Can Akkaya stands in front of a group of rapt listeners at a local dealership that has the marketing savvy to invite people like him to talk about what they know about motorcycles.
In Can’s case, that would be racing. He’s a former MotoGP guy who was riding as fast as he could at tracks across Europe back in the mid-80s and early 90s. So when he says he can tell how a rider rides by how he walks up to his bike, you better believe him.
I caught up with him a few weeks later to get a better idea of how a guy of Turkish and German background ended up running his Superbike Coach riding school on a small track in Stockton, California. For anyone unfamiliar with this small city, it had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country during the real estate meltdown. The former mayor is facing felony charges of profiteering, embezzlement, misappropriation of public funds and grand theft. It makes the news in ways it usually doesn’t want to. In other words, it’s not an area a former European MotoGP racer would typically want to call home.
To understand how Can got here, you have to go back to his youth in Germany where he followed the rules and got his moped license when he turned 16. At 18, he got a license to ride bigger bikes and found he liked, make that loved, to go fast.
Two years later, he was riding his Honda CB750 Bol d’or “going crazy” in the canyons near the infamous Nurburgring racetrack when fate would step in.
“I was racing a guy and we eventually both pulled over. He said, ‘you have to come to Zolder in Belgium and race. You’d be faster than my brother and he’s a racer.”
Can points out that Zolder was part of the MotoGP circuit then and was one of those “badass tracks with close turns and lots of hills.”
So Can takes the guy’s suggestion, and despite having no racing experience, crew or gear, he shows up for a track day. He takes the story from here.
“I ride up in my jeans and sports shoes. Dropped off my girlfriend at the pits. All I had was an extra liter of oil because the bike ate it like fuckin’ crazy. First time out I was going too fast. Crossed through the gravel. Then went over a bridge and hit a hill and landed past that on one wheel. Some guys pass me and point at my jeans and sport shoes and laugh. But guess what? After 10 or 15 laps, I was the fastest guy on the track. I get back to the pit and my girlfriend comes up and says, ’you’re nuts!’”
Can didn’t deny it.
From there, Can’s race career could best be described as haphazard. As an amateur he had a lot of “fucked up gear and didn’t know anything about race tires or suspension.”
“I was always the bad ass and enjoyed being the underdog. But I couldn’t get over my ego. I made bad decisions as to the direction my career could go. I made lots of mistakes in the beginning that slowed me down.”
He admits he didn’t practice a lot. He didn’t think he needed it. He would, in his words, get on a bike and “kick the shit out of it.”
Can makes a lot of references to being a badass when he was younger. That doesn’t come from just anywhere.
“My dad was that way. Here’s an example. When I was about six, I came home with a scraped knee. Almost down to the bone. He picks me up, takes me into the bathroom and pees on it. He did that kind of thing a lot when I was a kid.”
Today, some might call that abuse, but the word never comes up as Can thinks about how he was raised. Instead, he acknowledges the gratitude he still feels toward both of his parents for understanding the love he had for motorcycles and racing. His dad did buy him his first bike.
Though Can said he was late to racing compared to other European racers his age, he eventually picked up a sponsor. A guy who owned a Yamaha dealership near where Can lived. His first race was in 1985 at, of all places, Nurburgring before they built the new grand prix track.
“Here’s how it worked. If you weren’t in the top 45, you went home. There were over 120 in my class (250cc) trying to qualify. My sponsor looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure you can do this?’ They changed out the engine and it was basically underpowered. It started raining and I didn’t have rain tires. I still took 22nd overall. My sponsor was thrilled. But I was pissed I didn’t finish higher.”
Later, Can had a chance to pick up a bike that five-time world champion, Tony Mang had owned.
“That bike was so reliable. It was good for me, because things started picking up for me from there.”
Yamaha started watching him at the same time Can began showing up on the podium. Eventually, Yamaha sponsored him for a time, and then he joined the Honda Racing Corporation team.
“I literally raced whatever they put me on, even though I wanted to go with the 250s and later 500s. There were a lot of good German riders back then. The German championships were like a fork in the road. You win there, you go up. If you lose, you go down.”
Can said he had a lot of problems on the main Honda bike he raced. That led to a lot of bad starts and few if any podium finishes.
“My forward momentum was broken. If a guy passed me, I’d hold up. I wouldn’t go after him. That was in ’92. I tried to make a comeback the next year, but Honda wasn’t that impressed. I tried one more year, but had a bad crash on a turn. It was the first time I ever thought, ‘I’m dying now.’ I couldn’t forget that. I couldn’t see the big picture anymore. My competitiveness was gone. I was broken.”
So Can left racing. He picked up golf. Hung out with different race teams. And eventually gave racing one more try. But it was more like a closure than a second try.
“I went to a no-name race in Poland just to try it. I won with a 20-second lead. But the world opened up to me and I realized I had to move on. I raced for five years as and amateur and five as a pro. That’s a short time compared to a lot of the racers who are still racing today and were back then.”
For a time, he said he avoided watching races on TV, didn’t go to see them, and didn’t even own a bike. He and his wife Marion traveled. Can got a job as a purchasing agent for an ISP company in Cologne. Life was good. But nothing lasts forever and Can eventually found himself back on the track, but in a different capacity.
“I started coaching racers in Europe. I was getting offers to get back into racing. But I didn’t want to. There was a Swiss company that asked me to design a school and that go me into teaching.”
But what Can was really looking for was a big change in scenery. He and Marion had been to California in 1996, not long after he quit racing, and they fell in love with it vowing to move there one day. Twelve years later, they made good on that promise and came to the U.S. with their four-year old daughter, Jill, and everything they hadn’t sold or given away. They now call the Sacramento-area home.
A chance encounter at the Department of Motor Vehicles set him on his current path.
“When I went to get my motorcycle license after we moved here, there was a guy who didn’t pass. I realized as I was talking to him that shouldn’t have been a surprise. He didn’t really know much. I realized he probably wasn’t the only one. So I decided to start teaching street riders.”
This was before Can found the Little 99 track near Stockton and several others in Northern California, including Laguna Seca and Thunderhill, where he now teaches cornering, knee down and pulling the perfect wheelie.
“A friend of mine took me out to the Little 99 on my Supermotard, and I thought this is the perfect place to teach street riders.”
For $119, you get a full day of instruction, and it doesn’t make any difference what you ride in, as long as the rubber’s good and you tape up your turn signals and headlight. Showing up in good protective gear is a given, but full leathers are optional. Considering, most daylong instruction of any kind on a track can be double or triple that cost, that’s a deal.
“What I’m really doing is teaching people how to analyze their fears. Why am I stinking in left turns? All of the stuff I was using to make myself a better rider.”
Can may have taken himself out of racing and turned to coaching, but you can tell he still craves the speed. While that Supermotard will go fast enough, Can has a 2006 Yamaha R1 he’s turning into an M1 replica. One can almost sense his anticipation of what it will feel like to get it on a track.
“Stuff like this keeps me moving. I watch racing now, but from the standpoint of a coach. I see what’s good and bad in all of the racers, and that means I don’t have any favorites.”
There’s a bit of wistfulness when Can says this. You know he looks back on a career that could have gone a lot of different ways had a clutch worked better, had he gotten past his ego and asked more questions. He might have approached his career as a badass, but he’s made the most of that career today, and anyone who attends one of his courses and lets Can do his coaching thing will probably be a better rider for it.
All you have to do is come to the crazy little city of Stockton, California. Who knew?