Take me home, El Capitan!
Pirate's First Track Day Experience Nov 13-14th, 2004

This write up is rather long and won't be of much interest to some. I wrote this primarily for my grandsons, but it may be of interest to those who have never done a track day but are thinking about it...Enjoy!

How many of us during some point in our lives have not dreamed of actually riding on a race track? I grew up idolizing Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, and Kevin Swantz. Back in the 80's, I actually drove 16 boring hours to Florida to see Fast Freddie ride. He won not only the Daytona 200, but two other races on the same day in different classes.. on different bikes. A two-wheeled god among men. My hero. Amazing.

Up until a few years ago unless you were a professional rider, rich, or a celebrity, riding a bike on a track was simply an unattainable dream like owning a Lamborghini Countach or sharing a hot tub with Michelle Pfeiffer. In the last few years things have changed drastically. While the Countach and/or the close, wet encounter with Ms. Pfeiffer are still the stuff dreams are made of..., the actual track experience has become available to almost anyone with a few hundred bucks and some cajones.


A month ago, good buddy Jim (DYL) Kriner asked if I'd like to join him in doing a track day weekend at Jennings Motorsport Park in Florida. He knew I'd been wanting to make my first pilgrimage to a track since I bought my 2003 MV F4 a few months ago so this looked like the perfect opportunity and a good way to finish the year. I said yes and signed up on-line for the last event of the 2004 season with www.sportbiketracktime.com Track days were Nov 13-14th event which coincided with my 49th birthday... perfect timing. Total cost was about $250 or so which included 2 track days, instructors, some class time, and lunch for both days.

As for myself, I've been riding for 34 years and consider myself faster than most on a curvy road, but I'm also smart enough to know that I'm not as fast as I think I am nor are my reflexes as sharp as they used to be. As I regularly challenge myself on the Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap and can ride the MV to MY limits while there, I have been yearning to see what the bike can really do when unleashed from the realities of street riding. On the 13th I'd find out.

Jennings Florida, which is just across the Georgia state line south of Valdosta, is a long 8 hour drive from Asheville so I made a 2 day leisurely trip out of it. It took only minutes to load up Trinity.. my F4 into my new enclosed Pace trailer, my gear, and stock it with the prerequisite duck tape, wheel stands, and Pringles. the regular kind.. not the nasty sour cream. I have new Pirelli Diablo's on her. A standard Diablo on back and a softer Corsa up front. These tires proved to be the #1 reason my first track experience was all I had hoped for. More on that later.. It rained all the way down but I was in no hurry and I like driving in the rain..The plan was to get to the track Friday late, drop off the trailer, hook up with Jim, and then return to Valdosta where I've booked my motel.


Friday the 12th: I arrive at the Jennings track at about 4pm and grab a spot track-side overlooking turn one. The track is unique in that it is designed exclusively for motorcycle use. The 2.0 mile track has fourteen turns.... large sweeping turns, multi-radius turns, and straights that include highly technical sections. The facility has dozens of concrete slabs interconnected by long clean concrete drives for each participant to set up on. You grab where you want on a first come basis, back your trailer up to the slab, unload, pitch a tent over your spot if you so desire, and that's your spot for the duration. Electrical hook-ups are spaced out for tire warmers, RV needs, or your power tools.

While the track facility is out in bumf#@*Egypt, it is nicely laid out, clean, and seemingly lacking in very few areas as far as I could tell. Bathrooms are just a few feet away... a food stand was handy, and the instruction room was centered in the paddock area. DYL Jim arrives and finds a spot across from me and we're good to go for Saturday. I head out, check in to my motel. Back out, I have one of those thick Angus burgers at Hardees, go see the new Salma Hayek/Pierce Brosnan movie, then back to the room to relax for the next day's events.

Day 1 / Saturday the 13th: I arrive at the track at an ungodly 6:30am... the earliest I have gotten up in 7 years! This is NOT healthy nor natural and I feel queasy to actually be up and functioning. Unlike everyone else on the planet, I don't drink coffee.. and it's too early for my drug of choice... Mountain Dew so I am one notch above clinically dead.

For some reason, and a total surprise to me, I am as relaxed as if I was going to sit on my porch. I had figured I'd be racked with pre-track apprehension being a first timer and nervous to the point of spewing chunks, but... instead.. I'm calm and relaxed. I have no real explanation for this except for mental preparedness, but I go with it and it makes for a pleasurable weekend.


I hook up with my buddies, DYL on his Aprilia, Bill Hider on his K1200RS, Mike Hider and Tom Abraham on their Ducatis.. (pics right and below) We sign away our legal rights to sue at registration, choose a group we want to ride in...( novice, intermediate, or advanced), get our designation stickers, and then head to the riders meeting where they spell out the rules, explain what each flag means, and start the brief classes we'd attend throughout the day. Bill, Mike, Tom and I join the novice group. Jim, who I believe is the fastest of our little group has done a few track days and opts for the intermediate class.

Here's how it works..3 groups will alternate use of the track in 20 minute sessions. When one group comes in.. another goes out. The group that comes in immediately goes to a group meeting where instructions are given from one or two instructors for one specific aspect of riding. One class instructed us as to the best ways to pass.. another class was on choosing lines.. another on looking ahead of where you are riding, one class is on body position.. i.e. hanging off, etc, etc...

After the 20 minute class, you'd have about 15-20 minutes to hang out, watch the other classes, pee, recite poetry, or snack before your turn back on the track. When your group was called up, everyone would line up behind your designated instructor who would then lead the group for about a lap then allow you to pass him or her to work on whatever the lesson you just learned. Very simple.. no pressure to be a hero.. or a fool. If you needed one-on-one help.. all you had to do was ask.. and many did.

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It took me 3/4's of the day to get the feel of the track and learn the lines. Temps were in the low 70's so the tires were sticky as White Widow ‘urb from Holland...er.. or so I would imagine. The first 10 or so laps is mostly spent learning the correct lines. You can't go fast until you learn them and the best way to learn them is to follow the instructors around a few laps. They show you not only the best line and apex, but braking reference points and exit points. They also show you alternate lines just in case you want to pass on the curve or if someone takes the line you had chosen forcing you to change lines unexpectedly... which WILL happen.

After each ride, during class time the instructors suggest changes to what you are doing, offer advice, and compliment those that are showing good form. They also chew out a few ‘tards that may be doing stupid things. As this isn't an "official" racing school like Freddie Spencer's, Keith Code's, or Kevin Swantz's, things are pretty loose and they ask and expect you to act like adults and for the most part.. most did.. not all. I was impressed by the professionalism of the www.sportbiketracktime.com/ team. While the track at Jennings is NOT world class... the organizers were. Nice people with positive attitudes. We had heard that the instructors don't even get paid, but instead are all volunteers...

As I mentioned before, the Pirelli's delivered total confidence at every lean angle. Neither front or rear broke loose or slipped even once.. not once.. One thing that became evident almost immediately was that all the hours I have "invested" doing battle with the dragon at Deals Gap helps me tremendously here on the track.. While the instructors were telling everyone that passing is best done on the straights, I found it easier to pass in the curves which is what you MUST learn to do at Deals or you'll be behind snails and/or Harley riders forever. Sure.. if you have the power.. it's easy to pass on the straights, but it's not as much fun as out braking or accelerating out of a turn faster than another rider..


While many riders were hitting 130+ or so on the 2 straights, I don't think I broke 110mph while there. I didn't care a thing about seeing how fast I could lap the track... just going faster in the curves and working on my technique. My goal was to improve myself and I honestly believe I succeeded.. While going flat out at Deals Gap is fun and in some ways MORE challenging.. it does NOT compare to going fast on a track.. Hearing the MV screaming past 10K is intoxicating.. Finding you and your bike's lean angle limits without fear of getting a speeding ticket or playing kissie with Bambi is icing on the cake.

Very few things bother me during the day of riding. One thing however, which I'll imagine takes a while to get used to, was hard for me to deal with. We were instructed to be oblivious to whoever is behind you.. NEVER look behind you.... pick a line and make it your own. During the course of the day, I found this the hardest thing to do... Many times I would NOT take the line I wanted if I could hear a bike blasting up my ass for fear that HE would drop down on the inside of me and take MY line. As there were quite a few riders here with the skill level to do this.. it was a distinct possibility. I found myself more worried that some motard would take me out than losing the bike on my own so many times I chose a slightly different... wider/slower/safer line. This is one issue I'll work on next track day.

After I learn the lines it's all pleasure. Where I can usually NOT take the MV past 7K on the tight curves at Deals Gap for fear that she'll spit me off on the far end of any curve partly due to the inherent light-switch throttle action characteristic of these bikes, here I can easily keep the revs in the 8-10K range and she loves it. The high rpm engine braking kind of counters the on/off throttle problem or at least lessons it. The stiff Italian suspension is perfect at these speeds. This is what the bike was designed for and I am rewarded with many massive grins and few sphincter muscle reps.


While I choose to keep my speeds down on the straights, it's easy to pass virtually anyone I want on the back straight except the few big liter bikes like the Busa's or GSX's. In the curves, I can choose any line I want and the bike willingly does my evil bidding without a flutter.. without a slip.... like on rails. While I am riding perhaps 9/10th's.. it's obvious that some of these guys consider me nothing more than a two wheeled, leather clad sloth. Some pass me effortlessly and I am humbled. It's hard not to be impressed. However, I realize that these guys spend lots of time on tracks like this and for the most part .. all are 20+ years younger than myself so I don't take it personal. I'm sure if Fast Freddie or Eddie Lawson were here.. these same guys would be track anchors in their wake. And the Fast Freddies and the Kevin Swantzs of the world would be humbled by the newer riders like the godlike Valentino Rossi. We all have our window of greatness and I rode through mine 20 years ago....

During the course of the 2 days.. there were about a dozen crashes. First day most were just simple low-side drops but I think one did an endo... Track side ambulance and tow trailer were always seconds away... seemed very professional. By the end of the day.. I'm psyched!! My best laps were the last 3. Felt very good and easily capable of moving up to the intermediate class... Tired, I head back to the room. Go back out...have dinner with my friends. Watch TV till late...


Day 2 / Sunday 14th: My Birthday! Alarm goes off at 6:30.. I hit the snooze.. 6:40.. I hit the snooze.. 6:50.. I hit the snooze....and again at 7am.. I try to get up but legs will not move. It feels like during the night, a herd of rhinoceros entered my room and stampeded across my upper legs. Serious pain. I slowly get dressed.. open the door and cold air hits my face. I check the weather and it's 40 degrees..Geeezz. Back to bed fully clothed. I know that my tires won't stick at these temps so I'll wait for an hour or so for the sun to do it's thing. Alarm goes off at 8.. still cold.. back to bed.. at 9am.. I try to get up..I feel like James Caan in "Misery." .. back to bed.. Kriner calls me at 10am to see if I have died in my sleep. Everyone else is at the track and riding.. I tell him I'm on my way... I make a mental note to exercise before my next track day event. I realize two things.. A. While I LOOK to be in good shape.. I'm not and B. Those pro riders REALLY are athletes to do what they do. I go back to bed.. Wake at 11PM feeling almost human, but upper legs are stiff as a 3 day old corpse. I suck it up, grab a bagel, gingerly step around the rhino droppings, and I'm out the door.

I arrive at the track just before noon. It's in the low 50's and windy...it feels like Chicago. I'm surprised that people seem to be going full pace as yesterday.. I'm amazed that their tires are sticking.. I decide to have lunch with my buds and perhaps ride afterward. At about that time, people start crashing.. Two instructors are taken out by other riders.. Bikes are destroyed.. Before I leave at about 4pm there are probably 6 crashes.. They call everyone in and warn them that the track is NOT warming up, tires are NOT sticking, and they want everyone to slow down... Duh! After a handful of laps, Bill calls it a day. I decide not to ride... I don't feel 100% and the gods are sending me signals so obvious that Stevie Wonder couldn't miss them. I pack it in and do not tempt fate. I spend my birthday watching my friends ride, eating Motrin, trying to walk erect, and thinking of how much fun I have had. I'll be even better the NEXT time I'm on a track.. Barber in April... Done deal. I'm hooked.


Alas... I had hoped to have a few very cool pics of myself on my gleaming F4 to post in this write up.... all leaned over with my knee close to the warm tarmac.. my steely eyes focused down the track.. the look of determination on my face, but as fate would have it... it was not meant to be. While the photographers of www.Killboy.com where in attendance, we have been told that all pictures taken on Sat the 13th were lost in a computer crash. . All the visual proof of my first track day's heroics lost like tears in the rain.. O, well.

While I did not expect to look or ride like a pro on my very first track day..(I am after all.. an aging realist)..it was a wonderful, intoxicating experience.. I rode faster than I ever could on the street, I learned quite a bit, I improved my cornering technique which was my goal, and while out there on the track... if ever so briefly... I felt like my two wheeled hero..Valentino Rossi.

Was the track day experience worth the hype and 16 hours on the road? Surprisingly, yes...One dream achieved at the ripe old age of 49... Now if I can only figure out how to get Michelle Pfeiffer in a hot tub or that Lamborghini Countach. Maybe my understanding wife will have some suggestions... Live to dream... live to ride.


High Point of the Weekend: One of the instructors singled me out to tell me I was choosing great lines... :-)
Low Point of the Weekend: Being trampled by
a herd of rhinoceros.

Basic Non-Riding Tips for the First Timer's Track Day
1. Work out for at least a week before riding. Squats or stairs should do the trick. Your upper leg muscles will take a beating. Ever been trampled by a rhino?
2. While I drink less than one glass of water per YEAR... everyone at the track was insisting that you drink plenty of fluids... I ignored them, but don't do as I do... I'm an anomaly. If it doesn't say Mountain Dew on the label.. I don't drink it.
3. The track is NOT the place to be chintzy with tire choice. Buy the stickiest rubber you can afford and make sure you have at least 75% of the tread on the tire when you arrive at the track.
4. Bring gas... there may or may not be gas pumps at the track. If there is.. it'll be expensive.
5. You'll need to tape off your headlight, tail light, blinkers, and mirrors. Rather than duct tape which will leave a sticky residue.. use either gaffer's tape or electrical tape.


 
Hope you liked it... Pirate out...
Jerry D. Finley
Captain / Pirates' Lair