On Track with Sam Hokin — Getting Started
Note: I plan to write occasional articles here about my track riding experiences. This is the first article in the series, about my first track day at Blackhawk Farms Raceway on July 1, 2009, riding my stripped-down K75RT.
I'm not exactly sure what put the idea in my mind to try riding a motorcycle on a race track this year. I think it was actually the salesman at the BMW car dealer in Madison. My son, Mitchell, had Martin Luther King Day off from school, and, as a curious new driver, he'd become very interested in high-performance German automobiles, and had read up on them. So, just for fun, I took some time off from work and we went over to the BMW/Audi/Porsche dealer to look under the hood of some really expensive German cars. While wandering through the parking lot outside, we ran into one of the salesmen.
"Do you own a BMW?" he asked. "No, not a car, but I own a BMW bike," I replied. "Oh, I ride a bike as well," he said. "You ever take your bike on a track?" He recommended that I take my bike to Blackhawk Farms Raceway, just over the state line near Beloit, which hosts a number of motorcycle track days, to see what I could do with it, unencumbered by regulations and traffic. It sounded like fun, but I left it at that — there was still snow on the ground and riding season was still a long way off.
Spring came, and I kicked off the season with a solo trip in April to have a go at the Ozark mountain roads in southern Missouri and Arkansas. It was a blast, and I realized that even though I'd read several articles about riding technique, and had ridden bikes on and off for some years, I didn't REALLY know whether I was riding my bike well in the twisties. Then my wife Carla and I took a trip to northern Georgia in May, and rode some very tight mountain roads, including the obligatory Tail of the Dragon, and, again, even though I could navigate the curves adequately at my gentlemanly BMW pace, I wondered how much better I might ride if I had some real instruction.
So, as May turned into June, I got more curious, and rode up to the AMA pro road racing event at Road America to see what real racers look like. While there, I noticed a lot of folks wearing WSB t-shirts — you may have seen the logo, based on a yellow diamond caution sign, at the Slimy Crud Run or a Quaker Steak & Lube bike night. So, after I got back home from the Sunday races, I went online and logged onto WisconsinSportBikes.net, using my usual nickname "Astrin", and began a new phase of my motorcycle riding life.
WSB founder Jim 'Doc' Lilly
WSB is a club founded, and funded, by a Fort Atkinson amateur racing enthusiast named Jim Lilly, an EMT who goes by the nickname 'Doc', a reference to his profession as well as to world champion racer Valentino 'The Doctor' Rossi. WSB's essential component is the free online forum. Anyone even remotely interested in sportbikes is welcome to join, and there is a wealth of first-hand advice on topics as diverse as classic bike rebuilds, amateur and pro racing series, gear for your body and bike, and, of course, track days. WSB sponsors a number of Motovid.com track days at Blackhawk, which serves as WSB's home track, as well as sponsoring a number of amateur racers in the local CCS racing series. As a track riding newbie, my first question was whether I needed to get my hands on a track bike, or whether I should haul my BMW K75RT to the track to have a go at it. The clear response was that I should invest in some protective gear, get my road bike to a track first, and see what I thought about the whole thing. So, after buying a new helmet and some race gloves, that's what I did.
The next Blackhawk track day, administered by Motovid.com and sponsored by WSB, was coming up on July 1, a Wednesday, as always for Motovid.com track days.
Preparing my bike
It's amazing how much comes off when you remove the "RT" from a K75RT. And, how good it looks. I'd taken the fairing off before, to repair some damage, but in readying my bike for my July 1 track day at Blackhawk, I went further, taking off the heavy steel Reynolds rack (which seemingly accounts for half the bike's weight) as well as the rails that hold the side cases and the rear brake and signal lights. I didn't remove the center or side stands, opting instead to wire them in place, as required. My Metzeler Lasertec tires, which were new at the beginning of the season, already had 6000 miles of wear on them after Arkansas, Georgia, and plenty of Wisconsin riding, so I replaced them with new Bridgestone BT-45s, another sport-touring tire I'd been wanting to try. Your bike may fail tech inspection at Blackhawk if you've got more than 30% wear on your tires (download the 2010 riders packet to see the other safety requirements).
My 1991 K75RT with the "RT" removed
The one other change I made was to put the low seat on the bike (I own both low and high Corbin seats), figuring that it would help me to get as low as I could on a tall bike. As it turned out, the deeper scoop of the low seat was probably even more helpful, holding my rear end in place as I accelerated out of turns.
Note that you don't have to remove everything from your bike, as I did, to ride a track day. Most folks that ride road bikes just remove their mirrors, tape up the lights and wire up the side and center stands. In fact, one WSB member actually rides his R1100S to the track and readies it on site, which is truly admirable. But I wanted to reduce the weight of my bike, and remove the chance of damaging the expensive fairing, so Carla and I drove it down to Blackhawk on our bike trailer that cloudy Wednesday. (Since I didn't own a bike stand, I also used the trailer to hold the bike between sessions.)
Track day morning
We Madisonians are pretty lucky that Blackhawk Farms Raceway is so close, less than an hour's ride down I-94 to South Beloit, because a track day starts quite early — the gates open at 7 AM and folks have their pop-ups set up and have run their bikes through tech inspection and put on tire warmers by the 8 AM riders' meeting. Folks come from as far as Iowa and Minnesota to ride at Blackhawk. When Carla and I arrived that Wednesday morning, we pulled in between some WSB folks along the front straight, and I immediately began to meet folks whom I'd already "met" on the WSB forum, but by different names. "Hi, my name is Sam." "Oh, you're Astrin on WSB, right?" "Yeah, and who are you?" "Ed. ERB68." (Ed has both Bears and Packers pop-ups, which is really hard to get one's head around.) The problem with the WSB forum is that practically everyone uses shots of themselves on their bikes for their avatar, so you never know what they actually look like. It's hard to connect faces you've never seen with names you've never heard with bikes and leathers you have seen with nicknames you have seen. But it's a hell of a lot better problem than knowing absolutely no one at the track, which would have been the case for me had I not been on the WSB forum beforehand.
The first thing you need to do at a track day is to register. The various track day outfits designate the rider groups in different ways. Motovid uses three designations: Novice, Intermediate and Advanced. On crowded days they split Intermediate (the largest group) into slower and faster groups. My first track day wasn't crowded, so we had three groups, which meant we each had 20-minute sessions on track, and I rode in Novice, of course. A nice feature of Motovid/Blackhawk is that they include lunch with the track day fee. (Blackhawk serves good food, and on later track days Carla and my son Mitchell opted to get breakfast there as well.)
The special feature of Motovid track days is video. Motovid sends out video riders who follow several riders around the track per session. The video for all riders is then compiled into a single DVD for the day, which you receive in the mail a week or two later. Video is an invaluable tool for improving your technique, and several of the WSB staff, including Jim Lilly, serve as Motovid video riders. (There is also a fee service from TraqMate, where they put a GPS recorder on your bike, shoot video, and then combine the GPS and video to provide you with a composite video that displays your speed and position on track along with your lap times. You can see an example of me, shot by Jim Lilly, from a later Riders Clinic here.)
After you've registered, you take your bike to tech inspection, usually along with your helmet, gloves, leathers and boots, to get it and your gear approved for riding on the track. I didn't have leathers or race boots, but my regular riding gear along with my new helmet and gloves were acceptable for a novice track rider. The guys in tech inspection were mildly amused by my bike, since one doesn't see a K75 too often outside of BMW rallies, but it met requirements and my bike received the tech inspection sticker.
At roughly 8:00 you hear an announcement over the track PA calling all riders to the meeting by the start/finish line. This is where the head Motovid guy, Mike Casey, and the Blackhawk event manager, Kathleen Casey (Mike's better half), and some control riders explain the rules and expectations. It's not a race. People caught racing will be asked to leave the track. Novices may only pass on the straights. All riders must maintain 6 feet of separation when they pass. The various flags are explained. One of the very important concepts is the blend line - a yellow line, emphasized on track days with a series of cones, denotes the line separating oncoming straightaway traffic from folks merging onto the track out of the pit lane. At Blackhawk, you enter the track on the right side, a few hundred feet before the right-hand Turn 1. Therefore, bikes entering the track to the right of the blend line are already on an inside line for the first turn. Oncoming riders are expected to accommodate merging bikes accordingly.
After the riders meeting, the three groups split up. The Advanced riders, who ride first, get their gear on and head to the track to start the track day. The Intermediate and Novice groups meet with their respective group leaders for further instruction.
Novice rider orientation
The Novice group consists of first-time track riders and other beginners, typically with fewer than 5 or 6 track days under their belt. Since there is a wide range of bikes and speed in the Novice group, it ideally has a good number of control riders, so that slower riders can get some extra instruction (and protection). The Novice group gathers by the track map where the group leader, usually Shawn Hill this past summer, describes the various turns as well as reminding folks to stay to the right between turns 6 and 7, putting their left arm or leg out to signal, when they are leaving the track.
The circuit has 12 turns, but only 7 are numbered.
If every turn were numbered, as they usually are at road racing circuits, Blackhawk Farms Raceway would have 12 turns around the 1.95-mile circuit. But not every turn is numbered; rather, there are seven numbered turns along with some extra labels, like "3d", commonly called the "Bus Stop", the slowest turn on the track, and "6a", a fast right-hand kink leading up to the final Turn 7. Turn 3 is a 180-degree double-apex "Carousel"; Turns 4 and 5 combine to make a large double-apex left, and Turn 6 is a large double-apex right. There are a total of 7 rights and 5 lefts, but the sharp turns are all rights, and tires wear more on the right side.
After the novice riders' questions are answered and everyone is informed about track procedures, the riders get their gear on and wait for the Novice session to be announced on the PA.
There is one final check before riders are allowed onto the hot pit: track inspection. This is an important final check to see that riders and bikes are all up to snuff. The track inspector checks that lights are taped over, stands wired up, shoelaces taped down (if you're wearing laced riding boots, as I was that day), and, if all is in order, you get another sticker on your bike. Then when the track goes "green" you roll out onto the hot pit and roll up to the start/finish line, where you are signaled onto the track.
The novice group awaits the beginning of their session at the entrance to the hot pit. Jenna inspects bikes and riders and lets them on the track after she receives the go-ahead on her radio. I'm on the left, the only rider on a (normally) touring bike this day.
Novice riders take a slow lap behind the group leader at the beginning of the first session, to become acquainted with the circuit and to practice exiting the track back onto the hot pit. After that first orientation lap has taken place, riders are let back onto the track for the rest of the 20-minute session (15 minutes on days with two Intermediate groups). The rest of the day consists of 20 minutes on, 40 minutes off (15 on, 45 off with four groups), with a half-hour or hour lunch break for the safety workers.
If there is a crash during your session and the red flag goes out, you pull into the hot pit and lose time from your session while they get the bike and/or rider off the track. Most lowsides or ride-offs result in a yellow flag, but there are typically a couple red flags over the course of the day. Blackhawk has a small clinic, EMTs and two ambulances which can take you to the hospital in Beloit if something bad happens.
Other than that, you ride around the track, one session per hour, typically getting around 10 laps in a 20-minute session (since part of the 20 minutes is spent getting all riders on and off the track). The current Blackhawk track record is 1:08 for both 600-cc and 1000-cc bikes. (Since it is a technical track with fairly short straights, the larger bike doesn't provide an advantage.) I was probably riding at half that speed at the beginning, taking my time learning the turns and following the recommended line, which is painted on the track with red dots. In fact, after I decided that I was too distracted to shift effectively while negotiating the turns, I just left my bike in third gear all the way around, except on the front straight. (Of course, the ample low-end torque of a BMW makes this a reasonable choice.)
Gron4 Photography (Andy and Mikel Gronfor), shoot highly professional photos of riders and racers at all Blackhawk track days and CCS events, available for sale on their site
a few days after the event.
One should take full advantage of the friendly and experienced control riders when riding track days. Their job is to watch the riders and help them out, and they are often available to lead you around the track or follow you and give you tips at the end of the session. On my first track day, Jack Erlinger, a BMW rider off of the track, and whose brother Kirk shoots video for Motovid, gave me some good tips on an afternoon session, particularly about keeping my toes on my non-rearset pegs so that I didn't catch my low foot going around turns. It's quite easy to break an ankle if that happens. For the rest of the summer, Shawn Hill took me under his wing and helped me to improve my riding form and, naturally, my lap times. He became very familiar with my strengths and weaknesses and typically had a couple of basic tasks for me on a given track day. I very much look forward to working with him again next summer, if he's there (he hopes to race the AMA Daytona Sportbike series next year).
Another great resource at Blackhawk is the Riders Clinic, also put on by Motovid, on Fridays before CCS racing weekends. The CCS racers practice on Friday, with Amateurs in one 20-minute session and Experts in another, which leaves a 20-minute session for the Riders Clinic, which has a very high ratio of instructors to students. It's a bit more expensive than regular open track days, but it's very well worth it, combining classroom instruction between sessions with on-track instruction, often one-on-one with an instructor. If you're looking for a very low-density track day, the Riders Clinic is the ticket. All skill levels are welcome; if you're brand new to track, you'll get an excellent introduction; if you're an aspiring racer, you'll get excellent instruction from experienced teachers like Rick Breuer (Learning Curves Riding/Racing School), Ron Hix (Hix Racing), Shawn Hill and others. (Rick Breuer is also the guy that runs the CCS racing clinic on the Saturday morning of CCS races to license new racers.)
If you're interested in riding an All Levels Track Day or Riders Clinic with Motovid at Blackhawk, go to Motovid.com to learn more and register online!
In my next article, I'll talk about my search for a track bike, and things one should consider in buying a bike dedicated to track riding. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.