Seven Tips to Trackday Success (from a veteran)
By Kar Lee
You’ve booked your place, you’ve done a couple of trackdays before but the nerves are kicking in and you’re on track tomorrow. Don’t fret, here are seven tips you may not have heard of before from a seasoned trackday goer.
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I love trackdays...
Go as fast as you like in relative safety with like-minded people without worrying about manhole covers, speed cameras or cars coming the other way. What’s not to like? 1996 was the year I did my first trackday, it was also the first time I crashed on track and I remember it well. The venue was Donington Park, the slightly inappropriate bike was a Kawasaki ZZ-R1100 on Bridgestone BT57s and I supplied the overzealousness. The morning was going ok until I overreached myself trying to keep up with a gaggle of well-ridden sports 600s. Turning into Coppice – an uphill blind-ish right-hander, I panicked when I thought I wasn’t going to make it round, stood it up and went straight into the gravel where I promptly wobbled until we both crashed to the ground in a cosmetically expensive and completely ungraceful skkkrrrrsssshhhhh.
There were many lessons learned the hard way that day. Gravel gets everywhere, causes a hell of a lot of bodywork damage and you will find it falling out of your bike every time you park up for the next few months; If you don’t think you’re going to make a corner and your tyres are decent, you should just lean the damn thing anyway as the chances are it’ll sail round without any fuss; You shouldn’t go chasing professional road testers on your first trackday.
Since that early fail I’ve notched up a few hundred trackdays, averaging about a dozen a year and peaking at 25 on various circuits in the UK and Europe on bikes ranging from a Street Triple R to a GSX-R1000, to my current squeeze, an Aprilia Tuono 1100 V4 Factory. But it really doesn’t matter too much what you ride, what’s important is that you have fun and return home safely with nicely frazzled tyres and a big fat smile on your face. Here’s some stuff I’ve learned over the last two decades that will help you achieve that.
1: BE PREPARED
HAVE PLENTY OF FUEL IN THE TANK. If you’re riding to the circuit, fill up just before you get there. A typical fuel tank will have enough juice to last the day (unless you’re on a peanut-tanked VTR Firestorm) and fuel at the circuit is always more expensive. Nipping out at lunchtime for petrol can also be a chore when you could be relaxing and soaking up the vibe.
ARRIVE EARLY. Getting space in a garage can be the difference between getting you, your kit and your bike soaked in a downpour or whether you can use the venue’s power for your tyre warmers. Getting at the circuit in plenty of time will also mean you’re not rushing around in a fluster to get ready for noise testing, joining a long queue for signing on and missing out on the safety briefing which can have some really important info in it.
EMPTY YOUR BLADDER. Tight leathers and a hunched-over riding position add pressure to the belly. Getting the urge to pee while trying to find the best line around the hairpin before the back straight is distracting. Go before you go.
PASS STATIC NOISE TESTING. With local councils leaning harder on UK circuits every year, noise testing at trackdays before you’re allowed out on circuit has become a necessary evil. Even some bikes with standard exhaust systems have been known to fail testing (Ducati Panigale, anyone?) so it’s important to give yours a fighting chance. By all means use your cut-down baffle-less 300mm big bore Racefit, but don’t be surprised if the noise tester waves you back to your garage before you’ve even switched the ignition on. Warm your engine thoroughly before testing to reduce engine clatter and make sure you have a baffle on standby. They cost around a tenner and can save your entire day.
2: CALM YOUR EGO
CHOOSE THE RIGHT GROUP. If you know you’re more comfortable in the Novice group then it’s not usually a good idea to opt for the Intermediate group just to be with your mates. Riding beyond your means puts you – and others – in unnecessarily dodgy situations and you’re just as likely to spend the session bricking it rather than enjoying it. Usually, the Inters group has the most variation in riding ability and for that reason is the most unpredictable. Avoid if you can, unless you really are an intermediate-level rider. If you discover it’s not for you, ask the organisers for a swap, they will usually accommodate you if they can, after all they want your return business.
BE ZEN-LIKE. Lining up in pitlane with 40 other riders, engines ticking over is a buzz. To others it might be the most frightening thing in the world. The guy next to you with the tricked-up Fireblade and dark visor might look cool as a cucumber but he could well be very, very nervous. One rider I know gets to almost panic-attack levels of anxiety when lining up to go out. He controls this by mentally preparing before he gets on the bike. Ground yourself by counting to ten and breathe deeply. Disperse the tension by relaxing your muscles.
SOAK UP THE SIGHTING LAPS. I once saw a guy who was a bit too enthusiastic lob his Honda SP1 on the second sighting lap of the day. This was on the first morning of a three-day event in Spain. He spent the rest of the trip at the hospital, then in his hotel room with a broken leg and collarbone. Not great value for money and an easy situation to avoid. I always have a rule, get the first session out of the way and ease yourself in to the mood gently, dialling in your brain slowly means you’ll reap the benefits later on.
TAKE IT EASY ON NEW TYRES. If you’ve just had fresh rubber fitted, they’ll need scrubbing in to roughen up the tyre surface. It doesn’t take much on a racetrack, a handful of laps carefully building up the pace and lean angle is the safest way to do it. Not like the unlucky GSX-R750 pilot at Cadwell who gave it a fistful of revs as he joined the circuit only to lowside it 180° just ten yards later in front of the clubhouse crowd. New, cold tyres need a little more care.
REMIND YOURSELF IT’S NOT A RACE. Go hell for leather, but always leave a little in reserve unless you’re being paid to take the risks. Smooth and beautiful riding earns kudos from others, erratic impatience usually leads to desperate close overtakes which is just bad form and will likely result in a bollocking from an instructor. If you’re stuck behind someone who you just cannot get past because they’re fractionally quicker on the straight then either enjoy the experience or exit the circuit and rejoin again, giving yourself some much-welcome track space. It’s better than getting frustrated which will lead to mistakes.
BE PATIENT. Most crashes tend to happen on the first morning session and the first afternoon session. The morning crashes are usually due to overenthusiasm to get going and the early afternoon crashes due to overenthusiasm to get going and a lethargic state thanks to the huge plate of chicken pie and chips with mashed potato and a can of Coke consumed over lunch. Most people pack up well before the end of the day – I know one rider who religiously misses out the last session every time because of superstition. Their loss is your gain and a near-empty track on a summer afternoon is my idea of trackday paradise.
3: BE GOOD TO GO
IS YOUR BIKE SOUND? Please, please make sure your bike is trackworthy – that is, it’s in mechanically sound condition and nothing’s about to fall off it. If you know the baffle is a bit loose then get it tightened. I once saw an SV650 baffle shoot straight out at the Nurburgring, narrowly missing a couple of riders. And always check there’s plenty of pad material left on your brakes. One guy managed to wear his pads down to the metal at Rockingham – not only did he miss a load of afternoon sessions but he also had to buy new brake discs afterwards.
CHECK YOUR TYRE PRESSURES. Always, always drop your tyre pressures for track use. If you don’t then your tyres will overheat, they won’t grip or last as well and there’s every chance you’ll end up in the gravel. A mate of mine forgot to do this and threw his previously tidy 748 down the track. Unfortunately he was on a two-day event in the middle of France at the time. The most important tool in any trackday toolkit is a tyre gauge. Tyre pressures for the track will vary thanks to rider ability, tyre construction and ambient temperature. Tyre manufacturers often list track pressures on their websites but if yours isn’t listed then ask the on-site tyre fitter. If there isn’t one, speak with the instructors or gauge opinions from other riders running the same tyre. Typically, if you’re using a road-biased tyre your pressures will be around 36psi front, 42psi rear (cold). You can usually drop to around 32psi front and 30psi rear but it’s worth keeping tabs on the pressures as they will fluctuate through the day. Hot tyre pressures will add an average 3psi to those numbers.
TYRE CARE. Tyres need heat to grip at their best and for them to reach their optimum operating temperature you need to warm them up. A lap or two gradually building up pace is the only way to do it without warmers and has the added benefit of acclimatising your head too. Avoiding being sucked into tussles during this warm-up time is a great way of practicing your self-discipline. If you can see yourself doing more and more trackdays, it’s worth investing in a trailer and a set of tyre warmers and paddock stands. The warmers will make your tyres last longer through less heat cycles and allow you to dispense with the warm-up procedure, maximising your track time. If you are using warmers be aware that standing in pitlane even for a few minutes can be enough for tyres to cool down. For this reason it’s best to go out at the back of a line in case there are delays getting out on track.
4: TAKE YOUR FUN SERIOUSLY
AVOID HEAVY BOOZING THE NIGHT BEFORE. Obvious, right? You’d be surprised. Well, that is if you want to keep your wits about you when hurtling around a track on your pride and joy first thing in the morning. Otherwise fill your boots, especially if you’re abroad on a multi-day event with your mates. The thing is though, you can get pissed any day of the week, any time. How often will you lug you and your bike to another part of the world and pay a premium for the privilege? It’s probably a good idea to save the big beers for the last night.
A LIGHT LUNCH WORKS WONDERS. You’re in the circuit restaurant and the sausage casserole looks great and the curry chicken with rice and chips smells even better but either of those washed down with a bottle of cola will have you ready for a nap by mid-afternoon while your stomach tries to digest it. Remember why you’re here – unless the onsite canteen has a Michelin star I reckon a more modest lunch, a bottle of water for hydration and a banana thrown in for some slow-release energy will keep you alert.
5: RELAX AND THINK TO GO FASTER
USE THE SIGHTING LAPS. While it’s a great idea to learn the lines on an unfamiliar track during the sighting laps, it’s also a good idea to do one of those laps nowhere near the racing line – call it reconnaissance if you like. This will introduce you to more unused parts of the circuit and subconsciously reassure you that it’s ok to be off the line and use the width of the track. The sighting lap racing lines may not make sense at first but once you get up the pace things will fall into place. There are sometimes cones set out as turn in markers – use them to your advantage.
RESPECT THE CIRCUIT BUT DON’T FEAR IT. Multiple GP champion Freddie Spencer once told me he could learn any new circuit in just five laps as he’d been to every track in the world already, even the ones that he hadn’t actually ridden. Eh? “An unfamiliar racetrack is just a collection of corners you’ve ridden before, re-arranged in a different order,” he reckons, which is a bit like saying Mike Tyson is just a bloke with a stronger than average punch, but I get the sentiment. He’s right of course, and the underlying message is relax, you’ve got this. Nerves and tension are a path to frustration and mistakes, while a calm approach will yield consistent, smooth and bloody fast riding.
BUY YOURSELF TIME – LOOK UP. The best riders make it look easy, like they’re not even trying. That’s because they’re looking, and thinking way ahead and effectively slowing down time, a bit like Neo in Matrix. Instead of looking just in front of the mudguard or at the apex they’re currently at, they’re looking through the corner to their next apex. By looking ahead you’re buying yourself valuable time to plan your route, your gear position, throttle control, body position and decide where you’re going to pass the guy in front who you’re reeling in. The result is you’re likely to be smoother, more relaxed and less likely to suffer arm pump. The beauty of buying time in this way doesn’t cost you a thing.
ASK AN INSTRUCTOR TO TAKE YOU OUT. I’m amazed at how often instructors are just milling about or riding on circuit without someone in tow. Part of their job, as well as policing the circuit, is to offer riding advice to up your game. The service is normally free and all it takes is for you to ask them to take you round. Struggling with a corner or three? Not sure your body positioning is working? Can’t do left-handers? Just ask! They’re usually more than happy to impart their wisdom. Typically they’ll follow you for a bit then they’ll pass and you can follow them and pick up the clues to unlock the circuit. A debrief can reveal some real gems that could transform your riding.
PICK YOUR OVERTAKE. There are many joys of riding around a track and overtaking is right up there. A successful pass is one where you both come out the other end safely and if the overtakee nods his head in admiration while you go around the outside of him leaving him plenty of space then all the better. If needed follow the rider for a while and work out where you are quicker and once you’re happy with the moment, just do it. Getting them on the exit of a corner is infinitely safer and more rewarding than diving up the inside on the approach to the apex but try and avoid the straight line drag race to the apex.
6: DON’T BE A DICK
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR ERRORS. Seriously, don’t be a dick. Overtaking someone? Give them plenty of room. One guy who was using a trackday as race practice got a little carried away and collided with another rider so hard they were both lucky to stay upright. Not even acknowledging that he was at fault saw karma bite him hard on the next session when he tried to show off with a long wheelie but instead forgot to put the front wheel down for the corner. A snapped frame and written-off Fireblade was the result.
If you’ve gone underneath someone on track or just passed them a little too close for comfort and you know it, either acknowledge it on track right afterwards by raising an arm (not shaking a fist) or go and find them as soon as you come off track to offer an apology. It’s all too easy to put a dampener on someone’s day but it’s also really, really easy to put things right again.
7: BE A PEOPLE PERSON
BE NICE TO THE ORGANISERS. Trust me, it’ll pay off if you ever need to change groups, amongst other things.
DON’T BE SHY. Talk to people. It’s amazing how much you can learn from just chatting to people about their bikes. What tyres they prefer, whatthe best mods are, how they tackle that tricky last corner. They may even have some spare fuel going cheap so you can do that last session of the day…
Biog: Kar Lee (Kardesign)
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