A sportscar racer takes a track school on a 20 year old touring motorcycle

This missive is going to be a bit long. I'll be sending it to various diverse groups and I'm too busy with the spec miata project to edit it down for each group, so I'm sure to have a little bit to bore everyone in here. The organization is also going to be somewhat lacking, being mostly in the order that I think of things.

I got my motorcycle license in early 1984. I'm probably unusual for a biker in that my bikes are primarily transportation, while my "toys" usually have four wheels. I've had my current bike, a 1983 BMW R80 RT for a little over two years. Mechanically, it's pretty solid. Cosmetically, it's not a prime candidate for theft.

It's been about 10 years since I've taken a motorcycle out on a race track. I realize that I just don't have the eggs to race motorcycles. When I enter a turn "too hot" in a car, I think "Uh-oh, this is going to be expensive", on a bike it's more like "Oh no, this is going to hurt". I do, however, see a lot of benefit in taking riding schools on the race track. It is a very safe environment to work on learning what a bike is capable of doing. A confidence in the bike's abilities, which could be crucial in avoiding a surprise obstruction in the road.

I've been driving cars on racetracks for about 15 years. While it has been about seven years since I regularly raced cars, I've been keeping my skills from getting totally rusty by teaching at various open track events, mostly NASA (National Auto Sport Association).

A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers told me that he was signing up for a track day at Thunderhill put on by Keigwin's at the Track. This was all the incentive (excuse) I needed to sign up myself.

I don't consider myself a particularly skilled rider. Over 19 years, I've only clocked about 60,000 miles on motorcycles. I am skilled enough in cars to have a feel for what someone who knows what they are doing can make a motor vehicle do. I don't have either the competence or the confidence to get anywhere near the limits of a motorcycle, and I probably never will. The only way to really understand the limits of traction, handling, braking etc. is to exceed them, and it is just too physically painful to do that on a bike.

Despite my limited riding ability, I found my familiarity with the track to be very helpful. This year alone, I've probably driven about 800 miles at Thunderhill, and ridden as a passenger for another couple hundred miles. While I don't know the optimal line for a motorcycle, I do know the road. While I don't know the best way to get a motorcycle to the apex, I know where the apex is and why I want to get there.

With only about 50 students in both run groups, after a brief meeting, all of the students went out on "sighting laps". A lead follow session, with 4 students behind each instructor. Each student immediately behind the instructor for a lap, the peeling off to the back of that group so the next student can follow immediately behind the instructor. I found that being at the back of the pack, was an excellent opportunity for me to practice looking way ahead.

During this session I ran into one of the first cultural difference between bike racers and car racers. The bike racers don't wave to the flaggers! When teaching driving, we suggest to the students that on the warm up and cool down laps, that they wave to the flaggers. Not only does it thank the flaggers for coming out so we can play, but it helps the driver to spot and remember where the flaggers are. It is sort of traditional for the flaggers to give drivers the thumbs up, while the drivers thank the flaggers with the thumb and pinky extended in the "hang loose" sign. After the sighting run, the instructor I was following asked me what that strange hand signal I was giving was. When I told her, she told me not to do it, "It's confusing".

At the end of the day, on my cool down lap after the final checkered, I waved to the flaggers. They waved back. The habits of 15 years of "No wave, no save", either in nomex or "whites" die hard.

Another major cultural difference is mirrors. In cars we try to teach our students to be aware of everything around them. If someone is coming up faster behind them, stay on line, but point the faster car by. At motorcycle days, they don't allow the students to have mirrors. I felt very uncomfortable not knowing who was around me. There was one pass on the outside in turn two, where I never came in to the apex. A slower student was following an instructor. I passed the student on the outside going in, but wasn't quite fast enough to easily get past the instructor. I had no idea whether I was actually ahead of the other student so never came down to the apex lest I run him off the road.

There were a few things that seemed rather odd about the line that they taught. They taught to enter the turn from the middle of the track, apex and then exit to about the middle of the track.

I'm used to teaching the students, from the start, to use the whole track. The premise being to teach them the line, then let them bring their speed up until they need all of the track. This way, they will already be used to being at those places when their speed takes them there. One of the instructors said that when they started students on bikes using the whole track, they never brought their speed up.

One benefit of not having students use the whole track is that this school allows passing on the outside. If the slower rider doesn't track all of the way out, they won't run a passing rider off the track.

Someone used the defensive line argument as a reason to have the students enter the turn from the middle of the track rather than the outside edge. The problem with this theory is that on bikes, using that line, there's room for at least two bikes to get in underneath you on braking.

They didn't seem to discuss the theory behind the line, the difference between a late and early apex, (Apex too soon, run out of room, apex too late, much better fate), why on something with lots of acceleration and little handling (a motorcycle) you'd want to take a much later apex.

There was also not much discussion of weight transfer, how it's hard to steer if your front wheel comes off the ground. Likewise, there wasn't much discussion of the friction circle and how getting on the gas too hard when you are still turning can cause you to lose traction in the rear.

I realized that the berm could interfere with the lean of the bike. Also, on a bike, you don't have a situation with the inside wheels unloaded, so you don't want your tires actually on the paint. I asked how close to the berm to apex, expecting something like "put your tires at the outside of the paint, his reply was "pretty close, within a couple of feet". A couple of feet! That's way off! I suppose that the penalties for putting a tire on the paint, or off the inside are a bit harsher on bike than in a car, but I'd still expect the goal to be stated as to whether to put your knees or your tires on the berm or the edge of the paint.

Lance's discussion of two stage braking was interesting. A little bit to set the suspension, then a lot to slow down the bike. I never really approached threshold braking, but when I did observe what I was doing, it was similar to what he suggested. Rather than doing it in two stages I eased the brakes on, increasing the pressure in proportion to suspension compression. Basically the linear version of his stepwise technique.

I never quite "got" downshifting before braking. They said that if you let off the gas for the downshift, the bike will slow down enough to go down a gear before you brake. I was too busy to worry about learning new stuff, so I just did the motorcycle equivalent of heel and toe, downshifting and matching revs while I was braking.

The lecture on seating position and hanging off was very helpful. I wish that they had done it at the beginning of the day so that I could have started working on "form" sooner. One of the instructors, out on the track pointed out that you actually use your upper body weight when hanging off, rather than your butt. When you think of it, it makes a lot of sense, the torque of the weight four feet from the fulcrum (tire patch) has a lot more effect than moving less weight, less far, two feet from the fulcrum.

What I would really like is the opportunity to do the groundschool some evening the week before the track day. This is exactly why I wrote the textbook on driving. I'd like to have all the intellectual learning I can before I get to the track so that I can concentrate on the kinesthetic. It would also have been nice to have a little more time between sessions to take care of random needs, like food, water, bike. I think that the best would be to offer the option of groundschool the week before, along with having an instructor who focused on a smaller group of students. The instructor could then address the students individual neeeds between track sessions. Students in this program could still pick up "free" instructors for lead/follow sessions out on track if their group instructor was doing a lead/follow with one of the other students.

My favorite way of doing a lead/follow with a single student is to have the instructor lead the warmup lap. This helps remind the student of the various "fine points". The student then leads a lap or two. The instructor leads a lap to show the student various points. Any discussion that can wait until the end of the session should.

I have a clock that I picked up from Longs for $30. It automatically sets itself to WWV, so it is always accurate. I have this attached to the "dashboard" on my bike. It was very helpful to be able to see how far into the session I was at any point. It helped me pace myself, and helped me prepare for the checkered.

Speaking of the checkered, I was surprised that they don't treat the checkered lap as a cooldown lap. I always have my students take warm up and cool down laps, and I have them concentrate on riding perfect lines on those laps.

I did like the lecture notes that they passed out. It's too bad that they aren't on the website. They should have put the evaluation sheets in the folder as well. I'd also like to see written descriptions of the motorcycle line at the track. Ideally, with explanations of why you do the various things. For example discussing the bizarre camber in turn three and why that means you want to enter turn three from about two feet off the inside line.

The one-on-one sessions with instructors on the track are very helpful. However, it is important not to spend too much time chatting in the hotpits while the track is green. It's easy to miss a third of the session.

I tried hooking my hotlap time up on the bike. It almost worked. Using magnets to attach it to the bike worked OK until I started picking up speed and the baggie it was in started getting blown around. With a little modification, I should be able to get it to work though. The few laptimes I got were pretty darned slow 2:46-2:51. Before I supercharged the MG I was turning 2:30and afterwards I think I've done better than 2:20. I believe the Spec Miata lap record is about 2:09.

Being a middle aged guy, on a 20 year old touring bike, with hard skinny tires, I went out in the slow group. As slow as I was, I was surprised to find that I was one of the faster students on the track. I guess that the home track advantage counts for a lot.

It would be very interesting to work on some classes with folks who take both cars and bikes out on the track, and work on a curriculum from the point of what is the same and what is different. I've found that doing both helps me with both. I never got turn 11 (was turn 9) at Laguna Seca right until I did a track day on my motorcycle.

It would be really nice if schools gave discounts to instructors from other schools, especially crossing the car/bike border. I really feel that the exposure to other schools, styles and teaching techniques really help improve my teaching.

I felt that my riding was about what I would expect of a student about to graduate from group 2 to group 3 at a nasa event. I usually made it to the apexes, but often blew the apex, missing it by several feet. I was not, particularly consistent, and was not anywhere close to pushing the limits of the bike. I did feel wheel slip once, exiting turn 11, and did scrape my kickstand a few times, but I never came close to threshold braking. On turn 2 I am used to going through it, on the edge of adhesion most of the way, and I don't think I was ever particularly close to the edge of adhesion, or of scraping the kickstand.

It'll be very interesting to see the video of me riding. That is a learning tool that I am fascinated in exploring. I actually found the video that Scott took following me in his rabbit around T-hill even more educational than the video I took from inside my MG.

I like the way NASA has a teacher with one student per run group. I realize that in order to do this Keigwins would need to double or triple the number of instructors, at least on their novice days. In many ways I would have liked to have had one teacher that I was working with all day.

I was rather surprised when one of the instructors said that he didn't know how a clutch worked.

Keigwins treats their instructors a lot more as a "professional core" than a lot of the groups. They've got their own leathers and business cards. It would be nice if there were a page on the website with the instructors pictures, bios, email addresses etc.

One of the instructors suggested an exercise that looks really good, exhale at turnin, inhale at the apex and exhale on the exit. I liked the emphasis on relaxation and relaxation techniques.

Rather than writing a whole book, I'll end this here with one of my ego boosts of the day. One of my later sessions was with one of the older instructors (Joe?). After the session his comment was "When I saw you, I thought this was going to be a slow boring track session, but you were fun to ride with".

I had a lot of fun. I saw major improvement in my riding, though I still see lots more room for improvement. I've been having fiscally irresponsible thoughts about getting a second bike, more suitable for track days. I also found it very enlightening, as a track instructor, to go out and take classes, especially in a different type of vehicle than I'm used to herding around a race track. Not only did I get exposure to a new set of teaching techniques, but I was reminded of what my students feel like out on the track.

Copyright (C) 2004 Larry Colen
Most recently modified by lrc at Thu Oct 21 20:47:37 PDT 2004