One of the best things you can do with your sportbike (or near-sportbike) is take it to the local racetrack for a track day and open that sucker up. Trust me - once you’re out there flying down the straights and carving corners without any SUVs or cops to worry about, you’ll be hooked.
I know for some people it sounds like a hassle and somewhat far-fetched to actually make it out to the track, but it’s really not and I’m gonna break it all down for you today. That’s not to say it’s not without effort, but it’s such a rush you won’t care what it takes to get back out there. Let’s take a look at how it’s all done.
Track day organizers will typically rent out the local road course for a day or weekend, paying the track owner a negotiated fee. Then they’ll turn around and ask the attendees (you) to pay a fee in order to ride that day. The organizer is responsible for running the whole show and making sure everything goes safely. Depending on the track and day I’ve paid anywhere from $99 to $279, though most southern California track days tend to be around the $150 range. You may also need to pay a small “gate fee” when you enter the track, maybe $10-$20 per person (that’s the track owner charging you, not the organizer).
You need a track-capable motorcycle. It certainly doesn’t have to be a full-on race bike, but should have a sporting nature. Of course every track day is filled with the usual pack of GSX-Rs, but I’ve also seen plenty of Suzuki SV650s, Kawasaki Ninja 250s and supermoto bikes out there. If you’ve got a bike that’s relatively light and agile, it’s probably gonna do just fine.
Your bike will also have to pass a technical inspection when you arrive. Here’s what you can typically expect as far as prepping it for the track (do this at least the day before if not earlier):
- Completely cover all lights and reflectors with tape; in a crash this will prevent broken plastic or glass from flying all over the track (painter’s tape works well)
- Remove mirrors
- Disconnect headlights and brake lights
- Remove license plate
- New or almost new tires
- Wheel weights taped over (those little lead weights on the inside of your wheel, used for balancing); use duct tape
- Change the coolant to water or non glycol-based coolant such as Water Wetter; glycol-based antifreeze is extremely slippery and they don’t want it on the track if you crash
- No leaks, everything properly tightened and secure
- Tape over speedometer (because it’s a possible distraction)
Track day organizers require riders to have the following protective gear in order to ride at the track:
- Full-face DOT/Snell approved helmet
- 1 or 2-piece leather suit (2-piece suits must have a full-circumference zipper joining the jacket and pants)
- Race-style gauntlet gloves (must cover all of your hands and wrists, typically going about 1/3 of the way up your forearm)
- Motorcycle boots that fully cover the ankles
- Back protector (sometimes optional)
This is the usually the trickiest part of attending a track day as most of us don’t have a ready way to haul a bike to the track. I don’t suggest you ride there either; you have no ride home if you crash, you’d have to do/undo all the prep work at the track and you’ll be exhausted at the end of the day.
I highly recommend the following items regardless of whether or not you have a hauler (if you hitch a ride with a friend these things will be needed to secure your bike anyway):
- 4 ratcheting tie-downs per bike (make sure they can handle some weight though)
- Bar harness (e.g. Canyon Dancer)
There are three ways people generally transport their bikes:
- Pickup trucks – as long as it’s got tie-down loops in the front corners, you just need a good ramp (do NOT skimp on loading ramps) and a friend or two to help push it up and back it out. One bike is easy; just put it in the center of the bed and use tie-downs in the front. For two bikes, you’ll need to position the bikes carefully so they don’t bang into each other and run the inside tie-downs through the other bikes’ front wheel. You can use the extra tie-downs to secure the swing arms or rear wheels to the bed to keep the rear from moving around.
- Trailers – if you have a vehicle capable of pulling a trailer and the patience to drive slower than usual, it’s a good option. There are many varieties of trailers for purchase or rent, even ones specifically for motorcycles. Just make sure it has tie-down loops and/or a good way to properly secure the bikes.
- Cargo vans - if you don’t have a pickup truck or something that can pull a trailer, renting one is another option. Tying down the bikes is a little tricky though since vans typically don’t have tie-down anchors inside, but there’s a way around that. Some riders have built bike anchors using a wooden board and two motorcycle chocks. The chocks are permanently mounted to the board, the front wheels of the bikes go into the chocks, then the bikes can be secured to tie-down loops on the board. The board needs to be reasonably secured to the inside of the van (there are plenty of places to hook tie-downs to), but for the most part it’s not gonna move around much with the weight of the bikes sitting on it.
For my first track day I was fortunate enough to have a buddy that was willing to come hang out at the track with me and haul a trailer with my bike in it. I rented a 5×9 ramp trailer from U-Haul (which is awesome because you can just ride the bike right into it) and hooked it to the back of his Jeep Grand Cherokee. Something else you can (and should) do is become a member of a local sportbike enthusiast forum. Introduce yourself, join some group rides if you’re comfortable doing that sort of thing and meet some people. When a track day gets posted in the events section, make it known you want to go but need help getting to the track. More times than not, someone will be willing to help get you there.
The most worrisome question I usually get about track days is, “How much experience do I need?” There is no formula for determining when a rider is ready for track days – one person might be ready after 12 months but someone else might need 24. It was 16 months before I hit the track. When I took Keith Code’s Superbike School last year, there was a 16 year old kid who was comfortable on dirt bikes but had never ridden a sportbike. One thing’s for sure, you need to have unconscious familiarity with your motorcycle’s controls. Braking, shifting (up or down) and leaning your motorcycle into turns should all come naturally. The rest is up to you to determine if you feel like you’re ready to challenge yourself at the track.
Skill Level and Training
You’re probably worried about how fast the other riders are at a track day and whether or not you’ll be able to keep up. The good news is that almost all track day organizers split the riders into three groups based on ability, usually labeled A, B and C. Each group rides for 20 minutes each hour while the other two groups rest up. The A group is the fastest while the C group is reserved for newer riders or those content to run a moderate pace and not push too hard. Your first track day will be spent in the C group.
The typical track day organizer will make an effort to welcome and train riders who are new to the track. At the start of the day, newbies get 2 or 3 orientation laps behind a staff rider so they can get a feel for the track and where the proper lines are. Some organizers also have formal training programs that you can choose to participate in; others are less formal but have staff that are willing to go out on the track with you and work with you one-on-one. Definitely take advantage of whatever they offer because it can only help you.
As far as getting ready ahead of time, it doesn’t hurt to do a little light reading and get an idea of what it takes to be good at the track. I highly recommend Sport Riding Techniques by Nick Ienatsch. Nick is an excellent writer and accomplished racer; he has written a terrific book that really makes it easy to understand what it takes to be one of the fast people. The book certainly opened my eyes with regard to sport riding and helped me a lot when it came to track days.
Last but not least, there are several excellent track schools that can help your riding tremendously. Most are staffed by professional coaches or former professional racers that are ready to give you their secrets. Some are geared toward first-time track riders while others are better for those that have been to the track before. Here are some of the more popular schools in the southern California area that have received a lot of positive reviews:
- Keith Code’s California Superbike School
- Jason Pridmore’s STAR School
- Reg Pridmore’s CLASS School
- Schwantz School (not in so cal but one of the most talked about)
Typical Track Day Schedule
- Gates open around 7:00 AM
- Arrive as early as possible, find a spot in the pits, unload bikes and set up canopy + chairs + etc.
- Take bike to tech inspection
- Rider’s meeting (rules, meaning of the different flags, etc.)
- Get suited up
- Riding starts at 9:00 AM; each group rotates and gets 20 minutes at a time (the A group typically goes first)
- Some track day orgs shut down for lunch for an hour, some don’t
- Last session ends around 5:00 PM
What to Bring
- Motorcycle key! (don’t laugh – people forget them)
- Protective gear (helmet, leathers, gloves, boots, back protector)
- Health insurance ID
- Gas jug (get a plastic 5 gallon jug at your local moto parts store; fill your bike’s tank and the jug on your way to the track in the morning)
- Painter’s and duct tape in case you forgot to tape something
- Food and drinks, maybe a grill (not all tracks have concession stands)
- Cash (for the gate fee and in case they have concession stands)
- A comfy portable chair
- Canopy (e.g. E-Z Up, and don’t skimp because it gets windy at some tracks)
- Change of clothes (check the weather)
Hopefully you’ve gotten some useful information here if you’ve been thinking about hitting the track. Post a comment if you have any questions and I’ll be happy to answer them if I can. Have fun!