“Before you ride,” they tell you, “have a plan.”
Big words. So big, they make you write them down— on the front of your lesson booklet, while sitting in class: B-E-F-O-R-E and so on, everyone in the room saying the words aloud, and then you are there, staring at that paper, wondering about the language.
Who, I thought, ends up on a racetrack without a plan?
A lot of people, it turns out. Me included, though I never would have guessed it. I walked out to the bike with a plan, and then I took a motorcycle on a track for only the second time in my life and tried to get my body to move and work right, all while concentrating on the usual motorcycle stuff like hard-braking downshifts and cornering lines and just plain-old not falling off, and somewhere in there, my plan said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and proceeded to fly smack dab out the window.
In my head, cars felt easier. Feel is funny that way. Four wheels under a green flag may not have been easier, but if you have a pulse and half a brain in this life, it’s awfully hard to walk into a new world without immediately falling back on one of the very few skills that you believe you possess.
A word of advice: Don’t do that.
This past September, when I showed up at New Jersey Motorsports Park for a two-day version of the Yamaha Champions Riding School, I knew a few things. At the ripe old age of 39, I had been driving race cars for nearly half my life. Amateur stuff mostly, but also more than a few professional machines, from Group C Porsches to Formula 1 iron. I have raced everywhere from Goodwood to Laguna Seca. In 2012, after a decade in automotive journalism and club racing, I took a job at Road & Track, working there for eight years as a high-performance vehicle tester and editor. And once, a few years ago, in a moment representing significant luck and possibly even a bit of skill, I won an amateur road-racing championship.
All of which is to say that I perhaps know a few things about cars. I was fairly sure that knowledge would only help so much. It seemed smartest to start from scratch, assuming I knew nothing.
So, I went to New Jersey and said as much. “This is good,” Nick Ienatsch told me. “A lot of people we teach can’t get past the idea that they don’t know anything. Or that they mostly know...the wrong things.”
“Nick,” I said, “I’ve been riding on the street for 15 years. I’ve read all the books. But I don’t know anything.”
“Good!” he said, a finger pointed at my chest, for emphasis. “First step.”
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