The last session on track, last weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park, that session was a good one. The weather was rain in the morning, as most of this season has gone so far, and blazing sun early morning onward.
Speed and clean lines on track start way before you unload the truck. My workout regimen has me in the best shape I’ve ever been in as an adult. I’m down to 153 pounds and I was feeling great. No extra weight on me and no gut or flab bouncing around when I run up the stairs had me feeling invincible. Then Classic Car Club’s Alps To Italy Rally hit the calendar. I had no gym sessions and a lot of pasta for a week. What’s more is my in-house training partner, Phelim Kavanagh, son of CCC founder Phil, was in from London for three months. He called my guest room home and I called him my spotter. We hit the gym together four to five times a week and pushed each other hard. Now that his visa expired, I have this pasta to burn off on my own. It’s going, but it could go quicker.
The good news is Classic Car Club’s cycling club is in action. Riding a bike is an excellent way to have a low-impact, high-energy work out. The club moves quick though, so I need to train more on the bike just to hang in the pack during our Tuesday morning rides. For me, I will get the most of my workout if I’m enjoying it. Cycling is a good way for me to enjoy the torture.
Thunderbolt. My favorite track. Partially because I know it well, but more so because it has a bit of everything. Tight, left hand corners are followed by long, bending fast right handers. There’s a great flow, a lot of technical bits and a lot of sections where you’re flat out and climbing though the entire gear set.
Like every track outing, I study the track map and give myself two goals to work on. At Thunderbolt, turn 3b (running the chicane) and turn 10 prove to be the most important to master. From my last journal entry, you’ll know those are the most important because you’re on the throttle for long stretches after corner exit. Getting out of the corner quick pays dividends on your lap time. My goals were to correct my mistakes on my last outing. That mistake was to approach riding too mechanically. I was doing everything that needed to be done, such as weighting the outside peg when cornering, getting my head inside the radius, rolling throttle on smooth and then fast, but it was clunky. While trying to learn my way around a new track, I didn’t let anything flow. I was displaying a sequence of tactics and steps, but not tying them together nicely. This time, my goal was to put the thinking aside and connect the things that have become reflexive in my riding and just connect the dots. Think less. Do more.
Luckily, thinking less is something I do well. Our first early morning session sported cold wind and a wet track. Turn one and turn 10, the two most important, had a small river running across them, so I had to remember to take it a bit easy through those corners and stand the motorcycle up when running through them to eliminate lean angle, which is dangerous in the wet.
At 8am, I rolled onto pit row, let the bike warm and went through my ritual of snapping my visor down, and saying in my helmet, “Where am I and what am I doing? I’m at NJMP and I’m riding a motorcycle at speed because I’m a bad mother%&*er”. It helps set my mind and put everything else in the background.
The first wet cold sessions were fine. I reminded myself of braking points, got up to speed and got the synapses in my mind firing. By 11am, the sun came out blazing and the track dried quickly. By 11:45 it was 97 degrees out and track temperature was closer to 125 Fahrenheit. Too hot to be in head to toe leather, but just right to work the hell out of a set of Michelin Power One race tires. With confidence in my rubber and a good tempo happening, I started twisting the throttle open earlier and with more authority.
The rest of the day was perfect. I got into a rhythm. I was trail breaking into corners nicely and getting on the throttle early, the second I had direction. As the day went on, the pace kept dropping. I was above board on my goal of smoothing things out. I’d dive into the corner and set my radius early. If I had to adjust my line, I would do so by either opening or closing the throttle a degree or two or by just tipping my big heavy head into the center of the corner another few millimeter. My faith in the tires grew and with it, lean angles. I was dragging my knee through turns 1, 4, 5, 7 and 10. This let’s me know I’m digging, getting to the limits of my machine.
When yellow or red flags didn’t fly, I was able to string together consistent laps, including a string of them in the 1:27s. For me, this is competitive enough to race. Remember, I wanted to be fast enough and also be in enough control to race in close quarters with other riders. I’m there, but more on that in a bit.
Since I finished my homework and ticked the goal box, I started working on extracurricular activity – backing the bike in. “Backing it in” is when the rider trails the clutch into a corner at the same time as he or she trails in the brakes. If you can get the rear wheel to spin a bit slower than the front tire by using engine braking, the rear will step out. Once it’s out, you have to smoothly transition onto the throttle to keep it spinning and not let it hook up or get traction just yet. Doing so would send you over the bars. When you get it right, it allows you to get your direction earlier. By backing it into the corner, you’re rounding the corner, but drifting the rear to get the front in the right direction. That lets the rider get on the throttle before the apex of the corner, giving a few feet more of throttle time. If dragging a knee is better than sex, then backing it in is better than sex on your own jet.
A look at the tires shows the patterns of some slide and full use of the rear tire. The front tire shows hard use too, but there’s an eighth of an inch band of unused rubber on the edges of the front, where the rear is completely consumed. This means either I’m running too much tire pressure or riding like a wimp. I’m not sure yet but I’ll share the verdict.
Now that I’m feeling quick again and in total control, I’m entering the danger zone. Confidence can’t get too high just yet. That’s how mistakes are made. Also, my goal for the next session is to keep the fluidity I’ve developed and now increase time on wide open throttle. That means I have to brake a little later, and get on the gas a little earlier. I’m playing with the dark, dirty edges of speed now. This is when you make a small mistake and things go poorly.
And back to racing. I have to decide what class is best and build a bike for it. So far, I’m leaning in two directions. The first is to stay in CCS Superlight Twins, a class my fantastic SV650 is made for, but I have to revert back to stock forks up front and ditch the Suzuki GSX-R inverted forks with Öhlins Suspension cartridges that give pretty good feel. The second choice is to go for a smaller bike with massive corner speed – the KTM 390 R Cup Racer. It’s a lightweight brawler and there are a number of cup series that I can race it in. I just hate to crash something so beautiful.