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Track Days

They're not just for sport riders anymore

Most motorcyclists ride something that falls roughly in the cruiser or standard categories. When the topic of performance riding or track days comes up these riders tend to tune out. But the performance of today's motorcycles is amazing. Many cruisers share brake components with top end sport bikes. Horsepower ratings of standards match those of superbikes from a few years ago. Just about any motorcycle has capabilities that surpass the riders. In the interest of becoming a better rider, a safer rider, shouldn't everyone consider exploring the performance capabilities of the motorcycle they ride on the street for that time when they might need those cornering, braking, and yes occasionally, quick acceleration skills? The place to do this safely is the racetrack and the best way to experience this is a track day.

For sportbike riders, track days should be an easy sell. The motorcycle is in the environment it was designed for, you get to ride as fast as you can handle and you can impress your co-workers with photos of you on the track looking like a real racer. Actually it is more about trying to utilize all the performance that was engineered into your motorcycle in the safest setting.

What does a track day offer no matter what you ride? The opportunity to work on riding skills in a controlled environment at real world speeds. Every guide to riding I have ever read encourages people to work on their braking and cornering at the speeds they ride. Now while you could go out on the freeway and get up to speed for a quarter mile, then brake hard to avoid traffic, followed by cutting across two lanes to make a decreasing radius off ramp, wouldn't it be safer for everyone if you could practice hard braking and cornering on a closed course? Sure the MSF Experienced Rider Course covers cornering and braking but at parking lot speeds. If you have ever ridden on the street at 90mph you need to know how to slow quickly and safely from that speed. At most tracks 90mph is a comfortable beginning speed for the strait, at the end of which you need to slow and turn. The added benefit of being on a track is that you get to see the same corner repeatedly, the pavement is always the same, all the traffic is headed in the same direction and at a controlled track day there is someone to watch and help with your technique.

So is it all about speed? I don't think so. Although if you ride a sport bike you may surprise yourself with the speeds you become comfortable riding at. It's not about competition either. Personally I do not have the competitive spirit. I'm not interested in how fast my lap times are. The challenge for me is satisfying the critic in my head. Once you do a good lap around any track you will know what I mean. Let's say a track has 10 turns and in 20 minutes you can do 8 laps (we're talking beginners here). That's 80 chances to not get things perfect. But be warned that first lap when everything feels right is the hook that will get you to sign up for every track day you can afford.

For most people when they hear the words track day they think of a road race, or an open track day. Really there are several different types of track day, some more appropriate for first time riders or the non-sport bike riders.

  • Open track days where riders of different skill levels can be on the track at the same time, these might include days where riding clubs rent track time.
  • Controlled track days where riders may be separated into different skill groups and control riders will be out on the track, enforcing passing rules.
  • Riding schools, which have a classroom curriculum, riding groups separated by skill level and control riders.
  • Racing schools that provide the classroom and track instruction for a novice racing license.

Locally we are lucky to have several choices of track day organizations; Mike Sullivan Motorcycle Road Racing and Performance Riding School provides a riding school for street riders and a novice race school (www.sullivanraceschool.com). 2Fast Motorcycle Track Days & Instruction offers a choice of riding school or controlled track day (www.2-Fast.org). New to the Northwest is the largest national track day organization NESBA (NorthEast SportBike Association) which provides controlled track days (www.nesba.com). Pacific Super Sport Riders (PSSR) offering track days at Portland International Raceway, Pacific Raceway and Thunderhill Raceway Park (www.pssrtrack.com). Adrenaline Freaks provides controlled track days (www.adrenalinefreaks.com). Cascade Tracktime out of Portland (www.cascadetracktime.com). Many clubs and dealerships sponsor private track days and occasionally national schools such as CLASS or California Superbike School roll through town.

Prices vary depending on what is offered, riding schools tend to be the most expensive, up to $300. While some may feel this is too much to pay for a day of motorcycle riding, I find it hard to put a price on the increased riding skills you come away with. My recommendation is to pay the extra money the first few times and attend a track school until you're comfortable with the track environment, they can offer a level of safety for the beginner that club days can't. Also don't be shy about being a beginner, too many people sign up at the intermediate level because they feel they have been riding on the street long enough. If it's your first time on the track, you're a beginner. If your riding skills are at a higher level, the control riders will move you up once you learn the track.

If you ride something other than a sport bike contact the different organizations and see if they can accommodate your type of motorcycle. This is especially helpful if a group of like motorcycles will be on the track. I have ridden on the track with people riding Goldwings, Harleys of various configurations and big BMW dual sports.

While the track doesn't care who rides on it some people may feel intimidated their first time out. In particular some women feel that they may not be welcome at the track. If you can ride a motorcycle, you're welcome on the track and you'll find everyone there helpful and encouraging. But to foster a more comfortable learning environment the Sullivan Riding School offers a women- only track day that has received very positive reviews.

For tips on what to expect on your first track day and what equipment to bring I would recommend the book Motorcycle Track Day Handbook by Kent Larson, published by Motorbooks International. Along with this I would avoid the temptation to ride to the track. I have seen it done several times, riders on R1s with a three gallon gas can bungied to the tail, untaping the license plate and mirrors to ride somewhere for lunch, but at the end of the day it's a long tired ride home. It's a better idea to trailer the bike and if you can, go along with someone else with a little more experience. As for bike prep no one will ask you to drill and safety wire your chrome bits and you can find duct tape in just about any color these days.

Riding gear required doesn't vary much by organization but verify this before signing up to give yourself time to purchase extra items if necessary. When in doubt, go with those items that provide the most protection.

Try to focus on learning only a few new skills at a time. You should avoid "just riding around the track" but some days are better than others. You may find what I call a learning plateau, a place where you feel you're not advancing along the learning curve or you're missing some part of the technique. If this occurs, don't be shy about asking control riders for help. For me this happened on the second day of a two-day school, I simply could not get any drive out of the corners even though I felt I was on the throttle at the right time. I took a deep breath and decided I would try running slower laps just working on corner entry and I would run one gear lower all around the track. Well that's when I discovered that I had been running at too low an RPM. As a street rider I had never explored the upper reaches of the tachometer. It just never seemed appropriate to wind it out in second gear around town but I found that the motorcycle works much better in the power band and on the street you can use this to your advantage in a hazard-avoidance scenario.

So, what if it's raining? Well this is the Northwest and track days are a business for those who run them so most are run rain or shine. Try to look at a rainy track day as a chance to explore your motorcycles traction in the wet. You will most likely surprise yourself with the speed you can run on street tires in the wet. Just remember to take it slower than you normally would and be smooth with all your transitions. Of course the second or third time it rains on a day you've taken off work to go to the track the novelty will have worn off but like I said this is the Northwest and if you ride on the street you should be used to the rain.

Don't be afraid of taking your shiny new ride to the track and letting it run the way it was designed to, you'll both feel better for it! See you at the track.

Pete "The Bookie" Chartrand/Fall 2005
Photos by Brandon Bones


Pete Chartrand is a regular contributor to "Up to Speed." You can reach him by sending an email to petec@psbc.org . Brandon Bones is a professional motorsports photographer living in Washington State.


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