The tachometer on my blue-and-white Kawasaki Ninja 600R is nearing the 11,000-rpm redline. I am on the back straight of Road America, hurtling at about 120 mph toward a nasty bit of business called Canada Corner. The racetrack wraps around the hilly moraine of the Wisconsin countryside; there are no stop signs, no highway patrol cars, no excuses. The only laws enforced here are Newton's. Superbike racing is something between ballistics and ballet, and you had better know what you're doing.
That's where the California Superbike School comes in and why I have enrolled in a full-day session. For 10 or so consecutive encounters, Canada Corner has been giving me trouble. I haven't yet figured out the correct entry speed, much less the proper line of approach. So time after time I emerge on the other side of the corner intact but baffled.
This time I get it right. I find my reference points—a numbered braking marker on the left edge of the track and a blue chalk circle at the suggested entry point. I decelerate, push down on the right handlebar and pull on the left. The front wheel points briefly to the left, the direction opposite that of the turn. I've found exactly the right spot. The bike leans obediently to the right and tracks through the turn, shaving the apex and bringing my knee to within an inch of the pavement. I ease the pressure on the handlebars and let the bike complete the turn. As the bike rights itself, I twist the throttle. That's it. No one has to tell me. I know it, feel it and can see proof of it in the extra 200 rpm on the tach as I prepare for the next turn.
If a currency were based on adrenaline, dollar for dollar the California Superbike School would be the best buy in the country. For $400 you get the use of a Kawasaki Ninja race bike, protective gear, instruction, camaraderie and access to a track. The school tours the country, setting up at tracks including Laguna Seca and Sears Point in California, Watkins Glen in upstate New York and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., where I took the course. In the past nine years the school has accepted more than 16,000 students, 2,500 in 1987 alone. The beginners' course ($225) is a half-day session, with about 40 miles of track riding. According to the school's brochure: "You can learn more about your riding in 40 miles on the track than you can in years of street riding."
Most people who take the beginners' course return for the "expanded" school, which offers six classroom sessions and almost 100 miles of track riding over a full day. The school is the brainchild of Keith Code, a former pro Superbike racer from Los Angeles. In 1976, Code was ranked seventh by the American Motorcyclist Association, and he was a privateer (which meant he was racing outdated equipment against factory team riders). Code, now 43, wrote two definitive texts on riding and racing: A Twist of the Wrist (published in 1983 by Acrobat Books) and The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles (1986, Acrobat). He has helped inspire a generation of motorcycle riders to take to the track. Club races that drew 100 entrants 10 years ago now pull in 700 entries on a weekend.
Today a kid who flips burgers can save up enough money to buy a motorcycle that will outperform all but a couple of pricey sports cars. High-tech bikes, such as Ninjas, Yamaha FZRs and Honda Hurricanes, are capable of performances that no amount of money could have provided a decade ago. But until Code's school opened in 1980, street and club bikers' riding skills weren't keeping pace with the numerous improvements in bikes: the Superbike School is devoted to teaching the technology of driving to these bikers.
The full-day "expanded" course—for both aspiring racers and baby boomers in search of a midlife kick—alternates the classroom sessions with track time. My class included an artist, a software expert, a police officer, a dairy farmer and a mechanic. At registration, we had to sign a liability release that mentioned the possibility of injury and death half a dozen times. It probably would have scared me straight into the backseat of a family sedan had I not known that it had been prepared by two California lawyers in return for free tuition. After the legalities, we were fitted with leathers, helmets, boots and gloves. I was assigned bike No. 20.
I enter the trailer that serves as a portable classroom for the school. Code begins the course by going over the basics of road racing, starting with counter-steering. "Contrary to popular belief, you do not steer a bike by leaning," he says. "You can get it to veer off in either direction by leaning your weight to one side at low speeds, but that isn't steering. We are talking about controlling the bike, and when you commit yourself by leaning, you sacrifice control. You can only roughly guess where the bike will go. But you can regain control by countersteering. To go right you must turn the bars momentarily to the left. To go left you turn the bars right. The faster you go, the faster, more precise your steering must be."
Some of the students have a hard time swallowing this. When you watch a Superbike race, the motorcycles tilt over as suddenly as sailboats in a gust of wind. The riders seem to be doing acrobatics on their gas tanks. But what you see as a spectator is not the cause of the turn, only an accompanying maneuver. Hanging off the bike moves your body weight from the top of the bike to a position that is lower and inside. This changes how your weight influences the bike when centrifugal force begins pushing the bike to the outside of the turn. It can help make the turn a smoother one, but it doesn't cause the bike to turn—no more than hiking is the cause of a sailboat's turn. "You don't want to be baggage or a bad passenger," says Code. "When you countersteer, the bike is going to lean over. You could remain in a vertical position, but you'd look pretty silly. You want to be on the bike when it completes the turn."
Code then addresses our sense of speed. Race bikes don't have speedometers. "Most professional racers can judge their speed within one half mile per hour. They can try to take corners just a little faster on each lap, without going outside the envelope."
Amateurs tend to rely on other indicators. They use brakes as a kind of reverse speedometer: They know how fast they are going by how much brake they have to grab. Or by how much they twist the throttle on their way out of a turn.
"If you can't judge your entry speed without brakes, you'll never get it with brakes," says Code. "If you judge your speed correctly, you simplify the turn. If you go into the corners too slowly, its actually dangerous...you'll try to make up for lost time on the drive out of the turn. If you turn on the gas while the bike is still leaning over, you'll spin out. But don't just stand the bike up and pull the trigger. In road racing, the faster you go, the less the sensation of acceleration."
Another hour or so of talk like this and it's time to take to the track. Most of the 20 guys in the class are so revved up they are initiating turns in the parking lot. Code tries to calm us down. "For the first 10 laps, I want you to ride in sixth gear, with no brakes," he says.
We go out and practice what Code has preached. I watch one rider misjudge Canada Corner and leave the road in a cloud of dust.
In our second classroom session we talk about concentration, timing, reference points. It is almost impossible to judge when to do things on a track, so you look for where to do them. Reference points—a blue chalk circle on the asphalt, a crack in the curbing, an orange pylon at the side of the road, whatever. "You build confidence by knowing where you are on the track," Code tells us. "You become able to see the turn before you even begin to go through it."
Code also discusses braking. Many of the riders have to unlearn habits picked up on the street. "Brakes are the most powerful force on the bike. A race bike can reach 145 miles per hour in a quarter mile," says Code. "You wouldn't want that same bike to take a quarter mile to stop."
In racing, the front brake should do all the work. If you try to stop a motorcycle with the rear brake, the weight shifts forward, the rear wheel can lock. Code issues a caution in the form of a dictum: "If the instructors see you using a rear brake, you get the orange flag [which means. Come into the pits]. To our mind, if you use the rear brake you may put the bike out of control."
In our second session out on the track, we split up into groups and Code or an instructor monitors our progress. Donnie Greene, the 1984-86 motorcycle Formula II champion, acts as an outrider, showing us the best ways through turns. Each betters his own lap time.
The third classroom program deals with finding the Line, the quickest way through each corner. Mastering a track means playing connect-a-dot with steering points (where you lean the bike over) and lines of acceleration. Code fills the blackboard with sketches of various turns, and outlines several strategies. "Centrifugal force will push the motorcycle to the outside of the track." he says. "If you hold a tight line and still have track left over, you know the turn can be done faster." Code also tells us to experiment with less than ideal lines. "In a race, it is very rare to find your line unoccupied."
In the fourth classroom session, Code answers specific questions about the problems we're having with the Road America track. We compare notes and we collectively conclude that a race track can be deceiving. What a corner looks like is seldom what a corner feels like when you're negotiating it. Since conquering Canada Corner, I have been having the most trouble with the Carousel, a wide, sweeping 180-degree turn that seems to take forever to get around. I feel as if I am taking it at the limit of traction, yet other riders are passing me and carrying more speed onto the straight. On top of that, it is an off-camber turn that makes it seem as if the track is throwing you to the outside, and it generally leaves you wondering if today is the last day of the rest of your life.
Code suggests that I break down the Carousel. I should think of it as having two distinct apexes, the second one about two thirds of the way through the turn. By making the Carousel a double turn with two straights, instead of one seemingly endless curve, I will be able to accelerate sooner and will carry that extra speed into the straight. "Go slow where you have to go slow and fast where you have to go fast." Code makes one more suggestion: Relax.
At the end of the class, Code gives each student a computer printout of his lap times. Most of us don't want to leave. We hang around in our leathers reliving the day. I ask one of my fellow students what he thought of the experience. He measures a gap between forefinger and thumb, eyes it, carefully closes the gap even more and says, "It was this close to being better than making love."
He must have been one of the slow ones.
James R. Petersen, a senior staff writer for "Playboy" magazine, lives in Evanston, Ill.