HACKING FAST: Five Days of Fast with Johnny Lewis Can you get years of racing experience in less than a week?
The Spanish Moss lazily frames a picturesque central Florida landscape; well worn signage, a rutted dirt road, all opening up at the end to a green expanse littered with the sounds and smells of horsepower. Why am I here? To race flat track, and to see if I can get fast, fast.
With the guidance of 10 Training, I hope to squeeze a season’s worth of progress into less than a week.
Johnny Lewis is my guru and founder of 10 Training. He’s a professional AMA Pro Flat-Track racer; but where many of his ilk spend years on the same bike, Lewis continually finds himself on alternative machinery. Triumphs, Kawasakis, and Ducatis; as the seasons change so do the bikes. Which makes him an expert at adapting and overcoming, and most importantly, teaching others to do the same.
Lewis has a passion for teaching, in finding and prodding progress, and most importantly helping the slow find their particular brand of fast. From his base camp in a pedigreed glen about an hour away from Orlando, he has combined his vision of a modern-day commune with racing. This merges a carbon-neutral, cruelty free vegan diet, and a tiny-house lifestyle with the most classic of red-blooded, brutish, and loud forms of American motorsport. It’s weird, but it works.
Day 1: Pull Up to the Swamp
The reckoning had arrived. Would I be a secret hero; an unknown savant for flat track? Absolutely not.
But it doesn’t matter, because the most important part about 10 Training is that every class is different, and for a very good reason:
“I don’t know how you ride, or how you react before I see you on the bike,” Lewis explains. “I want you to remember what you learn here, not just regurgitate what you should be doing, but to actually do it.”
Johnny is scarily intuitive when it comes to reading this. He can see it on your face. He can hear it in your voice, and he can tell by how you stand. Don’t play poker with Johnny Lewis.
Our first true hint of my flat-track acumen, or lack thereof, is apparent on the first bike in our progression, a blue Yamaha TT-R110E. Immediately, the class begins and we haven’t started a engine yet, as Johnny began explaining what we’re going to change. This would be Lesson 1: Posture is everything.
Butt on the rear, sitting square on the seat, arms pronated in; if the goal was getting sideways this would not do.
To control the bike, you must sit on the bike with intent. You have to sit up on the front of the seat and not languish at the rear. Before heading to the track we also set the process for cornering: inside arm straight as an arrow to keep the bike from rolling up, strangling the front end for every bit of front-end grip. Outside elbow sky high to guide the procession, shoulders and core loose, centerline aligned away from the bike, this is the Yoga of Speed.
This being the polar opposite of my street-leaning ways, awkwardly and gangly I flailed. However, this would be the basis from which I would go faster and progress.
Two cones were set up on the back stretch. I was ready to ride as I bumbled down the dirt road, the wee 110 doing its best impression of a bigger bike. Johnny was waiting by the cones with a simple exercise; it was time to start pushing the front.
It’s the secret of the slide. Learning to use that body position to control the bike, push it down, get it rotated, and bring it back up. Done right and the slide comes easy.
But I was not doing it right. Reason being, it flouts the litany of experience you learn on the street. Lose the front there? Well you just earned yourself a major catastrophe. Every nerve, synapse, and reflex was telling me not to do what I was being told. But Johnny already knew this.
“You’re stiff, breathe, it will be fine, trust the bike, let’s try again,” said not with authority, but with encouragement.
And, eventually, it started to roll together. Gas, roll off, initiate the rear brake, push the handlebars, gradually get on and off the rear brake, rotate, gas, repeat. I went from lowsiding to sliding in two hours. In another two, I was doing 360s using the proper sequence of body position, rear brake, throttle, and fast guruness.
Most importantly, doing this faster, consequently using less space to rotate, which closes the corners, which lets you drive in harder and on and on. It’s a go-fast domino effect.
Johnny stands ever patient. He seems to completely appreciate both the progress and the struggle. He is absolutely intent to get to know you and your style, personally. Not just show you the top-five steps and charge your credit card.
Was I fast yet? Nope, but I was getting there.
Day 2: ABC (Always Be Cross Training)
Day two started not with bike but with a hike. My favorite camping spot is a hotel room with a nice view, so a hike through dense and tacky soil in the early morning did not make me particularly giddy. However, scenery peppered with gorgeous overlooks and huge-ass hills was almost enough to sway me. Then my foot got muddy after I fell into a puddle, and I wondered when I could get back on a bike.
However, there is a very good reason to be out there, as well: to stop thinking about movement and balance, and begin to grow muscle memory. Obviously, one hike would not do this. But in the long run this builds balance and stability instinctually, crucial on a bike sliding sideways at 100-plus.
Today, we would also learn the mantra of flat track: not all lines are created equal. Making your way around the track takes a sliding scale of precision, decision making, and adjustments. Unlike roadracing, corners don’t remain the same. Ruts form, dirt dries out or gets wet, corners could be slick on the inside and grippy on the outside. Navigating them takes first and foremost, the body position to control and rotate the bike, and then pick your exit and work your way back.
We would also be moving up in size and ccs. My new steed was a Yamaha TT-R230, air-cooled, steel frame, and suspension perfectly setup for a small child of whose dimensions I did not share. It was the ideal “in betweener” to train on, since you can’t rely on the bike’s natural gifts. You have to take control.
On my first full walk of the track, I was greeted with an intimidating empty canvas with big walls on the outside and slick runoff inside. The only weapon I had was a day of training and that wee blue bike. It felt like entering a gladiatorial arena with a butter knife and no pants, not that gladiators wore pants, but you get the idea.
At first, I was skittish heading into corners. Johnny was ever present to reiterate going in faster and harder, to turn quicker. Progress would start to ratchet up with each lap. Before long, I’m confidently choosing lines and backing it in—bending track and bike to my will instead of the other way around.
Then it came. A wee wobble matured into a tank slapper, which aged into a highside. Steel met sky and body met ground. It would have been truly awesome if I was not on such a small motorcycle. I was pushing too hard. Stuffing movements together and panicking, getting lazy with my body positioning, and more importantly the rear brake. Which I learned I had been dragging when we pulled it into the pits as it sizzled with hatred. I was not a flat-track savant.
How to come back? Get back on the horse. Lewis was reassuring once again, helping me regain my confidence in the relationship between throttle and brake. Within two laps I was going faster than ever.
Then it was time to get closer to the wall which seemed much larger than its physical dimensions would suggest. I thought I nailed it. Johnny going around me on the outside proved me wrong. Slowly I would drift up and nuzzle it, but it was something to work on later.
To close out the day, I broke from my comfort zone once again by navigating the TT course. Moving my body around, catching air, and once again forcing muscle memory to develop. Then the cramps settled in. Full shutdown. Huge bummer. Johnny was non-plussed. In fact, he saw it three laps earlier, my body scooching back in the seat, movements slowing. This time I pulled in, and retired under the Florida sky eating pasta and popping aspirin.
Day 3: Off to the Trails We Go
Rain was pelting outside when we woke up the third day, so we headed to the universal motorcycling headquarters: Starbucks.
Here we talked strategy, bikes, his current Ducati program, the importance of bike setup, and what separates fast riders from superhuman ones. What comes through is his passion for riding but not necessarily the competition. Where some racers are wound up testosterone machines, Johnny takes pleasure in outthinking the grid, and taking on new challenges, including this school.
This approach would be staring me in the face as the rain died down and the next challenge awaited.
We were headed to the trails and the glory of nature, goody. I’m a garbage trail rider, but the trails would play an important part when heading back to the track. By mixing up the routine with trail riding we amped up the anxiety, built a pressure cooker, highlighted flaws with target fixation, and focused on nailing body position and breathing.
We tackled a small-ass hill, then a big-ass hill. We ran through small whoops then bigger whoops, and then took them faster. We slammed through water, mud, and other organic things. When preparing the mind for going fast, this type of cross training is crucial.
These lessons would pay dividends later.
Day 4: Big Bike Time
The rain would continue to pelt the track throughout the night. On the other side of the clouds, I knew it was waiting for me—the 450 race bike. It was a four-year old Honda CRF450R with all the requisite bits: lowered suspension, flat-track wheels and tires, and that’s about it. The plastics faded from the Florida sun, she was a proud pink picture of former race glory.
This is the short-track chassis of choice. The ideal combination of weight, power, and flexibility, to haul the mail and turn left. It was also crucial I take the lessons of the last few days to bear. A tiny highside like on the TT-R230 would prove exponential in speed and violence on the Honda.
Just like the 230, and the 110 before that, I was less aggressive getting acquainted with the 450, less hellbent-velocity heathen and more twirling princess. Johnny pulled me in after two laps. I feared the worst.
“You’re not getting into the corners fast enough so you can’t rotate it in. Charge in there a little bit and life will get easy. Good news though, I thought for sure I’d already be picking you up so you’re doing great.”
So, I charged. I attempted to breathe, but really didn’t much during that first corner. I just punted and prayed. And it worked, kind of ish. Johnny was amused. Then things started to blend.
Breathe in, throttle, drive it in, breathe out, push it down, breathe in, use the rear to steady it, throttle out, attain glory, and breathe out.
The faster you go, the more the bike communicates, the less you have to push. Front wobbling, rear spinning, the chassis chattering at a high frequency. I was sliding. And in that millisecond of bike, body, and movement all floating, there is freedom, and terror, and nirvana.
We ended the day by learning how to start. Keep the clutch loaded, foot on the rear brake, and your body up on the front, and slowly release and let the world start turning backwards. Do it right and you get the holeshot. Do it wrong and you loop it. And people laugh. Hard. Don’t loop it.
Day 5: Putting it All Together
The last day would be the shortest, but a culmination of every day prior. It was now time for a “race day.”
I was now on the race bike, consistently turning times in the low 20-second range. The race track had gone from a four-foot margin of error in the beginning of the week, to a solid two-foot wide track depending on the line. Johnny was enthused, as was I.
We would now be talking about the fineries of strategy, pacing, calming the body down, stretching. He does this consistently to train, running double the amount of laps at 90-percent effort so he can push even harder during his races.
We discussed the subtleties of starting points, strategically balancing traction, position on the grid, and strategy to get the holeshot. Johnny’s tip: completely focus on your entry point. Try to ignore anyone in your path. This was a particularly aggressive statement that belies the competitive nature of Johnny Lewis.
And on that note we started—nerves jittering against invisible opponents.
Now, It was even more crucial to rely on the muscle memory built up over the last five days, the body position, the control, the braking, relying on formative instincts instead of letting my brain takeover.
And then the “a-ha moments” started. The wiggles that had plagued me just five days ago had less of an effect. I visualized, and understood what the bike was doing and was able to compensate. What seemed erratic and fast had started to slow. The progress I sought had been attained.
We successfully went from not swinging a leg over a flat-track bike, to consistently burning laps. How? By nailing the basics, calming the mind, and adding fast.
I was searching for that “lightbulb moment” the whole trip, where you switch from slow to fast and become a new kind of rider, maybe even a new kind of guy. But it’s not a switch. It’s a continuum. And Johnny takes you through it without you even knowing it. He’s as in-tune with people as he is with his bike—sensing temperament, attitude, and style instantly. In another life he’d be the world’s fastest shrink.
Take the 10 Training class. You will definitely go fast, and definitely have fun. Turns out my initial concept was headed down the right path. Flat track is specially tuned to help you quickly progress on the bike, but there is no magic pill to get fast—that takes time.