Never Too Old

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

If you’ve heard of Adam Bronfman, you probably know him as one of the heirs to the Bronfman family fortune (which was based in large part on the Seagram’s whiskey empire), or perhaps as the head of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, one of the major philanthropic supporters of Jewish organizations and causes. But to the folks at the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, he’s just another 50-something guy trying to go really fast on a motorcycle.

And what I found particularly interesting about Bronfman is that he offers a near-ideal example of what is possible to achieve when you set your mind on getting good at a particular skill, even if you are starting relatively late in life. And while very few people have the resources that Bronfman has to support their efforts to reach a goal, anyone can learn from his example.

I heard about Bronfman as I was talking with Phil Horwitz, one of the instructors at a motorcycle road racing school founded by Ken Hill. In his late 40s Bronfman, who had been an extreme skier, decided to take up motorcycle riding. He wasn’t very good at first. In fact, Horwitz told me, Bronfman was initially “terrified”—and with good reason. The motorcycles that Bronfman was interested in riding—the types of motorcycles used in motorcycle road racing—weigh about a quarter of a ton, have 100 to 150 horsepower, and can reach speeds of 180 miles per hour or more. An accident is likely to be very painful, if not fatal.

Bronfman began by taking motorcycle classes at the Yamaha Champions Riding School with Hill and Horwitz. But Bronfman quickly decided that the school’s format—classes with some twenty students and four teachers, all of them sharing the track —did not lend itself to the sort of rapid improvement he had in mind. He was looking for more of a one-on-one experience.

So he made Hill an offer: Let’s rent out a racetrack just for us, and you can work with me all day. Bronfman brought his son Josh, and Hill brought along Horwitz, so there were two teachers and two students with the track all to themselves. It’s not the sort of arrangement that many people can afford—just renting the track costs about $15,000 a day, and that doesn’t include the instructors, motorcycles, video cameras, and so on—but it was worth it to Bronfman to get the sort of intense training he wanted.

After this had gone on for a while, with the four of them having regular instructional days, Bronfman suggested to Hill that they start a school. They would open up the classes to a few additional students—no more than a handful—and add instructors so that the student-teacher ratio stayed at one-to-one. That would not only defray the cost of the track, but it would create a different sort of atmosphere, with a small group of intensely motivated students working together to improve. It also allowed Hill and Horwitz, who had still been working at the Yamaha school to quit there and devote themselves full-time to the new elite racing academy, which was named Rickdiculous Racing. (The name came from Bronfman, whose nickname is “Papa Rick.” While the name is rather silly, Horwitz acknowledges, the school’s program is very serious.)

For the past several years Bronfman has been training about 40 days a year, with the school renting a track at one of three places: the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway close to California’s Joshua Tree National Park during February, March, April, and November; the Thunderhill Raceway Park north of Sacramento, California, in May and October; and the Utah Motorsports Campus during the summer months. At the point I spoke with Horwitz in January 2017, Bronfman had been training about 40 days a year for nearly four years. The results, Horwitz said, were amazing. “I’ve never seen another person get that good, that quick.”

In the beginning, Horwitz said, Bronfman was very cautious and worried about getting hurt. So Hill and Horwitz began with the fundamentals, and eventually Bronfman got comfortable with the higher speeds.

The essence of Hill’s training approach is simple. By observing the fastest motorcycle racers in the world, Hill identified certain techniques that they all had in common. His idea was to teach these techniques to other riders so that they would be learning the best available techniques for riding motorcycles at high speeds. Furthermore, Hill developed a step-by-step programs that teaches the techniques in the proper order, since it is important that some of them be learned before others are introduced. The techniques include such things as determining the proper line to take at different points on a course, knowing where to look and when, and knowing when and how much to accelerate and brake.

In working with students, Hill and Horwitz generally start by recording them as they ride a motorcycle around the track and using the video to identify areas for improvement. After having decided on one specific objective for a lesson, they begin in a classroom setting, talking about the proper technique and using the video to show the student what he needs to improve. Next they move to the track, where the student attempts to apply what he was taught, again with the instructor observing and recording. Then back to the classroom for more feedback, and so on. This sort of cycle of practice, feedback, and more practice, all under the direction of a qualified teacher who has a clear idea of proper technique, is at the heart of deliberate practice and is, as readers of Peak know, the most effective way to improve in any area.

It has certainly worked for Bronfman, Horwitz said. “With one-on-one coaching, riding 40 days a year, he has gone from one of the least talented people we’ve come across to being very good.” A key reason for Bronfman’s rapid improvement—which he has accomplished without ever entering a race—is that he is able to practice so much. For most motorcycle riders the only opportunity to practice on closed track comes on periodic public track days where riders pay $300 to $400 to get five 15-minute sessions on the track with 60 or 70 other riders. That is not a particularly good learning environment, Horwitz noted.

Today, while Bronfman might have a difficult time in a racing environment, Howitz said, he has gotten very fast, and his technique is excellent. “He put a tremendous amount of work ethic into getting good, he has very good equipment, and he has a lot of practice time and the best coaching—you put those ingredients together, and you take someone who should not be good at riding a motorcycle and you have someone get good very fast,” Horwitz said. “He’s sort of the poster child, proof that our program works. If Adam can get that good, anybody can get that good.” Or at least anyone who can afford to rent out a raceway complete with instructors, motorcycles, and video equipment 40 times a year.

But the moral to this story is not that motorcycle road racing is a rich person’s sport—it is, but that’s not the important thing here. The important thing is that when you combine a person with a desire to succeed and the discipline to practice hard with an instructor who understands proper technique and the value of the performance-feedback cycle, good things happen. Even if you’re 50 years old and starting from scratch, good things happen.

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