The Same, Only Different

Or, How Reg Pridmore Taught Me to Conquer the Corkscrew

By Mark Byers

Big thanks to my friend Mark Byers for the article, and for Backroads Magazine’s backroadsusa.com Brian and Shira for allowing me to share this with CLASS students. Mark “gets it”, and I hope you enjoy his account of CLASS at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca…  Reg

Coming up the hill, wide open out of the double-apex Turn 6, you kiss the curb on the left side of the kink in the Rahal Straight and aim for the #3 braking marker atop Turn 7.  You have to aim for it: that marker is all you can see at the apex of the track’s 180-foot elevation change.  You can brake later, but get it wrong at your peril, like the guy in front of me who braked too deep and turned at the same time and folded the front.  The white scar his footpeg made across the track stood as a reminder during the rest of the school.

What school?  California’s Leading Advanced Safety School (CLASS).  Thanks to a bucket-list and a generous wife, I got a birthday gift to attend a two-day session held by Reg Pridmore at the famous Mazda Raceway, Laguna Seca.  It derives its name from Spanish for “Dry Lake” and was built almost 60 years ago, just between Monterey and Salinas.  It’s hosted every kind of race, from F1 to MotoGP to bicycle races and its most famous, defining feature is the precipitous, downhill s-turn called The Corkscrew.

I’ve been a fan of CLASS since I took my first at Virginia International Raceway (VIR).  Pridmore’s presentation is every bit that of an English gent, full of humor and anecdotes, but he’s deadly serious about restraint and concentration.  He chides you for lapses in concentration, like looking out the window as bikes go by: “That’ll kill you, mate, either out there on the track or on the highway.”  His mantra is of complete smoothness in shifting, braking, throttle control, and body position.  He reminds you of the incredibly small tire contact patch and encourages you not to abuse that miracle of friction when maneuvering a motorcycle.  “It wants to do the right thing, if you let it,” says he.

So, it was with great joy that I arrived, after a great week of enjoying the Monterey Peninsula and Pacific Coast Highway, on a cool, beautiful Monterey morning at a storied track to get a taste of CLASS, California-style.  The majority of his great instructors joined him, just like at VIR.  One thing you notice about Reg’s “family” of instructors is that they are not only older, but they’re also still alive and uninjured (but still fast and smooth).  There’s a message there.  One dedicated mentor came all the way from Michigan.

My rented CBR-500R needed only an air-pressure tweak.  Reg maintains a small fleet of Honda CBR-300 and CBR-500 rental bikes, but the supply is limited.  He also has leathers, but sizes are VERY limited.  Meanwhile, the normal parade of students bringing their machines flowed by in the efficient inspection line.  It was the same as VIR, except the sun rose later, struggling to get above the sharp hills that surround the track.  My only worries were whether I’d stay out of the way of the liter-bikes on my 47-HP steed and whether I’d be able to get out of my new 1-piece leathers unassisted to go to the porta potty…  I went light on the Gatorade.

Introductory sessions for both A and B groups were the same as at VIR: they were the same placards and instructions, but for a different map.  Peculiarities of Laguna Seca were discussed, including an area where passing was to be only on the right.  One thing I really like about CLASS is that expectations are set early and often about safety and etiquette, stressing a good attitude and restraint, lest Reg have to “put you on the trailer” and send you home.  On the first day, one of the instructors even sought me out and wanted to apologize for passing what he felt was a little too closely, something I dismissed – it was not too close at all and certainly understandable given my power deficit.  Even fellow students were mostly courteous and safe and assured me I wasn’t in their way.

About that: there’s an old adage that says it’s more fun to ride a slow bike well than a fast bike poorly and it’s so right.  The little CBR taught me the importance of carrying just the right gear through every turn, especially up the climbs from 5 to 7.  Not being able to wind on a lot of speed made me appreciate and conserve my corner speed and I still had a lot of fun: not many passed me in a corner.  Even so, I was glad I opted for the 500 over the 300 given the elevation change.  Oh, and about that “elevation change,” it goes both ways…

Get hard on the brakes at whichever mark you dare at Turn 7 (there’s only 3 of them) compressing the front end to the limits and get your shifting done, because life’s about to change.  As you look left to pick up the apex of Turn 8, that’s all you can see.  The skate-ramp nature of the drop-off to 8A completely conceals the next turn.  As you hit the first apex, point the bike toward a red marker someone placed high in a tree on the outside of the Corkscrew, because only that will ensure you arrive at the next apex where you need to be.  Unless you’re Rossi or Marquez, you really don’t want to venture across the painted curb to the storm drain on the inside.

During the drop, keep the power on and shift your weight from the left peg to the right and you’ll arrive at the next apex prepared for the rest of the drop.  If you get this far, you’ll have solved the mystery of The Corkscrew.  Drift to center track and try not to scrub your speed for the sweeping, still-downhill Rainey Turn 9.  It’s on-camber, but gravity is sucking you down and it looks like it isn’t.  I had a hard time not using a touch of brake before the apex.  You’ll still be going downhill for the setup to Turn 10, where you finally flatten out.  Wash, rinse, and repeat as many times as you can, striving for the elusive perfection.

My direction was to write a comparison piece on the differences between CLASS at VIR and at Laguna Seca.  Here’s the secret: the difference is only the track.  The instructors are largely the same folks, augmented by some super-knowledgeable locals, but they’re all as friendly and dedicated as the rest of the Pridmore “family.”  The emphasis on smoothness and proper attitude and restraint are the same, as is the absolute emphasis on safety.  After I got comfortable with my classmates, I had no worries about them passing me on the main straight with 40 MPH of closure given the restrictions of my ride.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t a thrill to ride such a legendary track under the tutelage of Reg and his folks.  It was tremendous and I’d love to ride some of the other great tracks he frequents in California, like Willow Springs and Sears Point; however, the things that make CLASS great have a lot less to do with the pavement and a lot more to do with the elements of riding, both physical and mental, that he and his cadre of uber-professionals take such great care to present.  No matter what the locale, the lessons are universal.  Whether it’s The Corkscrew, or The Dragon, or the Back Road to Work, safe, smooth riding is the Pridmore Way.

markt5laguna

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