A satellite view is preferable...
A satellite view is preferable to a map as it is a more accurate depiction of the track and shows more detail. This is Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, CA.
Not too many years ago, there were few options to help you learn a new track. You could walk around it, but that was pretty much the only look you would have before riding. In the days before satellite imagery, track maps, YouTube videos and televised races, you'd be lucky to even know how many turns a particular track had before you went out for the first practice. We say "practice" because back then there were no track days either, meaning it was quite common to start a race with only a handful of laps under your belt and barely knowing which way the track went.
Now, things are much easier. There are a number of ways you can prepare for a new track that will help you learn the course quickly as well as reduce the chance of riding off or crashing due to unfamiliarity during those maiden laps. And no, it's not a matter of picturing the track as a certain animal like Ben Spies claimed to do in a Yamaha promotional video last year (although that would make things interesting). Rather, with some time and effort beforehand you can take your first laps on an unfamiliar track confidently, knowing which way the turns go, what spots to look for and even what gear to be in for each corner before you ever turn a wheel.
In this case, the Internet is your source for all kinds of help. Track maps exist online for practically every course in the world, and you should find one for the track you're planning to attend and print a few copies. The more official the map the better, as it will more accurately represent the track's layout and the corners will be numbered properly for future reference. But because even the best maps can be inaccurate, find a satellite image of the track and print that off as well. Even if the map is perfect, it most likely won't show things like the changing width of the track or even the correct radius of some turns.
It's possible to find onboard...
It's possible to find onboard video from almost any track in the world online, which can help immeasurably with learning a racetrack. Of course, it helps if the video features an experienced rider taking the correct lines.
Aside from knowing in advance how the track is laid out, your objective is also to find-in advance-reference points that you can use once you get on the track. Start with the satellite view: Where are the curbs positioned? Are there bridges over the track? Are any corners or chicanes tighter or more open than they appear on the track map? All this information will be useful. For example, the typical track map for Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA does not even show the chicane on the front straight, but some satellite views will show the curbs in place for the motorcycle layout. Conversely, a track map shows the back straight with what looks to be a tight chicane, whereas in reality it is much more open.
Once you have a map and satellite picture in hand and know the basic layout of the course, the next step is to find an onboard video from the track, either online or from race coverage. Take some time here to find a good quality video; you don't want a novice rider wobbling around off-line with the camera shaking and heavy-metal music in the background. Be creative in your search (hint: don't limit yourself to YouTube) and look for an experienced rider going a decent clip on a relatively clear track. Obviously, the video will help you further learn the layout of the track but now you can deal in three dimensions rather than two, learning where the hills are, the camber of the surface, and turns where your view may be compromised.
Continue your search for reference points, noting buildings, fences or trees away from the track as well as potential spots on the track such as pavement changes, curbs and brake markers. Once you've learned more about the track layout, focus on the rider in the video-note the lines taken as well as speed and gear in each corner, if possible. If the rider takes a decidedly non-conventional line in a particular spot, try to find out why. It could be the specific layout of the circuit, an effort to string corners together properly, or simply a bad line choice by the rider. Onboard video can often be deceiving when it comes to altitude changes, and this is one item to keep in mind while you are watching.
Walking around the track and...
Walking around the track and seeing each corner from as many perspectives as possible will speed up the learning process. Television and video games do not show many elevation changes; seeing the track in person will reveal many aspects you won't find otherwise-even while riding.
If you are lucky enough to be attending a world-class track that is featured on a video game, this provides an excellent source for learning the circuit. Today's video games are astoundingly accurate when it comes to the track layout, and playing the game will not only force you to learn the course but also select some lines to start. Unfortunately, this is not an option for most tracks in the U.S., but it is definitely worth exploring if available.
Now that you are familiar with the track from a birds-eye view and a rider's perspective, you can fill in the gaps by watching a race from an event at the track on television-again, if it's available. Why not do this first? Typical race coverage jumps from turn to turn so quickly that in most cases you can't identify the actual turn until it's too late; the scene has already changed again. You will be surprised at how quickly-once you've watched some onboard video-you can identify each corner as it appears and then make use of what you see. This is your opportunity to find not only more line choices and reference points, but also aspects such as passing zones and other nuances you won't find elsewhere.
If you have a chance to go to the track and watch motorcycles go around, even better. At most tracks, there are plenty of spots to watch and if you can see each corner in person that will give you even more insight into each turn's character. If you have the chance, walk around the track as well for an even better perspective-err, preferably not while the bikes are going around. A track walk will give you plenty of time and opportunity to find more reference points as well as camber and elevation changes that you may not notice otherwise. If you've ever stood at the base of the Corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, you'll know that video games and television can't express the magnitude of the drop off at the top.
When it comes time to actually ride a new track, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, our brains tend to think in repetitive, geometric shapes such as 90-degree angles and even surfaces. But racetrack designers purposely avoid exactly those characteristics in order to make a layout more challenging. There are many examples at tracks around the world where two corners are similar, but not quite identical. Our natural inclination is to try and make the turns identical, whereas the correct approach is to treat the two turns as distinctly different. Second, as your inventory of tracks you've attended grows, you'll find that you can speed up the learning process by considering a certain turn at a new track similar to a turn at a track you know. While this is definitely helpful to a certain extent, try to avoid a similar situation of considering the turns identical and navigating them the same. No two turns are identical, whether it's camber, available traction, radius or some other characteristic that differs.
As you take your first laps of the new track, find the reference points that you've picked out beforehand, noting differences or similarities to what you expected based on your research. It may be helpful to take the first couple of laps a bit slower than you would otherwise, just so that you can take in the scenery. Some of these reference points may end up being discarded, while others will be useful; catalog each accordingly, while keeping on the lookout for new reference points; you may be surprised at what you'll find unexpectedly. Once you've spun a few laps, refer back to the other material you've collected; the satellite view and onboard video especially will reveal even more once you've actually ridden the course.
Riding a track for the first time is always a fun experience, as it presents new challenges and adds variety; many riders find the adventure can kickstart their skills after having become complacent with riding the same track all the time. Going prepared to somewhere new and having familiarity with the track can benefit racers and trackday riders alike by boosting confidence and easing the trepidation associated with the unknown.