Categories: Features

Duke’s Den – My Tour Of Racetracks Around The World: Part 1

One day I’ll write an editorial about the grueling and arduous aspects of my job as MO’s Editor-in-Chief. This isn’t it. This edition of DD highlights what are the high points of any sport-minded motojournalist, including myself: a press launch at a world-class racetrack. But my history on roadracing circuits began much less glamorously.

My love of motorcycles began with dirtbikes, and it quickly became apparent that I had a need-for-speed gene. Eventually, I did some motocross racing and thrilled myself by hole-shotting my first moto in a field of 45 other racers. Meanwhile, I became entranced by the higher velocities of motorcycle roadracing and set a course for getting a sportbike for street use. My unlikely choice for an entry-level streetbike was Yamaha’s RZ500, a GP replica powered by a V-4 two-stroke motor. To my young mind, it was a logical transition from my Honda CR125R two-stroke MX bike…

The RZ remains, to this day, one of the most exciting motorcycles I’ve ever ridden, and I’d be tempted to sell a kidney to get an RZ-engined sportbike in my contemporary garage. But the experience that truly set the roadracing hook in me was a track school I attended at Gimli Motorsports Park, a small and beyond-primitive circuit on the Canadian prairie near my home in Winnipeg. The track is flat and featureless, but dragging my knee aboard the RZ was a transcendent feeling I’ll never forget even as the decades pass. If you’re a motorcyclist who has never dragged a knee on a racetrack, you’re missing out on an indelible experience.

Dragging a knee on a racetrack is relatively easy. Trying to drag a knee on the street – in jeans – is stupid.

The hook was set. Following a Honda CBR600 Hurricane, I purchased a CBR600F2 and began racing. Having no truck or even a trailer, I rode my F2 to Gimli for my first few races, stripping it of its street equipment in the pits before taking to the track. Good times, for certain, but decidedly unglamorous.

Since then, thanks to my career path, I’ve been blessed to have ridden 39 other racetracks, not including six kart tracks and eight dragstrips. All of them have been terrific playgrounds on which to test the limits of any sporty bike, and I hope this editorial entices you to get you and your bike on track. Allow me to take you on a trip around North America and the world in this retrospective of the first dozen racetracks I’ve ridden. More to follow in next month’s Duke’s Den, when the level of exoticness ramps up exponentially.

And to my crew of MO editors: Don’t expect to be assigned to future press launches at Phillip Island, Brno or Mugello, cuz those epic tracks still have my name on them!

Gimli Motorsports Park

An extremely modest facility with a flat, 1.3-mile circuit. I won several trophies at Gimli on my F2. Also lost part of my index finger there…

After the unfortunate finger incident mentioned above, in which I destroyed my F2, I rode the reigning champ’s F2 to a second-place finish in the Expert class.

Brainerd International Raceway

My first endurance race with my buddy Paul Lie riding his Yamaha FZR600 at the 3.1-mile track in rural Minnesota. First time photographed by now-illustrious lensman, Brian J. Nelson, who has since shot me many times. Turn 1 at the end of a long dragstrip straightaway is a gentle bend taken in fifth or sixth gear. Also the site of the first couple World Superbike races I attended.

Autodrome St-Eustache

My first racetrack test for a magazine, Cycle Canada, aboard a Yamaha FZR1000 while interning in 1994. A dull circuit inside an oval speedway, the Quebec track was nevertheless a thrill while thrashing a borrowed press bike.

Mountain View

The now-defunct track formerly located north of Denver was a small but fun layout with some elevation changes. Rode my Ducati 900SS there in 1995 and marveled at its chassis stability and bottomless powerband.

Daytona International Motor Speedway

The beginning of my glory days as a motojournalist after having landed a job at Motorcyclist in 1997. I had the invaluable help from racer Michael Martin instructing me in a Team Hammer school at the legendary track, whose banking is so steep that I thought I might slip off during our slow sighting lap. Signed my first autograph there, as a classmate had the impression I was somehow someone special.

Laguna Seca

One of the coolest track layouts anywhere in the world, Laguna’s undulating circuit first saw me when I attended a Keith Code school aboard a Kawi ZX-7R. Somewhere I have a picture of former Superbike and Grand Prix star Doug Chandler following me through the Corkscrew, one of the most famous corners in the world.

2008 Yamaha R6 – First Ride

The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca always gets a thumbs up from anyone lucky enough to ride down. Duke at the 2008 Yamaha R6 press launch.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Honda put on a great event at LVMS, putting us through a riding school with Freddie Spencer before unleashing journalists on the 1998 CBR900RR. The flat infield portion is actually quite entertaining, while the transitions to and from the speedway’s banking is jarring. LVMS is also the track where I wadded a CBR600F4i during its press launch and signed crashed bodywork for the Honda engineers.

Willow Springs International Raceway

Likely the site of more magazine shootouts than any track in America, Big Willow is a fast and flowing track I’ve ridden more times than I can remember. The ultra-fast Turn 8 always makes my pink skirt ruffle in a 130-mph breeze.

Streets of Willow

I’ve probably spun more laps at the Streets course, the little sister to Big Willow, than any other track. Consequently, I’ve ridden a drastically diverse range of bikes there, from a Muzzy Raptor to a Bimota Vdue to a Honda NSR50!

Moriwaki MD250H Vs Aprilia RS125 Shootout

The Moriwaki MD250H was just one of the variety of bikes I’ve ridden at the Streets of Willow.

Buttonwillow Raceway Park

BW is another California track often used for testing by magazines, boasting alternate layouts and directions over rolling terrain. My first time there was during the introduction for Pirelli’s original Diablo. The PR guy warned us about not crashing then promptly went out and crashed himself!

Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli

My unlikely mount the first time at Misano was on a Ducati ST4 while taking part in World Ducati Weekend in 2000. The open trackday proved to be endlessly amusing as I passed many slower riders on their 916s and 996s, especially humiliating during the session I rode with the saddlebags attached.

My second time at Misano was for the 2008 Suzuki GSX-R600 launch, by which time the track direction had changed from anti-clockwise to a a clockwise layout. The series of left-handers of increasing radii, allowing a rider to continue adding speed has changed to a challenging braking zone into ever-decreasing radii. It’s a real hero section for World Superbike racers.

2008 Suzuki GSX-R600 Review

Spring Mountain Motorsports Park

Located on the outskirts of Pahrump in the Nevada desert, Spring Mountain was the location of my tutelage at Jason Pridmore’s Star School. Already having considerable experience on all the fastest sportbikes, Pridmore’s modest SV650 proved to be delightful on a racetrack and taught me heaps about riding a motorcycle at its limits.

Here’s hoping this racetrack stroll has whetted your appetite for getting yourself out there on track to experience the thrill for yourself, whether for the first time or your umteenth.

Kevin Duke

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