It’s time to share another incredibly fun motorcycle experience: Kevin and I attended the Cornerspeed riding school recently, which is held on track at Virginia International Raceway (VIR). Neither of us had ridden on a track before this school, and we were both a bit nervous about what we were getting into.
The TL:DR version is that Cornerspeed is an excellent riding school that puts on a first class event, and I can recommend it without reservation as an advanced street riding/intro to racing school. If you are a street rider with at least a moderate level of experience (this class is NOT for beginners), then you will definitely learn something and improve your riding technique by attending this school. While the class is a bit more race oriented than I need, its intended to improve overall riding technique, working on skills that translate very well off the track. (Its ok; racing is what Aaron Stevenson knows, and clearly loves, and has an amazing ability to teach.) I would say most street riders of a fairly wide range of skill levels will get something useful from this class; until you’ve made it into the advanced group at track days, Cornerspeed has something to teach you. Even then, unless you are a high level pro-racer, you WILL learn something about how to ride a motorcycle from Aaron Stevenson.
Our day started at 5:30AM when we left the house just before dawn to ride to the track. When we arrived, the paddock was filled with trailers with track prepped bikes and racer-boys (as I call them) in their leathers. This was my first WHAT AM I DOING HERE moment. I like to watch racing, but appreciate race-craft from the grandstands (by which I mostly mean my couch). I have exactly zero desire to race motorcycles myself. I had the strong sensation that I had no business being out on the racetrack.
It also turned out that we were the only ones who had ridden to the class this time; everyone else had trailers carrying track prepped bikes, some with race fairings (most of the paddock was people attending the track day, not the class). This did not help my feeling of being out of my depth. Cornerspeed is often attended by more “regular” street riders like Kevin and me; riders just looking to work on skills in a controlled environment, and who are riding on “normal” street bikes that aren’t necessarily pure sport/performance oriented machines (you know, the older guys on BMW GS’s and the like). Not this time. Our class was full of “racer boys” on their sport bikes, which upped my intimidation factor even more at the start of the day, as if I needed a reason to be more nervous.
We had mostly prepped our bikes before arriving; new tires, safety wire on the oil filter, and high temp silicone on the oil fill and drain plug. Having air cooled bikes is nice, as we didn’t need to replace the coolant with a track approved blend (Kevin rode his 1996 900SS SP, and I took my 2012 Ducati Monster 696). All that was left before going through tech is addressing the items we couldn’t do prior to the class in order to stay street legal to ride there; remove the mirrors, and tape over all the lights and speedometer.
Throughout the day, we had seven on track sessions, which were 15-20 minutes a piece. In between were classroom time and a break for lunch.
You’ll notice Kevin’s bike doesn’t have any fairing on it in most of the pictures. Right out of the gate during the first session, a bolt came loose from his fairing, and it nearly flew off while riding. I was laughing (and felt empathetic annoyance for him); his first time on a track and he nearly gets black flagged for a mechanical violation. He had to pull off the track and remove the fairing, and a truck came and picked it up. He removed the rest of the fairing and rode the biked naked for the rest of the day (after going through tech, again). We manage to put humpty dumpty back together after class was over for the ride home.
The first two sessions did little to improve my comfort level, and I had to fight the feeling of being overwhelmed, and made a conscious decision to stay positive and get what I could from the class. Aaron Stevenson’s teaching style is to basically “feed you with a firehose,” and it’s up to you as his student to try and retain as much of it as you can. In retrospect, and given that this is the second class we have taken with him and his instructors (see also Cornerspin in 2012), I think I appreciate this style. I get much more context for understanding what I am being taught (as opposed to “do this” without understanding why), but, only some of it sticks, and it makes for a very intense and mentally draining day.
My day started to turn around with the no braking drill in the third session. Most of the students seemed to hate this drill, but I loved it. I came back smiling, having finally figured out enough to start actually working on what I was being taught, and relaxing enough to have fun. While I still didn’t have my lines figured out, I didn’t feel lost on the track anymore either. No braking sounds counterintuitive, but slowing down and only using engine braking to control speed eliminates an entire step to think about, and freed up enough mental space to focus on the other things I was working on. It worked like a charm. Every session from there got a lot more fun.
It also helped that there were a LOT of on track instructors. At some points, there might have been almost as many blue shirt instructors as students. I would say that in most sessions, I had an instructor to myself at least part of the time. I really liked when they led, as following them around the track made it easier for me to work on technique, instead of trying to figure out where I was going with line choice and reference points (I am predictably terrible at memorizing the track). Sometimes the instructors would follow me, which I realize they need to do in order to provide feedback. At the end of every session, I always had at least one instructor give me clear, useful feedback on what to work on. They were all excellent in this regard.
The classroom portions were taught mostly by Aaron, and a little bit by his excellent apprentice Andre. (Shout out to Andre here, I thought the portions he taught were very well done. Just being able to ride doesn’t mean you can teach. Aaron Stevenson is a truly great teacher, with a fun and entertaining delivery style. Having taken a few other classes now, it seems some instructors use a lot of words, without providing any real information, especially the less experienced instructors. Andre is an effective communicator, and on his way to being a really excellent teacher. He communicated concepts, intentions, and also clear, usable instruction for what to work on, and he has a nice, upbeat delivery style. He also has a nice mix of telling a few entertaining stories, without getting too long winded and off track for too long. He also seemed to be able to adapt his message for the various skill levels when talking one-on-one. Thumbs up Andre.).
One of my anxieties for the day was that I would do something really stupid on track; either mess up enough to wreck, or break one of the many on track rules, or get in a situation where I wouldn’t know what to do. Thankfully, after a bit of instruction, I realized it really isn’t that difficult. There are a few rules for on track etiquette that set common expectations for behavior, and go a long way towards mitigating the risk in what is a fairly risky activity. Everyone has to know what the signal flags mean, and what to do or not do when you see them. You learn about raising a hand or foot to signal that you are exiting the track (when going back down pit lane), and holding your line and being consistent, as you can’t see behind you, and you have to assume there is someone on your tail. It’s nice, really, as you are specifically told not to worry about anyone behind you; it’s their job to figure how and when to get by safely (and they get to assume you will hold your line, and not swerve). Even I passed a few people throughout the day without incident. Once I had the basic rules down, I felt much more at ease with being out there.
Plus, it’s a riding school/track day, not a race; I had fewer flags to memorize, passing is limited to the outside only, and no close passing is allowed (several feet between riders is required). The groups are divided by skill level, so we were only on track with other school members (not any of the intermediate or advanced track groups); but even the fastest and most aggressive of the class members were polite all day (they don’t want to get kicked out). I just assumed I would be the slowest one there, and I didn’t want to get in everyone’s way all day. I was worried I’d be so much slower that it would cause problems with the disparity in pace, and make it uncomfortable for me to learn. While I was definitely one of the slower riders in the class, I wasn’t the absolute slowest, and it turned out that my pace was perfectly acceptable for that learning environment. By the third session, I felt totally comfortable just riding my ride, working on whatever I was trying to work on that session, and pretty much ignoring everyone else; paying only enough attention to be aware of my surroundings (and not miss any flags, my perpetual concern, they are harder to see than you think!).
Another note on pace – while this is a tiny bit true for me, its par for the course with Kevin: He was riding his 900ss, which was made in 1996, and is now considered a very old and out of date bike. It’s carbureted and probably made 75 hp when it was new, and it is definitely no longer new. My monster and his 900ss are very similar machines with respect to power and weight (the 900ss is basically the predecessor to my bike, it’s very, very similar, mine is just newer, fuel injected, and doesn’t have a fairing). The point is that most of the racer boys had really powerful 1000cc or more modern fuel injected sport bikes, many with well over 150 hp. Even the 600cc machines often have over 100hp. Kevin would keep up with some of them or even get held up in the turns, only to lose them when they’d roll on the gas and disappear in front of him in the straights. Then he would catch back up in the turns, and the cycle repeats. As the name of the school suggests, lap times are not all about horsepower. I’m slower overall so it mattered less, but it was an interesting sensation to have my bike tapped out in sixth gear on the back straight and have those bikes pass me like I was standing still. (I also never really worked on getting a good drive into the straights out of the final turn; I care less for top speed. Kevin and I agree; the straight was just wait time until I got to the next turn).
Also, if you get a chance to do the 2-up ride with Aaron, DO NOT MISS IT. Riding on the back of that GSXR1000 with Aaron Stevenson piloting it around the track was the single most intense and terrifying thing I have ever done, including skydiving. It will blow your mind to experience riding a motorcycle like that. It’s also physically demanding. Since you can’t use your lower body when braking when you are on the back, it took literally all of my strength in my harms to hold myself (using the handles on the tank) off of Aaron during braking. I had NO IDEA you could slow down that hard on a motorcycle. The grip on the tank was a bit hard to hold onto, and there were a couple of moments when I thought I was going to come off the back during acceleration, especially on the back straight going 130+ mph (I have no idea what the top speed is two up on that thing). With a rider on the back and all that weight up high (especially with the bigger guys in the class), Aaron was basically wheely-ing or doing a stoppie the entire way around the track. I had two laps, and going into turn 4 on the first lap, I had to consciously remind myself to breathe. I’m nowhere near skilled enough to learn anything useful from that ride; it was all I could do just to hold on. If anything, it’s even more amazing to contemplate what it must be like for a Moto GP racer.
This was a seriously physically and mentally intense day. Seven sessions on track is definitely enough track time. (There was a mock race at the end too, which Kevin loved and I chose to skip). I think I slept ten hours that night. The next day, it was probably easier to name the muscles that weren’t sore than the ones that were. However, I have never ridden a motorcycle so fast or so well in my life, and I only just barely started scrapping the surface of real improvement.
Cornerspeed was an awesome and amazingly fun experience, and one we are contemplating doing again sometime. The part of me that is growing increasingly risk averse says that we had a great time and made it through with bikes and bodies unscathed; we should consider ourselves lucky and call it quits while we’re ahead. Then there is that part that says “I never really got where I wanted to be with x,y, and z, if I just had another day to keep working on it, I know I could do that better. I can’t work on those things on the street effectively, so I should do a track day or take another class.” This is the way that’s leads to the madness of an expensive track day habit.
In sum, Cornerspeed, like any other reward worth working for, was eustress at its best:
Eustress is a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye. The word eustress consists of two parts. The prefix eu- derives from the Greek word meaning either “well” or “good.” When attached to the word stress, it literally means “good stress”.
Eustress occurs when the gap between what one has and what one wants is slightly pushed, but not overwhelmed. The goal is not too far out of reach but is still slightly more than one can handle. This fosters challenge and motivation since the goal is in sight. The function of challenge is to motivate a person toward improvement and a goal. Challenge is an opportunity-related emotion that allows people to achieve unmet goals.