Preparing for a day on the racetrack
As you page through the catalogs and ponder the next performance addition for your sportbike, stop for a moment-get out of the La-Z-Boy, go to the bathroom and look in the mirror. There's your next modification staring stubble-faced back at you in the reflection. Want to make your superbike go better? It's easy: Make yourself a better rider.
- How many track days to a set of supersport tires? Good question, and one that's impossible to answer accurately. Generally speaking, a heavy, powerful bike will eat a set of the softest tires in one day, while you might get two days out of the same tires on a 600. Let local wisdom be your guide. Some tracks are more abrasive than others, and there are other factors, including ambient temperature and the average speed around the course.
- Never forget to check tire pressures at the track. Ignore for the moment the manufacturer's recommended pressures and aim for 2.1 Kpa front and 1.9 Kpa rear. Inflating the tires to 2.5 kpa the night before will give you sufficient extra pressure to bleed down to the desired settings.
- Plan to bring plenty of extra fuel because, though normally available, fuel at the track can be astonishingly expensive. Be prepared.
And while there are plenty of opportunities for personal improvement-including riding more often-we can't think of anything better than attending a track school or track day. What's the difference? Mainly, track schools stress learning from a syllabus, using the track time to practice lessons introduced in the classroom. Track days (see the adjoining reference), on the other hand, are generally open affairs, hosted to give you a chance to practice your skills and probe the boundaries of your bike's performance limits. (Let's jump ahead and point out that you'll find your own limits well before your bike's.) Many track days employ instructors who will follow you around-or lead you around-and offer churlish suggestions.
BIKE PREP AND SETUP
For most track days, motorcycle preparation is straightforward. Be warned, however, that most organizers frown on rat bikes, so don't even think about taking your drop-doggie 500 Interceptor on bald tires to the track. Several days before the scheduled track day, take a few minutes to give your bike a good onceover. Note: We do not recommend that this process take place the night before you leave. Far too many would-be track riders have discovered something broken or missing the night before, when it's too late to find replacement parts; don't be one of them. Remove the fairing and check that all the major nuts and bolts are tight. Pay particular attention to the wheels and brakes; you need brake pads with plenty of life left in them and rotors that are clean and true, not warped.
Before you're allowed onto the track, you and your bike will have to pass a technical inspection. Mainly, organizers are looking to see that your tires and brakes are fresh, your throttle returns with a nice, vigorous snap and there are no fluid leaks. Takes all of five minutes-if you've done your homework.
Check the chain for lubrication, tight spots and overall tension. Better to run on the loose side of the manufacturer's specs. While you're messing around back there, check to see if the axle has the proper cotter pin or if the self-locking nut is in good shape.
Dig out the owner's manual and find the section on suspension settings. Adjust to the recommended "high speed" or "rider and passenger" settings. (For reasons you can appreciate, you won't find "track day" recommendations in the manual.) Check out our Web site for SR-approved suspension settings for your bike. Set the spring preload for your weight by measuring static sag and adjusting to get the desired 25- to 33-percent of travel.
Consult the organizer to see if you must replace your bike's coolant with plain water. Many organizers do not require this step, accepting the risk of someone going down and dropping slippery glycol on the track. On the topic of fluids, it's a good idea to change the oil before your track day unless it's just been done, but please give the bike a quick test ride to make sure there are no leaks. Oozing fluids of any type are bad news on the racetrack.
As for adding hardware specifically for the track, the only things we consider close to essential are crash protectors-those nylon bungs that stick out and help keep the bodywork off the track.
BITS TO TAKE OFF
Most track-day organizers will ask you to remove or tape over your mirrors and cover your headlight, taillight and turn signal lenses. Removing the mirrors prevents becoming distracted by what's behind you-and we recommend their removal unless doing so is a real pain; it's just one less thing to buy if you crash. Taping over the lenses prevents leaving behind shards on the track surface in the event you crash. Do yourself a favour and unplug the headlight bulbs (or remove the fuse) to prevent cooking the duct tape onto the lenses. Even those organizers who don't ask you to tape everything in sight will often request that you disconnect your brake light; this ensures that the guy behind you finds his own braking points.
- You don't have to make your tape job art work-obviously! Many track-day riders remove their license plates, but if you choose to leave yours on, run a bit of tape across the mounting bolts to make sure they don't end up on the track.
- Not all event organizers require comprehensive taping of glass and plastic, but unless you have an unnatural aversion to duct tape, it's worth doing anyway. Hint: After applying the tape in strips, trim around the edges with a razor blade.
- While not all organizers require it, taping over stick-on wheel weights is a good idea. It ensures that the weights don't come flying off, creating an annoying (and worse, distracting) imbalance in the wheel. This step is not as critical for crimp-on weights-sometimes seen clamped onto the rim by the tire bead or fixed to a rib along the center of the wheel-but what's a bit of duct tape worth?
THE TIRE CONUNDRUM
Here you'll get plenty of conflicting advice. Consider these generalizations while bearing in mind that, in the grand scheme, tires are relatively inexpensive and it's foolish to cheap-out on tires only to end up in the dirt.
For first-time track riders: The OEM rubber on your sportbike will, assuming it's reasonably fresh, be just fine. Today's stock tires are very good; more than able to handle a day or two at the track as long as you're not the next Neil Hodgson. The same goes for street-spec replacements-tires such as Avon's AV39/40 or 49/50, Bridgestone's BT010/11/12, Dunlop's D207ZR or D208, Metzeler's M-5 Sportec, Michelin's Pilot Sport or Pirelli's Dragon Evo or Diablo.
- Ah, the happy track-rider's home at the start of an event. (You can tell it's not the end by the lack of clutter.) A sunshade, chairs and a cooler full of cold water are three prime ingredients of track-day contentment. Note the tie-down straps used to secure the tent to the back of the truck; bring extras if you expect high winds; use the fuel and toolbox to anchor the other two legs.
- Have a look at your chain the night before, but double-check it on track day. Run the chain on the loose side of the manufacturer's recommendations, and be sure to bring any tools you might need to adjust the chain during the day. New chains will stretch a lot under the rigors of track use.
- Every track day starts with a rider briefing. Please listen closely, as different organizers approach on-track rider communication differently. Some have full crews on the track with standard flags. Others have roaming instructors/safety personnel on bikes. Also, pay close attention to the track entry and exit procedures; at the same track five clubs will often have five different ways to get on and off the racing, er, practice surface.
Fast street riders or those who have been to a couple of track days will be happier stepping up a notch into the intermediate category. Here you'll find Avon's AV49/50 Pro-Series, Bridgestone's BT012SS, Dunlop's D207RR, Metzeler's Racetec (street compound), Michelin's Pilot Race H2 and Pirelli's Dragon Evo Super Corsa (street compound) or new Diablo Corsa. These are great category-spanning tires, capable on the street and sweet on the track. Midrange riders should really consider them in lieu of the hard-core DOT-race tires because they're also good street tires.
More experienced riders and neo-racers should really step up to the race-spec tires: Bridgestone's BT001R, Dunlop's D209GP, Metzeler's Racetec Interact, Michelin's Pilot Race M2 and Pirelli's Dragon Evo Super Corsa (SC compounds; SC1 is supersoft, SC2 is soft). Yes, there's a catch: Race tires are much more expensive and harder to find mail order. Tire resellers who come to the track will have them, however.
- Actually, you should have done this the night before, but take a moment to make sure you've got plenty of pad material for the track day. High-speed braking eats pads for lunch.
- Regardless of whether you've taped your headlights, be sure to either pull the fuse or disconnect the plugs. You don't want to bake the duct tape onto the lenses, nor do you want to distract other riders by clanging around with your high beams on. The organizers will check this at tech.
- You'd be surprised how many riders get all excited about being on the track and forget to check such basic items as oil and coolant levels. Be sure to carve out 15 minutes before the first session to go back over all the basics.
THE PRESSURE'S ON
Whatever tire you choose to run, be sure to set it to the correct pressure. And that information does not come from your owner's manual. Typically, tire pressures for the track will be much lower than you're used to. Ask the track-day organizers to find out the best setup. A cold tire pressure 2.1 bar front and 1.9 bar rear is in the desired range. Always check the pressures at the start of the day, with cold tires.
Bring an accurate pressure gauge and before departing for the track slightly "overfill" the tires. Inflating them will give you enough latitude to "bleed down" to the correct pressure at the track. Don't bother setting the pressures at home the night before; changes in the atmosphere and temperature and differences in altitude between your home and the track will throw off the readings. As an alternative, pack a compressed-air bottle or buy one of those inexpensive tire inflators that plug into a cigarette lighter socket.
HOW TO GET THERE
First-time track riders seem to think it's OK to ride to the track day, and, presumably, ride home. The first half isn't difficult, particularly with a sense of anticipation making up for the early rise out of bed and the long ride in frigid air. But it's on the trip home that these guys start complaining. That's one of the reasons we highly recommend trucking or trailering to the track. (Naturally, the other is that in case you crash, you'll have some way to get home.) Consider several possibilities: You could make friends with someone from your town who already has a trailer or truck and tag along. In fact, this buddy system is strongly encouraged for many reasons, including lasting friendship.
WHAT TO BRING
If this is your first track outing, don't budget for a three-story tent or rented umbrella girls. Do bring a modicum of tools-don't rely solely on the bike's tool kit unless you want to become known as the fool who borrows tools. A basic kit should include the usual hand tools, plus any special tools you need to remove either wheel; you can often buy tires at the track for a good price, but you'll need to dismount your own wheels. Bring anything you need to adjust the suspension, including front and rear preload. Pack a tape measure to help you reset sag on site. Experienced riders have a further list of special tools and spare parts commonly broken in a crash: brake, clutch and shift levers, for example.
Pack a big cooler with ice and lots and lots of water. This is not a luxury but a dead-cert requirement: On hot days, you cannot drink too much water. Dehydration saps your energy, cramps your muscles and turns your brain to mush. Protein bars are a good source of energy, but don't forget your old friend fruit; a bunch of bananas and a big box of raisins will do you good. Pack sunscreen and lip balm, too.
Two words: Don't skimp. An armored textile suit (like an Aerostich) is OK for road riding, but if you envision going to the track, budget for a serious one-piece racing suit. You don't have to spend a couple grand, but look for a good suit that fits well and has substantial armor, including a back protector. It's the same deal with the helmet, gloves and boots. If you fall off, you will surely regret buying bargain-basement stuff. A racetrack is not the place for a beanie helmet and Doc Martens.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Arrive on time or even a bit early (most open by 7 a.m.) and plan to pass technical inspection before 8 a.m. and sit through a rider's briefing just before 8.30 a.m. Take a moment before the track opens to stretch your muscles, begin hydrating and work out a rough plan for the day, which might be as simple as learning which way the track goes. By 9:00, the first of two or more groups will take to the track, usually for 20- or 25-minute stints. Sometimes, when the field is thin, the groups will be combined. One recommendation: Make your first stint short. This will allow you to work up to a nice pace with less chance of cramping, and will provide an opportunity to check over the bike and have time to make any adjustments or repairs before the next session. Actually, there's a second recommendation: