Championship Dreams and Tenth-Place Habits

A column of advice for my racing friends

Yamaha hospitality area
Even if your dreams don’t include your picture on the Yamaha hospitality area, reaching your racing goals is much more than just “riding fast.”Courtesy of Yamaha

This week I slip back into racing because I am surrounded by racing friends and acquaintances. Many are beginning their roadracing careers, some are coming back after living another life, and some are continuing to chase their passion. As winter settles I take a page from Kenny Roberts’ book and hope my roadracing and trackday friends will “learn while their feet are on the ground.” Kenny talks about doing so much riding improvement in his mind, and these winter racing columns are aimed at that technique.

We all dream of winning a roadracing world championship. Fantasies include capturing an AMA championship, a local club championship, and even a club class championship, holding that #1 plate over our heads as the fans go wild. “I’d like to thank my parents and crew,” we recite into the BeIN Sports microphone (or mic at the track's local banquet hall).

I’m here to tell you that some or all of the above is possible, but not if your riding is stuck in tenth place. Yes, there are some variations in riding styles and approaches, but at the pointy end of each championship certain exact things are being done by each rider. These are habits that you need to adopt. As the championships escalate in stature and difficulty, the approach the best riders have becomes clearer. Let’s look.

Tenth-place Habit: When you're off the bike, your brain is away from riding.

Championship Thinking: Every moment of a top-rider's life is aimed at riding a motorcycle better. When they drive their truck, ride their dirtbike, or pedal their bicycle, they are thinking about the next track, the last track, bike setup, tire choices, smoothness—all of it.

Tenth-place Habit: You know your talent is enormous and will get you to the top.

Championship Thinking: Um, here's a little secret: Everybody's talent is enormous at the top, but the champions will work the hardest. Mat Mladin showed me his track notes at Elkhart Lake, and he was already six-time AMA Superbike champion. He once slept in a special "tent" the week before the Colorado AMA race to simulate altitude. Meanwhile, I've seen Josh Hayes huddled with his crew late into the night when everyone else was at dinner. Then there's Eddie Lawson, whose racing-season diet was aimed at peak performance at every meal—literally every meal.

Tenth-place Habit: You don't use the rear brake.

Championship Thinking: That internet forum advice might be trustworthy, but the fact that the best designers in the world include a rear brake on a race bike should come as a hint that yes, you do in fact use a rear brake on the track. Learn to use it lightly and gently whenever you need a bit more slowing. It won't be worth diddly when the rear tire is off the ground, but everywhere else it's magic. It will make you at least one percent faster.

Tenth-place Habit: You're a loud-mouthed know-it-all.

Championship Thinking: The best riders are definitely confident, but the higher up the ladder they climb, the quieter they get. Their riding does the talking, not their lips. Champions also realize the amount of effort that goes into a winning season, and no points are made from bragging. (This Tenth-place Habit reminds me of something my tuner Steve Biganski used to say about braggarts: "If you could hook his mouth to the rear wheel he'd be the world champion!")

Tenth-place Habit: You roll off the throttle for the corner, but don't brake.

Championship Thinking: If you've closed the throttle it's because your brain says, "slow down." Yes, closing the throttle slows the bike but not very efficiently. You can ride a slow four-stroke race bike like this okay, but the faster the bike, the worse this habit will work. We say at YCRS, if the throttle is shut, the brakes are on—even if it's just one-percent. Students hear: Don't just close the throttle and hope you make it. Squeeze on a little brake and guarantee you'll make it.

John Kocinski standing in the paddock
John Kocinski won the 250 Grand Prix world championship in 1990 and the SBK championship seven years later. His approach was (and still is, because John still dirt-tracks) to come prepared to win. “I would do whatever it takes,” he told me last week at the IMS in Long Beach.Courtesy of JK Collection

Tenth-place Habit: This is good enough, everything is fine.

Championship Thinking: No, a dirty bike isn't fine. Looking like Mick Jagger after a night of partying isn't fine. Taped-up leathers…dirty helmet…sloppy pit area…bad grades in school…a messy room…disorganized trailer…dirty pit bike…unhealthy diet…none of that is fine because it's not thinking like a champion. Take everything in your life and aim to do your best at it. Raise your game everywhere to raise your game on the track. People used to laugh at (250 and World Superbike champion) John Kocinski for cleaning his motorhome, detailing his leathers…but those of us racing knew what John was doing: being a champion.

Tenth-place Habit: Go as fast as you can everywhere, all the time.

Championship Thinking: Practice is for practice, so work on sections of the track and bike setup. Corner entrances serve to get the bike ready to exit, so don't be the rider who rushes the entrances, misses the apexes and blows the exits. Bad weather must often be survived, so rolling around for a fourth-place finish while your main competitor crashes out of the lead in a monsoon is a smart move. Saving some tire performance for late in the race often means running a controlled pace early. Some tracks have one or two dangerous corners that you must respect and not take chances in. Bike and tire changes need to be felt at slower speeds so you can adapt to the change, slowly building speed over the course of at least two laps.

Nick Ienatsch, Kurt Lentz, and Russ Bigley
The first time I raced and won on the Spondon TZ750 I made sure to give Kurt Lentz and Russ Bigley the medals, grabbing a picture with them at the NJMP podium last year. Why? Because your crew works hard for you and that work must be acknowledged.Brian Smith

Tenth-place Habit: I am really good.

Championship Thinking: We are really good. Did you know that much of the Graves Motorsports crew has been together for 20 years? Have you noticed how long Valentino Rossi and Jeremy Burgess stayed together? Ben Spies and Tom Houseworth? Yoshimura crew chief Don Sakakura helped Wes Cooley win in 1980 and Ben Spies twenty-five years later. When I raced AMA 250 class, fifty-percent of every dollar I won went to my tuner Steve Biganski because he was the foundation of my success. Find or develop the right people to support you. If you've got a good person, take care of them. Surround yourself with winning thinking, get away from the losers. Find people with Championship mentalities, and go get it!

More Next Tuesday!