Inside Rick Johnson and Sebastien Tortelli's Champ Factory 6

Champ Factory Vital Motocross
Mercifully, there's very little classroom time in the school. Nearly everything taught is on the bike. Click any photo in the article for a larger version.

Years ago I had a friend of mine “teach” me how to snowboard. He showed me how to strap in, get on the lift, and…well, that was pretty much the sum of my education. After that, his instruction consisted of staying about 20 feet ahead of me, and waiting for the next crash. Of course, he found this extremely humorous. As I’d get close enough to think that I actually had a shot of catching him (and begin to plan the kind of hurt that I wanted to put on him), he’d laugh and scoot another 20 feet down the hill. Then the routine would start all over again. Basically, it was a long and very painful process.

After many trips to the mountain, I eventually got to where I was pretty good. But rather than learning what to do, I got better by slowly figuring out what it was that I was doing wrong, and eliminating one mistake at a time. It was a completely backwards process.

Now when it comes to two wheels, a lot of my riding background involved BMX and mountain bikes. Sure, I’ve spent a lot of time on motorcycles over the years, and I get all the concepts. Accelerating, braking, turning, jumping, etc. Unfortunately, when I began to head to the track more regularly, not all of my previous experience translated. I was trying to figure it out on my own, but with mixed results. That lead to several injuries, including a couple that required surgery to repair. I felt like I was donating body parts in an effort to get better.

Man, talk about taking the fun out of it.

I got to the point where I’d lost a ton of confidence in what I was doing on the track, to the point of avoiding riding. That’s not a good situation for a guy with dirt in his blood.

Inevitably, I started getting the itch to ride again. The controlled environment of a school seemed like a reasonable plan for easing back into it, and while there are a variety of schools available in the So. Cal. area, the idea of checking out a two-day school at Perris Raceway, where Champ Factory, with Rick Johnson and Sebastien Tortelli seemed particularly interesting. I signed up for one of their two-day classes, and waited for the appointed date.

RJ is a busy guy. In addition to the school, he's still driving CORR off-road trucks, doing things like coaching the KTM Junior team, and running Perris Raceway along with Sebastien and Jeff Nordstrom. They've made lots of really positive changes to the track.

Rick Johnson initially established the MX School of Champions in 1995, but wanted to expand it to working with current pro riders…both to give something back, and for the credibility it would add to his program. When Suzuki Team Manager Roger DeCoster contacted him about working with Sebastien Tortelli, it proved to be an ideal situation, as RJ explains, “I worked with Suzuki for many years, and when Sebastien retired, I needed to duplicate myself. Knowing how much I’d worked with him, and his knowledge, watching him work with guys like Stephane Roncada, or Broc Hepler and guys like that when he was injured, I realized that he was a good communicator; he’s good at translating his feelings when it comes to the bike. I said, ‘Hey, let’s do this together, and I’m just going to bring you in as a partner.’ That’s when the opportunity came up with Perris Raceway (which Sebastien and RJ now run together) and Champ Factory at the same time.” In its current form, the Champ Factory has been in place for about a year.

When asked about the two-day format of the Champ Factory classes, RJ broke it down like this: “I’ve done a lot of different schools, and when it comes to learning, you need more than one day to learn something. The muscle memory is there, and also the knowledge in your head is there. In one day it’s hard to cram everything in. I could get some results, but the riders weren’t retaining it. So I wanted to go to a two-day school so I could keep the attention span.”

“We also work with a couple students on a regular basis. We’ll work with them twice a week, a couple hours a day. Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes it’s more, sometimes less, depending on what our schedules are like. The idea is that we’ll eventually have some full-time (on-site resident student) guys.”

Of course, cost is also a big consideration, and it’s not something that RJ and Sebastien take lightly. “If you think about it, $500 is a lot of money,” explained RJ. But you can’t get your suspension done for $500. You can’t buy a pipe for $500. I feel confident with riding technique and skill, that you can take two, three, four, and five seconds off your lap times. A pipe, and even suspension, will not make you five seconds faster. So that’s where we feel confident about how much we’re charging versus how much you’re getting.”

Using the digital voice recorders to play back comments that Sebastien or Rick had made on each rider's technique worked well. You got instant feedback tailored to each rider.

Eyeballing my classmates the first day, it looked like we had quite a variety of students. There were participants ranging from groms on 65cc bikes, all the way to guys on 450cc, there was a trail bike, and one rider had come from Israel, and he was aboard a rented KTM. Once we started riding, it was also obvious that we had quite a range of skill levels, from beginner to intermediate. I politely ranked myself as a Vet Beginner.

We began the first day with what RJ called flat work…a course laid out using cones in a flat area of the parking lot at Perris Raceway. That way you could concentrate on the fundamentals of braking and cornering, without worrying about the obstacles on the course. RJ and Sebastien had a good system for identifying the components of each technique, labeling them as A, B, and C. This is something that RJ has used effectively while teaching a group of Special Forces guys, who he labels the best learners around.

By breaking the techniques down into A, B, and C components, it made it easy for Rick and Sebastien to comment on a particular portion with no confusion. The same went for cornering. Each rider would get a couple practice tries, and then RJ and Seb would watch and comment on what each rider needed to change or work on, using a pair of digital voice recorders. We were assigned a particular order to follow, and then lined up in that order when we finished. By playing back the comments afterward, you got immediate feedback tailored specifically to you. As RJ explained, “With the recorders, that’s the unique thing that no one else does. That’s why I feel confident in having ten riders per instructor, and I’m not just sapping people for money. Once we get over ten riders, we go to a double coach format. If we go over 20 we go to three coaches. The idea with the recorders and everything is that you can work with up to ten riders if you keep moving and don’t screw around too much. I like the size of between six and ten, because when there’s that many, I seem to be more precise, more to the point and move on.”

"We’re coaching each person individually. So really, it’s a day-long private lesson. It’s not like the other schools, where a rider does a jump and then they categorize everybody. It’s like you do two runs and I talk to you. I don’t care what this pro’s doing, or this pee-wee is doing. I’m going to talk to you as who you are, where you are, and how you’re riding. That’s why I feel confident with what we’ve done with the recorders, because when I hear what I’ve said, I visualize your run.”

Riders in the class ranged from kids on 65cc bikes, to, ah...the more experienced (in age and/or skill). They all worked well together in the format of the class.

As for me, with some simple coaching, I’m visualizing cutting…well, probably not three or four seconds off my lap times, but maybe three or four minutes. I quickly discover that my riding position is more pedestrian than “attack,” and am amazed at how much better my cornering is once I make the necessary adjustments. Now I just need to work on, say…attaching a bungee cord from the front of my helmet to the front number plate, and make modifications on my, “Lazy leg,” as Ricky likes to call it. (I need to keep my leg tucked up high under the handlebar.)

Over the rest of the time we swap back and forth between instructors, and work on a variety of other techniques including starts (from both dirt and concrete), rutted corners, and practice sliding (along with body position and throttle control) on the flat oval at Perris. Having Sebastien and RJ not just instructing, but also riding alongside gives you a quick visual of the right way to do things. “He looks at something, I look at something else,” explained RJ. “He’s focusing on hands, and I’m focusing on feet. He’s focusing on body position, I’m focusing on powerband, so it’s always a little bit different. But I’m confident that the way he communicates is the way I communicate. Our goal is the same. We say the same thing, but with different accents.”

Sebastien and/or RJ would regularly demo techniques...

...and help correct the student's technique as well.

Jumping has always been my weak point, and during the class I was struggling with a tabletop that was embarrassingly short (kids on 65cc bikes are clearing it with ease). But while the 65cc pilots are at an age where they’re still mostly fearless, for me, in my late 40s, the idea of having to be at work the next day makes it awfully easy to roll off the throttle, Sebastien has promised to tow me over it. In his French-accented English I hear, “Stay as close to me as possible, and match my speed.” Through my goggles, about all I can see is the number 103 on the back of his jersey. But as he clicks his KTM into gear, and heads for the jump, I match his actions, and stick close behind. The first time couple times I still come up a bit short, but on the final time, as promised, we float over the top. It may be a small jump, but it feels like a big achievement. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Having the two different instructors is cool. Having two instructors with more than nine AMA National, Supercross and World titles between them is stellar. Both guys were also very approachable and easy to talk to.

Later on, I ask Ricky what riders are looking for when they attend one of the Champ Factory schools, and he’s quick to answer, “Confidence. Confidence, and answers to their questions. ‘Why should I do this,’ or, ‘Why should I do that?’ But I think a lot of people want to come to gain that confidence to clear that jump, to beat that next guy. They’re looking for that little piece of knowledge that’s going to make them faster.”

Then he concludes with, “It’s fun teaching. I love teaching. When you see a guy go around a corner and do something right, that feeling is something you can’t pay for.”

One of the coolest things about the school was the post-course debrief from RJ and Sebastien on what each rider had accomplished, and what they still needed to work on.

All in all, going to this school was something I should have done years ago. I probably would have saved myself a lot of pain, and I definitely would have had a lot more fun.

Following my class, I headed back to the Vital MX offices, and pulled out catalogs from several hop-up companies. Even after a thorough examination, the same proved true for all of them. Sure, they all offered promises of more horsepower and smoother, better-working suspension. But in none of them could I find a part number for confidence. That’s what I found at the Champ Factory, and that was worth infinitely more to me than an extra ten horsepower. I know I’ve just scratched the surface of what I need to learn, but I feel a whole lot better about my abilities, and have a checklist to work from, and to me, that’s priceless.

For More Info on the Champ Factory, and a schedule of upcoming classes, check out


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