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First track day has another rider hooked

Jun 13, 2018

Riding on the track has been a dream of mine for years.

A few weeks ago, I finally took the Track Experience class hosted by the famed Penguin Racing School. Based in Winchendon, Massachusetts, Penguin has been running a range of classes and events all over New England since the 1970s, including at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which has a tight, technical 1.6-mile road course along with the NASCAR oval.

So how was it? At the risk of overstatement, my first track day was a brilliant, immense, transcendent experience. I was so excited, I had to interview myself about the experience.

riding on track
Finally fulfilling the dream of getting on track. Photo by Martin Hanlon.

Getting out on track for the very first time was a trip, huh?

Dude. I spent the entire first lap alternately yelling, “Holy shit! Holy shit!” and, “Oh my god, this is awesome!” inside of my helmet. The whole experience was a massive perspective shift. Everything from how a bike can feel, to what it’s like when riders tear by you at full chat, to the physical act of riding in such a different environment. You don’t get a sense of how big a track is from the grandstands – being on a bike hauling ass down the straight was nuts.

Seems like changing perceptions was a major theme of the day.

It was. The first time merging onto the front straight after Turn 12, I had to consciously tell myself to nail the throttle. Apparently, the wiring in my brain instinctively resists all-out, full-throttle acceleration, as it’s a common way to end up dead or arrested on the street.

Feels good though, doesn’t it?

Like mainlining adrenaline. My notebook from that day is filled with more cursing, adjectives, and illegible gibberish than I’d care to admit. It’s clear why people get hooked on this. Pretty sure I’m hooked now, too.

Was there anything that caught you off guard?

Doran Dal Pra
Do you think I was excited to get on track? Photo by Doran Dal Pra.
There were two major things. One was the huge quantity of information that needs to be processed in order to ride fast: finding the racing line and optimal body position for each corner, knowing when to accelerate and when to brake, understanding how to be smooth and read what the bike is doing, appreciating how to safely avoid other riders. There’s a lot going on out there – these initial stages of learning sometimes felt like drinking out of a firehose. Track riding is clearly involved. I definitely underestimated to what degree.

The other challenge was managing fear. In my case, I was out there in an intimidating, foreign setting doing things on a bike I’d never done before. It took a few laps to develop trust in what we were being taught and belief that the bike would do what I wanted. Fortunately, there were other people in the class in the same boat. Five minutes into our first classroom session, the gentleman next to me raised his hand and said, “I volunteer to be the slowest guy on track.” I didn’t feel so bad after that.

track day motorcycles
Customer's bike ready for another session. Photo by Doran Dal Pra.

Did you use your own motorcycle? I would imagine riding on the track is an excellent way to get acquainted with your machine in a way that street riding simply can’t touch.

I didn’t end up using my bike, and that’s something I both appreciate and regret slightly. I wanted to experience everything Penguin had to offer so I rented one of their bikes. And yes, the track is absolutely a place to discover things about your motorcycle that you probably wouldn’t learn otherwise.

And what mighty steed did they let you thrash?

A Kawasaki Ninja 400! (Crickets…) I know, I know, but hear me out. The Ninja was a blast! It was easy to ride and I was able to get comfortable on it relatively quickly. As someone who’s as green as fresh-cut grass with precisely zero track experience, it was the perfect dance partner.

That’s fair. So, there was classroom time? They didn’t just let you ride around all willy-nilly? Having instruction must be a big help.

I would have been completely lost without it! All the Penguin instructors were helpful and approachable and more than willing to share their knowledge. We’d head out on track for 15 minutes, then immediately head back into the classroom to discuss our thoughts and experiences. For the first couple of riding sessions we rode with an instructor, which I found to be extremely helpful.

Penguin instructor Scott Greenwood
Penguin Lead Instructor Scott Greenwood presents a lesson on body position during one of the classroom sessions. Photo by Doran Dal Pra.

Having instructors out there with everyone sounds... smart.

It was kind of like having a swimming teacher in the pool with you while learning to swim. There were several occasions where I would be riding behind one of them, watching how they tackled a particular turn or a series of corners, when things would just click into place. I kind of felt like Neo from “The Matrix,” instantly downloading the track’s cheat codes. Following someone who knew what they were doing elevated everyone’s riding and was probably my favorite part of the day. It was inspiring, hands on, wildly visceral learning, and I friggin’ loved it.

That sounds awesome! What kinds of things were they trying to teach?

number plate
Lucky number three? That was the number on my Ninja 400. Photo by Doran Dal Pra.
They really try to expose students to a lot of different concepts and then reinforce with examples and practice. We worked on the importance of body positioning, avoidance of target fixation, and familiarization with reference points on the track.

Body position was a major focus for the entire day. We were constantly encouraged to get our bodies set for turns as early as possible. If we were approaching a right-hander, they’d have us scoot to the right side of the bike, keep our shoulders square, focus on where we wanted to go, lean fully into the turn, and keep our bodies anchored on the bike using our core muscles and outside leg. It was incredibly satisfying to get right.

What did you learn that’s applicable to street riding?

I was immediately more aware of avoiding target fixation – becoming fixated on the very thing that you want to avoid. For example, say you’re riding along on the street and there’s a pothole in the pavement. If keep your attention locked on it, you’re almost guaranteed to hit it. Same thing on the track. If you fixate on what you don’t want, that’s precisely what you’ll get. The bike will go where your attention is.

Did they let you do any actual racing?

No. The focus of the Track Experience class was exactly what the name says: It’s designed to start at the beginning, to give people a safe and controlled taste of riding on a track. Penguin has been around since the 1970s, so they have this thing pretty buttoned down. There was no passing on the inside of corners when the rider in front had already initiated a turn, and no aggressive riding near other riders. A handful of instructors went out with us for each session to keep an eye on things as well.

There were a couple of moments, though, where it sure felt like racing. While in a full tuck down the front straight and feeling like I had everything on lock, I was passed on both sides at probably 130 mph. When that happens while thinking you’re God’s gift to riders everywhere, you quickly discover there are new levels to humility.

That sounds both awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

That’s precisely what it was. It’s something I won’t ever forget.

I also gained a new appreciation for the superhuman nutters who race for a living. My class was held on the same weekend as the LeMans round of the MotoGP season. It was so cool to be able to recognize some of the techniques and strategies the riders used. Made me feel like I genuinely learned something!

Love it. Any final thoughts?

Do a track day! Take Penguin’s Track Experience class! It’s awesome!