Been There, Done That
There's one experience thats common to all us track riders. Everyone has done it, we all know what its like. And its either slightly intimidating, or downright terrifying.
And it is? Being a first-timer.
There was a point where each and every one of us was arriving at the track to ride for the very first time.
We've all shared the nerves, the uncertainty, the anxiety of what the day will be like.
Think back to your first time. Had you previously been to the track as a spectator? Had you seen bikes roaring past as you watched from the bleachers? Did you think that looked like an amazing good time?
Many first-time track riders are coaxed and cajoled into their first track day by friends who themselves were talked into their first time.
After talking to hundreds of riders about their first time, the overwhelming majority admit they thought riding on the track would be too dangerous, too intimidating, too aggressive, and again, too dangerous. So many people think that the level of commitment required to ride on the track is excessive, you cant go to the track on a whim, like you can go on a street ride just because the sun is out and your friends are keen to meet up.
Yes, riding on a track takes planning and coordination on a level beyond a street ride. The biggest obstacle is always transport to the track - no one wants to ride home after a day on the track. Fatigue is a huge issue here.
But once the major obstacle is dealt with and we arrange a trailer or pickup truck, there still remains the riding suit, gas, painters tape and all the other accessories required to pass tech.
None of this is required for a street ride, but once the logistics are taken care of, the next time is that much easier.
So lets go back to our first track day. You arrived at the track at zero dark thirty, only to find a hive of activity thats rare to see when the sun still hasn't made an appearance.
Those of you who are 'morning people' deal with this a lot better than the rest of us, but the early mornings are worth it...
After arriving at the track, and being directed to the correct parking area, the second most nerve wracking event then has to be faced - unloading the bike! I see more bullets being sweat for this than any other issue in the pits. I've seen groups of four or more people struggling to wheel a motorcycle down a ramp and still have problems.
Comparisons to fishing boats pop into my head - like trying to fit 5 people into a 2-person dinghy! No matter how careful you are its going to end badly.
I'll deal with this issue in depth in an upcoming blog, but for now lets assume that you handled the unloading just fine on your first time. (?)
For me this is when the fun begins. Because it's at this point that I like to say 'Hi' and introduce myself to my pit neighbors and ask any questions that are bugging me. What was it like for you? Did you meet the people in the pit area around you? If you're like me you will see them at the track many times. Many of the people I met at this point many years ago are great friends now.
And thats one of the huge attractions to riding at the track, everyone is passionate about the same things. Everyone wants to help, and typically the new riders are swamped with offers of assistance.
To this end, I can't count the number of people who've told me they love riding, but come back for the family atmosphere. They love the fact that everyone loves to help others. If you run out of tape for your headlights, no problem. Someone will happily let you use theirs. If you brought the wrong wrench to remove your mirrors, guess what - the folks ten feet away have exactly what you need and will gladly help you.
You might even find that they point out something you forgot when you prepped your bike the night before and are happy to help you take care of it.
And the beauty of this is that someone who received help like this on their first time at the track is exactly the person who just helped you. In a high-risk adventure like a track day, everyone wants everyone else to be safe. Its the perfect 'pay-it-forward' environment.
And then comes the riding!
Did you feel the same rush of adrenaline I did? After riding as hard as I could through the canyons I thought I was a pretty good rider. But then I got to the track and realised just how slow I was. But the humbling experience of finding out how slow I was riding was also the single most exciting thing I had ever done on two wheels.
Like most new riders I was tip-toeing through the turns then stretching that throttle cable on the straights only to scare the pants off myself when I realised I was going too fast for the next turn.
This behaviour is so common among new riders I've come to expect it , but I know exactly whats going through the heads of these Level 1 riders. I can't help but grin when I talk to them about how to stay safe and learn and go faster. I think back to my first time and I know exactly what they are feeling.
I'll never forget what it was like on a track for the first time. I had no distractions, no fears of a truck dropping a ladder or gravel on the track. And my biggest fear when riding hard on the street - police.
How much is a speeding ticket these days? I dont know because I've only had one in the last 17 years.
As a result of all these fears pushed aside, I was free to really think about what I was doing. I was able to focus and identify what I needed to do better and how to improve.
And I loved it. I had more fun on that first day on the track than I had in all the street rides I'd done in almost two years since I got my license. I was completely hooked.
I see new riders like this every time I teach Level 1. After a session they are red faced from the exertion, both physical and mental. They are excited and overwhelmed and thrilled beyond words.
I know what it's like. I was there once. We all were.
All too soon the last session gets the checkered flag and the day is over. The new rider pulls off the track, sits exhausted into a chair and happens to glance at their rear tire.
What happened when you did this? Did you notice the melted rubber reaching all the way to the very edge of the tire?
HOW COOL IS THAT!
"I can't wait to hear what the guys say when they see this on the next street ride."
Of course no one blurts out "Look at my tires everyone."
But who here hasn't said,
"Well my tires did pretty well last weekend...", knowing full well that all the riders who haven't taken the step up to riding on the track will look and be impressed at the amount and type of wear on that tire.
But thats nothing compared to showing up to a street ride with big scrapes on your knee sliders...
Lets fast forward a few months.
After your first time at the track where someone helped you tape up the reflectors that you forgot, and someone else handed you a bottle of water in class when you realised you forgot one, you are now in the position of being a little more experienced.
You know the good places to park at more than one track. You know exactly what to do to breeze through tech inspection. And you know exactly how much fun you're going to have on the track.
A person with a few track days under their belt has a decision to make. Some riders fall in love with the improved safety features of the track. To them, riding on the street loses all its appeal when they can ride on the track with no texting drivers, no bad road conditions and no speeding tickets. Other riders still have the draw of touring or group rides with people unwilling to take the plunge and get on the track. But the seed has been planted, the addiction has taken hold and will always be there.
I once had to take an extended break from track riding but still commuted on my sportbike or did regular dirt rides. But when I finally got back on the track after five years, I couldn't believe the sense of relief I felt. It was like seeing an old friend again. It felt so comfortable, so natural, I wondered why I had let so much time go by since the last time. I certainly wont let that happen again!
But back to the intermediate rider.
How did you feel when you realised you were no longer a newby? What did it feel like when you passed another rider for the first time?
How did it feel when you realised, or was told, that you were too fast for Level 1?
When I was told that I needed to move up a level, I had a rush of adrenaline flood through me. I was in a classroom and yet I got a thrill almost as intense as the one I'd experienced on the track. It was a huge boost to my confidence, confirmation of my own thoughts that I was actually starting to get a handle on this track riding malarkey. If only I hadn't let it get to my head, maybe I could have controlled my ego a little better and avoided the crash that was soon to come.
As an intermediate track rider its truly a wonderful thing to be able to pass other riders. With enough knowledge and skill to put yourself where you need to be on the track you are truly in control. A skilled rider controls what happens on the track and does not react to it. But there are still moments when a faster rider comes past you like you were standing still.
"How did they do that?",
"I didn't think it was possible to go that fast around that corner..."
These thoughts are common in the mind of an intermediate rider. But this is where a rider can either commit to learning the answers to these questions, or remain as an intermediate rider and focus on straight line speed.
I once heard a rider say;
"I like this track, it has some good straights."
I don't know about you but I learned how to open the throttle pretty well in MSF. But I still haven't mastered the art of going around a corner...
And there's nothing wrong with enjoying the straights. Corners are where the majority of accidents happen as a result of pushing limits and making mistakes. But a rider who focuses on their straight line speed and ignores the lessons to be learned in the corners will remain an intermediate rider.
Conversely, a rider who is dedicated to the lessons to be learned in class and from their instructors wont remain in Level 2 for long.
I've seen a rider who was intensely aware of her actions and interactions with the track and her bike progress safely and confidently from Level 1 to Level 3 in one year.
I've also seen people too afraid to progress out of Level 2 after 5 years of cajoling.
Everyone is different. Everyone learns at a differnt rate. And everyone wants different things.
If your intention is to remain safe and stay in your comfort zone, more power to you. Thats a great way to have fun, minimise stress and also risk. Thats a smart way to ride, much smarter than someone who rides at double the speed limit on the street or tries to max out their bike on the freeway.
But the intermediate rider who focuses on their riding, listens in class and has the ability to put their ego in a box will notice things changing. If a rider can admit to themselves that they need to change some things in order to go faster they will soon notice that everyone else is suddenly going slower!
Have you noticed this?
The smarter Level 2 rider will gear up and head onto the track with their plan for the day spinning around in their head.
A Level 2 rider who cares more about learning to go fast than keeping ahead of the rider behind them will ignore other riders and focus on their ride and their plan and the results that this will provide.
A Level 2 rider who does these things will soon wonder why everyone is slowing down everywhere!
And thats the tipping point.
When a rider notices that all the intermediate riders are now in the way of a fun lap, that rider is no longer a Level 2 rider.
As mentioned in another blog, Level 3 is a new world.
But Level 3 is a lot like a riders first ever track day. Many think it takes too much commitment, that the riders are too aggressive, or that it's too risky.
The reality is that true Level 3 riders are more skilled so make fewer mistakes. They are more experienced so know how to deal with issues before they happen. And Level 3 rides are fun.
Picture this - someone you've never ridden with before sneaks past you into Turn 1 at COTA. But as they accelerate down the hill you notice they aren't quite as fast in a right turn as you are. So you drift inside as you both go under the bridge. This may even be the first time you ever made an inside pass, but guess what - it was safe, predictable and really, really fun.
So now you know you have a rider behind you who's faster in left turns but slower in rights. You know that after the esses there are 2 rights but then a long blind left.
You know what to expect and sure enough as you set up for the left you see a front wheel right next to your clutch lever.
No problem, that rider has the line so you tip in just an instant later and watch as the rider in front accellerates hard down the hill to another left.
You watch and wonder how someone can drive that hard, and promise yourself you'll try it next time around.
But this is the challenge. You know you can keep this rider in sight down the long straight. If he or she is on a similar bike this is where things get really interesting.
You do everything you can to get through Turn 11 as smoothly as possible. You tuck in behind the bubble and stick right to the other rider all the way down the straight.
Turn 12 comes up and you notice that although the other rider was better in Turn 1 you can outbreak them into 12. So you pull alongside, right by their clutch lever as you tip in to 12.
You know that the person is determined to get past you again as soon as possible - thats just how we think - so you look through Turn 13 and make the smoothest entry possible and drive in a kink around Turn 14, ready for the complex turns to come.
You know you can go faster through right handers, so you tip into Turn 16, knee on the asphalt.
One hundred mph, then 120, then 130, all with your head a few feet above the track. People say what we do is unsafe, but in this corner, with the right tires and the right set up, it feels perfectly natural.
But all of a sudden, the rider behind you smoothly drives past you around the outside as you slow for Turn 19.
Then you see this rider doesn't use any brakes at all for 19. How is that possible?
Then you also notice that they are much better through Turn 20 and you are determined to stick with them along the front straight.
And thats what Level 3 is like.
Smooth, confident passes made by skilled riders who've been doing this a long time and know what they're doing.
Sounds like fun to me.