I was visiting relatives this past week and met an uncle-in-law for the first time. He was actually very familiar with my activities as an instructor which surprised me a little but it was nice to mention the phrase "track-day" and not have to explain what it meant.
He is a long time car nut and has been on the track many times, always encased in a fire proof suit and a steel cage.
So when he told me that he couldn't understand why I do what I do I was a little surprised.
Apparently, car guys think we're crazy.
Apparently, we welcome more risk than any sane person would ever accept.
"But thats my job", I said.
"Your job is to take risks?" he asked...
"No, my job is to reduce it."
We all take risks. Going to work is a risk. Staying home is a risk, even staying in bed is a risk. We could get hit by a meteor thats travelled a million miles, or trip and fall in the bathroom.
Life is a risk, and no one gets out alive.
Should we stop doing everything to reduce the risk of injury in our lives? Or should we take every precaution to enable us to minimize the risks inherent in our favorite activities?
When I was teaching MSF we talked about risk briefly, to point out that while motorcycling is risky, so is just about everything else. This was meant to be a preamble for the talk on drugs, but the average track day rider is much more aware of the effects of alcohol on a riders abilities so I wont preach to the choir here.
Instead, I want to explore the concept of minimizing risk through decision making.
The first decision we make that involves risk is choosing to ride on the track. While statistics are confusing on this issue, and a statistician can make a page of numbers say anything they want, riding on the track feels MUCH safer than riding on the street. Notice I said 'feels'.
I used to ride through the canyons up to twice a week until I tried riding on a track.
On the street I was so accustomed to the risk I failed to take it seriously. I was numb to it. I saw friends and strangers crash on hill country rides almost on a weekly basis but I always knew it wouldn't happen to me. Most people in their early twenties feel this way.
However I had a minor(?) epiphany at age 21 when a good friend of mine crashed right behind me, only a few days after a complete stranger crushed his shoulder right in front of me not 100 yards from where my friend would later crash.
I knew that the odds were against me. I had seen dozens of crashes on this one stretch of racer road in only 2 years of riding. I had personally had several close calls but was always lucky enough to avoid a crash. I knew I was approaching the day when I wished I had stopped riding like this.
So I asked around, found a racer school, and took the plunge.
It was a little less intimidating having my best buddy decide to take the school with me. We signed up together, took our sportbikes to the track, and proceeded to have an amazing time.
But what amazed me most was how liberating it felt to be in this bubble. We were riding in a zone dedicated exclusively to safety. The bikes on the track with us were all inspected and declared safe. The riders were all wearing as much protective gear as they could afford. Everyone was told to ride conservatively at first, and we gradually increased our pace until people appeared to slow down.
On that day I pushed my motorcycle and myself harder than I ever had on the street, and the track and the conditions just laughed at me.
Every other time I rode at what I considered to be 100%, I was really only at 50% of my abilities, but the surrounding risk factors slowed me down so much I was focusing on them more than my own riding.
I was never able to make a perfect turn through the up-hill double-apex right hander because I was always more concerned about the bump in the asphalt, the oncoming traffic, the armco all the way around the corner and the ever present danger of a speeding ticket.
While I was on the track, planning my next pass on a slower bike around the outside of an up-hill multi-apex left hand corner, all I had to worry about was my own ability. Everything I was doing was brought into razor sharp focus. Where was the other rider looking? Is my lower body in the right position for the next corner? Is my upper body in the right position for maximum weighting? Am I ready for the quick burst of acceleration to come as soon as I'm level with the rider in front?
I knew I had ample run-off if something unexpected happened. I knew I was wearing as much protective gear as I could (the armour in my suit may have provided a false sense of security, but regardless, it was still a sense of security). And if the absolute worst case scenario happened, I knew there was an ambulance sitting a stones throw from any point on the track.
With all this knowledge, I had a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I enjoyed riding that day more than I had any other day since stopping at my first traffic light without a steel box around me.
So when people who know what I do tell me how crazy I am for doing it, I ask them if they ride. And if they answer 'yes', I tell them this story. And almost every time, the look of incredulity I see before the story is replaced with incredulity of a different kind. They almost never believe that riding can actually feel safe to the point of being able to worry only about yourself, and not being distracted to death.