Ripping down a short straight between the trees, the R3’s parallel twin singing past 10,000 rpm, the upcoming left turn looked fast and open. The moment the turn-in point arrived, however, the wall on the right that blocked the view of the rest of the turn opened up enough to reveal the truth: the radius tightens considerably to a second apex right at the end of the wall.
Clipping the first apex along a short section of concrete curbing, I followed the instructor’s bike up ahead. He arced out wide before bending in toward the second apex, marked by a second short section of curbing. As the end of the wall opened up on the right, my eyes scanned far down the track. There was a pylon sitting on top of a crest placed at the apex of the next turn, a fast right kink.
The instructor exited mid-track, not too wide, and bee-lined for the cone. The bikes that followed did their best to take the same line, some successful, some a little less so.
This was the infamous Turn 8 at Calabogie Motorsports Park, a.k.a. “Temptation”, and the group was part of Pro 6 Cycle’s TRAC School held here once a year. Pro 6 invited me to take part in the school to experience the program and hopefully teach this old dog some new tricks.
The old adage, “those that can’t do, teach,” holds no water when it comes to the TRAC School. The instructors are all current or former professional racers, or really fast riders with a knack for teaching. Leading by example and from past experience is a necessity when many of the students are already accomplished riders looking to go even faster. Knowing how to clearly communicate and educate is essential when some of the students have never been on a track before.
This is the third year of the TRAC School, and some of the students have attended every year, a testament to the school’s effectiveness and appeal. It cost $899 for the weekend, though Canada Moto Guide was hosted at no charge. It was the only school of the season, but for the rest of this year, track days with instruction cost $280 per day, and some bikes are available for rental. The bikes range from a Suzuki SV650 to a track-prepped Yamaha R6, and cost between $250-$400 a day.
DAY 1 – “Don’t look back!”
The morning of Day One began with Pro 6 Cycle owner and former professional racer Sandy Noce giving a rider’s briefing on basic safety, flags, and an introduction to the instructors. Six days before, instructor Ben Young won the first round of the CSBK Superbike series. Standing next to him were two former CSBK Sport Bike Champions: instructors Tomas Casas and Kenny Riedmann.
The groups of three to four students per instructor were called out, and the riders headed out to the paddock for a little discussion before the first track session of the day. Pro 6 had the riders divided into three classes: Green, Yellow, Red, or as Sandy likes to refer to them at Pro 6 track days, Fast, Faster, Fastest.
There were two other riders in my Green group: one who had never been at Calabogie, riding a Honda CBR1000RR, and one who had never been on any track, riding a Kawasaki ZX6. I rode the aforementioned YZF-R3, provided by Yamaha Canada, definitely down on power compared to the other two, but my previous track experience would help balance things out. Our instructor, Richard Harris (not the Dumbledore one), comes from a background as an educator, and it showed. His teaching technique was straightforward and polished, his demeanor calm and focused.
Beyond the basic safety rules outlined in the rider’s meeting, Richard’s first rule was, “don’t look back” — novice riders tend to worry too much about the rider behind them, and even a cursory glance backward at speed can be disastrous. Rule Two was to stay calm and not to touch the front brake if you go off onto the grass. This would come into play for one of the riders later on.
Riding in the wet
Track sessions were 20 minutes each, and the Pro 6 instructors had each rider follow behind them for one or two laps before signalling to switch the group order. Day One was mostly wet, with rain suits doing their best to keep leathers dry. Having checked the forecast in advance, I also brought my water-resistant gloves so that my track gloves would be dry for Day Two.
Having the first day’s track sessions in the wet was not really a disadvantage for those on the track for the first time: Calabogie is a difficult track to learn, so keeping things slow the first day would be necessary anyway. I hadn’t been to Calabogie in more than 10 years, so it was a good opportunity for me to re-learn the lines, even though I already had a good handle on the basic layout of the track.
This was also an opportunity for me to improve my wet weather riding ability. Keeping all rider inputs smooth is important, Richard noted, and following him around the soaked track allowed me to get a better idea of traction levels without the risk of overdoing it. Certain lines would have to be altered as well, to avoid standing water or rivers of runoff. Kevin, the rider on the ZX6, managed to get a bit sideways coming out of three on the gas when he crossed a patch of standing water. His feet flew off the pegs but he managed to keep things in check, lesson learned. Anish, on the CBR1000, had a bit of an off-track excursion in 12b, but stayed upright, and returned to the pits extolling the virtues of Richard’s rule two.
Day 1: Lessons learned
By the end of Day One I felt like I had the track dialed, and my wet-weather riding had taken a step up. My classmates had a decent handle on the track as well, and were gaining the confidence to lean off more and carry more cornering speed. Between track sessions, students and instructors would discuss technique, line, setup, and go over mistakes and triumphs. Across the paddock, the riders were wet but enthusiastic about the day’s accomplishments, and excited for the dry day ahead.
Pro 6 provided a burgers-and-dogs BBQ in the evening, followed by some optional classroom seminars that would continue the next morning. Instructor and pro racer Dr. Steve Walker gave an informative presentation on the medical implications of track riding, with some insight into subjects like proper hydration and potential injuries. Pro 6 operations manager, racer and instructor Payam Shafinia gave a comprehensive seminar on motorcycle chassis geometry and suspension setup, discussing terminology, common mistakes, and giving insight into the seemingly black art of suspension tuning. Pro 6 Cycle is the Canadian Dunlop race tire distributor, and Sandy had an info session and Q&A on tires, tapping into his extensive experience working with Dunlop. Presentations such as these were a complement to the on-track sessions and discussions on riding, elevating the Pro 6 school beyond just a basic track riding learning experience.
Day 2: Off the leash
Day Two dawned gloriously dry and cool. After the morning’s seminar, leathers were pulled on, visors were cleaned, and bikes roared to life. The first session would be a warm-up and re-acquaintance with the track, and adjusting a few lines to the dry conditions. After that, the wick was lit and Richard began ratcheting up the pace each session, then following each student instead of leading. The instructor could see that I was chomping at the bit, and after doing a follow session with me, let me off the leash for some solo laps.
I won’t profess to be the fastest rider around, but my typical pace usually puts me in the Yellow group, with an occasional bump into Red, at Pro 6 track days. Being in Green for the TRAC school allowed me to see the process from the ground up, and not hold up riders in the faster groups down the straights on the spunky but low-power R3.
Upping the pace
Once I was let go from my fellow Green group riders, I was able to up the pace quite a bit, and begin to explore the real handling capabilities of the Yamaha. At a higher speed, gear selection and braking points changed considerably, most notably through Turn 8, where the bike was either near the rev limiter in third, or chugging out of the second apex in fourth. After discussing this with a couple of the instructors, the Band-Aid solution (since the gearing couldn’t be altered by simply changing sprockets) was to hold off on the final downshift into third until the very last moment before turn-in.
This particular bike had tires upgraded from the stock Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 to a set of stickier Sportmax Q3+, a tire described as a street tire suitable for the track. The surface at Calabogie is very smooth and grippy, and the Q3+ tires inspired confidence. After following me, the instructor noted the bike’s front suspension was almost bottomed out through the corners, and the sparks from my boots’ titanium toe sliders was like a fireworks show. The feel on the bike was planted, with no drama to speak of, but some stiffer springs and heavier weight oil up front, and a shock swap out back, would be better for my above-average weight.
The instructor also noticed my exaggerated inputs were upsetting the little R3 a bit. I have a habit of banging shifts with my foot almost off the peg, a result of watching Kevin Schwantz do the same on a 500 in the late ‘90s, and my rev-matching could use some smoothing out. With a bike as light as the R3, every input can reverberate through the chassis, so smoother riding would help in settling things down.
For subsequent sessions that day I would follow the group for two laps, which was a good chance to watch the other riders and warm up the Dunlops, and I would then get waved by for more solo laps. My fellow classmates were progressing commendably, and I was especially impressed following Anish on the CBR, showing great improvement in body position, his knee puck no more than an inch or two off the tarmac through the same corner where he went off in on Day One. By the final session of the day, Richard felt it was time to let the whole group go solo, so off we went. After a physically and mentally demanding weekend of riding, we were advised to keep things to about 70 per cent for the final session – great advice, and a chance for me to work on being smooth rather than trying to go faster.
Back in the pits, handshakes all around, some encouraging words from the instructors, then a final classroom debriefing and handing out of certificates (the Pro 6 TRAC School certificate allows riders to obtain a racing licence for any regional Ontario race series, such as RACE or SOAR).
Load the bike onto the trailer, swat a few blackflies, then time to reflect on the weekend during the long drive back the GTA.
Having taken the FAST school at Shannonville in 2006, there are a few similarities and some definite differences between FAST and TRAC. Michel Mercier’s FAST school allows a rider to arrive with no equipment and rent both a bike and all the necessary gear. Pro 6’s TRAC School does have some bike rentals, but the rest of the equipment (leathers, approved helmet, back protector, boots, gloves) is not provided. The Shannonville track is almost perfectly flat, with no blind corners or obstructions at all, while Calabogie has numerous elevation changes and multiple blind corners, such that learning the track is a bigger hurdle for TRAC students. Finally, the extra seminars provided by Pro 6 add an extra layer of learning for their students beyond just the basics of track riding.
Sandy has high praise for the FAST school, and notes that many of his students and customers get their start at Mercier’s school. With the more challenging track and broader range of subject matter, the Pro 6 school leans slightly more toward a rider who may have already been on track, or has made more of a commitment to taking up track riding, although pure beginners are still welcomed and accommodated. Having sampled the Green group curriculum, I am eager to try Yellow next season, making the move from Fast to Faster.