After my first fall, it was with a bruised pride and renewed vigor that I wanted to heighten my skills riding. Some of that could come from having a higher performance bike, but I knew that no amount of performance could replace riding skills. So when I saw an ad in one of my bike mags it spoke to me: “Come to Keith Code’s California Superbike School at Laguna Seca Raceway.” I didn’t know who Keith Code was, but clearly if he ran a super bike school at Laguna Seca, it was something to check out.
There was no “online” in those days, so I picked up the phone and called the school. I found out that for a few hundred dollars, I would be let loose on a Kawasaki GPZ550 in full leathers, boots, gloves and helmet along with a bunch of other crazies racing against the clock on the same world-famous raceway that had also hosted names like McLaren, Andretti, Stewart, McQueen and Roberts. I was getting chills, and the sweats, just thinking about it. I bucked up my courage, signed up, and rode my little 350cc Honda down to Monterey about a month later.
I should have known that something was amiss when the other students snickered at my “beginners bike.” I didn’t care (although after having ridden 2-1/2 hours at 65 MPH on a naked bike that morning I was already a bit tense). The day started with our morning orientation. We learned about planning our turns ahead, knowing where the apex was, braking into the turns, and putting on the power to come out of them. I was hyper-attentive so as not to make a fool of myself at the afternoon track session. We were fitted with leather and plastic from head to toe and after a lunch break, we headed for the bikes.
It’s funny how one’s perspective changes. I remember seeing that line of red Kawi GPZ550s and thinking, “I hope I can handle that much power.” I rented a Bimmer last year (30 years later) that was double that engine displacement…DOUBLE! And I had no trouble at all. But at that time in my learning journey, a hopped-up 550 seemed like the pinnacle of performance. Luckily, all of the student bikes were exactly the same, and they all have rev limiters on them. “Perfect,” I thought, “This will be the great equalizer between me and the other, more experienced students.”
We were sternly admonished to not race each other, but to race the clock instead. And, if anyone dumped their bike, the day was immediately over for them. This happened to one poor soul early in his laps on turn 11, the last before the finish line. All I could think was, “Don’t let that be me!” We would be timed on all laps and would take off one-by-one with a space between each rider—taking ten laps before resting. We would then do another ten laps, and that was it for the day.
I straddled my high-performance beast and moved up to the start line in turn. When I was given the go signal, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t perceived as a candy-ass, so I went flat out. I remember thinking to myself as I headed towards the gently curving Turn 1, “This will be great not battling for space with other bikes.” Just then a bike passed me on my left like I was standing still. He must have been going 20 MPH faster than I was. And here I was thinking I was going “flat out.” Just after him, another bike passed me on the right going just as fast as the first, and this was when I got the message that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
I have to admit that the two speedsters passing me shook me to my core. And I think I did exactly what you are never supposed to do on a bike, tense up—especially at Laguna-Frickin’-Seca!!! So I have to say that my first lap was more of a survival tactic than a series of artfully-crafted turns. I also learned about something else they didn’t teach: tunnel vision. As my speed and focus increased, I noticed a prominent cone of blur that infringed on my peripheral vision to where I only had a clear focused circle of the road ahead in front of me, and everything outside of that small circle was an intense blur. I think this was my mind’s way of eliminating extraneous information that was less likely to get me killed, while focusing on the road ahead. Interestingly, another thing that surprised me was how close my head got to the red and white painted track warning edges. And when in full blurred “tunnel vision mode” passing those stripes at high speed would actually make a “sound” in my head—something like “brtbrtbrtbrtbrtbrt.” I wonder if other racers experience the same phenomenon.
Getting through the first half of the course was okay, but I knew I was headed for one of motorsports’ most challenging chicanes: The Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a devilishly designed set of left, then right, turns that incorporate an immense elevation drop. At the apex to turn 8 (the left-hander and entry to The Corkscrew), the elevation change is a 12% drop. By the time a bike reaches the apex of turn 8A (the right-hander), the elevation is at its steepest—an 18% drop. The Corkscrew falls 59 feet between the entrance of Turn 8 to the exit of Turn 8A – the equivalent of a 5-1/2 story drop – in only 450 feet of track length. From Turn 8 to Turn 9, the elevation falls a total of 109 feet. To say this was challenging to someone who rode to the class on his CL350 Scrambler was an understatement.
We had learned in class how to take the correct line through The Corkscrew, but nothing prepares you for the precipitous drop that’s more than a ten story building. You literally go over the top and then hang on for dear life preparing to make an immediate counter-steer to a full lean on the opposite side the moment the weight comes back down on the suspension. It is exhilarating when you’re past it, though, even if you do have a hairpin corner ahead.
After doing this for ten laps and almost twenty miles, it was time for a rest. I got off the bike in the pits and I swear the seat had a pucker-mark from too much butt squeeze. I had never had so much adrenaline rushing through me before in my entire life. This was definitely the most fun I had ever had. But more was to come, round two – the next 10 laps. We were given our lap times and not surprisingly, mine was not very impressive. But, I did get better on each successive lap and I was pleased with that.
The next ten laps were pure joy. No longer did I need to worry about what it would be like to get through The Corkscrew, I was a veteran. Nor was I tensed up anymore. In fact, I was loose-as-a-goose, which improved my lines and times immensely. When I received my times for the second round, not only did I continue to improve through each of the ten laps, my first lap of the second round was TEN SECONDS BETTER than the last lap of the first round. Anyone who has ever watched racing on TV knows that a one-second lead is an eternity. Ten seconds was a massive improvement, and I was thrilled, to say the least.
Climbing off of the Kawi, out of the school’s leathers, and back onto the 350 Honda was a huge letdown. I spent the whole 2-1/2 hours buzzing back home saying, “I need a bigger bike. I need a bigger bike.” The love affair with my first ride was over. My eyes were opened and I had seen the light. And within a couple of weeks, I had purchased my brother-in-law Ron’s Suzuki 750GL. The Superbike school honed my riding skills immeasurably that day at Laguna Seca. It made me a significantly more skilled, and safer, rider. And I needed to be now that I had a 68 horsepower double overhead cam 16 valve inline four under my butt.
If the Honda was my first girlfriend, the Suzi was my first love. We rode everywhere for over ten years, day or night, rain or shine. But that’s a story for Part 3.
Note: while doing research for this article, I am thrilled to find that Keith Code’s California Superbike School is still going strong, some 30 years after I dragged my knees through The Corkscrew. Thanks, Keith, for making me a much better rider.