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California's Superbike Camp

Racing School Tranforms a Queasy Rider into a Better Biker
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

An ambulance sits on the road just off the track, the shadowy Angel of Imminent Pain waiting patiently inside with his feet on the dashboard. We all seem to notice him simultaneously, but nobody says anything.

We are suited up in our motorcycle leathers. The guys who brought their own bikes (mostly Ducatis--the type of machine that looks as if it's in motion even when leaning on its kickstand) are either wearing red or black leathers. One guy has the words Danger Angel running down his leg. Those of us who rented the school's equipment are in white suits with neon green highlights. With flares and rhinestones we'd look like Elvis, the Vegas years. If I didn't know better I'd think we were all preparing for a friendly game of Rollerball, from the 1975 James Caan movie.

That's to the death, you know.

What we are suited up for is school. Not your run-of-the-mill facility of liberal arts and higher education, mind you: we're talking motorcycle racing school. Specifically, California Superbike School. The school was started by Keith Code, bike racer extraordinaire. A ringer for George Harrison (except for his flaming carrot hair), Code spent his childhood riding motorcycles, though during his formative disco years he made platform shoes for the likes of Diana Ross and Elton John--the Pinball Wizard himself. The tall-shoe business was lucrative enough to fund Code's launch into professional racing, where he became one of the top five superbike racers in the United States. In 1980 he started teaching others what he knew about the sport. Now, 32,000 students and 2 million track miles later, his California Superbike School is the place to become a champion racer, or just a better rider. Way better. That's why we're all here in the California high desert "town" of Willow Springs, sandwiched between the Mojave Desert and Edwards Air Force Base, at 7 sharp on a Sunday morning.

Personally though, I'm not sure why I'm here. I've never had the slightest urge to race bikes, and I've mastered riding in one of the toughest schools in North America: New York City. What, then, could I possibly get for my $500 tuition and $350 damage deposit?

"Do you leave with something more than motorcycle riding skills?" I ask Code the first time we meet. He doesn't say anything. "I mean," I continue facetiously, "can you apply any of what you learn here to life--you know, Zen, metaphysics, the Big Picture?"

He looks at me sideways. "Nah," he replies.

I have logged a lot of miles on a nearly 20-year-old Kawasaki 750cc street bike. But the bikes here are a different breed. Technically speaking, a superbike is a street bike tricked-up for racing. "You highly modify everything," says Code. "You add way more horsepower, engine mods, different transmission, expensive suspension; you virtually remanufacture the machine so that it only resembles a street bike." The school has 12 lime-green Kawasaki ZX6Rs, each sporting a 600cc engine with 100 ponies harnessed up inside somewhere. Except for a modified suspension and fat Dunlop treads, they're stock. While not quite donated by manufacturer Kawasaki, Code says, "We get a smokin' good deal." Mounting my bike, No. 7, with nervous ceremony, I putt-putt off to the track. It feels familiar but strange, like I'm a ranch hand warming up Seattle Slew.

I've flogged my own ancient and faithful mule halfway across the country during one trip and halfway down it on another. Mostly though, I ride the 750 in the streets of Manhattan, dueling with taxi cabs for my fair share of street surface. As for The Streets of Willow racetrack at Willow Springs, there are no willows, no springs--no streets, for that matter. It's just the name of the track: one lane, with 11 curves, carved out of the foot of a foothill. It consists of a pit that parallels the straightaway, a gentle ascending turn, a hard right into a descending curve into a tight left, then a brief climb into a flat, tight right (which I would begin to think of as my Great White Whale), another hard left, which evolves into a series of short, hard turns--San Francisco's Lombard Street, without the tourists--then a final turn back into the straightaway. One-point-three miles of turning, leaning, hoping, lurching, straying, wincing, fishtailing and grimacing. Maybe even a little sliding and bleeding. All in all, more excitement than a leveraged buyout.

So what is the key to being a better rider and thus becoming the envy of all your motorcycling peers? Quicker shifting? Aggressive strategy? Special conditioning to wipe fear out of your heart, change blood to icewater and nerves to hardened steel?

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