A Softail Standard takes on Laguna Seca

Text: Derrel Whitemyer • Photography: Derrel Whitemyer

While trying to keep up with a group of metrics through some back road twisties, you find out biking is more than cruising, that your Harley was designed for more than freeway riding, and that it's time to sign up for track lessons. I know you've ridden to Sturgis but think of your loved ones, think of Christopher Reeves, go on, take the course - besides, it'll lower your insurance rates.

Life is a succession of "Wows!" and "Oh, Shits!" events bound together by observers, some so tightly they create their own realities. Black holes, Jesus Christ and Elvis are three that come to mind. Turn two at Laguna Seca Raceway taken at high speed is another. In fact all turns, when focused exponentially by a higher-speed reality or pucker factor, compress themselves into singular space-time events.

It's morning, you're signed up for Reg Pridmore's Riding Instruction Class and he's leading your group around the track. He'll come to a turn, stop, point out its good and bad traits, then go on to the next until the course is completed. This allows apprentices like me to see the feng shui or optimum position and speed for taking each corner through a Master's eye. Easier on both the bike and old bones, it's a heck of a lot safer than trial and error.

I'm in the beginning group, appropriately called the B Group, and already so nervous I can't sit still. The advanced group appropriately called the A group is looking at us like we're food, something to be caught in the corners, run over and left for road kill, which is why Pridmore has decided to separate us.

When they're on the track we'll be in the classroom; conversely, while we're on the track they'll be in the classroom. However, before any of us are allowed on the course, we'll have to have our bikes checked. Tires, brakes, helmets (sorry no plastic beanies allowed) and leathers all have to be given the go ahead by Pridmore's staff.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines! Moments later, group B is led onto the track. You're behind your instructors, riding at a sedate pace and no one's passing. By turn five most of the pros have dropped back letting you go on ahead. Some, however, will pull alongside, select riders, and signal for them to follow. This allows students to watch instructors negotiate turns and build a foundation for the debriefing critiques back in the classroom.

Prepare to pass and be passed. Entry and exit lines through corners depend upon people's speed. This translates into having progressively faster riders progressively taking more of an outside line. Simply put and for safety reasons, Pridmore doesn't want the hot dogs losing it on the inside and wiping out the slowpokes. Me.

The ultimate judge of safe riding will be your instructor. Top of the food chain riders, themselves, they'll warn students when they see recklessness. At first, it's an admonishment followed with a rectangular sticker stuck sideways on the back of your helmet. If the recklessness continues, students can be kicked out of the class.

So, it's your second lap, your tires are warmed up and you've gotten most of the butterflies out of your system. You've just entered the long straight leading into turn two, a 180-degree sweeper. Your Softail Standard's beginning to remember it has 88 cubic inches and you're beginning to remember what life was like before Viagra. Just don't forget Pridmore's lesson about coming into corners at high speeds: Down shift, brake, weight on the inside peg with knee pressure on the outside of your tank, then it's look-lean all the way through while rolling on the gas. Keep visualizing yourself completing the turn. Your bike won't accept an alternative if you won't. Trust your tires!

Coming out of turn two your Twin-Cam's torque is actually reeling in a few of the metric bikes. Don't get cocky. Seconds later they'll leave so fast you'll think they owed you money.

Your third gear will take you around most of the course with a visit into second through the corkscrews and sharp number eleven. There's also a short visit to fourth near the end of the straights in front of the grandstands. Rarely, if ever, will you use first or fifth. Laguna Seca's layout limits top speeds, and, besides, the compression generated in the lower gears will help you in braking.

There's an old Steve McQueen-ish 650cc Triumph Twin pumped to 900cc that's playing freight train on the straights. To keep up, you're carrying more speed into corners, which soon leads to the inevitable metal-to-pavement scrape. If you've never ground a peg, just be sure your feet aren't dangling down when it happens. It'll feel like a root canal but also it will make you remember not to hit your brakes. Which reminds me, it's time to get off the track and let the A group on.

Classroom sessions are debriefings coupled with critiques choreographed to teach as much about safety as going fast. Pridmore will often have videoed riders to play back for your whole group to see. Don't be self-conscious, that is, unless the back of your helmet has so many stickers for reckless riding you look like an advertisement for organ donations.

"And, as you can see, students, coming up on the left, riding the Softail Standard, is a slower rider in the way of the faster riders..." While Pridmore is pointing this out on the screen, I'm trying to hide under the chair of the rider sitting in front of me. Oh, well.

Instruction is to the point, based upon years of practical experience and delivered in an unpretentious manner. Always anecdotal, Pridmore ties safe riding technique to experiences he and his students have shared. "...He may have come into a turn too fast at 140 mph, you at 70. Everyone learns from what he did next: Mommeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

Time to go riding again. Turn two is where you'll get back onto the track. No one's breathing down your neck as group A has come in for their class debriefing. B's faster riders will pull away leaving the rest of you to play the "Please don't run me over" game.

As the day progresses your lap times decrease at the same rate your confidence increases. Crashes are rare, as most everyone hates catheters; but when they do occur, you're told not to stop but to let Pridmore and his professionals handle them.

Still can't quite pass Steve McQueen's Triumph. Maybe it's for the best. He'll reel me in on the straights, I'll reel him in coming out of the corners and its all relative because we're both having fun.

Can't forget to mention Seca's corkscrews. They're reached after coming out of turn six and ascending a small hill. Depending on how fast you're able to exit turn six, you'll crest the top of the hill blind to what's on the other side. If you've listened to what Pridmore said about the feng shui of lining up on certain landmarks and being in the right gear, there's nothing to worry about. However, if the dog ate your homework or you weren't listening in class, you can very quickly find yourself in dire straits and I'm not talking about singing a duet with Mark Knopfler.

Weight the left peg, lean, weight the right peg, lean and look where you wanna go, and the corkscrews will be behind you before you've time to worry. Keep remembering Pridmore's basics for all other turns - that your bike wants to make corners as much or more than you do - and you'll be fine.

Enjoy the day, it'll come to an end too quickly and - this is important - don't be afraid to ask for help. Instructors are riders like yourself and they wouldn't be there if they weren't willing to share their knowledge.