While looking back at the 700-plus different motorcycles I’ve ridden in my lifetime, I began to notice that I’ve also had the good fortune to have ridden many dozens of them on scads of racetracks scattered around the country and the globe. I was shocked to find out that I’ve logged fast laps at 41 roadracing circuits, and that doesn’t even include the kart tracks (7), dragstrips (8) or motocross tracks (12) I’ve sampled. In the motojournalist club, membership has its privileges.
Last month I delved into my early years on track, from the intensely primitive Gimli Motorsports Park in the late-’90s to one of the world’s coolest, Laguna Seca. Now I’ve tee’d up the next 10 on my chronological list, stretching from 2000 to 2007. The locations vary from the mundane (Las Vegas) to the exotic (Japan). Come along as I take you for a ride…
Oak Hill Raceway
Unless you live in or near Texas, you might not have heard of OHR, located northwest of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metropolis. Though not nationally known, it has an entertaining layout as the circuit meanders among rolling hills for 1.8 miles. It’s been nearly 15 years since I was there for a shootout between Honda’s CBR929RR, Kawi’s ZX-9R and Yamaha’s seemingly omnipotent R1. Filling out rider duties was a bevy of notable Texan racers, including Michael Martin, Grant Lopez and Mark Junge.
If those national-caliber names don’t ring a bell for you, perhaps two others from that day will: Kevin Schwantz and Ben Spies. Revvin’ Kevin is, of course, the 1993 500cc Grand Prix champ, who was on hand to ride the latest GSX-R750 as part of a Gixxer retrospective. At this time, Spies was a mostly unknown local racer who had recently signed a pro contract with Suzuki at the tender age of 16. Ten years later, he had bagged three consecutive AMA Superbike titles, the 2009 World Superbike championship in his rookie year, and was transitioning to a promising MotoGP career that was cruelly cut short due to shoulder injuries.
But my favorite memory of that trip wasn’t from Oak Hill (which shut down in 2009). It was from Longview, Texas, the next day. when I watched a GP at the Spies house along with the legendary Schwantz. It was fascinating to be sitting between the two of them, hearing the keen young student of the game ask exploratory questions and voice his budding opinions next to the immense gravitas of Schwantz, one of the true icons of motorcycle racing. Sadly, there are no pictures to corroborate my story, so perhaps it was just a gearhead’s dream…
Auto Club Speedway
It was called California Speedway back in 2002 when I first sampled the infield road course of SoCal’s recently constructed super speedway, and I brought along a bike like no other on that day: a BMW K1200RS. The old K-bike was too long and too heavy, but it had a bottomless and grunty powerplant that tore its way out of every corner. I remember the glee I felt passing the occasional R1 in the track’s heaviest braking zone.
Since then, most versions of the course layout include the super-speedway’s front banking as used for AMA Superbike races, which adds a real element of excitement to the otherwise flat and featureless circuit. The other noteworthy section is after transitioning from the speedway apron to the infield section when a left-hand corner opens up its radius and usually requires three upshifts while leaned over.
Perhaps the coolest memory from California Speedway, as I still like to call it, occurred during the launch of Kawi’s 2006 ZX-10R. The big Ninja was fat and top-heavy compared to the light and wicked previous version, so it wasn’t the bike that impressed. Rather, it was Tommy and Roger Hayden, both Kawi-sponsored riders at the time, who blew my mind. Not only could they pass me like my bike was missing a plug wire, they each added high drama as they backed in their bikes entering corners, then smoked the rear tires during exits. The level of talent on display directly in front of me was impossible to wrap my brain around.
Here I go again, with another unlikely mount for my first time at a California track. Happily, the highly undulating circuit is orders of magnitude more entertaining than Auto Club, as it’s built into the hills near Sonoma, California. It was known as Sears Point Raceway when I first saw it during a two-bike comparison test in 2002. I’d have you guess with which bikes, but it might take awhile before you drilled down to a BMW R1150GS and a Triumph Tiger! Yep, I raced around on gangly adventure-touring bikes while taking part in one of Reg Pridmore’s excellent CLASS schools. Got moved up to the A group, too.
To me, Sears… er, Sonoma (never mind the Infineon Raceway era) is schizophrenic. The hilly section from Turn 1 through the Turn 6 carousel is about as entertaining as a racetrack can get, as the ribbon of tarmac adventurously climbs and descends. The rest of track – mostly flat – is closer to meh than magnificent. Also, danger still lurks in the disjointed Turn 1, despite revisions to improve run-off room.
Circuito de Almeria
Ah, Spain. It’s kinda like Southern California, with a similar arid climate and lots of people who speak Spanish. It’s the former reason that is Almeria’s best asset, as its weather, especially in the winter, is about as nice as it gets anywhere in Europe. Although the technical 2.5-mile circuit isn’t on any world championship calendar, pretty much every fast European rider has been to Almeria’s undulating and challenging circuit. The track claims 90% of the Moto2 and Moto3 GP teams tested there in 2014.
For proof they’ll let just about anyone ride at Almeria, I’ve been there twice. It hosted my first international press launch held at a racetrack when Ducati invited me to ride its 2003 749S. World Superbike racer Ruben Xaus narrated the track as we were brought out in a bus for a familiarization tour, and I wasn’t the only journalist who felt the irony of Xaus – who had developed quite a rep for crashing – giving us a ride-safely speech. The Duc’s speedometer regularly registered 143 mph at the end of its half-mile straightaway.
I returned two years later for the launch of Kawasaki’s 2005 ZX-6R. This time the speedo consistently rose to the 153-mph zone, providing evidence why Ducati’s 749 evolved into the 848.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway Outside Road Course
This relatively unknown track sits in the outskirts of the speedway bowl and is designed to be cut into several configurations, ranging up to 2.4 miles in length. Sometimes referred to as the Classic Course, LVMS’s official name is even duller. I gave the flat and featureless circuit a similar level of respect by remembering I rode on it but not why I was there nor what I rode. Makes me think I had a better night at the bar that night than I did on the track…
Thunderhill Raceway Park
Thunderhill often gets lost in the limelight shone on the famous Laguna and Sonoma, or the sheer ubiquity of Willow and Buttonwillow. But I’ll venture to guess that most of the people who wouldn’t say Thunderhill is their favorite California track probably haven’t yet actually ridden there.
At 3.0 miles, Thunderhill is considerably longer than both Laguna and Sonoma, allowing for significantly longer stretches at WOT during a lap. This is especially important when testing asphalt-inhaling literbikes. And while its hills aren’t quite as majestic as the signature slopes at Lagu-noma, they’re actually pretty dang close.
I first came to T-Hill in 2005 for a shootout of 600s, and I quickly fell in love. Then new pavement was thrown on it a few years back, and the much smoother surface gave me even more to love. That theme will likely continue, as there’s now more track at Thunderhill, with the new west loop combining to total 5.0 miles of sportbike heaven now affectionately dubbed the Thunderschleife, a riff on the Nurburgring’s historic Nordschleife circuit in Germany. The video below gives a nice look at it and on-board narration.
Portland International Raceway
PIR doesn’t get much coverage in the media, lost in a netherworld between historic circuits on the East Coast and the California juggernauts to its south. And although its flat layout lacks entertaining changes in elevation, it packs fun and challenges within its 12 turns over 2.0 miles. And its front straight, which doubles as a dragstrip, is long enough to wind out fast bikes. Been to PIR only once, during a superbike shootout in 2005. The ZX-10R was fantastic that year, but it was Ducati’s 999R that was most memorable – the R version added some needed menace to the milquetoast-y 999.
Horse Thief Mile
Horse Thief is the lesser-known road course among the tracks at Willow Springs Raceway, but its steep climbs and descents give it a thrilling layout that belies its diminutive 1.0-mile length. It’s especially fun on agile, smaller-displacement motorcycles that aren’t too confined by the lack of straightaways. My wildest ride there was on a supermoto’d and poorly jetted Honda CR500 – each new application of throttle felt so much like an impending highside that I was exhausted after just three laps! HTM is also the primary training ground for our friends at Streetmasters Motorcycle Workshops.
Barber Motorsports Park
If you had to choose just one track in America to ride, Barber is about as good as it gets. The pros say it needs longer straights and better passing opportunities, but that’s of little consequence for trackday riders who will be marveling at sweetly undulating tarmac snaking through a golf-course-like setting.
And the glory of Barber doesn’t stop after you dismount your bike, as one of the best (if not the best) motorcycle museums in the world sits just outside of Turn 9. Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum is nothing short of spectacular and should be considered a must-visit location even if you have no intention of riding the racetrack.
Little known outside Japan, I’ve proclaimed Autopolis as the best racetrack you’ve never heard of. It also has an odd and somewhat shady history, and it disproves the “build it and they will come” adage. It was constructed in 1990 to host Formula 1 races when the Japanese economy was booming, but its remote location couldn’t attract the spectators necessary to make the operation viable. By 1993, it was shuttered. Then, in 2005, it was bought for pennies on the dollar by Kawasaki, which now uses it as a private test track when it’s not hosting a round of the Japanese Superbike championship or automobile racing.
The Best Racetrack You’ve Never Heard Of
I got my first crack at Autopolis during my initial few weeks at MO, in May 2007, when Kawasaki supplied a day of track time during a tour of its multi-faceted facilities in Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed its 19-turn layout that includes challenges of all sorts, including 170 feet of elevation changes over its 2.9 miles.
Getting to Autopolis isn’t easy, even if you’re starting in Tokyo, but it’s worth the trip. So, I was glad to receive a second invite to the hidden gem, this time for the launch of the 2009 ZX-6R. Hey, Team Green, maybe we can go back after your next revisions to the 6R?