Sliding With The Stars

On track at American Supercamp with MotoGP racer Cal Crutchlow.

American Supercamp participants

It was a dark, stormy, and surprising morning. My son, John, and I arrived for the opening session of American Supercamp, the traveling dirt-bike school, on this occasion staged at an arena in City of Industry, California, in time for the first chalk talk of the day.

Supercamp founder/headmaster Danny Walker was on stage, facing a couple rows of students of all ages and both genders. In the front row, multi-time AMA champion Josh Hayes, his expert roadracing wife, Melissa Paris, and…Cal Crutchlow.

Yes. The Cal Crutchlow. As seen on TV. The hardscrabble Englishman who sparks MotoGP by pulling his satellite Yamaha up there with the factory machines. The racer who, eased out of a factory Yamaha ride by politics, has signed with Ducati, a factory team undergoing struggles of its own and aren't we all looking forward to next season?

But that’s then. This is now, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising to see a MotoGP star spending off-duty time as a guest instructor at a dirt-track school.

First point, Danny Walker knows everybody in racing. He was a good, if not great, racer, and he’s as likable a man as you’ll ever meet, so his schools have always had past or present experts happy to educate and entertain. As in at a previous school (I am a slow learner), where no lesser a racer than Chris Carr whacked me with a stick when I wasn’t sitting right on the bike.

In a broader sense, back before Kenny Roberts took the Grand Prix world to school, dirt track was derided; Barry Sheene called Roberts a cowboy. But when Roberts became a team owner, his riders practiced and trained on his private dirt track, and we all know how they did.

Danny Walker and guest instructor Jake Gagne.

Danny Walker and guest instructor Jake Gagne.

Then some of the more adventurous guys began riding dirt in Europe, and it became common knowledge that flat-track grads like Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner were winning world titles at least in part because they could do miracles on a GP bike with skills they brought from dirt track. Next thing you know, most of the current GP stars have dirt-track bikes and places to ride them, to the extent none other than nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi cheerfully admits that when he and Hayden are training, he, Rossi, takes notes.

So here we are at the arena. American Supercamp provides all the gear needed, and instructors and students alike ride Yamaha TT-R125s, the small four-stroke model that comes with electric start and, oh, yeah, there’s a sign of relief when the students hear that.

The training ground amounts to a miniature TT, with sweeping turns and tight hooks, turning left and right. Students are divided into groups and we went out, 10 or so at a time, and ran the courses clockwise and then counter-clockwise. The instructors, staff or guest, are supposed to ride with the students, pulling in front and motioning, follow me, then taking off with the student hanging on and learning the lines.

The first day’s tracks are marked with plates and cones, not much to hit, and if you do hit a cone, the penalty is 10 pushups and, yes, the rules apply so we students got to jeer as Hayes paid the price.

And Crutchlow? Celebrities rule.

In the first session, I was more than a bit puffed up because I caught up with him, only to be terminally corrected when, in the second session, he lapped me, proving he’d been blocked earlier by traffic and no, none of us were in his league.

Cal Crutchlow track action shot

That look is usually reserved for Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo, et al.

Beyond that, he broke all the rules, cutting corners, cutting across the track, stopping when and where he pleased, so, in hard fact, the students learned more from the staff guys.

Not that we cared. Crutchlow didn't pick on riders not his size; he and Hayes went mock mano a mano, bumping and carving each other up while the tracks were being revised. As the poet said, you had to see it not to believe it.

So okay, what’s Cal Crutchlow really like? Sorry to shift genre and generation here, but I couldn’t help being reminded of Dale Earnhardt: fiercely intent, totally focused, smart, experienced, willing to help the press...but no small talk.

When the student bodies came limping into the arena for the second day’s sessions, Danny said no, Cal wasn’t going to be with us today. We noted just a hint of relief, reflecting what most of us surely felt, that while it’s fun to keep company with world-class racers, and surely Crutchlow has 25 more fans than he had the day before, that was a bonus, and our own riding skills, such as they were, had to be why we were in school.

The second day’s courses were faster, lined with hay bales now that we were less likely to hit things. Plus, there were drills for pitching the bike into turns and weaving between cones. Added to that, when we’d done the courses freestyle, as it were, we did them again, feet up or pushups, and then with the left hand on the fuel-tank cap, no kidding, and you can control the bike with feet and leg power.

Speaking for the students, I learned heaps, worth the time and money and driving home too tired to lift your feet.

Next season? We can only hope Ducati makes a comeback and our pal, Cal, is rewarded for his courage and determination and willingness to pick that team. Did his day in the dirt hone that incredible talent? Surely, it didn’t hurt.

One, two, three?Yamaha TT-R125s ready for action.

American Supercamp "chalk talk."

Danny Walker and guest instructor Jake Gagne.

Look, Ma, no hands!

Cal Crutchlow.

That look is usually reserved for Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo, et al.

Three-time AMA SuperBike Champion Josh Hayes.