Not a week goes by in the summer months it seems where I don’t witness some moron on a crotch rocket weaving through traffic like he’s trying to qualify for a MotoGP pole position. As a sportbike owner myself I know the frustration of gridlock and speed limits well, but the benefit of maturity, as well as demerit points and astronomical insurance costs, have lead me to explore the capabilities of my motorcycle in a much safer environment – the racetrack.
“How can riding a motorcycle on a racetrack be safe?” many will surely ask. Granted, speeds are higher and there is a high potential for injury should you experience an unscheduled dismount, but consider the fact that unless something goes terribly awry, you won’t encounter oncoming traffic, left lane bandits, red light runners, distracted drivers, or pedestrians. Just in case you require added incentive, riding a motorcycle on a racetrack is about as much fun as you can humanly have while clothed.
Many riders will lament the costs involved with taking a motorcycle course, or the preparation needed to take your own bike to the track. If you think that is expensive, think about the costs of the riding at such speeds on the street, which could have you losing your motorcycle, license, or worse – your life. Given those options, I’d say it’s a steal!
Racetracks are often crowded with large and unfounded egos which can be rather intimidating, so we thought we would provide some options and tips on how to navigate the experience while eliminating some of the mystery.
Turnkey Track Day Programs
Perhaps the simplest and most cost effective way to experience a racetrack on two wheels firsthand is to participate in an established track day instruction program. Many will offer the option of bringing your own bike or will provide you with one of theirs to use for the duration of the course. They will even provide the necessary safety gear at a nominal fee, so the cost to participate is very approachable. Regardless of whether you fancy yourself the next Valentino Rossi or just want to improve your skills, options are available from beginner to expert. Even if you know your way around a racetrack, many of the lessons learned will be transferrable into making you a safer, more capable rider on the street. Now is the perfect time of year to visit your local motorcycle show and chat with ambassadors who represent the schools in your area. Talking to the experts will help you find the school and course that is right for you.
Track Days / Open Lapping
Racetracks often hold open lapping days for motorcycles throughout the summer. Most are managed by private clubs or organizations that provide support such as track marshals, paramedics and even coaching. It isn’t advisable to embark on this path solo without arranging a coach that is familiar with the track, your bike, and particular abilities first. Regardless of your ability level, even taking away one tip from a lesson will make you a better rider. Until you feel comfortable and are more competent, it is a good idea to let other riders pass and stick to your own pace.
Choosing the Right Motorcycle
Super sports may be most commonly associated with the racetrack, with good reason, but don’t let the absence of owning a litre bike stop you from improving your skills. Learning how to ride safer and faster on the motorcycle you ride most often can only be a good thing. However, if it isn’t mechanically sound or the thought of dropping it makes you too nervous, take advantage of renting one and put your mind at ease by purchasing the insurance so your weekend won’t be ruined if you drop it. If you’re looking to pick up a motorcycle specifically for this use, small displacement sport bikes like the Yamaha R3, Kawasaki Ninja 400 or Honda CBR250 are all inexpensive and capable options. Whatever bike you choose, make sure you’re able to pilot it comfortably – lighter weight and less power will help you learn the fundamentals faster and let you work up to speed.
Another benefit to arranging a rental bike is not having to worry about transporting yours to and from the track. Proper preparation isn’t overly challenging, but does take time and a full track day will be exhausting enough as it is. If you ride your own motorcycle to the track and experience a mishap, you won’t have a way home. Rather than breaking the bank on a toy hauler or truck and trailer right away, most cars with a trailer hitch can tow a lightweight motorcycle trailer. Companies like U-Haul generally have a selection of sizes available. If you’re looking to buy, open trailers are easier to store and tow as they weigh less and offer better rearward visibility for backing up, but an enclosed option will offer added security to keep prying eyes off your machinery, tools, and gear.
The motorcycle in question should be in good working order and have sufficient tire tread remaining as it will be inspected prior to going out on the track. In addition to tire tread, you’ll also want to make sure you have enough fuel to get you through the day. Experienced riders will bring a fuel can to add enough for each session throughout the day rather than topping up and carrying around the extra weight. Every little bit counts.
As mentioned, mirrors must be removed (you won’t be looking behind you) and anti-freeze must be replaced with water to ensure the track surface doesn’t become slippery in the event of an incident. The kickstand should be removed or properly secured and lights must be taped up. Green painter’s tape works well as it won’t leave the residue of duct or electrical tape. You’ll also want to remove any loose items like cell phone or GPS mounts, along with your license plate. Do a final once over to ensure screws and bolts are tightened. Some tracks will also require you to install safety wire on items that could shake loose such as the oil filter.
The Proper Gear
Getting geared up from head to toe can be a massive initial investment, but as the old adage goes, “You dress to slide, not to ride” and nowhere is that more true than the racetrack. Depending on the organization running the event, you may be able to use or add to existing street gear to save on cost or rent gear from the company running the training program. There may be an inclination to borrow or buy used gear, but it is advisable to ensure that it fits properly. If you get hooked (you will) and plan on continuing, you can slowly add to your kit as needed. If you ever go down, you’ll be glad you invested in quality gear that fits properly.
Priorities should be coverage, comfort, and functionality. A racing suit should fit like a second skin but allow you to move around on the bike. Any reputable motorcycle shop should be able to assist you with fitment based on body type and budget. Choose gloves and boots (without laces) that provide ample dexterity and skin coverage while paired with the suit or jacket and pants you’ll be wearing. The higher speeds you’ll be reaching on the track may require you to choose a helmet with a snugger fit than what you would normally wear on the street to prevent bobbling. Wearing a head sock under your existing helmet could solve this issue and also do double duty by absorbing sweat. A full face helmet will be mandatory, but confirm that the ratings are approved by the organization running the event. Also confirm whether back protection is required. Inserts or standalone back protectors are available if your jacket or suit doesn’t have one.
Tips and Tricks
Riding a motorcycle on a racetrack is exhilarating, but also physically and mentally exhausting. Prepare to be drained. Get a good night’s sleep and avoid alcohol or narcotics that may slow your judgement. Staying close to the track the night before or after will reduce the risk of nodding off. Stretch. You’ll be using muscles you haven’t used or even knew you had. Be sure to pack snacks to keep blood sugar up and hydrate with water, as you’ll be sweating. A lot. Sugary sports and energy drinks may be tempting but they can also cause you to have an energy ‘crash’ later in the day.
Try to stay out of the sun with a large hat, umbrella or EZ-Up tent. Bringing sunscreen, folding chairs, a separate gas can, tire pressure gauge and an assortment of tools is also recommended.
Words from the Wise
This is a learning experience, so leave your ego at the door. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if something isn’t clear to you or you would like specific feedback on how to improve your skills. Work up to speed gradually. It is easier to start slow and work up to speed than go beyond your abilities then find your way back once your confidence has been shaken. Lastly, have fun! After all, that’s what it is all about.
Eye Candy: A bona-fide locomotive of a motorcycle
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