Given the increasingly stringent speeding laws in this country, taking a motorcycle to the racetrack is becoming a better idea each and every year. In fact, when I purchased a Yamaha R6 last summer, I didn’t even bother looking into insuring it for the street. Not only are rates becoming wildly prohibitive to the point that many riders seem willing to ride without coverage and risk the fines, but you really can’t get the full experience of a super sport on public roads. Regardless of whether you fancy yourself the next Valentino Rossi or just want to improve your skills, many of the lessons learned will be transferable into making you a safer, more capable rider on the street.
Back to School
Perhaps the simplest and most cost-effective way to experience a racetrack on two wheels firsthand is attend an established track-focused rider development program. Regardless of your ability level, even taking away one tip from a lesson will make you a better rider. Many will provide you with a motorcycle for the duration of the course, as well as the necessary safety gear at a nominal fee. The prices may seem steep at first, but when you consider how much it would cost to outfit yourself in all the gear alone, it quickly becomes a bargain.
If you need an added incentive, think about how much a speeding infraction on the street would run you. A school like FAST offers various levels and course layouts, with the option of bringing your own bike. Accomplished road racer and Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Famer Toni Sharpless recently opened the Super Sonic Road Race School that makes use of a fleet of minibikes and provides gear rentals.
Once you’ve got a few courses under your belt, you may want to go to the next step by attending an organized lapping day. Your local racetrack likely has programs managed by private clubs or organizations that provide support such as track marshals, paramedics, and possibly 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. Learning on your own also increases your chances of acquiring bad habits from other riders in attendance. Pricing and rider ability will vary. I often sit out the first few laps to merely observe. This way I can spot the yahoos that I’ll want to keep a safe distance from or wait until they crash out on the first lap. It is not a race, there won’t be any scouts in the grandstands, and there’s no money on the line, so let other riders pass and stick to your own pace. Going fast requires starting slowly.
Get in Gear
The cost of gear can be intimidating or cause some to cut corners. The reality is this – if you go down, you will wish you’d spent the extra time and money finding quality gear that fit properly. Depending on the organization running the event, you may be able to use or add to your existing street gear to save on initial cost. There may be an inclination to borrow or buy used gear but be sure that it fits properly. If you enjoy it (you will) and plan on continuing, you can slowly add to your kit as needed.
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 will be able to assist you with fitment based on body type and budget. Choose gauntlet gloves and high boots (without laces) that provide ample dexterity and skin coverage while paired with the suit or jacket and pants you’ll be wearing.
Choosing a Helmet
A full-face helmet (no open face or modular) will be mandatory but confirm that the ratings are approved by the organization running the event. 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. Regardless of the temperature, you’ll be sweating. Also confirm whether back protection is required. Inserts or standalone back protectors are available if your jacket or suit doesn’t have one.
One of the benefits of attending a track program that provides motorcycles to ride is that they are already race-prepped and ready to go. If you’re taking your own motorcycle, there are a number of steps required to ensure the safety of all participants.
Doing a regular inspection before you ride is always a good idea, but particularly so when you’ll be riding at higher speeds and putting additional stress on the motorcycle. Check tire tread and pressure, fluid levels, and ensure that levers and cables are all in good working order.
Not only must your bike be in safe and competent condition, but coolant fluid must be drained and replaced with water. In the event of a leak or unplanned dismount, water won’t have as negative an impact on traction and will evaporate faster. Your bike will be inspected prior to going out on the track.
If you plan to make your bike track-only, there are replacement race fairings available that will also remove the headlights to reduce weight. Otherwise, it is customary (or required) to tape up headlights, taillights and turn signals and remove mirrors. 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 or lapping day organizers will also ask that the kickstand is either removed or held in place with wire so that it can’t drop down into place on the track. Some will also ask that safety wire be affixed to your oil drain plug and fill cap. You can either use a sharp drill bit to hollow out a hole, or you can purchase them pre-drilled, as I did, from a company named Pro-Bolt. Others will ask that you tape over your speedometer, so you’re focused on the track instead of seeing how fast you can go to brag to your friends about it later.
Ensure that 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 of weight counts.
It’s your bike, so making (safe) modifications that will better suit your body type or riding style will improve your experience. This could include the replacement of your seat, pegs or hand grips. I’ve grown rather accustomed to the R6, so I merely added Eazi-Grip tank grips that will allow for better stability under heavy braking and high-speed cornering.
Your motorcycle may be dusty from sitting around all winter, but so are your riding skills. If you haven’t been keeping active in the off season (or during the whole pandemic), ease into it with some simple stretches and poses to increase flexibility. The older we get, the easier it is to pull a muscle when we haven’t been regularly active. Riding on a track is a full body workout. You’ll be activating your arms, legs and core, so doing workouts that target those specific regions will put you in good stead.
Choosing Your Ride
Leave your ego at the door. 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. You can always sell it and buy another, so don’t be afraid to start small. I attended the Super Sonic Road Race School last season and I’ve never learned so much in a single day.
Another benefit to arranging a rental bike is not having to worry about getting yours to and from the track. A full track day will be exhausting enough as it is, so you won’t want to be getting your bike road ready at the end of the day. Also, 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.
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. 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, tire pressure gauge and an assortment of tools is also recommended.
Words from the Wise
This is a learning experience. 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. The goal is to improve your skills in a safe, encouraging environment while keeping your license. Lastly, have fun! After all, that is what it is all about.