20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY IT IS ROCKET SCIENCE
Take one racing legend with a passion for bikes, add in a sprinkling of Derbyshire hospitality and you’ve got the formula for the world’s most successful race school Continued over
For a legend who has stood on the podium of everything from 500GPS to the Isle of Man TT, Ron Haslam looks overwhelmed. “We’re here today to mark an amazing occasion and a phenomenal achievement,” says Honda UK’S top man Nick Campolucci. “We’re talking about helping over 70,000 riders develop their skills and experience the thrill of motorcycles, over an amazing 20 years. No other riding school can rival it for longevity or professionalism.”
He’s right, nothing quite comes close to the Honda Ron Haslam Race School. Since its launch 20 years ago, the school has become a Great British biking institution. It’s a place where all riders, regardless of experience, age or ability, are given direct access to the knowledge of a man who’s taken three world titles, triumphed at the TT, and – after Barry Sheene – has the honour of being Britain’s most successful GP rider. And, as if that wasn’t enough, visitors are expertly guided around Donington Park’s historic curves by a team of hand-picked instructors, themselves current or former racers, on a fleet of brand new Hondas. They’ll even kit you out from head to toe in top-quality riding gear if you need it.
As that afternoon’s intake of school riders get kitted up in the background, the impromptu ceremony continues over the hubbub: “It’s been very hard to come up with a suitable prize to fit this occasion, so the Honda Racing workshop created this trophy – it’s made using engine components from John Mcguinness’ 2015 Senior TTwinning Fireblade.” The unique accolade is handed to Ron and his wife Ann – effectively the team manager behind the race school’s star rider – and both appear lost for words. Like many of the other trophies in the Haslams’ vast collection, this one wasn’t earned easily or without digging deep.
In the mid 90s, after a 170mph Snetterton horror crash racing the Norton in the British championship wound up Haslam’s own racing career, then Honda boss Bob Mcmillan proposed a new challenge – running a riding school on behalf of the Japanese manufacturer, with whom Ron had enjoyed his greatest successes, at Donington Park.
“We were terrified. It was way out of my comfort zone,” Ron admits after the post-presentation handshakes, back slaps and photo calls. “Neither Ann nor I had any experience in business, plus we were on hard times. At first I thought Bob just wanted me to be chief instructor, which was fine as I’d coached riders like John Reynolds back in the late 80s, and also the young Team Britain riders like James Haydon and Karl Harris, as well as instructing at Yamaha’s school. I enjoyed helping people in the paddock, so sharing what I’d learned came easily to me. But then Honda dropped the bombshell, they wanted us to set it up and run it completely – the whole show.”
“We remortgaged the farmhouse – our family home,” continues Ann. “Times were tough and we were facing up to the fact we were probably going to lose the house anyway so, after a lot of agonising and stress, we decided to go for it. And we’ve not looked back.”
With no business plan and little financial guidance but a strong desire to offer everyday road riders the chance to share some of the highs that bikes had brought Ron throughout his career, the school was born in the spring of 1997. Honda supplied a fleet of CB500S, CBR600S and Fireblades for the On Track, Premier and Elite courses, and 20 seasons later it’s all still happening.
Out in Donington’s paddock a swarm of riders as young as 12 are getting their first taste of two wheels on CBR125RS, learning machine control, quick turning, hard braking and even the thrill of what it’s like to be in a race situation, on the school’s On Track course. This is the entry point for the non riders or the very inexperienced, but it’s definitely an eye-opener; having Ron Haslam personally teach you how to pull the biggest stoppie of
‘I enjoyed helping people in the paddock – sharing what I’d learned came easily to me’
your life then bashing elbows with you on a low-speed first-lap race simulation is something you’ll never forget. Young riders are vital to the school.
Ann says: “Nine out of 10 of our customers are road riders who already hold a full licence, but we enjoy teaching the youngsters bike control so they have more understanding of what they’re doing before they get a bike on the road. They’re the future of motorcycling and we need to share with the current generation just how great riding is otherwise we’ll lose them.”
Then, of course, there are the racers – the school’s more tangible success stories. “We had Sam and Alex Lowes (Moto2 and WSB) as youngsters begging us for laps,” says Chief Instructor Adrian Clarke. “It was just playtime for them, but at that age it’s vital tracktime. ‘Can we make you a drink Ady? Can we do anything to help?’ all so we’d give them track time. They loved it. And look where they are now: a World Supersport champion and British Superbike champion.” The Haslams are even responsible for giving a young lad called Jonathan Rea his very first taste of two wheels, now he’s a reigning World Superbike champion, and Cal Crutchlow scratched around on the school’s CB500S before becoming World Supersport champion and a Motogp superstar.
“We’ve also had some pretty big name instructors too,” Clarke continues, “British championship riders and even a few champions: Steve Plater, Michael Rutter, Glen Richards, Matt Llewellyn, Karl Harris, Guy Martin, Billy Mcconnell, Steve Patrickson, Steve Sawford, Mark Phillips... And of course we continue that today with help from riders like BSB stars Taylor Mackenzie and James Westmoreland.”
Yet the school’s greatest racing achievement is possibly the one closest to home, Ron and Ann’s son: GP, WSB and BSB star Leon Haslam. Growing up with the school saw a 13-year-old Leon at the bars of a CB500 lapping Donington with his dad perched on the pillion giving the youngster direct one- to-one instruction. “I loved teaching Leon, but then I love teaching full stop. It’s always best to be out on track with someone when you’re helping them. I hear about some schools sending their riders out while the instructors watch from the sidelines, but I always prefer to be riding with them. I even toyed with the idea of creating a bike where the pupil could steer from the front, and then I’d have control of the throttle and brake from the pillion seat. That way I could show them exactly what I was doing and tell them why. Everyone has the potential to learn, and it’s my job to make it understandable – if I see someone’s not getting it, I’ll just explain it in a different way. I wish there’d been race schools when I was starting out, I would’ve saved myself a lot of painful, unnecessary crashes!”
With Leon having grown up at the school, it seems almost natural that one day he might pick up the reins from his father and continue the school’s suc- cess. “When the day comes that I get too old to do the school, says Ron – who hardly looks a day over 40 never mind a few months off 60, and certainly rides like he’s still in his 20s - “I’d love it if Leon were to continue it. He’s known it his whole life.”
On cue, Leon streaks past the pit wall, a blur of red, white and blue on a brand new Fireblade in road trim, scrubbing in a pair of the school’s Bridgestone T30 sports-touring tyres. He drifts it into Redgate before disappearing off down Craner Curves. “That’s a 1.37 lap!” an amazed pitwall punter says to his mate, pointing at his iphone. “That’s 25 seconds faster than you! Amazing!”
Instantly Ron becomes distracted, looking for where he left his helmet, itching to join his son on track. “Bikes have been my life,” says Ron as he locks eyes with the pharaoh, a permanent fixture on his helmet for most of his career, painted on the back of his Arai. “All I’ve done with the school is to try and help people get the same enjoy-
‘I loved teaching Leon, but I love teaching full stop. Everyone has the potential to learn’ ‘I’d love it if Leon were to continue it. He’s known the school his whole life’
ment out of bikes as they’ve given me – to share that experience of how brilliant bikes are. That’s what I based the school on – just about sharing the enjoyment that I’ve been lucky enough to have. That still is the main aim, to get people to come away from a day on track with a big smile on their face.”
Excusing himself, Ron makes a beeline towards his helmet, fires up a Blade, then beckons one of the school’s guests, who climbs aboard the pillion and takes tight hold of the tank-mounted grab handle. Two minutes later we see them again, powering down Donington’s start/finish straight, the Fireblade on its back wheel, Ron and his pillion clearly having the time of their lives.
“No other racer could do it,” says Chief Instructor Adrian, who’s joined us to watch the show from pit wall. “Noone else I can think of would have the mass appeal, the way with people, the patience and the pure love of bikes, riding and helping people improve as Ron has. Maybe Barry Sheene... but no one ticks all the boxes like Ron does.”