner needs to consider what came before the corner. Was it a high-speed straight or another corner? These can limit a rider’s ability to actually put the motorcycle in the position of the classic wide entry towards the apex. Pridmore states that too much attention is paid to the corner entry and not enough gets spent on the exit. The drive onto a straight will be different than a drive into another corner. However, he’s not saying to throw the standard racing line out with the bathwater. It frequently works and is a good starting point, but he cautions that every corner doesn’t necessarily need to be taken the same way.
The most controversial topic covered in the classroom sessions is Pridmore’s preferred method of downshifting. Simply put, he doesn’t blip the throttle. Now, before your grab your pitchforks and torches, consider his reasoning. First, he says that blipping the throttle absolutely works, and if it’s working for you, you don’t have to change if you don’t want to. However, if you want to try something different, you might find downshifting using just the clutch works better for you. This type of instruction was exactly why I was in the class. I wanted to freshen my riding, and this might be just the ticket.
The technique is straightforward. As soon as the bike arrives at its throttle roll-off spot at the corner entry, the clutch is squeezed in enough to let the plates spin, the shift lever is tapped, and the clutch lever is eased out. The process is repeated if needed for multiple downshifts. For those who think you’ll blow up your engine, Pridmore’s analysis of the engine speed is: Rolling off the throttle creates engine braking that begins to lower the rpm, and disengaging the clutch allows the rpm to drop further or roughly 2,000 rpm total for the first gear change. So, overrevving the engine is no longer an issue – even with a botched clutch release. Pridmore claims that with practice the downshifts are so smooth that the only way an observer (or passenger) can tell is by listening to the the exhaust note.
Since I was actively questioning my riding technique, blip-less downshifts looked to be exactly what I wanted. Even if I didn’t end up using it outside of my experiment at the STAR School, it would allow me to closely consider my downshifting technique and whether changing it would be the worthwhile update I was looking to find.
A School Is Not A Track Day
Pridmore and his instructors know that, like a dog who sees its master bouncing a ball, we can succumb to the siren song of track sessions and forget to focus on the current stint’s lesson. In a stroke of brilliance, an instructor is always at the hot pit entrance talking to each student before they head out. “How are you doing? Having fun? What are the three things we’re concentrating on in this session?” If the student doesn’t remember all of the tasks or has questions, they are addressed on the spot.
During the track sessions, a cadre of instructors is circulating on school bikes, following students then passing them and demonstrating techniques or pulling them in for a talk in pit lane. During the two-day school, I had these trackside conferences with five different instructors, some on multiple occasions. Each time they were addressing my specific needs. Additionally, each coaching session had them explicitly ask me if I had any questions for them.
If you ever want to learn how much of a role muscle memory plays in riding a motorcycle, change the order in which you’re doing things on corner entry to see how it messes with your head. At the beginning of the session, every downshift was herky-jerky. Heeding the admonition that I was at a riding school, not a track day, I kept my speed below 85 mph and separated each step of the corner entry so that I could concentrate on the lesson. By the end of the session, things were beginning to fall into place, and I was starting to see the value of this downshifting technique – though I was still a long way from being proficient at it.
The next thing to be changed was my body position on the motorcycle. Pridmore believes that the advent of social media has created an epidemic of people hanging off their bikes comically far as they ape a misinterpretation of how MotoGP riders actually hang off their bikes. He said that, while many riders think that this body position looks cool in photos, it’s inefficient in regards to feeling what the bike is doing and responding to it. Instead, we should be sliding just our butt cheek off the inside edge of the seat with our knee going forward. Our shoulders and hips should be facing forward. The outside knee should be wedged firmly against the tank and the balls of your feet should be on the pegs to give your lower body leverage to move you back onto the bike center with minimal use of the arms (which could cause accidental steering inputs).
The idea is to support yourself on the bike with the lower body to allow the arms to stay relaxed with the forearms parallel to the ground. When in this position, your legs and core can handle the force of acceleration without influencing the bar. You’re also in a better position to feel what the tires are doing beneath you.
One of the high points of the school for me was the track walk. Pridmore took the entire class to corners that the students said were causing some trouble and described his way through each one. Coaches parked bikes in set places in their line through the corner, and Pridmore described his approach to the corner, explaining his reasons why he handles it the way he does.
The difference between discussing a corner while standing in it (instead of looking at it on a white board) is profound. Being on the track itself allowed for reference points to be identified. For example, being able to see the rise in the pavement that has the potential to cause loss of front-end grip between Chuckwalla’s turns 11 and 12 made me realize that I was turning in about 15 feet too late for 11. Prior to that, I thought I was utilizing the correct line based on our classroom discussion. I’m pretty sure many – if not all – of the students had similar revelations in the corners that we walked and discussed.
Day Two: Putting The Skills Together
By the end of day one, with all the information that Pridmore had delivered, my brain was full and my body was tired. My ego was also doing a little soul-searching, too. Changing something as fundamental as the downshifting technique is a great way to get out of your comfort zone and really look at how you ride. It’s also mentally taxing since you’re fighting muscle memory and have to think through every downshift. Tossing an altered riding position into the mix only steepened the learning curve. That night, I went to sleep thinking of corner entries with quick-yet-smooth clutch releases as my body became increasingly comfortable in its new riding position.
Our first track session of day two had the class riding through pairs of cones spread throughout the corners as a means of illustrating how to tie all we’d learned about corner entry and exit together. This exercise was also designed to help get street riders used to looking further ahead on the road by providing reminders to look ahead to the next key feature in the corner. In another track session, students had the chance to have their braking critiqued. The impression I got from the students I talked to was that all the information they received on the first day began to gel to the point that they could really apply it on the second.
When I asked Pridmore if this was the purpose of the two-day format, he replied, “The hardest thing to remember is, I’m throwing 40 years of experience at you over two days. It’s not even fair, when you think about it. There’s so much stuff we go through on the first day that, just by the time you’re getting going on one thing, we’re moving on to something else. I try to get people to not get too frustrated with that because I’m trying to get you to see that we’re covering a vast majority of things. When you come back the second day, you already know the program. So, we reiterate a lot of the things we went through the first day, and then we add a few little things to apply in each session.”
Two-Up Track Ride
The opportunity to ride two-up with Pridmore during the STAR School is one of the most popular features of the class. While passing other students while riding two-up is exciting, Pridmore offers this service as an extension of the classroom training, demonstrating the techniques he stresses. All those years ago, when I rode pillion with him on a Katana at Pahrump, the ride was exciting but served more as a great example of how smooth his riding is.
Now, with the bike sponsorship of Kawasaki, the pace of the ride has been cranked up to ZX-10! The acceleration is brutal but controlled. Corner entries deliver downshifts that can only be detected through the song from the exhaust. What astounded me, as someone who has always trail-braked into corners, was how deep and how intense the deceleration Pridmore carries on his approach to an apex. A couple times in my two laps, I was certain that he was over-braking into the corner and would lose his drive only to have him seamlessly begin to accelerate, exiting the corner with the front wheel slightly off the ground. The drop from Turn 11 to 12, the fastest corners on the track, was not only breathtakingly thrilling but also illustrative of where my line differed from his through the corners, making my next trip through the turns on my bike significantly faster – just from viewing them from the rear saddle. If you attend the STAR School, do not miss the opportunity to ride with Pridmore.
Taking The Checkers
In the first class session, Pridmore said, “We want to take your riding to another level without increasing your risk.” While this may seem like an impossible goal, most of the riders I talked to felt like they had achieved this throughout the two days.
By emphasizing fundamentals and directing that students focus on specific individual techniques, Pridmore and the STAR Motorcycle School provide students with the tools to increase their ability and safety. The speed sort of sneaks in as the skills are repeated and naturally tightened up. My experience at the end of the school was that I was working much less hard on the track while carrying more speed. Additionally, I could see places where even more speed would come as I further refined my new riding techniques. All I need is more time on the track.
Priced at $1,095, the two-day school provides students with easy access to Pridmore and his highly approachable coaches plus tons of track time (I logged 200 miles over my two days.). The catered meals are top notch, too. However, it is the quality of the instruction that makes the STAR Motorcycle School such a good value for your dollars. In the years since I first attended the STAR Motorcycle School, Pridmore has retained its core principles while expanding the tools used to teach them. Regardless of whether you are a street rider who’s never turned a wheel on the track, a track-day regular, or a budding racer, you will find plenty to learn that you can apply to your riding. Riders who want to go even further with their skills may want to look at trying a 1-on-1 session for $1,300.