Photos by Mitch Bynum/Courtesy of Bridgestone

Riding a dirt bike is like a foreign language to me. I can spit out a few words and phrases but for the most part I’m winging it. Even though I’ve been riding motorcycles for over 30 years, opportunities to ride dirt bikes have been few and far between. As far as formal instruction goes? Nada. Experience? Poquito. Desire to learn? Mucho!

So when Bridgestone Motorcycle USA invited us to join them at Texas Tornado Boot Camp (TTBC) for four days of spinning laps in the dirt, I was over-the-top excited. It’s not every day you get to rub elbows with a two-time World Superbike champion, let alone learn a few tricks of the trade from him. Like many racers, long before Colin Edwards began road racing at the highest levels of the sport he was sliding around in the Texas dirt. Edwards has assembled an all-star cast of coaches at his Texas Tornado Boot Camp. Lead instructor Joe Prussiano is a three-time Pikes Peak 450 Pro Champion (2008, 2009, 2010) and in 2006 was the Texas Flat Track series Open Pro Champion. Shea Fouchek, aka “Fooch,” has competed in just about every motorcycle racing discipline, from motocross to Arenacross to flat track, and was an AMA Pro road racer for top-shelf teams like M4 Emgo Suzuki and Erion Honda. I swear Cory West started racing flat track not long after learning to walk. Like Fooch, West has earned his stripes competing in AMA Pro road racing with Vesrah Suzuki and M4/Team Hammer and has served as a test rider for Erik Buell Racing.

Thanks Bridgestone for inviting us to come and play in the dirt with you. Colin Edwards has assembled a top-notch crew of instructors at his Texas Tornado Boot Camp. 

The braap-braap-braap of Yamaha TT-R125’s echoed in the distance as we piled out of the van at the Texas Tornado compound. The other half of our group who had arrived earlier that day were already spinning laps on the nearest track, one of three tracks at the camp. The wooden facades and pillared porches of the Tornado Saloon and Hotel had Spaghetti Western charm, and as I sauntered through the swinging door I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d be “The Good, the Bad, or the Ugly.” Stepping inside, the gravity of those who have twisted a grip here before me weighed heavily. The jerseys tacked to the wall above the stairs is an all-star list - #8 Langston, #27 Roberts, #5 Johnson, #77 Ellison, #93 Colton, #27 Stoner. On the wall opposite it is a montage of photos from past classes and special guests, including a picture of Edwards' former MotoGP teammate Valentino Rossi decked out in a yellow #46 jersey getting sideways on the Texas clay. In the presence of such moto greatness, my gut tells me I’m going to be “the Ugly.”

Since our group had arrived at camp a little late, we were pretty much thrown into the fire. After signing the standard waivers, I dug into the black gear bag they had waiting for me. Texas Tornado Boot Camp provides everything you need to battle the Texas dirt – Arai helmet, Spy goggles, SIDI boots, Leatt Neck Brace, a back and chest protector, and Fly Racing jersey, pants, elbow and knee armor. I geared up like a gladiator, the 300-foot dirt track beneath the behemoth tin roof my Colosseum, a TT-R125 my sword. The little Yamahas run a unique wheel combo, a knobby Bridgestone M23 on the front and a Bridgestone Battlax BT45 on the rear. The BT45 is actually a front tire built for the street. TTBC runs it on the rear to assist in their goal of teaching people how to ride “at or over the limit of traction and being comfortable with it.” The Yamaha’s are also outfitted with special Akrapovic exhaust, the only ones in the world for the TT-R according to Fooch. Having never put on moto gear I put my elbow and knee pads on over my kit, waddled more than walked with the weight of the boots, and looked more Monty Python than Russell Crowe. Verily, I bravely hopped on my trusty mount and set about the duty of spinning dusty laps.

I thought the main track was a typical flat track oval. It wasn’t. There were sweepers, left-handers, right-handers, and even a downhill, off-camber turn. Short straights provided just enough of a window to row through a couple of gears. I focused on familiarizing myself with the motorcycle, the little Single providing enough power to break the rear loose, the brakes stout enough for scrubbing speed, the ergonomics tight for a guy my size. The off-camber turn was already notching its belt with victims who challenged it by coming in too hot. Undeterred, the more I lapped, the braver I got, caught up in the thrill of chasing other riders. Wasn’t long before I got my first taste of Texas clay on the big sweeper at the opening of the arena, lowsiding at the corner’s exit. After I stopped rolling, I hopped up quickly, dusted myself off, and hopped back in the saddle. The gear had done its job, and besides a little skin off my inner elbow I was no worse for wear. I spun a few more laps before pulling in for the evening. I’d already practiced enough bad riding habits for one day. Besides, dinner time was quickly approaching and I was eager to learn how to ride the right way.

Woke up the next morning and my legs were already a bit sore. Downstairs the camp cook had eggs and bacon hot and ready for our hungry crew. They feed you good, hearty meals at Texas Tornado Boot Camp, which is a good thing because every time I got done riding I was ravenous. After breakfast, everybody geared up and got ready for the first day of drills. I even put my elbow and knee pads beneath my jersey and pants this time (thanks David Mongrain!). I was already making strides.

We kicked off the day with drag races. But the race wasn’t about who could cross the finish line first. It was a competition to see who could stop first between the two white lines drawn in the dirt on the opposite side of the arena that were a little wider than a wheel’s length apart. The drag races aimed to teach us to use brake markers and helped us learn the capabilities of the TT-R’s brakes. I learned all right. In an overzealous moment after a mad dash I grabbed too much front and took a trip over the bars. The little Yamaha’s brakes have better bite than I expected. Lesson learned. The races started out head-to-head, but grew to three-wide, then four. It was a great way to start the day and get adrenaline pumping.

The next drill focused on corner exit. Unlike most riding schools, Texas Tornado Boot Camp teaches corner exit first and corner entry last. The tires were staggered and tightly spaced and I was a hot mess trying to weave around them, but near the end of the drill I strung together a couple of decent runs. Not great. Decent. It did teach me to keep my eyes up and looking through the turn, helping to break the tendency many of us had, eyes down and focused directly in front of us.

When the instructors said we’d be doing a one-handed drill next I thought they had a screw loose. Managing the dirt with two hands was challenging enough. But yes, riding with one hand on the throttle and the other on the tank was indeed our instructions. Turned out, this was the most beneficial drill for me yet. It taught me to snug up to the tank, square up my shoulders, and to use my legs and core in turns. While they had discussed body positioning the first night after dinner, this was the first time it really sunk in. The one-handed drill boosted my confidence ten-fold.

After morning drills we had the option of doing some free-riding to practice what we’d learned or chilling before lunch. That’s part of the beauty of Texas Tornado Boot Camp. The schedule isn’t strictly regimented and they give you the option to do things at your own pace. With new-found confidence, I opted to put in more laps, riding until I was dripping from sweat from an unseasonably hot Texas day in the high 90s, at which point I pulled in and pounded down a couple bottles of water.

In between the morning and evening session, Colin Edwards breaks up the program with some target-shooting fun. We popped off some rounds with both a 9mm and a 1911 .45, then did some skeet shooting with a shotgun. Shooting skeet was another first, Colin emphasizing it was a “reaction” sport, and the wisdom he imparted rang true because the faster I picked up targets in my periphery, the higher the likelihood I hit the moving target.

That evening I had my first shot at superpole. Each day of the camp riders run one timed lap on a course that combines sections of all three tracks. The group that arrived at camp early had a slight advantage because they’d already run one superpole session and had established a time to beat. Because that’s the premise of the timed lap, it’s a way to gauge what you learned. If drills clicked, times dropped. I had put in quite a few laps that day and felt fairly confident as I rolled up to the line, but admit there were some butterflies with 25 other riders watching you, including world champion racers. I got a decent start, navigated the first big sweeper smoothly, attacked the first bend on the throttle, then got on the brakes above the entry to the off-camber turn. Heading down the turn, I washed out, a combination of bad body position, a shitty line and loose surface taking me down. I popped up almost as quick as I went down, jumped on the bike, and throttled up the backside of the turn. Frustrated at biffing on my superpole lap, everything I had learned earlier that day went out the window and I struggled through the rest of the course, finishing with a time of 1:45 and a spot at the bottom of the list.

The next day a sore lower back joined the soreness in my legs. Riding dirt bikes is both full contact and a full body workout. A hearty breakfast put fuel in my tank as another day of drills and riding awaited. The first drill of the day though happened to be an hour-long endurance race. Teams of three were formed, and each rider did two 10-minute stints. Instructors combined the top two courses in a configuration we’d never run before to level the playing field. It was an absolute blast. Racing helped me do less thinking and more riding because during superpole I was guilty of thinking too much instead of riding and relaxing. Following the lines of faster riders who passed me helped in both corner entry and exit. Competing in my first off-road race is another first I can cross off my list.

More learning followed racing, from a neutral throttle drill which teaches how to keep power at the ready mid-corner to a corner entry drill that emphasized setting up a little wider so you don’t exit so wide. The 90-degree drill was the killer, though, and was the only drill we were allowed to use the clutch on. Riders gassed it toward a tire, braked hard to get the back to slide while clutching in, pushed the bike down hard into the turn, then punched the gas so that the back end broke loose and slid around the tire before snapping back in line. Good in theory, hard in reality. Talk about a workout, this drill kicked my ass. Probably because I was picking up my bike repeatedly. But it serves its purpose. It shows you how to square up a turn like the pros do, and during superpole watching Cory and Fooch slide sideways into a turn, square it up, then get on the gas is poetry in motion.

After a solid morning of riding and racing, it was time again to relax with some time on the range. This go-round the ante was upped with a shooting competition comprised of five stations - shotgun skeet shooting, pump shotgun target shooting at both stationary and airborne targets, shooting at a five-point star target with a 9mm, silhouette shooting with the 1911 .45, and one long-range rifle shot. And it’s timed, so you have to hustle from station to station. Who’d have thought shooting guns could be such a good way to wind down after a hard riding session, but it is. Leave it to the Texas Tornado to come up with such a crazy combination of fun.

That evening we gathered again for superpole. This time though they filmed our lap. Colin’s young son Hayes, who’s fast as f*@k, trailed us with a GoPro mounted on his helmet. No pressure, right? This time I was determined not to crash, especially being filmed. I got a slow start, didn’t attack the first turn very hard, took a few bad lines, and overall rode a little tentatively. I didn’t crash, though, and improved my time by seven seconds to 1:38 but was still at the bottom of the list because everybody else had improved, too. That night during dinner they played the video of our runs while we ate which helped tremendously because you're able to dissect your lap and see where you were strong and where you made mistakes.

The final day the team switched it up a bit. Some of the guys had to leave early that afternoon so we started the morning with superpole. We got about a half hour to free ride on any of the three tracks to warm up, and then it was on. During the evening superpoles the track dries up and it’s easy to get loose in some of the turns. Holding the final superpole in the late morning, the track was still nice and tacky from the morning watering and I was one of the first riders up. When Colin said go I banged through the first three gears quickly and carried a little more speed into the first sweeper. I got through the dreaded downhill, off-camber turn smoothly, and continued to push a little harder. I made the tight transition to the bottom track more fluidly than ever before and did a better job of hitting lines in corners. I crossed the finish line at 1:35.09, shaving three seconds off my run the evening before. Felt good when Fooch came up and said he “saw a little charge in me.” Another rider gave me props for a smooth run, which also broadened my smile. One-by-one riders lined up and left it all on the track, and everyone cheered for one another as we returned to pit row as camaraderie levels were high. The biggest ovation went to Bridgestone’s Sr. Sales and Marketing Manager Jared Williams who lopped 11 seconds off his lap time in the final superpole. Before attending Boot Camp, Jared had never ridden before but every day he went out and gave it his all, going well beyond his comfort zone. He deservedly won the “Most Improved Rider” award. Afterwards, William’s offered this sage advice.

“Don’t get discouraged, things come around.”

But don’t think it was all fun and games. The battle between the five fastest guys for first place was intense with 0.32-seconds separating first and second, the winning rider posting a blistering 1:21.78 lap. At the end of the session I was stoked to see that I’d moved up a couple spots on the leaderboard.

We celebrated the last superpole by squeezing off a round with a .50-caliber rifle. The gun is so big it looks like a movie prop. If you’ve never stood close to a .50-cal. when it triggers, the explosion will take your breath away and will definitely get your heart racing. Luckily, Colin had it set up on a stationary shooting bench and the kick wasn’t near as bad as anticipated and my shoulder is still in one piece. The Texas Tornado gives everyone the shell from the round they popped off as a memento because it’s not everyday you get to shoot a .50-cal. Cross another first off the list.

Say hello to my little friend. Shooting .50-cal's is stupid fun! 

With most of the campers packed up and headed back home, I hung out in the shop with Joe P, Cory, Fooch, fellow camper Twigster and Bridgestone’s Andrew on my last night in town as the Texas Tornado crew put in a new head gasket in Fouchek’s TT-R. We swigged off a bottle of Fireball, swapped stories, dished dirt and filled the shop with laughter. It was the perfect way to wrap up my Texas Tornado Boot Camp experience. Get a little liquor in him and that Joe P’s quite the character! At the end of it all, I was far from the fastest, but the experience was invaluable. I now speak the language of dirt bikes more fluently. Since I’ve been home I’ve been telling Boot Camp tall tales to anyone who’ll listen, eyes wide and my voice fluctuating like a revving engine, and for the last week I’ve been waking up wishing I had another crack at superpole.