With the ever-narrowing gap between modern production sportbikes and actual racing machines, it's only natural that noncompetitive, open track days are gaining widespread popularity. Not so long ago, the thrill of experiencing the unbridled freedom of an open racetrack came only after earning that right by becoming a racer. This entailed the completion of a novice race school and then slapping a set of competition numbers on your bike to do battle with your inexperienced yet adrenaline-charged peers. The time-honored novice racer rite of passage is made up of varying percentages of excitement and sheer terror that is best experienced in your early years before realizing your own mortality.
Nowadays, getting your bike on the track is much easier and less risky, but there are still some valuable lessons learned from racing experience that can make your track-day time more fun and less dangerous. Perhaps the most valuable racing technique that can be applied to noncompetitive track days is passing. As a high-performance riding instructor, I'm often amazed at how often otherwise highly skilled riders find themselves seemingly stuck behind riders lapping several seconds per lap slower than themselves, and end up frustrated with their inability to get by. This often results in a variety of bold passing moves that either wind up unsuccessful in the end or cause a close call that can frighten and/or upset both riders.
Early in my riding career, I had an instructor tell me, "Just treat [the slower riders] like a stationary object, like a speed-limit sign, that you're merely going past." The preceding advice seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many skilled riders target-fixate on the back of the bike ahead of them and unintentionally pull in right behind, as if mesmerized. I've seen a handful of riders without racing experience, however, that showed a remarkable ability to not fixate on slower riders and pass them almost effortlessly. When I asked them about it, the answer in nearly every case was extensive experience with racing video games. I can already hear the rationalizations: "I'm not wasting time playing stupid video games, I'm honing my overtaking skills to be a better, safer rider." In this case, at least, video games can help.
Here's the typically frustrating overtaking attempt exemplified by many highly skilled track-day riders who don't have a racing background. As they close in on a slower rider, they visually fixate on the rider and find themselves following through the corner at the other rider's slower pace, then it's a drag race to the next braking zone resulting in either an untidy late-braking maneuver or another corner stuck behind, followed by... well, you get the point.
The vast majority of racing video games require the player to concentrate on the track ahead in the distance while still be keenly aware of the figure they're controlling in the foreground and any hazards nearby. Besides hand/eye coordination, this places a big demand on developing peripheral vision, and using that vision to plan ahead and make quick decisions-all useful skills when piloting a motorcycle at speed. While the difference between controlling a video game car/motorcycle and the real thing is obviously so vast that it's not worth comparing, the mental and visual skills necessary have a lot of similarities. Your control of the figure in the game, and your skill in scanning ahead and using visual cues in determining the best and quickest method to deal with upcoming hazards, are both essential to success. While we're obviously not saying that everyone should go out and blow their next paycheck on playing video games, the skills developed are definitely useful.
Track-day organizations have various "rules of engagement" in passing etiquette, with perhaps the most common and sensible being no passing on the inside of corner entrances. This rule theoretically eliminates the most feared and potentially dangerous situation that most track-day participants are likely to face: a rider of unknown ability stuffing his or her way up the inside of another rider while executing the delicate balance of the front tire's braking and cornering capability. If the overtaking rider's combination of front brake lever pressure and lean angle overcomes the available traction while attempting to make the pass, or the rider being passed suddenly changes lines directly into the overtaking rider's path, a worst-case scenario obviously develops.
This narrows the options quite a bit. Out-braking another rider (braking later or less to enter the corner first) is the next most common technique, but it requires a lot of skill and can also be frustrating and risky, especially if the bike you're attempting to pass is equal to or faster than the bike that you're on. It's a lot easier to make time using acceleration than it is while braking, and you'll have a lot of ground to make up in order for the pass to work. What about passing on the outside? That can be risky as well because the track can have less traction outside of the normal line and your speed and lean angle must be much greater for the pass to be successful. There's a far better and safer option: execute your pass at the beginning of the straight, rather than at the end.
The hardest thing for nonracers to do is to not close right up on the back of slower riders entering a turn. The problem is that once you're on their back tire through the corner, you've become captive to that rider's corner speed. Because the slower rider is directly in your way, you cannot get on the throttle earlier, so the following straight then becomes a drag race to the next corner, followed by a late-braking contest.
A better option is setting up the pass in advance. This is best done by looking far ahead (again, a primary skill that applies to all riding) and being aware of slower riders well before you come upon them. As you close in on other riders, take note where you're gaining the most ground, then manage your closing distance to best take advantage of your riding strengths. Discipline yourself to leave enough of a gap as you enter the corner to exploit your greater midcorner speed. Better still, use a later turn-in point and later apex so you're able to stand the bike up from maximum lean sooner and get back on the throttle earlier. If timed correctly, this will set you up to come underneath the slower rider at the corner exit with several miles per hour in hand. You will have enough advantage that even if the slower rider's bike is faster, he will not be able to repass you on the entrance to the next corner. Not only is this a much cleaner and safer pass, it's infinitely more satisfying than the typical drag-race-to-the-next-braking-point maneuver more commonly used at track days.
A better approach to passing involves setting up the pass in a corner that plays to the strengths of your riding style or that of your bike, or the relative weaknesses of the rider you're overtaking. This may take only a few corners, or perhaps a few laps, to set up. Give yourself a several bike-length gap entering the corner to allow you to get a run through the apex and set up a strong drive exiting the turn underneath the other rider. It's always a safer bet to run beneath the other rider's line at corner exit-use a later turn-in point and later apex to set this up.
Overtaking in this manner reinforces a lot of good habits. Not only the aforementioned ones like avoiding target fixation, but also being able to ride in close quarters with others and not be drawn into their mistakes. This goes back to having good peripheral vision skills; being able to look far ahead into the next corner while still being cognizant of the riders in front of you, all while being aware of and exercising proper control of the motorcycle you're riding. It's a riding skill that goes a long way toward making you a safer rider-on both street and track.
For more riding tips, visit www.sportrider.com/ride.