Learning New Tracks
Learning New Tracks
By Ken Condon
Some riders are really good at quickly getting accustomed to new tracks, while others need several sessions or even several days to feel comfortable. What do they know? Let’s take a look.
Many of Tony’s Track Days customers return frequently to the tracks where we offer events; New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon) and New Jersey Motorsports Park (Thunderbolt). Tony’s Track Days customers are intimately familiar with these tracks, but this year we will be offering our customers the opportunity to ride on a new track at New York Safety Track. Riding on a new track is an awesome experience, but many veteran riders can get frustrated because they are used to getting up to speed right away. Many riders can find themselves lost at a new track and are at risk of getting frustrated or even discouraged by the time and energy it can take to learn a new track. A lot of riders discover that track familiarity is what allows them to get up to speed quickly, rather than having the mental skills to adapt to new tracks. This article is intended to help both experienced and new track day riders develop the tools for learning new tracks quickly. Not only will these tools get you up to speed quicker, they can also minimize mistakes that can lead to off-track excursions or crashes.
Tony and I visited the New York Safety Track in September to see the new venue. Nestled atop a high ridge in central New York State the 18 turn track winds up and over hills and through stands of trees for 2.1 miles. A beautiful spot to be sure.
Before your track day
Other videos can be found HERE
Watching videos like this before you show up at the track can be quite valuable. You get a basic lay of the land and can begin to visualize some of the challenges. What you won’t see in the videos is just how technical this track is. Video tends to flatten elevation changes, straighten corner radii, and mask subtle variations in camber. Those things become apparent with your first real laps.
2. Study Track Maps
Looking at a track map can give you some clues about what the basic line is, and indicate where brake zones, tip-in marks, and throttle-on points are located. Cornering lines tend to follow the “outside-inside-outside” path, but that is too simplistic for figuring out a complex racetrack. Still, a careful look at a track map is an easy way to prepare you for those first laps.
You can get track maps HERE.
New York Safety Track
Track designers rarely lay pavement so that the curves have a predictable, continuous radius. Instead, they throw in subtle, and not-so-subtle variations in radius to make the track more challenging. They also must work with the terrain, which means that you will find sudden drops or off-camber segments sometimes where you least expect them.
A track map can reveal some of these subtleties, but elevation changes, track width, and camber define the character of the track and cannot be seen on the track map alone. For example, turn 1 at New York Safety Track may look simple enough until you discover that it is much more challenging as it drops off into a decreasing radius, off-camber rollercoaster curve.
3. Follow the Leader
So, you finally fire up your bike and head out onto the track. When you first see a new racetrack you want to identify specific characteristics that may prove particularly challenging, such as weird camber changes, changes in radius, elevation changes, etc. When Tony and I first saw the new York Safety Track in his Toyota Tundra, we immediately noted the areas that riders will find particularly challenging. By identifying parts of a track that are problematic, you can begin to figure out ways to manage this complex series of twists, turns and elevation changes.
Better track day organizations offer guidance to riders who are new to the track. Follow-the-leader sessions help you to sight the track at a comfortable speed without the pressure to keep up with the group during an regular open session. When you are on your follow-the-leader session, watch the instructor closely. He or she will demonstrate the proper line, and you should mimic it as best you can. Understand that there is often more than one perfect line, so feel free to experiment, but keep variations to a few feet away from the line being shown.
You’ll notice how the instructor will use the whole track, from entry curb to apex (innermost part of the corner) to the exit curb. Street riders new to the racetrack often fail to use the whole track, because they are used to a relatively narrow lane and they never go from one edge of the road to the other (that would mean crossing the oncoming lane). Get used to using cornering lines (the path you take through the turns) that use the whole track. One caveat, you may want to leave room on the outside of the corner exit for faster riders to pass so you avoid pinching them as they come by.
4. Reference points
While on your follow-the-leader session, pay attention to reference points that you will need for establishing braking zones, turn-in locations, and apexes, which will help establish your cornering lines. Advanced riders will identify more refined reference points, such as “off-throttle”, “off-brake”, and other reference points such as “knee down and “knee up”. Most tracks have braking, entry, apex, and exit cones, which are easy to spot. In addition to cones, you will also need to find other more subtle reference points, like cracks, pavement patches, and other pavement characteristics. These reference points help you become familiar with the track and are key to establishing consistency.
5. Open Sessions
During your first open sessions, your goal is to slowly develop an intimate relationship with the track. Use reference points you identified during your follow-the-leader session Pay attention to how your bike responds to things like various line selections. Break down the track into segments to work on so you don’t get overwhelmed. Concentrate on refining your reference points for each corner and segment. Eventually, you will be rewarded with a satisfying rush that says, ”you got that right”. Then move on to the next turn or series of turns to master the details of that segment. Remember that you aren’t looking for speed at this point. Your focus should be on precision and consistency, which is what you base growth on. If you fail to build a strong foundation of familiarity through precision and consistency, then you are bound to struggle to put together perfect laps.
6. Pay Attention
With healthy, caring human relationships, you invest the time to know every nuance of the person’s character and how he or she responds to your actions. In the case of riding a motorcycle on a racetrack, you are actually in a ménage a trois between you, the track and your motorcycle. How you manage the track determines how your bike feels, which affects how in control and confident you feel. Pay attention to this relationship to experience the greatest satisfaction. Being acutely aware also allows you to accurately evaluate and correct potential problems.
7. Understand Corner Types
Not all corners are the same. It’s helpful to identify the different types of corners you will encounter. There are three basic types of corners: “entry corners”, an “exit corners”, or a “neutral corners”.
Entry corners are corners that allow you to enter fast, but require a slower mid-corner-to-exit. Enter these corners at higher speeds and then trail brake to scrub off mid-corner speed. Be careful not to enter the turn so fast that you run off the track mid-corner. Roll on the throttle as soon as possible to drive out of the corner. This approach allows you to maintain maximum speed for as long as possible, essentially making the approaching straight-away longer. An example of an "entry" corner is Turn 1 at Loudon. T1a is tight, where you cannot gain any real time, so don’t give up the benefit of maintaining straight-away speed as long as possible to try and get through T1a faster, because there is very little speed to gain through there.
Exit corners are corners that have a straight immediately following the corner. These corners are typically handled using a slower entry speed, a quick turn to get the bike pointed down the straight, and then getting on the gas quickly to enter the straight as fast as possible. An example of an exit turn is turn 2 at Loudon where you want to get to exit onto on the T2/T3 chute at as high a speed as possible. Exit turns require a slower entry so you can get the bike turned so it is pointed down the straight.
Neutral corners are corners that display characteristics of both entry and exit corners and are usually handled by higher mid-corner speeds. Aim to enter these corners fat and maintain mid-corner speed as you get on the gas at the exit (usually onto a straight). An example of a neutral corner is what we call “the kink”, which is the right-hand turn after going under the bridge, just before the straight. Enter that turn fast, maintain speed through the turn and get on the gas hard.
8. Keep Your Eyes Up!
All this knowledge cannot help you unless you see what you are dealing with. Have a plan for how to handle each corner and track segment, but once you get on the bike, keep your eyes up, looking for reference points for braking, turn-in, apex (early, mid-corner, or late apex), and exit points.
9. Take Advantage of Instruction
Learning new tracks is a lot of fun, but can be daunting and can even become discouraging. Progress happens sooner and with less drama if you seek out help from track day staff (chat in the garage and ask them to follow you around the track) and take advantage of the free classroom sessions. If you want more personalized instruction sign up HERE.