Skill Building at the Brickyard
I’ve been fascinated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) since my first trip back in 1967 at age thirteen. Parnelli Jones led over 170 laps of that rain lengthened, two-day event in the Granatelli
STP gas turbine Indy Car, aka “The Whooshmobile,” Then came the legendary five dollar bearing failure and AJ Foyt won the race. Someone or something makes history at IMS every year.
Over the seasons, I’ve made many trips back to Indy. With each trip, I was at least as interested in how the Speedway had continued to evolve as I was in who won the race. New garage areas and stands have been erected, not to mention the Pagoda and new luxury suites. The traditional Memorial Day race has seen plenty of political drama and infighting as well as on-track action. Sanctioning bodies have come and gone but the race and the Speedway live on. In the last decade, NASCAR, Formula One and now MotoGP events have been added to the calendar.
In 2008, we attended the debut of the MotoGP event at the Speedway. A “Lap of Champions” track ride, held to benefit the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation and organized by the “Ride for Kids” program, was held that Saturday afternoon after qualifying had ended. It was well attended and a great cause to boot. During that event, I got my first opportunity to ride a motorcycle on the newly configured MotoGP track, an experience that was far more exciting than my ride in the IMS “track tour bus” had been. It was in fact so much better that I said to myself, “If I ever get a chance to ride this track at speed…” Of course it was common knowledge that such a thing would never happen. The Speedway was far too exclusive for that. No track-days or schools had ever been held at this venue.
Early in August of 2009, e-mail news from the “Wing and Wheel” IMS newsletter announced that 1993 World Champion Kevin Schwantz and the Speedway’s VP of Operations, Mel Harder, had come together to present the first ever Motorcycle School at Indianapolis. It would be held one week prior to the 2009 MotoGP weekend. The impossible was about to happen! Upon reading this, I went straight to the Schwantz School website to fill out an application. Would it already be sold out? The next day, my home phone rang and the caller ID said “Kevin Schwantz”! Oh My God! Should I answer the phone or take a picture of the caller ID? Both, of course! The arrangements were made and soon I was on my way to Indianapolis for this inaugural event.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an amazing place. Fans and racers alike consider it sacred ground. Its gigantic presence commands respect, while its history humbles you. Imagine your arrival. You drive through the tunnel toward the museum, then snake your way along the access roads back to “Legends Row.” All the while, you’re asking yourself, “How did I finally get here? Can I do this? Should I do this?” Following tech inspection and a proper indoctrination by the Schwantz Team’s chief classroom instructor for the weekend, Lee Acree, we lucky students headed for our bikes. In groups of four, each led by an instructor, we passed through “Gasoline Alley,” down pit lane and onto the track itself. This massive facility takes your breath away. You’re now looking up at the huge grandstands from the racing surface instead of the other way ‘round. As you begin that first lap, you think of all who have been there before you: Indy Car, Formula One, NASCAR, and MotoGP; each field of competitors comprised of the best in their discipline. The experience is truly humbling.
Indy’s sixteen-turn road course is flat, smooth, wide and has seemingly no elevation changes. In fact, the course is so wide that you can vary your line somewhat with little penalty and there is ample runoff room where needed. Suzuki GSX-R600 and Honda CBR600RR machines were provided by the school for our use at this event, all shod with Michelin Pilot Power tires. Each instructor rode a GSX-R 750 Suzuki, with the exception of Schwantz himself. For Kevin, there was a special black Honda CBR100RR which displayed the number “34” on its tank.
While I’m no Valentino Rossi, I’ll do my best to describe a lap of the Brickyard’s road course. Coming at the end of the wide-open front stretch, left hand Turn One is the fastest corner on the circuit. I found myself downshifting from fourth to third at the turn-in point for One and carrying at lot of speed all the way to right hand Turns Two and Three, which I treated as a single corner with a double apex. Still in third gear, I’d turn in at Two, apex, let the bike run wide to the middle and then apex again for Three. This pair of corners is taken as a big, oblong loop. Exiting Three, I’d stand the bike up and then lean it over hard left for the extremely tight, second gear Turn Four. Exiting beneath the towering grandstands of the Southwest Vista, I’d twist on the throttle to accelerate into another fast section, shift up to third gear and then fourth. Turn Five is a very fast left hand bend, taken in fourth gear. Exiting Five, you can see the museum in your peripheral vision as you head toward the decreasing radius, left hand Turn Six. Trail braking through the sweeping entry to Six, I’d downshift to second. A moment of throttle would have me into the brakes again to set up for the right, left, right combination of turns Seven, Eight and Nine. Sightseers might notice the golf course at this point but I had work to do! At the apex of Turn Nine, I’d shift whichever 600 I was riding that session into third gear for the drive out onto the Hulman back stretch. This is a fast, wide section of track that would see me clicking into fourth gear as I blasted under the pedestrian footbridge and hurtled toward Turn Ten. Braking and downshifting to third gear, I’d flick the bike into Ten and would immediately begin to set up for the right hand, 180 degree Turn Eleven. I found that I needed to be mid-track and pushing the bars hard to carve for a late apex. Standing the bike up for a short burst of acceleration would deliver me to the series of left hand Turns Twelve, Thirteen and Fourteen. Another twist on the throttle exiting Fourteen shot me toward the final pair of curves. Setting up to the left edge of the track, I would brake for right hand Turn Fifteen and the downshift to second gear for the left hand Turn Sixteen. The exit of Sixteen leads you back onto the long front stretch. Working my way up through the gearbox into the shadow of the Main Grandstands, I would see the Pagoda and the scoring tower looming up on my left. Then I’d pass over the “Yard of Bricks” at speed; the best motorcycling experience of my lifetime.
Former World Champion Kevin Schwantz and his team of instructors, many of whom have won motorcycle roadracing championships themselves, treat each student as if they were a champion as well. Their goal is to provide positive reinforcement as they help you hone your skills. Having the opportunity to ride a motorcycle at the famed Brickyard was a dream come true but it was the interaction with the Schwantz staff that I appreciated most. The time we spent with Jim and Shirley (Mom and Pop) Schwantz, Marnie Lincoln and the riding school’s instructors, Ted Cobb, Brad Coleman, Rueben Frankenfield, Mark Gerow, John Jacobi and Harry Vanderlinden truly made this event memorable.
To see additional photos taken during this event as well as other stories, go to kevinschwantz.com