For the average person, motorcycle riding is not always at the forefront of our minds. In the middle of our busy lives, often we unwittingly have a conversation with someone that reminds us of reasons why we dedicate so much of our lives to riding and racing motorcycles.
In a recent interview with a columnist writing for a mainstream publication (far, far away from the world of motorcycling) I was asked what it was we did at a racetrack. Who were typical students and why were they coming to a school? What were some of the typical topics covered and why? The writer was not a motorcycle guy but was a ski racer (a hobby that many motorcyclists share) and we drew several parallels. Our 10-minute interview turned into a 30-minute conversation before either of us knew it. As we discussed both the “how” and “why” people ride the track, the excitement on both ends of the phone escalated pretty quickly.
With the capabilities of many modern motorcycles, a rider can put the average sportbike in second gear, roll the throttle open and then be subject to arrest in a matter of seconds. The racetrack removes all the restrictions and punitive risk associated with exploring the limits of our machines. This was easy an easy place to start.
Following right along with reason 1, the risks associated with riding the track are considerably lower than on the street. With the absence of cars, trucks, phone poles, mailboxes and a myriad of other obstacles the racetrack affords a rider significantly better odds of walking away from a crash. Not only are you only riding with other motorcycles, but riders are required to have proper safety gear. Can you still get hurt on the track? Of course. Do you ride faster on the track than on the street? Absolutely. Can riders fall at over 100mph on the track and walk away unscathed? It happens all the time. Does that happen on the street? Almost never.
When it came to the “who” came to the racetrack, the answer was not particularly concrete. In 25 years teaching the Penguin School I’ve seen riders from their teens to their 70s, doctors to mailmen, male, female, big, small, wealthy to scraping together every last dollar needed to get gas in the truck. The common trait that frequently transcends all the diversity is that a majority of these people are those who really “live” their lives. They aren’t averse to risk, enjoy a challenge, and aren’t afraid to work. As a result, the track is a place where uncommonly strong bonds are formed and I have made many lifelong friends at the track. Long after the novelty runs out and adrenaline fix is satisfied, the relationships built at the track will keep you coming back for years.
The track is the perfect laboratory for learning. The best way to train yourself in a new skill is to perform the action enough times that muscle memory is established. On average, track riders get to repeat the same set of corners once every 90 seconds. This provides the opportunity for testing, experimentation, learning and most importantly the ability to burn the correct sequence of actions into your muscle memory.
99% of the time when riding on the street, riders are riding far slower than their bikes are capable. This is a good thing. As a result, encounters with the limits of traction are infrequent and often a bit harrowing. On the track, riders have significantly less “surplus” grip and as a result, they develop valuable experience in reacting to emergency situations. Nothing develops confidence faster than experience. In the controlled environment of the track, students are taught how to purposely approach the limit so that they can both (1) recognize it and (2) free up the additional traction they need to maintain control.
In order to give the bike the proper inputs as the limits of traction are broached, riders first need to be able to recognize the signals that a motorcycle gives that the limit is coming. The racetrack gives riders the opportunity to experiment with higher speeds with an intelligent plan. No one arrives at the track with the knowledge of exactly what the maximum speed is in any corner. However, by taking small steps forward lap after lap, riders can feel for the feedback of the limit approaching. With this familiarity, riders get the signals much earlier if a corner on the street tightens up more than they expected and they have a much greater likelihood of staying upright.
Since street riders have so much available grip in most corners, they are able to get away with all types of things with regards to how they sit on the motorcycle and input the controls that would severely hamper them on the track. Learning the proper body position and inputs on the track will directly translate into more available grip on the track. The result? Perhaps a rider who encounters an unexpected twist in the road will have the extra traction needed to stay on the pavement!
On the track, riders learn that matter what the goal (safety or speed), the method is the same. When looking at things like line selection and track strategy, the fastest line is usually the one that frees up the traction for the action you would most likely need to get yourself out of trouble. Increased speed and decreased risk are no longer mutually exclusive, they are most often accomplished together.
The combination of athletic skill, mental acuity, and bravery in track riding produces an adrenaline rush and sense of satisfaction/accomplishment you will find difficult to replicate anywhere else. The quest for the perfect lap never ends, and there is always another skill to master and another step to take.
As the conversation ended, the writer left me excited to try out our sport for himself. I found myself thinking about next season and looking forward to picking up where we left off in developing our bike and a new skill last season. I hope that we all spend our offseason going to the gym, reading up on riding skills, and saving up for that new bolt-on that will make your track experience even more enjoyable next season.
Until next time… Ride fast. Ride safe!