A few things to think about at your next track day
By Brian Catterson, Photography by Gold & Goose
What’s the proper way to ride a motorcycle? Ask a dozen riders and you’ll get a dozen answers. Not even the experts can agree. Take something as simple as steering: Forget that whole push-right-to-go-left deal. Keith Code gave us the Power Pivot, Reg Pridmore preaches body steering and Freddie Spencer stresses trail-braking to change direction. Totally contradictory techniques, yet they all work. Who are we to disagree?
The thing about riding a motorcycle is there is no one proper way–there are lots of ways. And you never stop learning. Take what you hear or read or see or are taught, think about it, give it a go, and if it works, make it your own. Then share it with your friends.
As a journalist, racer and track-day instructor, I’ve been doing just that for more than two decades now. Drawing from that experience, I’ve compiled 20 tips that, for one reason or another, have stuck in my craw for lo these many years. Most I got straight from the source, a few I read in books or magazines, but all are nuggets of information that have served me well. I hope they do the same for you.
LEARN TO THINK FOR YOURSELF
Say what you will about the guru, Keith Code wrote the book on high-performance motorcycle riding and it’s called A Twist of the Wrist. Twenty-three years after it was first published, it’s still tops on my list. I took Code’s California Superbike School twice in 1984 and ’85, and at first found his teaching style frustrating. Asked the best line through a corner, he turned the question back to me: “I don’t know. There are lots of correct lines. They change depending on what bike you’re riding, the condition of your tires, etc. What line do you think is correct?” What I thought was I’d better learn to think for myself.
KEEP YOUR CHEST ON THE TANK
The second time I took the California Superbike School, Wes Cooley was a guest instructor. I was impressed by how tidy he was on the bike–always tucked in behind the windscreen without any limbs sticking out in the breeze. Later, he told the class a funny story: “One day I came in from practice and my dad told me I needed to stay tucked in. I told him I had, so he tied a shoelace from my zipper to the ignition key. When I came back in after the next session, my leathers were unzipped to my waist.” Keeping your chest on the tank not only improves your bike’s aerodynamics, it lowers the center of gravity and gives the front tire a better bite.
Spanish Gran Prix, 1990
3. John Kocinski
TRUST YOUR TIRES
Everyone frets about cold tires, especially when they’re fresh from the molds. Not John Kocinski. In the years before John Boy won the 1990 250cc world championship, I covered the AMA 250cc Grand Prix series for Cycle News, and can recall him routinely going to the starting grid on unscrubbed slicks. “That’s OK, I’ll just push the front a couple of times on the warm-up lap and they’ll be fine,” I once heard him tell Dunlop’s Jim Allen. This was years before tire-warmers were invented, incidentally. Kocinski’s competitors were quick to point out he got the good Dunlops straight from the GPs, but it wasn’t his tires that won him three consecutive titles, it was his confidence.
ALWAYS UPSHIFT AFTER MISSING A GEAR
Back in the late ’80s, Danny Coe of Cycle magazine was a top AMA 250cc GP competitor and unofficial champion of the Moto-Journalist GPs. When during a GSX-R launch at Laguna Seca I mentioned I’d botched a downshift, he asked me what I did next. “Um, I downshifted again.” Wrong: Coe insisted you should always shift up after missing a shift, to ensure you’re not a gear lower than you intended. Better to be out of the powerband than to have the rear tire hopping up and down, trying to pass the front.
HUG THE CURVES
In ’93 I rode for Kawasaki at the Willow Springs 24-Hour, and one of my teammates was Jason Pridmore. This was long before he established his STAR Motorcycle School, but he’d been instructing with his father’s CLASS organization and had become adept at identifying riders’ shortcomings. He followed me for a few laps during practice and afterward told me I needed to run tighter lines. Where I’d go through a corner with my knee on the white line, Jason would take it with his knee on or even over the curb. More often than not, the shortest path around a racetrack is the quickest.
GIVE TO GET
During my six-year tenure as a race reporter for American Roadracing and Cycle News, there were two riders I could count on to give me a straight answer. One of those was Dale Quarterley. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, the New Englander was too big to ever have been considered for a factory ride, but at Mid-Ohio in 1993 he won an AMA Superbike national–the last privateer to do so. He was a guest instructor when I took the Penguin School at Loudon that year, and his pet phrase was “give to get”–that is, you’ve got to give up speed at the corner entrance to get it back at the end of the following straight. Rushing a corner entrance only ruins your drive at the exit.
NEVER GIVE UP
I miss this guy. Randy Renfrow was one of the nicest guys in motorcycle racing, but also one of the most determined. Not even having a toe grafted on to replace a lost thumb could extinguish his competitive spirit. Racing with Ducati-mounted Dale Quarterley for the lead of a Pro Twins race at Heartland Park Topeka circa 1989, Renfrow lost the front end of his Common-wealth Honda RS750 and fell to the ground, yet somehow managed to pull himself back on board and continue on to victory. “Bikes don’t fall down, riders drag them down,” he told me afterward. Ironically, it wasn’t a crash that claimed Renfrow’s life; it was a freak fall down a flight of stairs while recovering from one.
Dutch TT, 1992
8. Kevin Schwantz
LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING
Book of Duh, Chapter One, but Kevin Schwantz’s take is refreshing, especially for those of us whose height (or girth, or both) makes crawling under the paint difficult. Sure, the 1993 500cc world champion tucked in on the straights, but not as much as his rivals; he’d raise his head just enough to look over–or around–the windscreen. Like they taught you in Driver’s Ed, looking farther down the road gives you a big-picture view that effectively slows things down–an important consideration at triple-digit speeds.
Jockey-sized multi-time Canadian Superbike Champion Steve Crevier started out racing lightweight 250s, and after moving up to heavier production bikes realized he needed to change his riding style. Sitting bolt upright in the saddle–or “riding proud,” as he called it–helped him maximize his leverage on the handlebars. As a track-day instructor, I’ve quoted Crevier countless times while trying to get new riders to focus on riding the motorcycle first and assuming the position later. When you start dragging hard parts, it’s time to hang off. Until then, ride proud.
THE FAST LINE ISN’T ALWAYS OBVIOUS
For the past seven years I’ve instructed with The Track Club at Buttonwillow Raceway, thus I know the track like the back of my hand. But after taking part in one of Doug Polen’s One-on-One training sessions with radio communication, my idea of the right line was dramatically altered. B-Willow has two sections with three corners in a row, and everyone swoops back and forth across the track to negotiate them. Everyone except Polen: The former AMA and World Superbike champion stays hard on the gas way past the customary braking point for the first corner, trail-brakes straight up the inside of the second, hugs the apex and then gets a killer drive out of the third. Freddie Spencer has a term for this; he calls it “throwing out a corner.”
Eddie Lawson & Scott Russell
Daytona 200, 1993
11. Eddie Lawson
LEARN HOW YOUR SUSPENSION WORKS
When Eddie Lawson returned from the 500cc Grand Prix wars to ride a Vance & Hines Yamaha Superbike in the 1993 Daytona 200, he had to get a handle on an unfamiliar motorcycle without the benefit of prior testing. To do so, he spent his initial practice sessions exploring the full range of suspension and chassis adjustments before he even tried to go fast. The results were predictable: He won the race after an epic battle with Mr. Daytona, Scott Russell. And then went onto a modestly successful career in Indycar racing, where his methodical approach served him equally well.
STEER WITH THE REAR
Once upon a time (1994), in a land far, far away (Malaysia), there was a press introduction for the then-new Kawasaki ZX-9R. It was hot–really hot–and the sketchy stock Bridge-stone tires gave me fits until I watched Scott Russell ride. Undaunted by the lack of traction (he’d experienced worse at the end of races), the reigning World Superbike champion set a blistering pace 4 seconds per lap quicker than the fastest journalist, and slewed sideways off the corners in complete control. How’d he do that? Simple: He weighted the inside footpeg to break the rear tire loose, then weighted the outside peg to get it to hook back up.
BE YOUR OWN SLIPPER CLUTCH
Talk to anyone who raced with David Sadowski and they’ll more likely tell you about his balls than his brains. But as the 1990 Daytona 200 winner’s racing results and subsequent stint as a television commentator proved, Ski gave a lot of thought to his racing. One year at Daytona I was chatting with Doug Polen while waiting for the riders’ meeting to start, when up walks Sadowski with a newspaper. On the cover was a photo of Polen entering Turn 1 with his hand still visibly squeezing his Ducati’s clutch lever. The ensuing dialogue was enlightening as the two discussed the merits of trailing the clutch to the apex to modulate engine braking and thus prevent rear wheel hop. Nowadays we’ve got slipper clutches to do this for us, but it’s still a useful technique.
SAVE A SLIDE
What do you do when the rear end starts coming around on the throttle? According to three-time AMA Superbike Champion Doug Chandler, the answer is: nothing. And he should know. With wins in all four disciplines of AMA Grand National dirt-track competition and Supermoto, he obviously knows how to slide a motor-cycle. According to him, when the rear tire starts sliding, the last thing you want to do is chop the throttle; instead, simply stop adding throttle until the tire hooks back up. A one-time Keith Code protg (he wrote the liner notes for A Twist of the Wrist 2), Chandler recently started a riding school (www.champ-racing.com) and one of his first graduates was his son, Jett.
Dutch TT, 1979
15. Kenny Roberts
GO FAST IN THE FAST PARTS
Three-time 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts doesn’t believe in coasting–you’re either on the gas or on the brakes. The most important corner on any racetrack is the one that leads onto the longest (and thus fastest) straightaway, so Roberts would put a priority on getting that section right. Trying to go fast in slower corners is not only pointless, it’s risky, because you don’t have momentum on your side. If the front tire loses grip in a fast turn, you’ve got time to save it. If it lets go in a slow one, it’s game over.
CONSIDER THE FRONT BRAKE LEVER AND THROTTLE CONTROL AS ONE CONTROL
I’m not old enough to have raced with David Aldana, but there was a period in the ’90s when he did some testing for Roadracing World and I was fortunate to spend time with him. Bones (so nicknamed because of his infamous skeleton leathers) is nothing if not animated, and it was while he was regaling us with one of his zany racing tales that I detected a pattern in his hand-and-wrist motions. I mentioned this to him, and he replied that he considered the front brake lever and throttle as one control; you squeeze the lever as you close the throttle, and release it as you open it.
British GP, 1987
17. Freddie Spencer
BRAKE WHERE YOU NEED TO, NOT WHERE YOU THINK YOU SHOULD
I’ve taken the Freddie Spencer High Performance Riding School twice, at nine-year intervals. And while the curriculum has changed, the message remains the same: Be smooth. “Fast riders have slow hands,” Spencer says, and then puts you on the back of his Honda VFR to show you what he means. The three-time world champion doesn’t snatch at the brake lever; he squeezes it like the trigger of a gun, and releases it just as gently. Moreover, he uses braking pressure to get the bike to change direction, tightening his line as speed decreases. Freddie doesn’t rigidly adhere to brake markers, either; he’s more flexible, braking earlier or later and making adjustments mid-corner as necessary.
USE THE REAR BRAKE
I took the Ducati Riding Experience racing course at Misano, Italy, a few years ago, and my instructor was 1981 500cc World Champion Marco Lucchinelli. Belying his nickname, Lucky spent time in prison on drug charges and frankly wasn’t riding like a man who had beaten racing greats with names such as Roberts and Rossi–or at least their dads. The only memorable advice he gave me was, “You should use the rear brake.” When I asked him why, he said, “Because there are two,” and then explained how using the rear brake to scrub off unwanted speed mid-corner is safer than adding more front brake pressure.
GIVE IT FULL STICK
How did a Dutch Supersport racer make this list? During the international Masterbike competition at Valencia, Spain, in 2005, I was talking to Barry Veneman and heard him condense the act of going fast into the simplest possible terms: “Choose lines that let you get to full throttle the soonest.” Bazza explained that before he was exposed to data acquisition in the 500cc GPs, he had no idea how little time he spent at full stick–typically less than 10 percent of a lap. So he started picking lines that let him pin the throttle as early as possible, making sure he felt it click against the stop.
DON’T LAUNCH AT REDLINE
And so it ends–at the beginning. Watch the start of any roadrace and you’ll likely see 30 riders doing it wrong. I know–I was one of them. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Pro dragracer Rickey Gadson set me straight. Most roadracers hold their engines at or near redline and then dump the clutch, resulting in a wild wheelie, a squawking clutch or both. Rickey does it differently: He holds engine revs at peak torque, not peak horsepower, lets out the clutch quickly and then pins the throttle. His launches are unspectacular affairs, the only excitement the howl of the rear tire–and the killer 60-foot time he just laid down. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to race him for pinks