This past weekend (31/05/08 & 01/06/08) I went to Barber in Birmingham Alabama to do levels three and four with California Superbike School. Last year in August I went to Mid-Ohio and did levels one and two.
My experience at Mid-Ohio was life altering. Kieth’s wild bunch did a great job introducing me to the track and were quite successful in getting me completely addicted to riding on the track. Nothing can compare to it.
After level one and two I did close to ten track days locally and gained a little bit more experience. Wanting to go faster and do it even better I eagerly signed up to do level three and four. I signed up way back in February and the wait for school was a drag. But the day finally arrived.
Before I get in to the school stuff I do want to mention the museum at Barber. It deserves its own post (and I’ll get to it). You really need a full day and perhaps two would be better. There are so many bikes that it is really overwhelming. Everything from bicycles with motors attached to real MotoGP bikes are on display. There are even a few cars (but we don’t really care about them). There is so much though that at a certain point you just blue screen and walk around zombie like. Zombie maker or not it is worth the risk of visiting. You also get a great view of turn 7.
Speaking of turn 7, I stood there for a long time watching Keith’s students doing their track drills wondering why they were going so slow. I even shot some video of them going around the turn (here). It looks like they are crawling. However, as you get closer to the ground level you see that the drop is pretty extreme and the corner is pretty tight. Then you actually get on the track and do it and it’s a pretty hairy corner. I loved it, but getting in to it fast wasn’t easy.
Level 3 school
Level 3 is all about how the rider interfaces with the bike. How you lock your body on so you are secure and able to hang off without upsetting the bike’s suspension. How to quickly move from one side of the bike to the other, again, without upsetting the bike’s suspension.
The coolest thing to me was the first drill – the hook turn. It is a really simple idea but the affect on my riding was huge. The idea is that if you move your body forward and down you will cause your bike’s front suspension to compression causing the bike to turn in more without increasing the lean angle. How is this useful? Say you enter a turn and you are sort of leaning off and you find yourself running wide. Without having to lean the bike more, just drop your shoulders forward and down.
In my case the change in the line was dramatic. It was fun to enter a turn essentially sitting straight up and down and then dropping my shoulders in as I passed the apex. Later this would have some interesting consequences, but not until level 4.
The next bit was about moving around on the bike. I hang off and it can be difficult to get from the right side to the left side quickly without upsetting the bike’s suspension. The rest of the day focused on this. Learning to move from one side to the other in a way that kept the bike stable and you in firm contact at all times. It turns out you can get from one side to the other very quickly and keep the bike rock solid. Just be ready to have some very sore legs.
I’m not going to go too much in to this. Go take the class. It isn’t really difficult to do, but I really think having the coaches along helps a lot. Go take the classes, they are worth every penny.
When I did level 2 last year I didn’t get to do the lean bike so I made a point of taking it for a spin. It was not what I thought it would be. If you see pictures of it you think that it will hold you up. It won’t. It has out riggers that have shocks that help stabilize the bike so you can lean it way over at low speeds, but they will not hold you up if you screw up. I didn’t. But I thought it would hold me up enough that I’d be able to drag my knee around the parking lot. I didn’t accomplish that. What I did accomplish was getting my body position right. The coaches moved my butt back so I wasn’t humping the tank. I’m a big guy (6’ 2) with long arms and legs. I’m also heavy at 200lbs, so the bike would really prefer that I keep my mass as far back as possible so the suspension can do its magic. My 848 is a lot like the ZX6 in form so the same position will work for it.
During my 3rd session one of the CSS coaches chased me around with the camera bike so I could see what I was doing. He noticed that I didn’t seem to have good reference points (more about that later) and when I move and seem to shimmy a bit, sort of funny once you notice it. I put the video on LV here.
For comparison I cut out a clip of the coach after he had finished videoing somebody else. The speed that he goes through the turns is cool to see. You can see it here.
Anyway, I was able to get my body position setup and the coaches sent me back out the track. They use the same bike in level 4 as a slide bike. In the slide bike exercise they have you actually spin up the rear wheel while the bike is leaned over. If not done properly, spinning the rear wheel while leaned over will lead to a high side – the bike chucks your squid ass up in the air and you get to do a Superman in to the pavement. The trick is to not whack the throttle closed. Instead you keep your body leaned off the bike and let the bike stand up while holding the throttle still. I didn’t get a chance to do this exercise – next year.
In my opinion, of all the levels, level 3 is where magic happens. I think the difference you will experience in your riding abilities from the morning to even will be mind blowing. During my 5th session I was railing the bike around the turns at a really fast pace. I ended up having to use most of 4th gear down the straights with only light braking in to most of the turns. Given what was revealed on Sunday, I’m not sure it would have been wise for me to go any faster.
Level 4 is a big change of pace compared to the other levels. The way CSS is setup when you get to level 4 you have covered all the material. Now you take over and tell them what you need to work on. You are assigned an on track coach and you have a ‘consultant’ who works with you off track. My class ended up working with Dylan Code and Keith Code most of the day. I actually got a fair amount of attention from Keith because of my reference points (or lack there of).
Going in to class I wanted to work on Quick Turning and 3 stepping. Quick Turn is a level 1 skill, but it is really important because it helps you either use less lean angle or go faster (and sometimes both). It turned out that I wasn’t too far off on my quick turning and when I started doing it right it had a pretty big impact on my lines. Basically I started having to back off my lean angle (not turn so much) because I was on the apex too soon. That is actually cool b/c an alternative to not leaning so much is going faster. However, as we soon discovered – going faster might not be such a great idea just yet.
After the first session my coach said I was doing the quick turn very well so we moved on to the 3 step drill. The idea of the 3 step is to use 3 reference points going through a turn. The first reference point is where you turn it (quick turn), the second point is where you apex and the third point is where you are done with the turn (the exit). To do the three step, as you come up to the turn you identify your turn point, once you are confident you are going to hit it you turn your head and find your apex point while keeping the bike on its line going to the TP. In your peripheral vision you track your TP and when the bike reaches it you quick turn and get on a line that goes through your apex point (they don’t call it an apex point, I do). The third step is basically a repeat of the first two steps. Once you know you are going to reach your apex, find that exit point. All of this is essentially looking through your turn, but you are being very deliberate finding reference points to use to navigate your way through the turn.
Well, I discovered that I had turn in points, but that was it. So my three step was more like a step and a half. I was going really fast and having a blast. My knee pucks are nice and marked up, but this was actually a bad situation. Here is the problem – I was getting through the track by the seat of my pants. I just ‘knew’ where to do things. I had reference points, I just was not aware of them. Not being aware of them makes it easy to get rushed, stressed out and then have tunnel vision. Tunnel vision leads to off track excursions. Or worse. When we got off track my coach and I talked about this. Without me saying anything he was able to tell that I didn’t have reference points. We decided that more important than more quick turning or three stepping I needed to go back out and work on identifying reference points.
Then my consultant go a hold of me. This go around was the Guru himself. We started talking about what I was working on and in Keith’s fashion he started asking me questions. Based on the eye brows climbing up his forehead he didn’t like what I was saying. He was asking me about turn one. I was able to tell him all about it. How there is kitty litter on the outside and behind the kitty is a little parking lot. Behind that is a fence and behind the fence is some shrubbery. I was able to tell him about where the coaches would park their bikes at the top of the hill to wait on their Padawans to come around (or maybe take a well deserved break). I was able to tell him about how I was trying to make my line run wide so it would cross the second seam and then back out to the marker for the start of turn two. I didn’t tell him about the concrete rumble strip on the inside of turn 1 where I wasn’t apexing because I never looked at it. I could have told him about how there are divots in the side of the hill inside of turn 2 but I thought I should leave well enough alone at this point. He didn’t seem too impressed with my visual acuity.
Then he asked what I was using for my turn in reference points. He asked if I was using the yellow markers he had put on the ground. He really didn’t like my answer. He asked if I thought he didn’t know where to put them. Well, I sort of interpreted his writing to say that there wasn’t really a line and that any line that allows you to keep rolling on the throttle is a good line. My line achieved that. However, upon reflection I actually do know why the markers were placed where they were placed.
Anyway, the result of our conversation was that I really needed to work on getting reference points. We could make some other observations, but there is no reason to be rude.
The markers and the reference points have everything to do with how fast I was going and why I couldn’t really go much faster. What I started to experience on Saturday and on Sunday was that I was going fast enough to cause the corners to blend together. Turn two changed dramatically as I carried more speed out of turn one. Turn six and seven, eight and nine, ten and eleven, twelve into thirteen and then fourteen. As I went faster my line became more important. Just being able to keep rolling on the throttle became just the cover charge to the party. Knowing where I was and what I needed to do at that time became the rent to stay there. In order to go faster I needed reference points. Oh, and I needed to know how to brake and change gears.
Apparently you brake and then down shift. Don’t do it the other way around. I didn’t hurt anything b/c I generally capped myself at 13.5K and the ZX6 goes to 16K (shift light starts to flash at 14K). However, had I been trying to press things and was at 15K and down shifted without braking first – bad things could have happened. To me and the bike. Again – Mr. Code’s eyebrows are very expressive.
I already mentioned not getting to do the slide bike. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get to slide a bike though. It rained. I mean it really rained. What the F I was doing out on the track trying to collect reference points in the rain I have no idea – but I was out on the track. We started off in a light sprinkle so we were riding at a decent pace and I was doing my best to grind off my knee pucks. Then it opened up. I slowed down. I thought I had slowed down enough. But coming around turn four (nice left hand carousel turn) I felt the back tire start to give way. It probably only moved an inch, but it felt like it slid forever. I stood the bike back up and kept going. Then my coach took the lead and was point at reference points he was using. At the bottom of turn seven I felt the rear tire start to slide again. Again, no biggie stood the bike up. No worries. I’m lying. I’m getting a bit concerned and slowing down more. My coach is cool and slows down too. We keep on working. Coming around turn 13 it does it again. Three slides in five minutes is my limit. Unfortunately the pit out exit is behind me and they get real upset if you turn your bike around on the track so I have to finish the lap.
I slowed down to granny speed and waved other riders passed me. Yellow flags were out, which means no passing, but I figured that I was as far over and off the racing line that nobody would care. By the time I got back around to the pit lane there was plenty of traffic in front and behind me with the same idea.
My conclusion from my second go around with CSS is that I have a good handle on the mechanics of riding a sportbike around a race track pretty fast. What is now really clear is that until I get good at collecting good reference points and learning to connect turns together I don’t need to go any faster.
I really cannot recommend CSS highly enough. The program Keith has put together is amazing and I really believe that it works. His coaching staff does an amazing job. The off track staff keeps things running smoothly.
One thing to keep in mind with CSS though – it is not a track day. It really is a school. If you are paying CSS to just get track time then you are wasting your money. There are much cheaper ways to get track time. Sign up for the school – slow down and do the drills until you get them. The material isn’t really difficult, but you need to slow down so you can practice it.
It is also interesting to observe how many people are repeat level 4 students. In my group there were 15 level 4 students – 8 were first timers. I plan to repeat level 4 next year. Hopefully I won’t have a problem with reference points.
I’d also like to mention the eleven year old kid who was at the track doing level 4. Seriously – 11. Actually, he had just turned 11 on Friday. He was out on a 125cc GP bike and was killing the adults on their ZX6Rs. Watching him enter corners was jaw dropping. Because he weighed nothing and the bike weighed nothing he could hold a tighter line than the ZX6s. So he’d go railing through the inside of the turn while the adults wallowed around on the outside. I look forward to seeing this kid on the WSBK grind in about ten years if not sooner.