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What I Learned as a Substitute Photographer at a Champ School

Did I ever tell you about the time I was an MSF rider coach for a few months? No? Well, pull up a chair kids, it’s story time. Trust me, it leads to the subject line, but if you want to skip the parts that are likely going to generate hate mail from the MSF, jump down about 6 paragraphs.

This pic doesn't make sense until later in the article. PC: 4TheRiders

The year was 2012, I remember because that was the year that Joey Pascarella won the Daytona 200. I had live timing on while I was in class, and at one point we all stopped to wait for those final laps to tick by. What ever happened to that kid? Man he was fast!


The process of becoming an MSF Rider Coach was mostly memorizing “the book” which contained the script that we were supposed to read word for word about each one of the drills that we would be teaching the thirsty 2-wheel loving minds that flowed through our doors. Now that I think about it, not much changed from when I took the MSF class as a new rider in 2007 to what I was telling riders in 2012. (I wonder if they are teaching the same stuff a decade later?)

The MSF telling you to never cover your front brake.
Turns out I still have "The Book".

Sure we had to be able to ride the drills that we were teaching, but that seemed almost secondary to not deviating from the script. The focus was really on making sure that we didn’t add anything to what the book said, even if it was a good habit for riders to develop early. We spent days in a classroom teaching the lessons to our fellow rider coach hopefuls, learning how to answer the inevitable questions, the most common being why we were not teaching that it was ok to brake and turn at the same time.

Every single coach in training used the technique of trail braking in our daily riding, and all but one of us questioned the reasoning in leaving this potential life saving technique out of “the book”. (The one rider coach hopeful that didn’t seem to care also didn’t believe that counter steering worked, and was wearing a helmet that looked like it had been down the road a few times because of it.)

We were told that the technique known commonly as trail braking was not something that new riders needed to know, and that those looking for advanced instruction would be taught the skill. This always seemed backwards to me, and it for sure seems backwards to Nick Ienatsch of Yamaha Champions Riding School fame.

I first met Nick in 2012, a few short months after I became a Rider Coach. He and a few colleagues were putting on a display at the International Motorcycle Show in San Mateo. It was something about being “Faster, Safer”, so as a rider coach and track day enthusiast I was intrigued.

The topic was why do we teach people that motorcycle brakes only work when the bike is straight up and down when the fastest people on the planet have proven otherwise? I might be taking a bit of a liberty with the exact title of their seminar, but that was my take away. In the discussion the people on stage talked about how a tire has 100 points of grip, and that you can use those points to both brake and turn, just as long as the sum of how many points you use for turning and for braking doesn’t exceed that 100 point mark.

They went on to prove this by putting another Daytona 200 winner, Scott Russell, on a motorcycle and pushing him down a ramp on the side of the stage. They asked Mr. Daytona to brake straight up and down and then make a right hand corner at the bottom of the ramp. He failed, as one might expect given his speed down the ramp. They then told him to brake for as long as he felt he needed to to get around the corner, even if it meant he was braking while making the corner. He had no issues, even when the two of them gave him a running push across the stage and down the ramp.

I don’t remember if it was an official YCRS demonstration that I witnessed in 2012 or if Nick just heard someone in the crowd talking to their buddy about “having to lay ‘er down” and jumped on stage to prove a point.

Before you gear up, they illustrate the basics. PC: 4TheRiders

I do know that, after filling in for as a photographer at two YCRS events, the 100 points of grip is something that they talk about early and often in their 2-day Champ schools.

No, I didn’t get to ride at either event, but I did experience enough of the classes to tell you that a Champ School is drastically different than other high performance schools like the Troy Corser lead Racing School Europe course (that I have taken, and it was epic) for example.

Troy and his very talented instructors teach very similar concepts, but as they run their course as part of a track day, they have a schedule that must be followed. This means you have exactly 20 minutes to work on a new skill and hope that the instructor that you are assigned to doesn’t get stuck working with another rider all session and can properly coach you. You still get a ton of knowledge, but at times it felt rushed.

The freedom of being able to stop on track. PC 4TheRiders

Champ Schools don’t share the track with anyone else. This is key not only for making sure that you have instructor eyes on you more frequently, but it also gives them the freedom to stop on track (safely of course) and discuss what just happened, not what happened 20 minutes ago on a lap that you may not remember. No part of the school felt rushed, even when they made adjustments to their agenda to try and squeeze in more riding before the rains came on the second day.

This format also provides the instructors the freedom of putting cones out for drills that simulate real-world situations and for certain drills, coaches will place themselves in a position to see if their students are working on the assignment and can provide immediate feedback.

Each instructor works with a small group. PC: 4TheRiders

About those instructors. Every one of them is at the very tip of the spear in their respective racing classes, including vintage, endurance, lightweights, middleweights, superbikes, and even baggers. In short, whatever you ride, you can talk to someone that put a similar machine on the box before. In some cases, instructors have current insight on multiple classes and can tell you what techniques they used to win at the track the school is being held… a day after they won there.

Instructors are chosen not just because they are fast, but because they understand why they are fast. It is one thing to be great at something, but being able (and willing) to tell your “secrets” to people that might be after your ride in the next couple of years takes a special breed.

Oh, yeah. You can get a 2-up so you can see what fast looks like.

While Champ Schools cover the same topics at every event, there is no “book” that the instructors have to worry about deviating from. Nothing feels scripted, and the interactions between instructor and student are some of the most genuine conversations I have witnessed. Instructors don’t have to tell a student to take another class to get an answer to a question. All questions are fielded as they come, and they believe in the no stupid questions rule.

While the schools are taught by racers, you don’t have to have MotoGP aspirations in order to get the most from attending.

At the last class I photographed only one or two of the 30 participants were active racers, with a handful of people getting onto a racetrack for the first time. There was also a small group of engineers from a certain American company known for being a clothing brand that also happens to make a pretty decent V-Twin, and according to Nick, this isn’t unusual.

In fact engineers from a variety of non-Yamaha motorcycle brands are sent to Champ Schools not to pilfer Yamaha of their suspension secrets, but rather to learn more about how a bike behaves when ridden to the limits of the rider on board.

Hands off, hands on training. PC 4TheRiders

Nick and his crew are addict-like when it comes to watching for the nuances in throttle inputs, braking techniques, and body positioning of world championship level riders. Since bike technology is constantly evolving, riders often need to adapt to a different riding style to compensate for things like those MotoGP aero packages that are trickling down to the consumer market. If a change is noticed in a rider that suddenly is on the podium after being a backmarker for the first 5 races, chances are it will be in the Champ School goodie bag before the season ends.

Because of this, engineers that attend a Champ School are learning what the fastest of the fast people are doing, right now.. This knowledge can then be used to design the best suspension that the bean counters in the corner office will approve a budget for.

In my time as a motorcycle journalist I have ridden bikes made by The Motor Company that those engineers work for, both before and after the company sent their people to the school. While I didn’t then know why I suddenly liked a motorcycle from their brand and historically had not had the same feelings, I now might have a clue.

Being a fly on the wall of the school may not get me the full experience of actually participating, but short of having them break down what I am doing right via video review I got quite a bit of knowledge. While I didn’t ride on track, I did ride just over 2000 mile round trip (on a motorcycle that I picked up the day before) to cover the event. Just by hanging around in the classroom I picked up on some subtle techniques that could be put to potentially life-saving use on the street.

Not YCRS, but this was shortly after my swerve.

I was reminded of a simple thing, covering the front brake in traffic, and made a point to do so on my ride home. A ride that had me traveling through rain, wind, and mountain passes with snow and ice warnings. Because of this one habit, I was able to get on the brakes in sketchy conditions (on a bike I was not familiar with I might add) when someone two cars in front of me swerved to miss something that the car in front of me hit, causing him to stand on the brakes. I was able to identify a potential problem because I was looking ahead and then brake while swerving around the guy. I avoided becoming the meat in a shitty driver sandwich as the guy behind me ended up less than a motorcycle length away from the car I swerved around.

Had I not been looking beyond the car in front of me, not swerved around the car in front of me even though I was in no danger of hitting him, or not been covering my front brake… Well…

Take one of those things out of the equation, and there is a strong chance I would have either hit the car in front of me, been rear ended by the car behind me, or worse, one then the other.

Which reminds me.

Losing points on "b" may have saved my life.

Back when I first took my Basic Rider Course in 2007, I only got docked points on one drill, but it was a twofer. I lost five points for braking while swerving, and because I had been covering my front brake all day the instructor tacked on a bonus point, I guess for insubordination? Who knows, as that was not listed as an enforceable penalty in "the book". Looking back, I am glad I didn’t get a perfect score on that test.

I feel like I have drifted off topic… again. What was this about? Daytona? Joey Pascarella? No…

Oh yeah, my job as a rider coach.

I literally quit my job as an MSF Rider Coach that day back in 2012, via text, about halfway through the demo at IMS. I couldn’t live with the fact that I was teaching people how to get their M1 instead of teaching people how to be proficient riders. It felt like I was in the business of churning out motorcycle endorsements when I thought I would be helping riders not become another statistic. I am not sure what they teach in a basic rider course these days, but back then I wasn’t allowed to teach people the skills that quite possibly saved my life on this trip.

Astute readers will have picked up by now that the real topic of this long-winded article is to give YCRS a bit of a plug. They didn’t ask me to, nor am I being compensated to do so.

Notice the finger over the brake as the rider pulls away. PC: 4TheRiders

I just really like their approach to teaching everyone from brand new riders to professional racers how to ride at ten-tenths with as little risk as one can hope for on a race track. Champ Schools are focused as much on safety as they are on adding speed in one of the most fun environments on the planet, all without talking down to their students and encouraging everyone to participate. Hell, Nick even asked me a couple times if I saw anything that stood out as a teachable situation unfolding in front of my lens.

If you are just getting started riding and are intimidated by the track (and want to not be taught potentially bad habits in order to pass a test) there is something for you, too. Champ Street takes place at the same location of a Champ School, and you learn the same basic principles, but on a smaller scale and on your bike, no leathers required.

Also, for those of you that are looking for the knowledge provided in the classroom but can’t quite swing the cost of attending a Champ Street or Champ School, you are in luck.

The same information is available online in 130 countries via the Champ U video series for less than the price of all that chrome bling you have been eyeballing.

I know I’m not your real dad but, invest in yourself first. It will keep your chrome shiny and your carbon fiber unscratched.

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