Wednesday, August 12

My first Track Day!

Three events have converged nicely to hone my riding skills. First, on July 26, I took an advanced street riding strategies class that stressed better braking, proper cornering and entry speed, and using lower body action to become a maximally efficient rider. Second, about a week later I came across an excellent book, Riding in the Zone: Advanced Techniques for Skilled Motorcycling, that I’m planning to review soon. Third, I was approached to participate in my first Track Day (TD) event.

I had planned to do a TD before the end of this ride season. Then on Saturday, while in Motoworks to retrieve my SV650, I ran into Johnny, the owner who asked me when I was going to participate in their TD. I said I wanted to and had planned to—sort of. This has been my response now for several years. He asked what I was doing Sunday, the next day. Actually, work had made me cancel my trip, so I was relatively free(er). He sprang it on me that the Motoworks sponsored TD would commence with a Sunday dinner gathering at Gingerman Raceway on Monday in South Haven, MI. Although caught a bit off guard, it didn’t take much to convince me that it was time to do Johnny's TD. I had one tentatively scheduled for September at the Autobahn in Joliet--but what the heck…

Had a nice, hot and sweaty ride up to South Haven on Sunday. Only the last 30 minutes of the less than 2 hours ride turned dark and rainy with an added benefit of a cooling wind. The dinner at Clementine’s was a chance to see familiar faces (the Motoworks staff) and meet a few new ones. “Thanks” to Johnny for picking up the dinner tab for the whole group.

Monday, 7:30 a.m. check in at Gingerman Raceway. The day began with registration, high energy snacks, bike prep and inspection, and track staff introductions. The event was taught by the folks at The instructors all seemed highly skilled and unquestionably competent. They were an engaging bunch and full of clear and easy to instructions to share. I was impressed with how accessible the instructors were. I appreciated that they emphasized safety above all else and underscored that the tone of the day was not about racing but about improving one’s skills at cornering and its related components. After introductions and spelling out the rules of the day we were ready to roll.

(Beemers were out in full force)

We were separated into groups by skill level. One of the neat things about this TD was that it was low keyed and non-competitive. About half of the participants were new, either never having done a TD or having only one under their belt. This made for a dynamic group, in my opinion. All told, there were around 50 riders with half being “advanced” TD riders and the other group consisting of varying levels of “Novice.”

Prepping the bike is quite interesting. Everything that could send a signal to the rider and those around him or her gets taped. This includes all lights, speedo and tach. Initially this seems rather extreme but soon the “why” becomes clear. One doesn’t need distractions on the track. Moreover, not having this information forces one to rely more on the brain and other sensory cues. Deflating the tires to 30lbs also made sense in that doing so increases the tire contact patch, which puts more rubber on the road.

Classroom meetings: Each ride session was approximately 30 minutes followed by a classroom meeting. In class, we listened and learned things about the track, heard strategies for maintaining clean lines, and asked for assistance on specific track challenges. We learned about tricky corners and how to enter and exit them; we even heard a bit of physics on how bikes behave when leaned, when given more or less throttle and how body action works for or against one’s efforts. Bright orange cones, located throughout the track were demystified and explained as more than place holders but as valuable pointers for executing turn-in and noting an apex; we learned to use visual cues as aids in honing our developing cornering skills.

The Track layout: We began by following our instructor, whom we shadowed on the inner line, the outer line, and then the race line of the track. Each line requires an adjustment on how good cornering is accomplished. I found some of my pre-lunch runs better than some of the later ones. Adrenaline might be the reason. I had made goals the night before that this was going to be about my own improvement. Nothing more. Nothing less. I will never be the fastest rider on the road. It’s not a goal I covet. I do, however, want to be highly skilled and competent on the road, to be in control no matter the road challenges I’m likely to encounter. So, I happily settled in or near the back of the queue for my group.

The track is fast—or so it seemed to me. The ground, which I should not have been looking at, whizzed by at shockingly extreme speed, which was mostly mental as I never got out of third gear—but I never ran in third gear THAT fast and THAT hard before! Regardless of the actual gear the bike was in, we were moving FAST!  The speed definitely required one’s full concentration as the track’s challenges were inspiring, surprising (at times) and ongoing. Getting lazy in any one area could lead to trouble down the road, so to speak. Although the 30 minutes time slots on the track always seemed to fly by, being in the zone, in such an intense way demanded huge chunks of physical and mental energy. Remaining focused, hydrated and responsive on such a hot day, added to the TD demands.

On the track, some turns/corners seemed effortless but it was not something one could count on. One easy corner turned out to be a tricky set up for the more challenging ones down the track. I learned early on that the corners could never be taken in isolation. One had to consider the track as a whole. Corners are linked in that how one enters one corner can make or break the next. In other words, it was necessary to set up properly for corner "A", because it could determine how one handled corner "B" and so on. That’s not to say one can't make corrections. But it does say that it’s easier to do the cornering correctly so that the road doesn’t become one big struggle to survive each turn. The only way to deal with this well is to ALWAYS be looking ahead, always be aware of what is coming up on the road so that you can set yourself up properly. For those blind corners, well, if you're in the correct position on the track/road, you can even handle these blind corners well by being in a good lane position to act swiftly when you finally can see around that corner. Constant scanning is exhausting work as is being on high-alert every minute of a ride.

(Some of Motoworks' staff)

One of the biggest lessons I learned was trusting my bike to execute my input. As someone with a huge investment in my brain, I tend to deliberate before I’m willing to commit to an action. Motorcycling often requires quick judgment. Yet, some things seems counterintuitive. Like counter steering. In the early days of learning to ride, counter steering seemed (b)ass (a)ackwards. Now, I can’t imagine why that concept once gave me pause. On TD, I realized that while I have no problems leaning, I was not as quick to roll through all corners—particularly at the more extreme lean angles--I was conservative at best. The thought of giving it more throttle at such times seemed crazy. I learned that this inability almost always meant that I had entered the corner too fast to begin with! The bike behaves better when one can enter the corner a tad slower, start the lean and roll completely through.  On baby, moderate speed corners this was a non-issue. But on faster corners, that came at me in a flash, and required sharper leans even a split second of hesitance is not good. I began trying to decidedly and consistently roll through each corner, more and more, and by the afternoon, I got it. This is huge for me. I thought of my Suzuki SV650 with its light weight and high fun factor and realized that it would be a perfect TD bike. I made a mental note to use it next time. I must admit, I had to shake off thoughts of damaging my ST. Perhaps that’s good for it kept my focus totally on the task a hand, so much so that I think I gave myself a headache by the afternoon.

I marveled at the advanced group. I saw people dragging their knees. I saw people who looked like they were sitting on the side of their bike they were hanging that far off the seat. I’m not sure I ever what to join their ranks but I leaned farther that day than ever before on my bike and I am confident in trusting it to respond to inputs from my throttle, handlebar and body shifts.

Throughout the day, the classroom continued to be a place of wise instruction and check in on the track experience. I asked a question about turning wide in one particular corner. The instructor told me what to do, he stressed being aware of my cornering line. The outside-inside-outside we learn during early motorcycle instruction, works in many circumstances. But one can’t apply that to every corner. I had been using the cone as the point at which I executed my turn in but consistently was going wide in the same corner. He told me to watch my entry. Am I turning in too early or too late? Am I leaning too much? He suggested I follow a delayed apex line, that I should travel a little pass the cone, look well into the corner and quickly execute the turn in. It was the quick, deliberate execution of the turn in that worked. All this while not focusing directly on the cone, of course. Bottom line, slow down the entry, look through the corner, commence the lean and throttle through the corner. It’s what I’ve read from other as: the slow in and fast out method.

(The Suzuki Gladius 650)

This brings up something that is powerfully examined in Ken Condon’s new book and included DVD, Riding in the Zone. In it, Condon emphasizes the importance of visual acuity, that is the ability to read the road, use one’s eyes to make a host of determinations about what is observed on the road, when to initiate one’s plan for safe riding and proper execution and knowing at all times the best lane position for conditions. Condon’s stresses that our eyes are not only for looking but for seeing, which are not necessarily synonymous.

(Holly's too cute trail bike!)

I ended my TD a little early only because I managed to acquire a headache. On my last run I found myself paying more attention to my brain drain than the track. Time to get off. I had a fabulous time, a day full of learning and getting outside my comfort zone. We improve by stretching our limits in a safe and controlled environment. As I packed up for home, I thought, “I’m impressed. I’m getting out of here without anyone asking me anything about my hair or making some ridiculous hair comment. But before I pulled off, four people separately made a hair inquiry. “Yes, it’s my real hair.” “No, it has never gotten caught in the chain--my bike doesn't have one.” “I’ve had locks for more than 10 years.” “No, they don’t take a long time to ‘braid’” 

Still, it was a special day and I’m looking forward to returning next ride season.

(Thoughtful of them to match the tape to my bike) 

I rode home that day with renewed confidence from having participated in my third rider skill building activity in weeks: an advanced street riding course, reading a new skills book, and my first Track Day. It’s all about riding with confidence and competency and an ongoing goal of increasing skills mastery. Do a TD, it stretches your riding muscles.