To learn new skills means I must be ready to come in last, to fail the tests, and to come across as a fool – or at least that is what I am afraid of. In an effort to transform insecurity into perversity, I like to foist my incompetence onto professional instructors. Do you think you are a good instructor? Well, Michelangelo, teach me to paint the Sistine Chapel. I brought a gallon of already hardened exterior paint and a fistful of crayons...
This winter, in between wallowing in sloth and layering on more body fat than the average sea mammal, I carefully chose my victim. My sacrifice would be: American Supercamp.
American Supercamp is all about cornering. If you envisioned a graceful knee-dragging arc across a ribbon of smooth asphalt, you are not thinking dirty enough. American Supercamp takes place on dirt, and if your knees get dirty in the process of cornering, you are doing it wrong. The dirt-track style of cornering is the polar opposite to the technique taught by most roadracing schools. Danny Walker even admits that his school’s technique probably isn’t the fastest way around a corner. So why are we doing this?
One morning on my way to work, a car screamed out of a driveway directly into my driving line. The driver, yakking on a cell phone, was fully blocking the lane directly ahead of me. The rear brake locked and the bike began to slide. I searched for a spot beyond the front bumper, but the oncoming lane was currently occupied. I was able to stop the bike, and while I struggled to keep my balance I clearly heard the driver announce to their cell phone: “Some a-hole almost hit me!”
I didn’t know what to do when the bike started to slide. I was lucky – and I knew it. I needed some “slide time,” but how was I going to do that on pavement? I know supermoto riders slide, as do dirt-track racers. A search for dirt-track schools brought me to the virtual doorstep of American Supercamp. Founded 11 years ago by Danny Walker, this show goes on the road with a specialized trailer and rig that haul Honda CRF80Fs, CRF100Fs and CRF150Fs. Other essentials include loaner gear, clipboards, megaphones, steel shoes, video equipment, and cans of Red Bull. He doesn’t neglect to chuck a few dedicated staff members and instructors into the pile either so that somehow they get the whole mess sorted out by the time you and your fellow students arrive.
A dirt arena usually used for horse shows is transformed into a scaled down dirt track by the use of hay bales, tires and intimidating orange cones. After brief introductions, you learn why you are there – to ride. You are there to ride around corners that you may initially think are impossible to make. The class (with a max of 30 students) is divided into groups that are composed of students who have similar experience levels. When asked about my dirt experience, I proudly declared, “I have none.”
The technique used initially appears simple. The reality is that while it may be relatively simple to explain, it is much harder to actually do.
Step 1: Drive it into the corner. You want to carry speed into the corner. A good bit of speed, but how much? Enough speed to make you concerned and carried deep enough into the corner to add yet more to the concern level.
Step 2: Reduce speed, by using the rear brake as well as pushing the bike down into the corner underneath you. As the throttle closes and the braking action takes over, you will feel the rear tire begin to slide.
Step 3: Change of Direction. The bike is now leaned over as much as it will be underneath you, and you turn the front tire around the corner.
Step 4: Begin to roll on the throttle while you pick the bike up to be on the “meat” of the tires.
Sounds simple right? So how did it work out for me on the first day of Supercamp?
Step 1: I didn’t drive it deep enough because, jeez, are these guys crazy? Once I got beyond that I had enough momentum to work with.
Step 2: If you don’t get on the brake enough you will overshoot the corner. If you use the front brake it won’t end well. If you don’t push the bike down far enough underneath you, your momentum is converted into straight-line travel, not used to slide and turn.
Step 3: You should now be seated on the edge of the seat. Wedgies are a sign of success, not ridicule. They reserve the right to ridicule you at any time for any reason regardless. Oh, and forget counter steering. I tried it – it didn’t end well.
Step 4: Roll on the throttle gradually. Don’t crack open the throttle like a ham-fisted clod while the bike is leaned over and the rear tire is wallowing in mucky goo. You will end up on the ground with the bike on top of you. You may even be treated to the humbling experience of having dirt track national champion (Chris Carr) explaining throttle technique in an exasperated tone normally reserved for a child who hasn’t caught on to potty training. I get it Chris, I do.
What are we doing here again? The idea is to spend a minimal amount of time on the edges of the tires and to maximize the length of the straights. That is the main benefit to the racers taking this course - longer straights. For a street rider, the primary benefit is to give you more tools for your toolbox when you need to change direction right now.
What I initially found most alien was the body position that was dictated by this style of riding. Your butt is at the forward edge of the seat. You slouch something fierce. Your elbows are up, and if they are not then you will be informed of this while you pass by a stick-wielding instructor. When you wish to turn, your shoulders stay horizontal, your outside knee pushes the bike down (gas cap to knee), and the inside hip is opened up. Your foot skims across the ground with your knee bent.
Confused? You are not alone. Things begin to click (besides your hips) once you get the body positioning correct. You begin to move the bike underneath you by using your knees. When you do this correctly, your inside arm is straight, your shoulders remain horizontal and you look good. Your ego may begin to recover slightly, but then a blur roars by you.
Chris Carr can spray roost all over your goggles and he can serve up your “good” with a heaping side of humble pie. Savor the flavor and pay attention because his talent is astounding. Carr, Dred, Scooter, and the whole crew will be better at this than you are. This is good, because once you start attempting to chase down those pesky instructors, you get a lot better. You didn’t expect to settle back into a comfort zone, did you?
By the end of the first day I had crashed a good number of times. This was on dirt so it wasn’t epic. I did outdo myself with one highside. I clearly heard the “Sprong” sound of my boot slipping off the rear brake pedal. It was at the moment of maximum lean, so momentum was converted quite efficiently into bucking me off. I started to laugh before I landed. I now have a healthy respect for the skills required to be a dirt-track racer. Thanks to the location of the course I also smelled a bit of equine feces.
At days end I limped back to the hotel room with time to reflect. Walker tells students ahead of taking the class to do some specific exercises. Leg lunges were prescribed. I added some exercises to work my hip flexors and was glad I did. Take the recommendation to exercise, as your progress in the class is limited by your level of physical fitness. I would add some abdominal exercises to the mix – particularly for the oblique muscles.
The first day is about hammering into you with technique. The second day is about putting together the pieces in their correct order. We went around the course with our left hands on the gas cap. We went around the course and were not allowed to put our feet out. We rode outside the cones, we rode inside the cones. Did I mention we did a lot of riding?
'By the end of the first day I had crashed a good number of times.'
By the end of the second day it was obvious that the speeds had increased but my body began to betray me. I had a lot of trouble with arm pump. My right hand didn’t seem to work properly – I would think I was closing the throttle, but I didn’t fully close it. I had run into my principal physical limitation.
My fellow students were an interesting cross-section of motorcyclists. Sam and Rob Prins were the only husband and wife team to attend the session. Rob explained that they tour on motorcycles, sometimes in less than perfect weather. Rob called American Supercamp “all about traction.” Sam said she felt the technique begin to click when she started to steer the bike with her legs, which meant she only applied minimal input on the bars.
Roadracer Bill Sylvester brought his 11-year-old son, Ian. Bill confided that he regretted not starting to ride and race bikes earlier – it wasn’t until age 47 that he took up motorcycling. His son certainly has a head start, and what better start can a kid get than sliding into corners under the eyes (and tutorial stick) of Chris Carr? I am certain that Bill felt no small amount of pride and envy watching his son’s considerable progress.
American Supercamp’s repeat business is part of the reason you have to sign up early. Miles and Pete Rowan have attended the camp three times – the first two times with their father. They related that their father performed a 180-degree turn on ice while riding his Harley and he didn’t drop the bike. Managing traction requires you to know what to do when you have no traction. That is one of the important lessons from American Supercamp that will directly translate to the street.
You will be challenged at American Supercamp. One of the chief challenges I had was commitment. I had to commit to the turn, to pin the throttle, to lay the bike over, to let off the throttle as I applied the rear brake and to feel the bike begin to chatter away underneath me and then slide. To commit means you are out of your comfort zone – that is, until you stop fighting the bike. When you stop squeezing the grips so hard that Soichiro Honda himself winces in the afterlife, when you stop fighting the instruction that requires actions that are the polar opposite of what you supposedly know, then you shall be rewarded.
I cannot recommend American Supercamp enough. The quality of instruction is excellent – instructors do not hesitate to take you aside and beat you sense... er, to convince you to change your ingrained habits. They even remained cheerful and positive in the face of my ingrained incompetence. While American Supercamp is not inexpensive at $650, the value will become evident before the end of the first day. Think of it this way - they provide the bikes, the venue, and will even loan you the gear you need. I also recommend leaving your ego and excuses at the door.