“How fast do you go?” This is the question I am most frequently asked by the uninitiated regarding my motorcycle racing and track riding. I tell them it depends on the circuit, that the length of the straightaway determines the top speed. “Yeah, but how fast?” Well, at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, I hit 190mph on the back straight on a liter bike. Huge reactions follow. The layperson is astounded by this number, man and woman alike.
But it’s a cheap way to impress.
The truth is, going fast in a straight line on a motorcycle is easy as pie. I quickly tell them that it requires little skill, that I could teach them to do it in less than an hour. I explain that during a race, the straightaway is the only time I get to rest. Resting at 180mph? Blank stares. They prefer the magic trick. The question they should be asking is not how fast do you go, but rather, how late do you brake? Slowing a motorcycle down and then leaning it over and turning is where all of the difficulty lies. More on that in a bit.
I came to the sport later than most. I began racing eleven years ago at the age of 38. Mistakes were made. One particularly bad crash landed me in the hospital for a week. Racing a motorcycle exposes you to far more risk than racing a car. For starters, you come off your bike when you crash. There is no roll cage or Hans device, or carbon-fiber tub protecting you. You’re instantly on your ass, and then you slide and roll and tumble until you run out of inertia. Sometimes you walk away. Other times you don’t. It’s also a lot easier to bring a car back under control once you step it over the limit. The front tires might push (understeer) or the rear may step out on you (oversteer), but these are not difficult conditions to recover from. On a bike, however, there is no coming back. You push the front tire and you’re on your ass (lowside). You get sloppy on the gas exiting a corner, and the rear tire will break traction, throwing you many feet up in the air (highside). There is a level of commitment to racing bikes that car drivers just don’t experience.
There was something exciting about finding my way through this new landscape. Growing up in a conservative household where the craziest shit we did was go to a water park every August, motorcycle racing was wild and wooly with real stakes. That being said, I needed help, and in 2014 I came across the ChampSchool. They’re a group of pro racers of which the ringleader—a guy called Nick Ienatsch—studied under an American World Champ named Freddie Spencer. When Freddie stopped teaching, Nick continued what he started. The curriculum is now well-ironed and the coaches (I am a guest instructor myself) are at a Tony Robbins level of persuasion and articulation. The school covers everything from finding the racing line to trail braking. Beginners to full-blown pro-racers attend because there really is something for everyone. Beyond the technical proficiency that is conveyed by the instructors, there is the psychology of the sport. And it’s here where I find I have something to offer in terms of my other love: Being a pilot.
The last ChampSchool I instructed at was in Inde, Arizona. The track there is built on a former airfield and the owners maintained the FAA designation which means that the front straightaway is both a place to fly and a place to fly. I flew myself to the school, and on the flight from LA I thought about the main thing that connects aviation and road racing: clarity. Flying an airplane on an approach is all consuming in a way that does not allow for a single errant thought. The same goes for road racing—there is simply no room or time to wander and lose focus. This kind of flow state is what all athletes strive for, but aviation and road racing provide a hell of a starter kit. If you don’t pay attention, your actual life is very much up for grabs. Miss your braking marker by a mere half a second and you will have covered a hundred feet before you can blink. Lose your focus on an instrument approach in the clouds and you can find yourself inverted and spinning toward the ground below. The very nature of these two activities demands your full attention. It’s life and death stakes.
On a recent flight in to the school, the winds were intense on the approach and I radioed race control to have them clear the riders on track so I could land. My friend Limore, a non-pilot, sat next to me in the right seat. I gave him a few tasks to help me with as we entered some moderate turbulence about 2,000 feet above the ground. We were fast and high and I made a 360 to lose some altitude and come in on speed. As the little four-seater got bounced around from the desert heat rising off the ground, it grew tense in the cockpit. Limore said nothing, respecting the sterile conditions I’d asked for once we were on final. I added some flaps on short final and brought her in for a greaser of a landing. Only once on the ground, thinking back to the final minutes, did I realize how clear my head had been. How focused my thoughts. I barely even knew my friend was next to me. I had no sense of my life outside of the task at hand. Bills, work, breakup… All of it momentarily banished.
I spent the next two days working with students on track and talking to them about task saturation and target fixation—both in the plane and on the bike. I follow a student for a lap or two, then overtake them and show them a cleaner line through a corner. When we get off the track, we debrief and talk about things we’re going to work on after the next classroom session. Nick and his instructors have all this dialed in. But the reason I believe I keep coming back is to clear my mind. To do something so purposeful that the noise that constantly penetrates my thoughts has no entry point.
So, when I’m asked how fast I go, I think I’m going to start answering this way: As fast as is necessary to stop thinking.
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Ben Younger is a guest instructor at Champschool, and the writer-director of Boiler Room and Bleed For This.