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?
Nah. It's "how the hell you ride a motorcycle around a corner," says Code, who literally wrote the book on motorcycle racing, A Twist of the Wrist, and its sequel (self-published, Code Break Inc.; Vol. 1, 1983; Vol. 2, 1993; both 150 pages, $19.95 each, available at bookstores or from the school at 818-246-0717). At the end of each chapter in the sequel, there are a few key words with definitions: "Envisioned: Picture mentally. Goals: Objectives: things to achieve. Point: A particular spot."
It reminded me of a scene from "The Simpsons." Doctor: "You have a heart condition, Mr. Simpson." Homer: "Could you dumb that down a bit, Doc?" Once I ignored those definitions, though, I found some excellent writing on motorcycle dynamics and riding. This guy Code seemed pretty sharp. But then again, the only other book I had ever seen on motorcycle riding came from the department of motor vehicles. You couldn't dumb that one down in the least.
This particular day at superbike school there are three groups of students sharing track time and, in some cases, motorcycles. I am in the third group: the many, the meek, the inexperienced. We number 16. The other two groups, advanced and intermediates, number 10 each. They get to ride before us, rank having its privileges.
At the official start of the day, Code gathers us on bleachers and introduces the staff of instructor-riders who will help us on the track. Suited up in lime green leathers, they're either veterans of pro racing, California Superbike School or both. Code introduces course controller Randy Neveaux, who gets to stand in the hot sun all day and keep us from killing ourselves. Neveaux gives us a rundown of the road rules and the flags we'll be seeing. Then Code tells us to remain seated for our first lecture of the day. In it, he outlines our first drill: we will ride that paved, meandering, undulating track without shifting out of fourth gear or hitting the brakes.
Our turn finally comes at around 10 a.m. We start a slow ascent of the track under the yellow flag, twice around, after which we line up in the pit area. Neveaux sends riders roaring out one at a time. No sooner has he begun than, within the silence of my helmet, I see confusion and alarm descend on the faces of everyone around. Over in the ambulance, Imminent Pain perks up. The rest of us whip up our visors.
"Looks like someone lost it up there," says one rider, gesturing. On the second turn a puff of dust keeps rising like the mushroom cloud from Bikini Atoll. When the dust finally dissipates, a green school Kawasaki lies on its side like a stunt horse in a movie, but the rider is walking around smoothly, with no red badge of courage evident other than the embarrassment on his face.
Once they get the course swept clean, we begin weaving around it with a newfound caution--but one that diminishes as the session ticks away. Speeding down and away from Turn 3, it hits me: I am having fun combusting hydrocarbons while going in circles. I wasn't even heading to the Quik-E-Mart for a loaf of Wonderbread. But after nearly dumping the bike on the following turn, I vow to stop analyzing life on a molecular level and concentrate on not shifting and not braking. Simple to say, it seems impossible to do. You have to hit a curve at just the right speed for that particular curve, take the curve, and try to set up for the next one. I get so hung up on the process that I keep forgetting to breathe. I am on the verge of self-asphyxiation when course control throws the checkered flag, which is our signal to finish the lap and head for the parking area.
The rest of the guys are elated at their first taste of the track. Derek, who in his everyday life sets up big closed-circuit TV sets for stadium events, thinks it was better than touring with The Who--only not as loud. Joe, a software consultant, gushes incomprehensibly; he is grinning wide enough to see dental work.
Myself, I am just plain vexed that I seemed to have to creep around the corners while everyone else took turns passing me. Sure I am used to it in New York, but everyone knows that they only issue hack licenses there to folks with no sense of self-preservation.
In downtimes, the experienced riders mill around the low cinderblock building to stay cool, shedding the top of their leathers and letting them dangle. The sleeves add an extra set of limbs, making the riders resemble giant walking insects. We beginners imitate them; everyone talks about bike riding in a techno-slang jargon that reminds me of fighter pilots: "throttle control technique," "entry speed," "turn points."
In fact, they look more like pilots than the popular image of a biker. Back when Brando could fit on a motorcycle, bikers were a homogeneously unsavory looking bunch whom non-riders could unhappily label Hell's Angels. Today, riders have fragmented into subspecies. Some of the Harley-Davidson guys, for example, sport Civil War-style facial hair, scary tattoos and black T-shirts with slogans like "God Rides a Harley." Superbike riders might go as far as sporting a Generation X-style goatee, while others have, like, picked up the language of the surf, Dude. Tattoos? None that would be visible with "Casual Friday" attire.
Back in the classroom's shaded bleachers, Code introduces a concept that would help my abysmal track times: yes, "turn points." Imagine that each corner has a point that you aim for, then begin to turn once you hit it, says Code. But then, why imagine it when the track workers are marking the course's turn points with yellow tape? Now I imagine tens of seconds melting off my time.
We go outside to wait for the group before us to finish and end up watching the mechanic repair the bike that had spilled. Its rider joins us, a study in disappointment. His crash has inflicted roughly $900 in damage to the bike, and Code won't let Crash ride again without another $350 deposit. Five minutes on the track has already cost him $850, and he doesn't want to take the chance of upping the ante to an even $1,200.
"Like, I've been looking forward to this for two months," he says before stepping into the van to strip off his leathers. (Normally, a rider who takes a spill would not be allowed back on the track that day, deposit or no deposit; a student's adrenaline can very well mask an injury. Code knew this rider well, however, and made an exception.)
When Crash reappears in his civvies, another mushroom of dust erupts skyward at the same spot as before. He is the most concerned of all of us. "I would, like, never want what I did to happen to anyone else," he says, shaking his head sadly, then vows to stay with the rest of us when we aren't riding to salvage some of his money's worth.
Finally our turn comes again, and we ride single-file to where Neveaux is waiting, and idle in an obedient line. As before, Neveaux points to a spot in front of him where he expects each rider to stop, and he leans into the rider's opened visor while he places a hand on the middle of his back. "How you doin'?" he asks with a smile. I nod. "Do you know what you're working on?" he asks.
"Um, turn points," I say. "And everything else."
"Try just fourth gear and no brakes," he says, and waves me on. I gas away from him, shifting to fourth just as I enter the track. One time around demonstrates that I have forgotten most everything I've learned so far.
After I butcher a particularly easy corner, chief instructor Cobie Fair signals me to follow him off the track. In the pit area he lifts his visor and asks me, "Have you heard of counter-steering?"
"Well, you lean into the corner, but steer slightly in the opposite direction." He also tells me I looked uncomfortable on the bike.
"It's my first time," I say.
"It's different from a street bike," Fair says, advising me to lean over the fuel tank, scoot back, and use my elbows for leverage in steering. I follow him out on the track for a circuit, then he follows me and gives me a thumbs-up. Still, riders continue passing me, even the old guys. Especially the old guys. But I don't want to be the next rider to spray the track with gravel and lime-colored Kawasaki parts.
At high noon we take a lunch break, then it's back to school.
In our third class, Code lectures on the dynamics of the quick turn. The basic rules of steering, in a sentence: Move the handlebars quicker, and move them once. And yeah, flick. Which means, right after hitting the turn point, lean the bike over at a 45-degree angle. Drag your knee if you can. After all, that's why you have those plastic pucks Velcroed to your joints.
Trying that back out on the track, I get a red flag, meaning: Leave the track at once. The rest of the lap feels like the time in high school when the vice principal caught me smoking and made me follow him to his office. Sheepishly, I turn myself in at the pit. Neveaux shuts off my bike's ignition and looks at me without saying anything. "You're getting into trouble on Turn Four," he says finally. Oh. I thought I was getting into trouble right here.
"Which one is that?" I ask.
He points up the hill. It is Moby Dick, that hideous, flat, sharp turn. He waves an instructor over, Mark Foster, who gives me some tips about taking Four--"Relax, and go slower," he says. "And work on your sitting--crouch lower." I whine and moan about being used to an elderly street bike with bald and narrow tires. No way I'd flick that one over hard and live through the experience. I'm afraid this one will slide like that one would.
"Trust your bike," he says sagely. Then I notice he is wearing braces on his teeth.
Motorcycle riders have other aphorisms that begin to sound positively philosophical when you don't think about them too deeply. "Keep the rubber side down." "Stay between the ditches." "Be smooth." Me, I live to stay between ditches, and to be smooth and to keep the rubber side down even when I'm only wearing shoes. But never will I trust any machine, least of all a motorcycle.
During the class that follows, Code lectures mainly about relaxing. Me, I have just noticed that my arms feel like the time my bike ran out of fuel 12 blocks downhill from a gas station. Code must have sensed this, because at that moment he says that it takes only about five pounds of pressure to steer a bike. Our next drill: relax.
On the track, the shadows grow longer and it doesn't seem as hot. As I work on relaxing I realize that something has changed within me. I am having a great time, even if it is just combusting hydrocarbons while driving in circles. Hell, I even pass a couple of guys to celebrate this newly revealed ecstasy.
Then I get another red flag.
"You looked behind you," Neveaux says this time. "What did I tell you about that?"
"I saw you do it."
"It doesn't surprise me," I say, stepping off from any potential confrontation. "I just don't recall doing it." Please please please don't kick me off the track. Let me get back out there--look at the sun going down--time's a-wastin'. Aaargh. I'll never ever look behind me again, even while walking through Central Park at night.
Instructor Darrell Clingerman rescues me by offering to follow me around the track for a few turns, and we roar away together. Watching a real pro ride always turns me into a much better rider myself--I know exactly when to move, and how much. But when Clingerman motions me ahead so he can watch me, the system breaks down. Stage fright. I am doing adequately enough--well, there is Turn 4--until that Lombard Street series of short switchbacks. Toward the end of them the bike and I shoot off into the gravel and fishtail a couple of times. But by holding my breath and not doing much else other than riding it out, we come through the crisis without touching the ground or having to dip into that security deposit. As Clingerman passes me, he makes a brow-wiping motion across his helmet, and mouths, "Whew!" The checkered flag comes out and we pull off at the parking area together.
"So why didn't you keep following me through the gravel back there?" I ask. He just keeps smiling and claps me on the back a couple of times.
We toughened beginners drag ourselves to the final class-room session, although I am too tired and too overloaded with information to pay attention. I have to ask Joe what the drill is. "Look first, then turn," he says.
Now that sounds fairly moronic, I think, but I try it all the same throughout the next session. And everything finally comes together. Without braking, but hitting the turn points, looking, flicking, turning once, counter-steering and rolling on the throttle, I can fairly well scream through the course. Maybe I don't pass anyone on the straight runs, but no one gets past me. I am concentrating on cornering well and watching the sunset at the same time when they throw the checkered flag for the last time, and I make a maniacal last lap for the record books, ripping through No. 4, the Great White Turn, as if I were slicing through whale blubber.
By the time I park it is dark, and the rest of the riders are milling about--dirty, tired, chattering happily. In the length of one working day we've been transformed from a grim, bleary-eyed bunch to a band of happy road warriors. I am as giddy as a mountain climber low on oxygen. I know there will be very little for the Hero Wall back home: no video of me crossing the finish line, no 8-by-10 color glossy photo of me dragging my knee on a turn. For some reason there has been a clerical error and I don't even get a computer printout of my lap times. Documentation-wise, it is as if it never happened--OK, I got a certificate somewhat suitable for framing. But why was I so happy?
Riding is more than simply one of the things we do to keep from drowning in a pool of our own boredom, I think. And then I speak about it again with Code.
"Motorcycle riders are a pretty interesting group," he says. "In all the time we've been in business, we've had only about 10 checks we couldn't collect on. We've never had a lawsuit; but it's motorcycles--people have crashed and hurt themselves. It's like motorcycle riders are a whole different breed. They have a sense of adventure, but at the same time they're responsible for themselves. That's pretty refreshing today. They know they can fall off or get hurt, and they look at that as a compelling reason to ride.
"You look at the people who were riding, and if you can find a frown at the end of the day, they brought it with them and they couldn't get rid of it," he adds. "That's fun--that's a good effect to create. This is a good job to have because of it."
"So," I say, "you actually do come away with more than greater riding skills."
"Sure," he says. "I was just pulling your leg before."
Phil Scott is the author of The Shoulders of Giants (Addison-Wesley) and the upcoming Canvas, Steel, Wire (Princeton University Press).
Keith Code's California Superbike School offers sessions at anumber of racetracks around the United States. For more information, contact the school at 818-246-0717.