Each year we throw a number of consistent events. Over time, these become holidays — a way to mark and celebrate the passing of each riding season. If these events are holidays, then our annual track day is Christmas. It’s Johnny’s favorite day of the year and it’s an event that has roots that go all the way back to the beginning of Motoworks itself. In fact, our first “Johnny Moto Monday” track day took place just a few weeks after the company started.
2014 marked the 11th track day event we’ve put on using track instruction group Sport Bike Track Time. Yet for all that history, this was the first track day for several of our Motoworks crew members, including Kelly, Betty and myself. In fact, it was our first track day of any kind. Thing is, that’s the whole point of the MW track day: to give people of all skill levels the opportunity to explore the limits of what they and their motorcycles can do in a safe, controlled environment. Imagine being able to ride the fire out of your motorcycle, covered head-to-toe in safety gear, on an immaculate road free of cars, cops, potholes and other hazards knowing that if you needed it, there was an ambulance just 100 yards away. Now imagine being able to do all of that and have expert instruction on how to improve your riding form, your smoothness and your speed. That’s what the track day is all about. No one is trying to break the track’s lap record. It’s not a free-for-all where the beginners are having to ride wheel-to-wheel with experts and wheelie jockeys at 120 mph either. It’s about having fun and learning to be better riders.
Most of the Motoworks crew arrived Sunday night ready to camp out and get started first thing Monday morning there at Autobahn Country Club. Just an hour outside Chicago proper, I’d opted to commute in and out and sleep in my own bed, but we still set up the Motoworks paddock — a collection of easy-up tents, seating, power and light that would serve as our base of operations for the whole event. We set up some version this paddock lounge at all our track events, whether its a track day or a race day, so look for our tents in the paddock of any event and you’ll always be welcome. It gives us a place to prep our bikes for going on the track, a place to rest and recover between sessions, and most importantly, a place for us to spend time with each other.
Since all of this track day stuff was new to Kelly, Betty, and me, there was a lot of interesting prep for each of us to do. One thing I hadn’t expected was taping up our bikes. Any glass or shatter-prone plastic had to be taped over so that if you had a slide and broke them, they wouldn’t leave shards on the track to tear up other riders’ tires. Some folks were very fastidious in covering their headlights, reflectors, mirrors, tail lights, indicators and gauges with painter’s tape. For them, the aesthetic presentation of their machine was still very important, even if the tape-up was just for the day. I was much less, shall we say, precise in taping up my Tiger 1050.
Also unexpected was the taping over of the bike’s gauges. We were instructed to cover our speedometers and that if we had a tach on the bike, to only leave a window between say half throttle and redline so that we weren’t over-revving our machines. The point of this was less about shattering the gauge faces as in removing distractions while riding. Ditto taping up the rear view mirrors. Some riders removed their mirrors entirely. On the track, there’s apparently no looking behind you. None. That’s one of the rules of being out on the track. “On the track, looking behind you is actually very advanced undertaking” our classroom instructor would later tell us.
The last bit of bike prep involved reducing our tire pressure front and rear to 30 psi across the board. Didn’t matter if you were on a big touring bike like me, a Vespa GTS 300 like Betty, or a Harley cruiser like Kelly — it was 30 psi for everybody. The theory behind the practice is two fold. First, a little less air in the tires means a slightly larger tire contact patch, and that means more grip. Grip is everything, especially on the track where we were actually much more likely to start approaching our bike’s limit of grip. On the street, we all run higher pressures to help reduce tire wear and because we should not be pushing our machines on the street to the same level of aggressive riding as we do on the track. Second, that added tire flex from less air pressure meant that our tires would heat up faster. Cold tires don’t grip very well, so since most of us weren’t running tire warmers in the paddock, being able to get our tires up to optimum grip temperature as quickly as possible was critical, and less air pressure helps us do that. And unlike cars, motorcycle tires build up heat more quickly under acceleration and braking than say, swerving around a lot.
With our bikes prepped, we each in turn headed over to “Tech” to have our bikes inspected for use on the track that day. Professionals went over our bikes, checking key points to make sure we met a baseline of mechanical safety and that we’d done all our pre-track taping, etc. to their satisfaction. When my Tiger 1050 passed tech inspection, that was the last step in a morning of preparation. There was nothing for it now. It was track time.
Beyond bike prep, something else for us newbies was figuring out our rider wear. For me, that meant stuffing myself inside a set of rental racing leathers for the first time. I’m simultaneously sad and relieved that nobody snagged a photo of me as I waddled from the paddock to my bike in my bright blue leathers. They looked all but sprayed on, and I wished they had been, since that would have been a lot more comfortable.
For any track-based event, be it a track day or a race day, the rider’s meeting is critical. Here Sport Bike Track Time walked us through a number of dos and don’ts, the meaning of various corner flags, as well as taking time to honor any active and former US Military personnel. The guiding ethos behind everything we were going to do that day was to really be relaxed and have fun. Today was about being smooth and learning new skills, but not even remotely about how to ride fast. Speed would be the byproduct of the day’s activities and drills, not the goal. Instead, the drills we’d undertake in our riding sessions were intended to build a foundation of skills that would let us better pilot our motorcycles around the track and in the process, build awareness and habits we could apply to our street riding. By having these morning sessions be structured and drill-oriented, I was immediately comforted that it wasn’t just going to be every man and woman for themselves out on the track.
Our first order of business was to basically class ourselves. We volunteered for the Beginner, Intermediate and Expert class groups. Each class group would occupy the track separately. So while the Expert class group was out, the Beginner and Intermediate groups waited in the wings. Which group we self-assigned also decided how much classroom time we’d get. For the Beginner class group where Betty, Kelly, myself and others from the Motoworks crew had placed ourselves, we’d have classroom time before and after each 20 minute track session. With the Advanced class group out on the track first, it was into the classroom for our first theory session.
One thing that set this year’s track day apart from past events was the sheer number of Beginner riders and especially just how many people of all skill levels were attending a track day for the first time. As first-timers, we were nearly twice as many as Advanced and Intermediate put together. Johnny later told me that this was the highlight of the event for him — that so many riders got to come have their first on-track experience with us at this Motoworks event.
Our instructors spent the next 30 minutes or so going over the basics of what we’d be doing out on the track. Within our Beginner class, we were sub-divided into groups of 5-7 riders and attached to a specific riding instructor. These groups were broken out based on rider experience and how fast you thought you were comfortable going. I’d come to the track with really one goal in mind. I wanted more corner confidence. I wanted to have a better sense of how to handle my bike deep in the turns and have a much more accurate sense of just where my handling limits really were. That way out on the street, I could have a better sense of just what I could ask my bike to do, how to ask for it, and what to expect. I found myself in group four, which was more or less the second slowest group. Perfect. No need to push it.
As the Advanced and Intermediate riders finished their 20 minute sessions on the track, the 10-minute and then 5-minute warnings for the first Beginner session came out over the paddock loud speaker. It was time to fully suit up. With a bit of assistance, I managed to fold all four limbs inside my blue leather suit. Knowing I was about to roll out onto the track for the first time, combined with the tight fit of my suit and the effort it took getting into it, my heart was pounding. I was amped up enough on just the thought of pushing my motorcycle and the curiosity of the unknown with being on the track in the first place. That, plus the physical stress of being stuffed inside my racing leathers like living camping gear, it was as though my body was screaming at me “What the f–k are you doing?” There was a thrilling, unnatural sensation to it. I can only imagine it’s similar to what base jumpers and sky divers feel as they look over the edge. I remembered our instructor’s words. “Make sure to breath.”
As I climbed aboard my taped-up Triumph touring bike, sweat was pouring off of me. Breath, dummy. I made this my primary focus as I rode through the paddock and toward the “hot pit” to grid up with my riding group. I figured I can’t learn much at all on the track if I pass out first. Thing is, it wasn’t really fear. It was simply the rush of trying something so extraordinarily foreign. As I gridded up with the rest of my riding group, I mentally reviewed the basics our classroom instructors had given us.
- Front brake only
- No looking behind you
- Yield to the bike in front of you, always
- No passing
- Do everything as smoothly as possible
- Use body position to keep the bike as upright as possible in the turns
- Most importantly, look where you want the bike to go
Our first session on the track was about “the line” and learning the curves of Autobahn’s North Circuit. A track flagman waived each group onto the track on a stagger, giving distance between each riding group. On our first lap, our group would follow our riding instructor around the track on the left edge. Then next lap on the center of the track. Then the right edge. Then on the “racing line” in which we’d start each corner wide, cut across the apex, then finish wide on the other side. The racing line would then be our path for the rest of that session and all the sessions to come. With passing prohibited in the Beginner class, each exercise was a game of Follow the Leader. Our instructor would set the pace, then alter it as needed if we had trouble keeping up. (They were the only ones allowed to look behind.)
Our group set off with the flagman’s wave. We hugged the left side of the track as we exited the hot pit at the end of the track’s main straight. Turn one was a slight jog to the left, followed immediately by a hard right in turn two. In addition to getting us familiar with the track, this first lap was also intended to get some heat into our tires. This was very much on my mind, thinking back to Road America this year where Johnny had low-sided the Panitona by grabbing a little too much front brake too deep into a turn on cold tires. Thankfully our instructor had us well below race pace.
From the rear of our riding group, I started getting to know the course. I’d chosen my big Tiger 1050 for the track day because it’s the bike on which I’ve put the most miles. The Tiger also happens to be a sport bike reconfigured as a touring machine, so it’s got great suspension and massive, ABS-enabled brakes. I was in good company too, as MW customer Jesse had his white Tiger 1050 out on the track as well.
We’d been instructed to use body position to keep our bikes as upright as possible. Everyone knows that you have to lean a bike to keep it stable through a turn and that the faster you go, the more lean you need to stay stable. By basically hanging ourselves off the bike to the inside of the turn, we could accomplish the same thing as leaning, but the motorcycle itself could stay more upright. This gave us more available lean that we could trade for speed in the corners. Or thought of another way, we could carry more speed through a turn for a given amount of lean. You’ve probably seen race riders do this — even to the point of dragging their knees and elbows on the track. What’s counter-intuitive is that getting your knee down isn’t about getting maximum lean, but rather about getting maximum speed out of the lean you’ve got. The idea is actually to try to keep the bike as upright as possible and by smoothly pushing your speed higher and higher through a given turn, the leaning takes care of itself.
We learned this in baby steps during that early session. We’d been instructed to “hang one butt cheek” off our seats to the inside of each turn. This meant a bit of sliding our bodies around as we went around the track, learning where all the turns were. The idea was to build a rhythm. Approach the corner on the race line, shift your body position, slow down before the turn, then steer the bike through the turn and accelerate from the apex to pick up the race line in prep for the next turn. Autobahn’s North Circuit only has three straights, and only two of them have much distance to them. So no sooner did you complete one turn then another was fast approaching. Each curve was an opportunity to further perfect the technique and put into practice the things we’d been shown in the classroom. With the instructor riding in front of us, it was also easy to have confidence that I wasn’t over-riding the track or my bike, even if I was pushing the limits of my own comfort levels.
That first session was 20 minutes, but it felt like about 5 minutes, truth be told. Waved in under the checkered flag, we all pulled our bikes into pit lane and back onto the paddock. Once I was finally side-stand-down, I pulled off my helmet and gloves and dismounted the Tiger, still breathing just as heavily and intentionally as I had been when I got on. I’d made it. I’d done it, and it was fantastic. In just that first session I’d ridden the Tiger a little harder and more aggressively than I ever had on the street, but most importantly, I’d done it with a level of control I’d not previously experienced.
I didn’t have much time to revel in my escapades. It was right back into the classroom for our next instruction session. In 40 minutes, we’d be back on the track again.
Additional photo credits for this post go to Leslie Benedict of Sideline Sports Photography