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My First Track Day

To say that I didn’t want to go to my first track day would be an understatement. Life was busy, I wasn’t particularly well at the time and most importantly, I didn’t have the right bike. Sure, I get that you can take any bike to a track day and I’ve seen all matter of motorcycles on the track, but I wanted to take a bike I could really ride on the track. I wanted to take a bike I didn’t care about to the track.

Why? Because for me the track is a learning experience.

That means I don’t want to be worried about what I’m sitting on. I want to know that if I do crash I’ll be more concerned about the mess I made on the track than the motorcycle that made the mess. Sure, crashing anything of any value isn’t fun, but there’s a big difference between crashing a $2000 track bike and crashing what I was going to take to the track.

I have three bikes, my first bike, a 1988 R100GS that has been completely rebuilt, a bike I’ve taken solo to Baja. There’s NO WAY this bike is going on the track. It cannot be replaced. I have a Honda Hobbit… calling it a bike is appropriate considering it has pedals… it goes a whopping 35 mph if I’m lucky and willing to test its miniscule drum brakes. I’m obviously not taking that. So I have one option left. My BRAND NEW 2015 F700GS (adventure). Now there’s nothing wrong with this bike at the track. Frankly I knew it would handle quite well. But again, I really didn’t want to crash the bike and I was worried that my concern about the bike would get in the way of my riding.

This bike was going to the track… minus the hard bags.

But what are you going to do? When someone pays for you to go and it’s your job, you do what you have to do. And frankly, like most things you get pushed into doing, I’m really glad I did.

If you’ve never been to the Ridge, it’s a fairly intimidating track to the newbie. It has a ton of elevation changes, tight turns and a big sweeping turn that reminds me a bit too much of those corners on the road where I’ve thought to myself, “when is this thing going to end” because it went on a lot longer than I had anticipated.

Often the track day starts with a ride around in the back of the truck, stopping at key points to listen to important information. This was no exception.

As we did the ride around in the truck I tried to take a good look at the route again and take in everything we were being told, knowing full well I’d remember precious little of it. People learning remember one, maybe two things at most. I remembered not to go too fast over corner three… that was about it.

The big sweeping corner had me the most worried.

On the street, those long corners were the ones that tend to unsettle me the most. I’ve always been fine. I go back to my training and just push to turn through them, but this was longer than anything I’d done before. Fortunately, I’d spent a tiny bit of time as an MSF instructor and I could go back to what we told students. “Look through the corner.” OK, I’ll do that. Look through the corner. Look through the corner.

Now it’s time to go out on the track. Here we go. We’re going pretty slowly at first, especially those of us who are on the track for the first time. You have no clue what gear you should be in, or how fast to take a corner. I get to the big sweeper, the carousel. “Look through the corner” I do. And it’s a complete cake walk. It wasn’t just easy, it was REALLY easy.

I think to myself “this is SO much easier than you thought it would be” and then instantly hope I didn’t just jinx myself. But really, I’d psyched myself up so much that when I got out there I realized it not only wasn’t hard, it was really simple. Sure, people would pass you, but in general it’s no worse than anything you experience on the road.

And really, THAT is what makes this so easy. Yes, there are blind corners but these blind corners don’t have a dog, or a kid, or a car pulling out on the other side of them. They’re the same every time. Yes, there are tight turns but the entire track is yours to use and there’s no nasty guard rail or cliff or pole there to slam into should you do something wrong.

Ego

When it comes to ego, yes, you might be slower than others at first but if you are slow it just makes you easier to pass and you quickly learn how to play well with others so they can get around you. Plus it doesn’t take long for the track to spread out so you’re not bunched up. Most of the people around you are working on their day, not interested in spending time watching you.

As the day goes on you get better and better at each corner, you learn what gear to be in, you mess with different skills and try new things. Your line improves.

Funny enough, the two places I thought I’d hate were the ones I loved the most. The downhill was super fun because it’s right before the straight. That means you can focus completely on the turns and not have to think about anything else coming up for a while… there isn’t a next corner for quite some time. Plus, as physics would have it, all that downhill force makes you very sticky on good pavement, and it is good pavement. You get to lean over a lot more than you think you can. Sure, you’re probably not pulling a Rossi but as the day goes on you get a bit closer all the time.

The big sweeper, the carousel? With the apex clearly marked for our day, you know where you can twist on the throttle and open it up, even though you’re still leaned over. And what fun to do that! You don’t usually get to do that on the road. The pavement is too suspect, the people around you too unpredictable, and who knows what’s around the corner?

The “right” bike

My (stock) tires at the end of the track day…

Funny enough, at the end of the day I was VERY glad I was on my 700. Having a bike I’m familiar with and a seating position that is comfortable for me meant I pushed myself a lot harder than I likely would have on another bike. More importantly, I was able to learn that I hadn’t even gotten close to the edge of what the bike was capable of, or what I’m capable of, before I had to quit from sheer exhaustion.

I realize that many of you might not be convinced. “I don’t want to go fast.” Guess what? Neither do I. In fact when I came back to the shop folks asked how fast I went on the straight- I couldn’t answer. I don’t know or care and indeed I would regularly just sit up for the straight and rest. Going fast straight isn’t exciting to me. But becoming better at cornering? Being able to learn better what my bike can do and what I can do? That has some great real life applications.

One of the big killers of motorcyclists in our state is riding off the roads in corners. No, not some other driver riding us off the road. Just us, riding off the road because we don’t know how to corner. The skills that I learned and practiced here can save my life.

And how often does that happen? How often do you get to have a lot of fun learning something that will literally save your life?

Jessica Dally/Originally published September 2015 in the Puget Sound Rider blog, republished January 2017 here


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