Keith Code Superbike School: Another Pirate's Tale

What an amazing experience!...Just a few days ago I had considered my motorcycling skills to be fairly adequate (read :God-like) and then in a blink of the eye... well actually 48 hours ...almost everything I knew about cornering was turned on it's ear and for the most part.. changed forever. What the f#@* am I talking about?? Sometimes I wonder, but in this case...after years of thinking about it, I pulled the trigger and attended one of Keith Code's California Superbike Schools at the Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Ala.

About a year ago, after doing quite a few track days and a few hundred runs on the infamous Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap, I had a personal epiphany. I took some Motrin hoping it would go away, but alas.. it didn't. It was the sudden realization that I simply can NOT go any faster, safely unless someone who knows more than me actually shows me how. I'd simply learned all I could on my own having apparently exited my own learning curve. While I am usually in the top few fastest guys in any intermediate track day class, my ability to improve lap times and/or my technique had hit the proverbial wall. Rather than flail around like a carp on a hot sidewalk hoping to figure out why some guys can sail by me like I'm a sloth on Quaaludes I decided to do something about it and seek professional training.. but from who??

There are lots of riding schools out there and I've heard good things about virtually all of them so choosing one came down to my own demented needs. The simple fact that my fairly adequate (read : a legend in my own mind) riding skills can for the most part be attributed directly to Keith Code's now famous "A Twist of the Wrist" swayed me towards his internationally accredited school.

I'd heard that Keith's approach to breaking down the entire concept of cornering into easily understandable, chimp-like terminology was EXACTLY what my aging brain cells needed. Amber, my lovely and understanding wife was behind the idea (and I suspect looking for ways to get me out of the house) so I reserved a spot for June 1st and 2nd on a track that I am very familiar with .. Barber.

I think I paid about $2300 for the 2 day course which covered the use of one of their 2005 lime green Kawasaki ZX-6R's (shod with Dunlop 208's), full gear, and a full breakfast and lunch each day. This ain't cheap in my book and I admit going in I was skeptical that I'd get my doubloons worth. After all, that same $2300 would buy me EIGHT track day weekends or 2 weeks on a beach in Cancun.

Registration on the first day was at the godawful early hour of 7am. I usually don't get up until 10-ish and can't usually speak in coherent sentences until 10:30am so this was harsh for this late riser. Registration is just a formality really, as my wallet was pillaged, paperwork filled out, and confirmations sent in weeks prior to arrival. I am told the class is full. During registration most attendees lounge around and eat breakfast . scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit, cereal, etc...which is laid out ala-carte in one of the schools 2 semi-trailers. All food, I should mention, is prepared by Keith's partner/wife. Everything looked edible but it was just waaaay to early for me to eat.

At about 8am we all pile into the classroom for the first of a 2 day series of 20 minute sessions given by either Keith or his son, Dylan. Once seated, the first words out of Keith Code's mouth was... " I guarantee we are going to make you a better rider in 2 days." A bold statement but.. after years of doing this.. he believes it.. and he makes me believe it.

EVERY classroom session focuses on a different aspect of the Art of Cornering... the theme of Keith's schools. One class for throttle control.. One class for choosing your line. One for looking ahead to the apex. Another for choosing reference points. One for flicking the bike into the curve. One for "seeing" the track, blurb, blurb.... The main crux of each "drill" is to figure out how to get in and out of a corner as quickly as possible while having complete control of your motorcycle. Sounds simple, but any pro-wannabe can tell you.... it's not. Ever seen Rossi or Marco Melandri do laps? Lap after lap within a 10th of a second of the previous?? Amazing. How do they do that? Are they just born more skilled than us? Larger brains? Bigger cojones? Superior gene pool? One thing they do possess is an innate understanding of the cornering process. Keith Code's course explains to us mere mortals just how they do it.. in exact detail. I have to admit it took a while to get my Cro-Magnon level brain around some of the ideas Keith threw at me, but once I got on the track.. it all clicked.

After each classroom session we would immediately go out and practice what we'd just heard. One track instructor is assigned to every 2 riders.. My instructor would either lead while signaling me to do what he's doing or he'd follow clandestinely to see what you are doing or he'd just vanish and watch from afar. They allow you to ride at whatever speed you feel comfortable. Not once did I have anyone ask me to ride slower. After each riding session me and the other rider assigned to the instructor would meet at the instructors numbered chair and discuss the ride in detail.. turn for turn.

What really blew my mind at these mini-chat sessions was that the instructor actually asked questions and listened to your answers. He'd ask.. "How did you feel in that session? Did you have problems on any specific curve?" He'd listen intently, sometimes make notes, then offer advice for a solution to the specific problem.. "Why don't you try this next time..?" or "Perhaps you're not moving your eyes further enough down the track.." He'd compliment you on what you were doing right (both on the track with a thumbs up and off the track with a pat on the back.) I got the impression that they actually cared about my progress rather than it being just a job and a paycheck. This attention and concern for our needs was unexpected and to he honest.. surprising. It's these simple details that I would imagine has given Keith's California Superbike School the positive reputation they seem to have earned industry wide. I spoke one-on-one with at least 4 instructors and ALL were more than helpful. No condescension.. No ex-racer egos. Just caring. Feigned or real, they convinced me that I was special and they would make me better, faster. I couldn't have asked for a more relaxed and thoughtful group of guys. Insert group hug here.

Speaking of instructors.. It was a pleasant surprise that even after 25 years of doing these classes.. Keith was not only a fun teacher, but you could tell he's still excited about both motorcycling and sharing his wealth of knowledge. I went in thinking he'd probably be as jaded as a 50 year old Bangkok ho, but to the contrary.. He was very engaging, funny, and more than willing to answer any and all questions to the students satisfaction. He challenged us to figure things out and when/if we couldn't.. he'd enlighten us. Nice guy and IMHO.. an anomaly in today's business world.

By the time I left the school with my Level 2 diploma (and aching body), the entire concept of properly cornering had been explained and demystified to the point where I honestly believe that if I were 30 years younger and was willing to practice I could actually run with the big dogs.

While I got my moneys worth, I do have a few minor issues to whine about. The 2 day course was intense. The time restraints meant that you were practically running from each class to your bike without 2 spare minutes to pee, grab a drink, or practice your origami between sessions. Except for the 1 hour lunch.. we got no breaks in the 8 hour class day. Of course you could cut your track time short by snacking/napping during that time, but what moron wants to do that after paying over $2K to ride arguably the finest track in the United States? I mentioned this to Keith and he said the schedule is only this tight during the 2 day schools. In other classes they rotate 3 groups which gives each group 20 minute breaks throughout the day... just not THIS one. Fair enough.

The waaay cool looking slide bike and lean bikes you see pictured on their website were disappointments. I had thought we'd get to ride them on the track, but that was not to be. I had hoped to take both bikes around some of the sharpest turns (like turn #5) and let the rear wheel slide while I power out of it or see just how far over I could safely lean before my ear touched down. Instead... I got to ride them around in a tight circle in the parking lot never going over 35mph. As I found out, they use these bikes so THEY can observe your body position which I admit is helpful, but not the "Jessica Alba-in-a-bubble-bath" caliber fun I was expecting.

They had these specialty bikes (which you are on all of 5 minutes each) on the far end of 2 football field long parking lot out in the blazing, 90 degree sun... meaning.. you'd have walk this distance in full leathers in serious heat only to stand around for your turn. I don't know about you but my Alpinestar boots, while very comfy when flying around a track, are not conducive to hiking. I would have thought they could at least have set up one of those 12 x 12 tents to shade us or at least hired some scantily clad umbrella girls, but noooooo..

To add to my disappointment, the time you are on these bikes actually cuts into your track time. I could have done without either of these, although I'll be the first to admit.. I learned a lot about better body positioning while there but nothing that my personal track instructors hadn't already shown me..

Another vintage whine... my last.. .I was looking forward to having a video tape of me on the bike blazing around the track (which is included in the package) to show to my couch potato friends upon my triumphant return, but this was also a major let down. Every student takes a ride on the camera bike which is a modified Kawi with a video camera mounted on an extension arm overhead looking down and forward. The student gets to watch it after the session with an instructor who critiques and offers advice and opinions. After the evaluation they ask you if you want to keep the tape, but the video is so horrible that at least in my case, I told them no thanks.

Imagine a camera being held by Katherine Hepburn... in a sandstorm... during an earthquake and that'll give you an idea what the video looked like.. Virtually unwatchable by my standards.
As I said.. this is more whining than anything else.

As for actual track time... I was not disappointed. There's plenty of it and by the end of each day I was ready to put the bike, gloves, and sweaty helmet away and go stand under a long cold shower with the aforementioned Ms. Alba.. On the first day, we were asked to run the early sessions WITHOUT brakes and ONLY 4th gear. I found this no problem as this is pretty much how I regularly run the Dragon at Deals Gap, but many freaked out and were creeping around the track like their tires were made of nitroglycerin. In afternoon sessions they let you use 2 gears and light brakes. By day two they allow you to use 3 gears and light brakes until the last 2 sessions where they cut you lose to run as you wish.

I kept the little Kawasaki wound tight virtually all the time.. I'm not sure if they have a rev limiter on these bikes but I never hit a redline/cut-out point and I had it singing at 14K-14,5 rpm more often than not. Vibration on the grips was pretty intense at these revs but I guess that's typical of the small Kawis. My hands were numb at the end of every session, and I suffered spells of hand numbness for 2 days afterward. Yikes..

Over 2 days I think maybe 3 riders went down. None were hurt. All 3 continued on another bike with only their leathers and egos worse for wear after being cleared by the on-site medical staff..


Postscript: On June 10th, the following weekend, I returned to Barber to do some track days with the good folks from On the second session of the first day, for the first time in over 5 visits to the track.. I dragged my knees... and it was easy. Thanks Keith.

And that's all I've got to say about that... Pirate out...
Jerry D. Finley
/ Pirates' Lair