Oliver took the 10 acres surrounding his home and converted much of it to a dirt rider’s paradise. Two of those acres are dedicated to the Flat Track Complex, which includes a small oval, large oval, mini-oval/mud track, TT track, chicane track, drill area and pit area. We only got a hint of what lurks down a few of the trails that climb over the rolling hills toward the back of the property, where Oliver says he takes his off-road course students to develop the skills needed for improved trail riding.
Rich and his wife Karin run the school, along with help from their son and a two other instructors, all phenomenal riders and extremely helpful instructors.
(Above) After suiting up, Rich Oliver briefs the riders on what to expect for the days ahead. (Below) If you didn’t know who Rich Oliver was before coming to the Mystery School, the wall of trophies, empty champagne bottles, worn leathers and other racing memorabilia will give you some idea of his talent as a racer.
Converted shipping crates serve as garage space and storage for the multitude of parts needed to keep his fleet of Yamaha TT-R125 and TT-R230 motorcycles in top shape. Prior to arriving at the school, Oliver gets a rider’s height and weight and dials in motorcycle settings. Lindeman Engineering is the suspension sponsor and Motion Pro supplies the tools. Other sponsors include Yamalube, Shoei, Cortech, Wilson’s Motorcycles, Lightshoe and CytoSport, a sports nutrition supplement. Thanks to the sponsorships, riders can rent all the required gear for $30 a day.
Price for the full Two-Day Fun Camp is $649 and sessions start in late February, stretching through the first weekend in July. After a mid-summer pause, to avoid the scorching heat, classes resume in late September and run through December.
Oliver and his family feed the students well, with plenty of water and snacks available during breaks and a big healthy lunch each day. Riders will traipse through the Oliver family kitchen during lunch and enjoy the food out on the back deck, adding to the laid-back, down-to-earth atmosphere of the weekend.They also snap lots of photos and take plenty of video during both days, offering a photo and video CD after the course is complete as part of the registration.
As for the Mystery School moniker, Oliver has two reasons for choosing the name. The first is his racing experience, and observation that successful racers will rarely share knowledge with competitors. Oliver wants to give insight into the mystery, so to speak, of what helped him up his game and become a more successful rider and competitor. The other reason is based on the notion of ancient mystery schools, where a few select students would be chosen to learn subjects in depth, diving much deeper into areas of knowledge than the average citizen. Oliver took that idea of a specialized learning environment and opened it to the masses.
On Day 1 we met Oliver at a small coffee shop in Auberry and escorted to the camp. Once settled, Oliver outlined how the Fun Camp is organized and the training and drills we could expect. We then spread out on the deck and ran through some stretches to prepare for the day. Prior to the camp, Oliver sends out a stretching chart that is as good as gold for riders not used to the physical demands of dirt tracking.
Then it was down to the garage area to suit-up and get acclimated with our bikes. I got on a 230, which was has an electric start as opposed to the kicker on the 125s. That little technological advantage made it nice later on, during the moments after dumping the bike and trying to get back in the action as quick as possible. Beyond that and the displacement differences, the bikes are set up the same, each equipped with a 16-inch Bridgestone Trail Wing 40 rear tire.
We rode out to a portion of the complex where two ovals connect into a figure eight and got our first lessons in body position. Elbow up, body forward, rotate your hips, keep the throttle on until you hit the rear brake while entering the turn, skim your inside foot over the top of the ground and look where you’re going. For the practiced rider these elements flow smoothly, one into the other, in a seamless movement. For some of us, it was a bit choppier during the early going. I earned the dubious honor of being the first rider to hit the dirt during the initial drills.
We practiced left, then right, which proved to be a bit trickier since you were braking and skimming with the same foot. Then it was on to doing figure eights and, finally, Oliver sent four of us out at a time to do figure eights while dodging each other in the cross-space.
This methodology, of building in steps, is the fundamental strategy of the school.
We got to practice our technique further on the small oval and then received instruction on line selection, with Oliver sending students down a longer straight marked with blue tires to execute a left hand turn. We practiced looking for braking markers, and got a feel for how entry affects exit. This was followed by the same exercise going right.
At this point, all the drills are being run in first gear so the next step is to start gaining confidence shifting up to second down the straight and then hammering it down to first on corner entry, utilizing engine braking along with the rear brake to achieve an effective slide round the corner.
Slalom course drills followed, which helped reinforce the need for good line selection and challenged us to fine-tune body positioning as we changed direction from left to right quickly. Later in the day, Oliver led students around some of the different race courses, giving students more time to practice the basics and to get used to riding in tight spaces with others.
The growth from the start of the day to the finish is incredible. Riders who were hesitant and unsure in the morning are pushing to personal limits through race simulations by the end of the day.
After a night digesting the information from Day 1, Oliver provides advice during a roundtable Q&A session the next morning. Riders then head out for more drills, the highlight being group left and right runs on a saturated mud oval. Here is where we became the most conscious of the fine inputs needed to countersteer and control rear wheel slides. We had to spin the wheel up consistently to keep them from getting packed-slick with mud, and the negligible traction available makes you keenly aware of how body position, throttle control and steering inputs affect your cornering ability.
Start line strategy came next. We practiced body position and quick movement up the gearbox to improve our starts, getting four timed runs and a breakdown of our performance after the drill.
Race simulations were then run around the TT and chicane tracks, allowing all the students to perfect the skills they’d been developing over the past day and a half. We also got to slap on a steel boot, which makes skimming the ground in left-handers much more smooth and gives you confidence to push the bike even harder.
After lunch the competition started, with a string of five-lap races on the TT and chicane tracks followed by a 10 lap contest on the TT and a 15 lap contest on the chicane. This is all in preparation for the culminating activity of the Two Day Fun Camp, a 25-lap main event on the combined TT and chicane tracks.
In terms of off-road experience, I came in to the Fun Camp as a novice. The bulk of my time on a motorcycle has been on the street and I’d never done any flat track-type riding. I’d also never raced a motorcycle before, on dirt or street.
The initial drills were simple in concept but as with any new skill, juggling all the steps needed to pull off the moves successfully was a test of thought, and there wasn’t much smooth about my riding early on Day 1. The repetition and practice throughout both days allowed those concepts to sink in, to become more natural and by the end of the second day there were pieces of the puzzle that were no longer conscious thoughts, but reflex movements.
It’s an immense confidence boost to feel like you can push yourself to go into a corner faster, to brake later, to lean harder. Add to that the thrill of being in competition, having to navigate the course with other riders, planning passing moves or riding with the fire after being passed is an immensely addictive and wonderful experience. During one of the 10-lap prep races I managed to slip ahead of the pack early and take the lead. It’s what I imagine heaven must feel like; pushing hard enough to stay ahead and riding smooth enough to avoid a needless mistake, approaching a lapper or two and passing successfully on your way to the checkers. Everything clicking, everything flowing. I have Rich Oliver’s instruction and the Fun Camp to thank for that experience, which is something I’ll carry with me forever. I finished mid-pack in the 25-lap main, but the post-race euphoria was there all the same.
I never would have imagined, while picking myself up from the ground during our first left-hand drill, that I’d be pushing myself like I did when we were racing. The growth in skill for everyone throughout the weekend was inspiring and a testament to the effectiveness of Oliver’s approach to teaching flat-track skills.
The personal growth I experienced was made even better by the atmosphere. Oliver and his wife Karin are two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and are genuinely excited when a student improves a skill and takes a step forward in the course. The location is beautiful, the weather (in April) was a perfect 80 degrees and the tracks were challenging without being overwhelming. I also want to thank the group of riders that came out for the weekend, for the great competition they provided and for the respectful nature they showed when I or another rider was splayed out on the track, scrambling to get back to action.
There are a lot of really great reasons to consider spending a weekend at Rich Oliver Mystery School’s Two-Day Fun Camp. You’ll improve your skill as a motorcyclist and refine the reflexes that react when you break traction, vital instincts whether you ride on the dirt or the street. You’ll have a chance to race some amazingly fun dirt track courses designed by one of the most successful AMA 250 Grand Prix riders in history, a man that trained under and rode for Kenny Roberts, logged two undefeated seasons in a row in 1996 and 1997 and whose race experience spans Superbike, Supersport, GP, Formula USA and more. All this in an incredibly inviting, encouraging and down-to-earth atmosphere.
Check the Rich Oliver Mystery School website for available Fun Camp dates. Then get out there by whatever means possible because, I promise, you’ll have the time of your life.