Gone Racing – Becoming a New Motorcycle Racer

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I had to hit the archives to find the photo above, because it is a photo from one of my first track days roughly 11 years ago – just before the idea of Asphalt & Rubber started to crossed my mind.

I was just a track day junky back then. Motorcycles were an escape from the endless studies that come with a legal education, and going to school in Pennsylvania meant really only being able to ride on the track, since street riding came with too narrow of a window with the weather for my California-spoiled tastes.

I caught the bug hard though, and through school I probably did a dozen track days a season. I’m not saying some of my massive student loan debt went to fueling my on-track pursuits…but yeah, it did.

In a way, I guess that worked out, as it was a year after graduation that I started doing A&R full-time, and the rest they say is history.

With all that time doing track days though, it is hard to believe that I haven’t done any sort of racing, but there are several reasons for that, and why now is a time I’ve chosen to bite the bullet.

Why Go Racing?

When it comes to time to file my taxes for next year, I fully intend to deduct my racing expenses under the category of “continued professional development” and while that is sure to raise an eyebrow with my accountant (and any IRS personnel that reads my tax return), for me that is primary goal of racing this year. I want to be better at what pays my bills.

The life of a motorcycle journalist is a charmed one, and it just occurred to me the other day that I have had the privilege to ride on race tracks on four continents now, with more than a few “bucket list” venues crossed off my scorecard.

Add into the mix a bevy of astounding machines, and opportunities to ride with some of the best in the business, and there is no shortage of experience and knowledge to be gained from this profession.

That being said though, bringing the bike back in one piece is always priority #1 for me – a concept that is really driven home when you are allowed to ride a one-of-a-kind machine on a race track. I am very proud of my track record when it comes to not crashing motorcycles.

But there is a downside to that, because it has meant creating a sort of 80% riding style (a relative metric, mind you) that balances the needs of pushing a motorcycle, but leaving a margin to make sure it comes back to its owner no worse for the wear.

Accidents happen, for sure, but mitigating risk is essentially the essence of riding motorcycles. This job is no different, in that regard.

I don’t like staying stagnant though, and recently I have been looking to get out of this riding plateau, find the next level, and add some new tools to my toolbox of riding motorcycles at speed.

Track days are good for honing your skillset, for sure, but you can only learn to so much in “practice” mode. “Competition improves the breed” is the saying I often hear, and I know from my own instincts, I need someone faster to chase in order to perform at a higher level.

We too easily become complacent, and it is far too easy to say “this is the limit” if someone doesn’t come along and show us that there is more to be had.

As such, the biggest driving force behind my own racing pursuits is the goal of finding some riders who are faster than me, and learning from them; to push myself out of the comfort zone that I have created the past 10 years of riding on other peoples’ bikes; and to learn and to improve on some of the more nuanced skills that come with riding a motorcycle.

After nearly a decade of higher education, I am going back to school.

Transitioning from Track Day Riding

I have yet to see a racing organization that sets a certain amount of track experience before one can apply for an amateur license, but there is a certain level of riding ability that one expects from a new racer applicant.

Speed isn’t the the guiding light though, but consistency certainly is. Coming upon a slower rider can be frustrating when you are putting in a hot lap, but skilled riders should be able to make a clean pass with relatively little effort.

On the other hand though, a rider that doesn’t hold their line, makes irregular movements on the track, and is generally unpredictable is a danger – no matter what their lap times may be.

For most of the track day groups I have ridden with, the defining characteristic between an “A” level and “B” level rider is their ability to ride at speed predictably, and in racing this concept is no different, though taken to a deeper level.

Are you predictable enough for riders to pass you on the inside and outside of a turn? Can you handle another rider close to your proximity? Do you make good choices on your passing attempts? Do you have a command of a motorcycle at a race pace?

I am not of the opinion that there is a hard rule that one has to be an “A” group track day rider to be ready to go racing (I also think that intelligent minds can disagree on this point), but it does boggle the mind to think how a “B” group rider could possess the skills necessary to race safely on a race track.

Instead, I look at racing as the logical progression for the “A” level track day enthusiasts, who is looking for the next step in their on-track learning and progression. This opinion is of course influenced by my own thoughts, needs, and experiences.

When you crunch the math though, a weekend of racing works out to be cheaper than two track days, while still offering the same amount of time on track (your mileage will vary, depending on bikes and classes run).

From my own perspective, a weekend of racing is $400 to $500 in entry fees, which is close to what two weekend track days cost.

One gets typically seven 20-minute sessions at a track day, which makes for 14 sessions in a weekend. Whereas, a weekend of racing in OMRRA for me will see three 15-minute practices sessions, along with 10 races that take 15 to 20 minutes each.

The math suggests then that the amount of on-track time between the two is quite close in sum.

For all the talk about how expensive racing is, it really isn’t that much different from the costs associated with a normal track day addiction, and that is without factoring the value that comes from the fun of competing against others and pushing your self to new limits.

New Racer School

With all this in mind, the singular goal of a new racer school is to evaluate whether not a group of racers wants you lining up with them and their friends each weekend on the starting grid.

Before we go further, it is worth being clear about what a new racer school is not. A new racer school is not a skills course. Its goal is not to make you better at riding motorcycles, though they may cover basic topics like body positioning and corner theory.

Instead, the goals here are two-fold, as a new racer school is designed to familiarize a new racer with the organization’s rulebook and racing procedures, while also evaluating the racer’s abilities on track, in order to ensure that they are smart and safe with their on-track choices.

To do this, we spent one evening in a classroom environment, followed by another day on the track, which included on-bike drills and more classroom “chalk talk” from a group of mentors and instructors.

Coming from a background of track riding, the rigors of a new racer school aren’t too far beyond a normal paddock experience from my perspective.

Depending on a rider’s experience with other bikes around them, the on-track portion of a new racer school can feel very natural (if not painfully slow). Conversely, for the less-experienced track rider, this can be a bit of change, especially as close-quarter maneuvers and passing get thrown into the mix.

For me, the biggest things to learn were the procedures unique to racing with an organization like OMRRA.

This is because there are added requirements for passing the tech inspection for the motorcycle and rider gear. Additionally, the location of race control, grid positions, medics, and so on are a bit more critical in the day-to-day procedure of racing than one would normal need to experience at a track day.

Not to mention, there is an entire rulebook to learn and work within – though the most difficult aspects all stem from procedure and process, rather than rule technicalities.

On track, the experiences of a track day veteran pay dividends, and this is again where I see a veteran of “A” group riding being far more comfortable than a track day novice, but our format definitely eased us into the concept of racing motorcycles and riding alongside other racers.

The biggest on-bike change though comes in the starting procedure. No number of track days or press launches gets you ready for your first race start, for the simple reason that launching a motorcycle on a starting grid is just never something that occurs at these events.

I was never one for drag racing, so my launching experience with a motorcycle comes solely from the start of track sessions where a flagger may be holding motorcycles at the pit exit, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Let me tell you, this is not the same as starting in a proper race.

It is certainly a skill to learn, and one that even the most veteran of racers can still struggle with late in their careers. Fortunately for us, a handful of mock race starts were included in our new racer school program, which at least served to demystify the process to this new racer.

As comfortable as I am on a motorcycle, and for as much experience as this “novice” has on a race track, I can assure you that i felt like a new racer the first time the green flag dropped.

Starting in first gear or second? Where are you holding your revs? How are you actuating your clutch? Well…that’s the devil in the details, and the only way you will really find out is from doing it.

I’m a (Novice) Racer

If everything goes according to plan in your new racer school (that’s NRS for short, by the way), and you pass your on-track and classroom requirements, a novice racing license is your reward. Different track groups handle novice racers differently.

In OMRRA, there are two class dedicated to novice racers only (Novice 600 and Novice 1000), with several other “Sportsman” classes set up to cater to new and casual racers (Middleweight Sportsman is the one relevant for my status and bike of choice, for example).

With my novice license comes a requirement to serve a certain amount of time (8hrs) volunteering on race weekends or in other duties. OMRRA also requires novices to go six race days without crashing, as well as finishing within a 115% percentage of the winning time for six races.

Other organizations differ to varying degrees on these ideas, though almost all of race groups I sampled in my research include a volunteerism component for their new racers.

For example, our colleagues to the north at the Washington Motorcycle Road Racing Association (WMRRA) require their new racers to rotate through a variety of volunteer positions, so as to get a better perspective on what goes into running a race weekend, and to better know the roles within the club, which seems like an enlightened approach to me.

With a race license in hand now, I am free to find events throughout the country, as there is a great deal of reciprocity between the licenses of various amateur racing series countrywide.

I am also ready to go racing with OMRRA, or so you would think. For our next installment, we will go over what you need to get on track in terms of gear and equipment, including what goes on my trailer and in my truck.

The “Gone Racing” series is supported by the following brands: Kramer Motorcycles USA, Pirelli, Dainese, AGV, and Racer Gloves USA. Asphalt & Rubber would like to thank them for their support during my racing efforts, and for their support for other racers around the country.

Photo: © 2008 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – All Rights Reserved