Straightening Out the Curves on Track Day

As strong as the draw of Sturgis is to the cruiser, track day is more so to the sportsbike rider. With this type of event growing in popularity across the country, Clutch and Chrome examines the phenomenon, what a rider can expect and how to prepare for a Track Day.

High speed performance and the exhilaration of pushing the motorcycle to its limits are surely high among the reasons bikers buy sportbikes. Just as the cruiser crowds enjoy the image of a t-shirt renegade without a cause, the crotch-rocket riders revel in the aerodynamic, color-matching lifestyle of lean angles and RPM bands.

But it’s unsafe, certainly irresponsible and not to mention highly illegal to enjoy a sportbikes full potential on public roads, leaving a whole facet of technical riding unfulfilled.

Unless a biker can afford a Track Day, that is.

What is a Track day?
Hosted at speedways, a group of riders meet to ride the track at speeds unheard of on public roads, at least legally. But going fast isn’t the only draw to participate in an event that can be quite costly. Being able to ride without the worry of oncoming traffic and focus on technique as well as ability of navigating a race course is usually the purpose of a track day. Many bikers use the opportunity as another way to hone riding skills and build confidence.

A Track Day comes in a variety of flavors, from the basic vanilla where a group of friends rent a race track for a period of time to the elaborate ice cream sundae of schools or companies that provide staff, instruction as well as track time. Just as with any taste debate, which Track Day is better or even has the best bang for the buck depends on a riders preferences.

The most common name for the various flavors of Track day are self-organized and open-session Track Days, budget and high profile schools.

Since the self-organized Track Day can look anyway the group wants it to, we’ll focus on the open session, budget and high profile school events, how to prepare for them and what to expect.
Regardless of which flavor you choose, attendance is limited to a set number with schools promising certain student to instructor ratio’s and a determined amount of guaranteed riding time. Although open session Track Days have no official instructors, experienced riders are willing to give advice if it doesn't cut into their own riding time.

Even without instructors at the open sessions, Track Days offer the advantage of experimenting and practicing techniques on a closed and controlled course in a much more forgiving environment.

The events are structured to cater different skill levels and experience, as well as participants riding a range of motorcycles. At the better organized events riders are allowed to take the course at their own comfort level and consequently grouped with others of similar experience and confidence. Following the adage of getting what you pay for, budget and high profile schools will have instructors to coach on technique, finding and pushing a rider’s comfort zone as well as adding to the skill sets. All of these add up to better confidence and quicker lap times.

As 2Fast, a company based out of Seattle, puts it on their website, ‘help any and all motorcycle riding enthusiasts learn to ride smoother, smarter, safer… and ultimately faster’

For the biker who’s never ridden on a race track or feels unsure when riding at any type of speed both organizers and riders alike agree that an organized Track Day is a much smarter choice than a less expensive privately rented time or an open track day.

Speaking of cost, why should anyone pay to ride on a private course when there are millions of miles of public roads available for free?

There are many advantages to a biker riding on a professional raceway over a canyon road or favorite twisty. Generally speaking the track will be clear of any debris or spills eliminating any concerns or surprises. Loose dirt or gravel in the corner of a curve, which is probably on of the most common road hazard riders face isn’t a concern on a professional raceway. As far as spills, some Track Day organizers will go as far as requesting participants drain their motorcycle’s coolant and change to something like Water Wetter, a unique wetting agent for cooling systems which is also less slippery than a standard anti-freeze.

With rules about passing, less obstructions and wider roads, all of which can be used, many feel even at the increased speeds riding at a Track Day can be safer than a biker’s favorite twisty. When you add the comfort of knowing emergency vehicles and even sometimes doctors are on site at the events, all of which virtually guarantee quicker medical attention over riding on a public road the cost can easily justify itself.

Where do I sign up?
So some riders at your local bike night sparked interest when talking about their last Track Day, or maybe this article has made you wonder about the idea. Where do you go?
If you live near a professional raceway, contacting them would be a great place to start. There are a few companies that cover several states while others only organize Track Days for a specific area.

However, a track day isn’t like real estate where it’s all about location, location, location. Since the first visit to this type of event usually requires taking an orientation class which isn't a cheap day out, so make sure the Track Day covers what you hope to get out of it. If you’re looking to primarily to build riding skills but the event focuses on strictly track time or has a limited number of instructors, it might not be the type of track day you’re looking for.

It’s also important to know what type of protective clothing they require you to wear and if your motorcycle will pass any inspection needed to participate.

Not sure if Track day is for you? Some organizations only charge a gate fee for spectators, giving the opportunity to see if the event is suitable. Just as with any motorcycle course or substantial cost, explore the pro’s and cons to make sure it’s worth your time, money and effort.

Preparing for the Track Day
The dates have been booked, deposits made and already the anxiety is starting to build. Planning for that magical day should always start sooner rather than later.

With the investment of time and money that goes into attending a track day, you need to make sure you get as much out of it as possible. That’s hard to do if you’re motorcycle sits in the pit because of mechanical problems or it wasn’t prepared properly.

The rubber wonders that will keep the motorcycle on the track and your butt off of it need to have plenty of life in them. If the tires are fairly new or your fairly new bike still has the stock tires that came with the motorcycle, you should be fine for a few track days. A general rule of thumb is the heavier and more powerful the motorcycle, the shorter the life of the tire.

As riders attend more Track Days they tend to upgrade to more specialized tires and are certainly a topic of conversation throughout the event by both riders and instructors. This would be an ideal time to get an idea of cost and life expectancy of different tires.

Aside from inspecting the tread, pre-track maintenance for a tire would include checking the air-pressure. Since there is never a ‘racing’ section in any street legal owner’s manual, you’ll need to ask the track-day organizers to find out the best pressure. Typically, tire pressures for the track will be much lower than you're used to, usually 30 to 32 psi front and 28 to 30 psi rear is in the desired range.

Some recommend slightly over-inflating the tires the night before to about 40 psi the night before and bringing them down to the correct pressure on the day. Always check the pressures at the start of the day, with cold tires.

The mechanics
Going over the motorcycle’s moving parts to makes sure that not only is everything there, but it’s all in good working order. Track Days are about honing riding skills, not perfecting roadside mechanical talent.

If your motorcycle is chain driven, check it for lubrication, tight spots and overall tension. Most recommend running it on the loose side of the manufacturer's specifications for this type of riding. While you're at that end of the bike make sure the axle has the proper cotter pin or the self-locking nut is in good shape.

All the nuts and bolts need to be tight. Organizers stress keeping the track clean of debris and you certainly don’t want pieces flying off the motorcycle on the day. This inspection should be as in depth as removing the fairing to check that all the major nuts and bolts are tight.

Make sure parts like the oil filter and drain plug are properly tightened. Some organizers might even go as far as insisting the oil filter is safety wired. Pay particular attention to the wheels and brakes; you need brake pads with plenty of life left in them and rotors that are clean and true, not warped,

Look! Extra bits!
While making your way around the motorcycle tightening various things up, there are a few pieces that actually need to be taken off.

Although some Track Days will ask that the mirrors are taped up, most riders find it beneficial to simply remove them all together. If you’re unfortunate enough to take a spill it’s one less item to replace when repairing the motorcycle.

Some Track Days insist the license plate is removed, but this shouldn’t be done while the motorcycle’s being used on public roads. Whether or not the motorcycle should be ridden to and from the Track Day will be discussed later.

Since some parts of the motorcycle are going to be taped up, a topic covered next, a great pointer is to either remove the bulbs or fuses for both the headlight and taillight.

The details are in the duct tape
Regardless of which Track Day you choose there’ll be some taping to do. The headlights, taillights, turn signal lenses, speedometer, wheel weights and mirrors (if they haven’t already been removed).

Since few motorcycles look good in duct tape this is obviously a precaution against the shards of glass or plastic littering the track if you’re unfortunate enough to crash. Taping the wheel weights is a sense of security that they don’t accidentally fly-off, either throwing your wheels out of balance or ending up on the track.

Remember the bulbs or fuses that were removed in the previous paragraph? Even though the lights may be taped, by ensuring the lights stay off, the surface of the glass or plastic will remain cool and keep the duct tape from sticking too severely to it. Regardless, even if the organizers who don't ask you to tape everything in sight will often request the brake lights are disconnected, ensuring whoever rides behind to find their own ‘braking points’.

The easiest way to approach taping your motorcycle is to apply it in strips and then carefully trim around the edges with a razor blade.
If the license plate is staying on the motorcycle during the event, run a piece of tape across the mounting bolts to ensure they remain on the bike and not all over the track.

Getting to the Track Day
The first reaction is to ride your motorcycle to the track, but depending on the preparation work such as duct taping the headlights, brake lights and indicators as well as possibly removing the license plate, it may not be street-legal anymore. More important than the bike being fit to ride on public roads will be whether you’ll be up to riding it home or not. The whole purpose of participating in an event like this is to push your riding abilities and hone those motorcycle skills. A long day at this level of concentration with the physical exertion required could leave you fatigued and probably not in the best conditions to ride home.

In the worst case scenario of taking a spill at the Track Day, the motorcycle may not be rideble.

Most organizers and veteran participants agree that transporting your bike to and from the track is the best and certainly the safest solution.

National rental companies rent hitches and small trailers with ramps in the range of $15 per day. Independent rental companies rent box vans and pickups, or cargo vans with ramps for only $50 per day. As with the preparation on your motorcycle, it’s a good idea to visit the rental company well ahead of time and inspect the type of trailer you’ll be using on the day. The most obvious matter to check is that the motorcycle will fit along with any other items you might want to take to Track Day. Confirm with the rental company what ties and straps are included with the trailers.

What to take
Even if you usually ride in t-shirts and shorts, when it comes to track Day everything is about safety. Most Track Day organizations require a rider to have a DOT-approved helmet, proper riding gloves, boots that cover the riders ankles (proper riding boots, not the one’s you squeaked by with at the local Motorcycle safety Training Course), and either leather or ballistic nylon riding suits that zip together in the middle if they are two-piece. More and more are starting to require a back protector.

Several track day companies are offering leathers to rent for the day, from $65 per day and up, plus a security deposit just in case. Usually the rider must reserve the leathers in advance of the track day event they are attending.

Leather gloves with padding in knuckles and palm area are preferred, and they should cover your wrists and extend over the cuffs of the riding suit.

And believe it or not, some people are riding on the public roads without a valid motorcycle license. Consequently, many organized Track Days insist on verifying a valid driver's license with motorcycle endorsement.

When booking your Track Day, ask about the availability of fuel, and even if it is available, fuel at the track can be astonishingly expensive. A typical sportsbike will consume nearly two full tanks of gas in 130 miles of hard riding at the track. If it’s too expensive consider taking your own. While considering what to take along to Track Day consider a sunshade, chairs and a cooler full of cold water for three prime ingredients of track-day contentment.

As with tents taken on road trips, assemble and break down the sunshade a few times to make sure you have all the pieces and understand how it goes together.

The ice-cooler should include enough water to supply five liters per person and kept ice-cold. Remember that dehydration saps energy, cramps muscles and quite frankly turn your brain to mush. Consider packing protein bars, fruit, raisins all of which are a good source of energy. Consider the Track Day an afternoon at the beach with all the heat and sun, packing sunscreen, lip balm and anything else you usually take.

Make sure to bring an array of tools and don't rely solely on the bike's tool kit unless you want to become known as the fool who borrows tools. A quick overview would be a basic kit should include the usual hand tools, as well as any special tools that might be need to remove either wheel, for example. Anything needed to adjust the suspension, including front and rear preload and a tape measure to help you reset sag on site. Ask around any experienced Track Day riders who might have a further list of special tools and spare parts commonly broken in a crash, such as a brake, clutch and shift levers.

On the day
Finally the big day is here, excitement is in the air and anticipation is so thick you can cut it with a knife. How can you make the most of the day?

Firstly, arrive on time or even a bit early and plan to pass a technical inspection. Listen closely to any briefing, overviews or even the most basic of instructions given by the organizers or their staff.

Take a moment before the track opens to stretch your muscles and begin hydrating. Use this time to go over your motorcycle one more time. You'd be surprised how many riders get all excited about being on the track and forget to check such basic items as oil and coolant levels.

The best piece of advice would be to keep quiet and listen closely, not only to the Track Day officials but also the other more experienced riders. You’d be amazed at how much free information and years of experience can be absorbed by watching and listening.

Finally the oldest biker adage of them all holds true both on the open road as well as for the closed circuit.

Be safe.

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