Out of the Canyons & Onto the Track
Welcome to the fastest road in the west.
We really are here for you at MO. We review bikes and dispense advice, not just because it's fun and allows us to bask in the radiance of our own presence, but also to repay, in a small way, our karmic debt for just being able to do it in the first place. Even though we say it often and loudly, "There is simply no substitute for track time, when learning how to ride a high-performance sport motorcycle." On a race track, all of the traffic is going the same way, there isn't any gravel, diesel fuel, or dirt at the apex, and there is generally an ambulance within 1 minute of you, should something go wrong. Not only is there is a wealth of talent around to help you improve your riding ability, you'll also meet plenty of like-minded people, which is the best part of it for most of us.
One thing that has always struck me about high performance motorcycles is exactly how difficult it is to skillfully push them to their limits. Having piloted nearly every type of wheeled, tracked or winged vehicle known to man, I am firmly of the opinion that riding a motorcycle near the edge of its performance envelope requires concentration and skill akin to that commonly found in the cockpit of an aircraft. In addition to MO's own Sean Alexander, there are an amazing number of our fellow racers who are licensed pilots. It makes sense, that a thoughtful motorcyclist seeking to increase his or her riding skills, would be willing to seek out instruction from skilled riders in a structured learning environment (If not for reasons of self-preservation, then simply to avoid having to reinvent the wheel.) A great deal of personal experience leads me to confidently assure everyone out there that even though you may be the local hero at racer road, you will very likely get your doors blown off by little old ladies on GS550s at the racetrack. The high stakes, low odds, small payoff Canyon GP world is full of temporary fast guys. Not to worry, salvation is just a road trip away.
"There is simply no substitute for track time, when learning how to ride a high-performance sport motorcycle."
In our latest attempt to reinforce the fact that it's a good idea to get out of the canyons and onto a race track, MO recently embarked on a journalistic foray to examine a disparate set of track programs in order to bring to you, the MO faithful, a taste of the entire spectrum of track day options available to sport riders. To make your decision to take it to the track seem less intimidating, we decided to give you the perspective of first time track riders culled from the ranks of the MO's own readership. As this series continues, we'll continue this modus operandi. If you are interested in attending a track program in your area for the first time, are articulate (being sorta funny is also a bonus) and willing to write about your experiences for us, drop me a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll talk.
For the first installment in this series, MO recruited two long time subscribers and message board participants, Steven Verschoor and Pete Brissette. We sent Steven to attend a Friday track day at Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR), near Rosamond CA. We also arranged to for Pete to join Steven on Saturday and stay through the entire weekend, while attending the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club (WSMC) "New Racer's School." Pete and Steven are both extremely responsible and experienced street riders and were known to us not only through the MO message boards, but also from having lent a hand with various shootouts over the past year. They are both good hands and we think you'll enjoy their stories. Interestingly, both Pete and Steven rely on motorcycles as their sole means of motorized transportation. Neither of them even owns a car! Steven rides his BMW to work daily in LA, and Pete works as a courier on his Suzuki Bandit-S 1200. Both are hard corps, highly skilled street riders. Between them, Pete and Steven have logged well over a hundred thousand motorcycle miles, and were just the type of folks we're looking for to explain to you why it's a good idea to get yourself to a track, no matter what your street experience is.
We chose the WSMC experience for the first installment in this series, primarily because several MO staffers have a connection with the organization. The WSMC new racer's weekend program is different in both scope and direction from the learning environment of many track organizations in that it is entirely devoted to racing on the "fastest road in the west," the big track at Willow Springs. General riding instruction is minimal and the degree of commitment required is much higher than for most track day programs. Each participant must have a race-grade helmet with leathers, gloves, boots and a back protector. Motorcycles must be fully race prepped (including safety wire, belly pans, and draining all antifreeze from liquid cooled bikes) and both bike and rider must undergo a thorough tech inspection before going out onto the track.
What follows are the WSMC stories of Steven and Pete, which we wove together into a single narrative.
Perhaps the most important of the WSMC's graduation criteria, is that students must be able to post a sub-2 minute lap time during Saturday practice, before being allowed to earn their WSMC novice race license and race on Sunday. Not everyone meets this lap time requirement, which is indicative of the anti hype, no-BS, safety-first approach that WSMC takes to the sport. No amount of money, fame, prestige, or entourage gets you on the grid to race at WSMC without a sub 2:00 lap time. We are big fans of this approach. For a cost of $350 for three days, it's indisputably one of the greatest bargains in motorcycling.
What follows are the WSMC stories of Steven and Pete, which we wove together into a single narrative. Sean, Fonzie and I were there for most of this story, so we'll chime-in with our own observations from time to time like: (I'm not really that big of a WSMC fan. -Sean), and we have a couple of sidebar stories on people around the track whom we think you ought to know. Both Steven and Pete will readily admit that the intimidation they felt before entering the program was mitigated by the people around the track who are there specifically to support (and make money from) the riders. Pete and Steven are very different personalities and took two completely different approaches to chronicling their big weekend. We think you'll enjoy their individual perspectives. -Martin
Steven Verschoor: I've been riding for about two and a half years, and I have about 45,000 miles under my belt: mostly canyon and commuting miles, plus a handful of long-weekend tours. I ride a BMW R1150R "standard". It's my only vehicle, and I'm very happy with it.
I was a little nervous, yet was also thrilled with anticipation. I'd never been to Willow Springs, but I'd read about it - almost twice as many right-hand turns as lefts. That made me uneasy - I'm better at lefts. I'd also read that Willow Springs is demanding. You have to lap less than two minutes if you want to be able to race. There was a sale at Cycle Gear, and I got a nice Frank Thomas two-piece suit for a fair price, because I wanted to look sharp for this auspicious occasion.
Pete Brissette: "Motorcycle" and "Racing" are two words I didn't think I'd ever put together in the same breath, when associated with my own name, let alone as a way to describe an activity that would become my new favorite pastime. However, thanks to MO, I'm now a card-carrying member of one of the most respected race clubs in the country. Pete Brissette-WSMC Novice #618. Hard evidence of a fantasy realized.
In spite of my long-standing desire to test myself on a racetrack, I had great trepidation about this whole deal. Perhaps, it was the morphing of a vague dream into reality. Or maybe it was when I decided to use my sole means of daily transportation as my race bike. The thought of my only bike tumbling across the Mojave Desert at warp-speed, made me desirous of much safer things. Nevertheless, my bike it was, and hopefully you will be the beneficiary of my experience.
At first using my bike wasn't even a consideration, for the simple fact that it is my everyday unit. Then I researched racing bike rentals. That research ended rather quickly, as I calculated that renting a very modest little bike for two to three days with the crash deposit included, would amount to the lion's share of my racing budget. This would truly be an exercise in frugality, or was that futility? With some very practical encouragement from Martin and another friend who has a few seasons under his belt, I opted to take my chances. Martin made the best point when he said: "Using your own bike would be best because it's what you know. You're familiar with every aspect of your bike."
My personal bike is a 1998 Suzuki Bandit-S 1200, with approximately 56K on the clock. For many of those miles, I've used it as a messenger bike in Los Angeles -my primary means of putting rice and beans on the table for the past eight years- It's a little tricked-out, but nothing compared to most of the modified Bandits on the prowl. Most of my mods are to make the bike more livable for everyday riding. However, in addition to work, I do enjoy a sporting weekend or two in the canyons of Southern California.
Steven: I decided to use my trusty BMW for Friday's track day. It's not the fastest bike by any means, but with its neutral handling and torquey motor, it gives a good accounting of itself. I removed the mirrors and the license plate, and then I covered all the lenses and reflectors with gaffer's tape. My bike is black, and I kind of like the way it looked, without mirrors and with black tape covering all the red and yellow plastic.
I want to stress how easy it was to prep my bike for Friday's track day. The whole job took 20 minutes, and that's counting BS-ing with the guys the whole time. I walked the bike through tech inspection, and was all set to go to the WSMC track intro school.
If you're going to venture onto the safety of racetrack, whether for actual competition or a simple track day, you're going to have to make a few temporary modifications to your scoot. For casual track days; you'll just have to track prep your bike. Generally, this involves taping glass, removing mirrors and side stands. For racing however, you will have to do a much more thorough "race" prep. While "track" prepping requires few tools and may be accomplished in as little as an hour, "race" prepping is a much more difficult and involved undertaking, requires more serious tools and permanent modifications to your motorcycle. It will probably take a full day, the first time you do it.
In addition to taping glass and removing mirrors and side stands, race prepping involves finding a way to contain leaked fuel, oil or water and safety wiring anything else that twists, spins or can vibrate loose. Some race organizations will allow the use of epoxy or sealant, in place of safety wiring on difficult to drill fasteners. To "race-prep", you are going to need a drill press and a small bit (or a hand drill and several small bits -Sean), safety wire, safety wire pliers, and good deal of patience.
The following list is what is required to pass tech at WSMC. However, the requirements are similar to what is required race organizations nationwide:
Headlight lenses, brake light lenses, tail light lenses and speedometer lens must be either removed or completely taped. Lights should be disabled so that they do not work. All plugs or fittings with oil or water behind them must be securely fastened and safety wired. RTV silicone sealant or yellow 3M weather-strip may be used when it's impractical to wire or drill fasteners. All oil, fuel and water lines require positive clamping, i.e., no wire clamps or slip fitting. Clamps on pressure oil, fuel and water lines must be safety wired. A catch tank must be provided for all breather hoses venting the cam box, top end, crankcase, primary drive case, transmission, carburetor(s) and oil tank(s) Liquid cooled engines must use either plain water or water with a water wetter type compounds added, and vent into a catch tank. No antifreeze. Drum brake anchor arms and disk brake caliper mounting fasteners must be safety wired or secured with mechanical locking devices Footrests (and kick starters) may fold but must not fold accidentally. Footrests, if covered by rubber, must have rubber securely safety wired. Passenger footrests should be removed.
Drive chain master links of the clip type must have the clip pointing in the direction of chain travel and safety wired or silicone sealant applied. Most racers mark their master links with a spot of red paint to make it easily visible during tech inspection. All axle nuts must be safety wired, C-clip devices on the axle it must be safety wired, and all axle pinch bolts must be safety wired. All motorcycles must be equipped with a working engine kill switch accessible without removing hands from the handgrips Frames must be free of cracks and kinks and all frame welds must be sound. Some race organizations will require an oil catch pan. Racing bodies generally incorporate this feature but Martin made one from a paint roller tray, that he bought at Home Depot for his naked 600 cc thumper.