I recently had the opportunity to ride Austin’s Circuit of The Americas for the first time. That was exciting, of course, but also a little intimidating — not least because most of the group I was with had ridden there several times.
Since I’m only human, I wanted to get up to speed reasonably quickly. But, since I’m only human, I couldn’t rely on alien-level reflexes or bike control.
Luckily, over the years, I’ve picked up some good tips that can ease the new-track learning process. Whether you’re a track day rider, a club racer, or you’re hitting the Tail of the Dragon for the first time, here are some tips that might help you get up to speed with a minimum of drama and avoid finding your limits the hard way.
Ask for help
Back when Barber was still a new track, I attended the launch of a new ZX-6R there. Kawasaki had the track to itself for a day before the journalists arrived — time they used to get the bikes’ suspension settings dialed in. Their lead test rider was Akira Yanagawa, an ex-World Superbike and All Japan Superbike Championship rider.
By the time I got there, Yanagawa had the flowing Barber layout sussed. Yet, I was the only guy who asked him to show me the way ’round. I asked him to do three laps at about 70, 80, and 90 percent pace. I learned more from him in 10 minutes than I could’ve learned on my own all day. He completely changed my approach to the tricky sequence that leads onto Barber’s front straight.
If you’re a club racer at a new track, find a local (preferably one with a low number) and ask him to lead you around for a couple of laps. He’ll be flattered. At a track day, tell the organizer you’re new to the circuit; they’ll make sure someone’s available to lead you around.
Leave shifting out of it
Over the years, I’ve heard both Freddie Spencer and Reg Pridmore advise their track school students to ride the first session in second or third gear only. By sticking to one gear, you free up mental bandwidth that would otherwise be devoted to clutching and gear selection. That makes it easier to memorize the track layout and begin the process of learning each corner’s best line.
Admittedly, if you’re a club racer in a crowded practice session you probably shouldn’t ride the length of a long straightaway in second gear, but it’s good advice to minimize shifting in the first session or two.
Stay off the brakes
Long ago, I attended a special California Superbike School conducted on tiny RS125 Hondas. Keith Code told us to go out and ride our first session on the Streets of Willow course without touching the brakes.
Obviously, riding with no brakes means taking it easy on the throttle, too, so it’s not advice for a crowded session, unless you’re all doing it. But Code’s rationale was that going brakeless would force us all to look for the wide, flowing lines that, later, would bring out the 125 GP bikes’ strong points.
I’m not advising you to ride in a mixed session without using the brakes at all, but the reality is that demon braking hardly improves your lap times. Focus on smooth lines instead of immediately looking for the last, split-second brake marker.
Learn from the middle to the edges
In a crowded session with lots of faster riders? Don’t try to get to the very edges of the track right away.
As you already know, the best line through most corners involves starting at the outside edge of the track on corner entry, cutting across the very inside of the corner at the apex, and then drifting right back to the outside on corner exit. If you’re at a track day, you may have the benefit of cones indicating those points. But racers don’t.
By starting out in the middle of the track and gradually increasing your speed, you’ll let the layout and your momentum show you the best line, rather than rely on a guess.
And, you’ll leave the door open for faster riders, and spend a minimal amount of time blocking the racing line.
Keep an eye on the exit
Whether you’re in a dive bar or trying to master a new corner, the first thing you need to know is the location of the exit. That means you should learn each new corner in the opposite direction from which you’re traveling.
First, figure out where you want to be on the exit. Then, figure out where you need to apex in order to hit that exit marker. Then, figure out where you need to turn in, in order to hit that apex. Last, identify the brake marker you need in order to scrub enough speed to before turning in.
The number one mistake people make on track, and one of the critical mistakes made in sport riding generally, is rushing into corners too fast. That forces you to brake too late, too hard, and often run wide. The best way to avoid this mistake is to learn each corner from back to front. Speed - Drama = Fun.
Learn it section by section
Kevin Schwantz was at COTA in his role as Suzuki’s Brand Ambassador for life. When I asked him for new-track advice, he chuckled a little and told me that when he was racing he didn’t have a strategy for approaching new tracks. Basically, he rode balls-to-the-wall all the time back then.
“I really didn’t learn how to approach new tracks until I was teaching my school, and watching the way my instructors approached new ones.” He told me that he now approaches it by working on one section of track at a time.
Schwantz also said, “Try to get a rhythm going. Don’t worry about speed; let that come later.”
“Be late everywhere”
When I was learning the TT course, the single best piece of advice I got came from a seasoned Manx GP competitor named Dave Sells. (If that surname rings a bell, it may be because his daughter Carolyn was the first woman to win a solo race on the Mountain Course.)
One day, Dave spotted me on my bicycle in the town of Ballaugh, scouting the acceleration zone after the famous bridge.
Dave told me, “Be late everywhere.”
What he meant was that as a “newcomer” I should late-apex every corner. By doing so, I’d have a foot or three of road to spare on every corner exit. That, of course, would cost me some speed — but it would also help to ensure that I left the island on my feet, instead of in a box.
Even on tracks with runoff space, it’s better to start apexing a little late, and move your apex up as you gain speed and confidence, rather than trying to use absolutely all the asphalt on the corner exit, before you’re completely familiar with the track.
If I’m sport riding on unfamiliar roads, I take this to extremes and stay wide on corner entry until I can see my exit; only then do I commit to my turn. That often means I’m using far less of the road than I could safely use — but I’m rarely surprised by decreasing-radius bends, or forced across the centerline into oncoming traffic.
They say “Never look back,” but…
Most tracks have at least one really slow hairpin turn. Identify that spot and get used to glancing back over your shoulder there, to look for fast guys coming up from behind you. At COTA, Turn 11 is a first-gear left that’s followed by a long, long straightaway. If I saw someone entering that turn behind me, it was safe and easy for me to stay near the edge of that long straight and back off the throttle long enough to let them past. Since there wasn’t much to learn on the straight anyway, all I lost was a few seconds, not a learning opportunity.
You learn by letting faster guys through, not by keeping them behind you. If you’re riding a liter bike in a practice group with some fast guy on a 300, don’t use your 100-horsepower advantage to pass him over and over on the front straight. Stay behind him and learn his lines though the bends.
A lot of people play racing video games, which have very accurate track simulations. Video games aren’t my style — maybe I’m just too old, or maybe it’s because the control inputs and physical sensation are nowhere near as realistic as the visuals.
One thing that does work for me, however, is drawing a track map between sessions. I find that drawing my own works better than annotating one that’s been provided. If you check your map against an accurate one, it’s not important to have the proportions and straightaway lengths accurate, as long as you’ve got the corners, shift points, and things like brake markers clear in your own mind.
Pick reference points that won’t move
Funny story: In 1999, I raced at Laguna Seca. It was my first trip to the track, and I had very limited practice time. I asked a friend who’d raced there for advice and he said, “When you come to the crest of the hill as you approach the Corkscrew, aim for the tree.”
Sure enough, when I got to the top of the hill, there was a large and obvious tree visible above the otherwise-blind approach. I aimed for it, and found that I was more or less pointed right down into the Corkscrew; my friend’s advice worked perfectly. I used that landmark for the rest of the race weekend. Back then, everyone who raced there knew about the tree. The tree was famous.
Flash forward about seven or eight years to the launch of first Rotax-engined Buell, which was held at Laguna Seca. I think I was working for Road Racer X at the time and excited to be back at that storied track. I jumped on the Buell and climbed the hill towards the top of the Corkscrew at close to my old race pace.
Only then did I learn that some time over the previous few years they’d cut down the tree.
Luckily, there was no one from Buell around to see me fly over the crest and guess, wrong, where the track went. Luckily, I kept the bike on its wheels as I gravel surfed down the hill, Rossi-style.
My point in telling you that story is that you need landmarks for brake markers, corner entries, apexes, and exits. Pick landmarks that won’t move on you between sessions. The corner worker’s parked scooter is a bad landmark. The second red block on the painted curb is a good landmark. A permanent part of the nearby landscape is usually OK, notwithstanding my tree story.
Hopefully, the foregoing advice will help you to avoid embedding yourself in the landscape and leaving a gouge that others will use as a future landmark. If you’ve got tips of your own, please add them in the comments below.