Zoom Zoom Track Day's 5th Annual VIP Women's Track Day: June 3, 2011
On a very unusual overcast, not so sunny day in June, I found myself at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows, CA about an hour and a half north of Sacramento. At the urging of my girlfriend Aleks (self proclaimed track junkie!), I signed up for the VIP Women’s Track Day event hosted by ZoomZoom Track Days and sponsored by Yamaha.
I didn’t really know what to expect, as my first technical track day was at Femmoto, back in 2006 with just a few years of riding under my belt. If you aren’t familiar with what Femmoto was (it’s no longer being run), major manufacturers such as Kawasaki, MotoGuzzi and Ducati brought out their newest and shiniest bikes just for women to ride on a full track. I guess the manufacturers felt that as women riders, we were a little more trustworthy.
It was run more like a demo day than a real track day (as I soon found out). I rode a variety of Kawasakis and Ducatis that day, including a Kawasaki Z1000, Ninja 650R, ZX-6R and a Ducati Monster 695. We were told to have fun, but to consider the track as an open road where we could test these bikes but not race them. I didn’t feel like Femmoto was meant to teach me anything about riding on the track, but to simply give me the opportunity to try a variety of bikes that I might not have otherwise ridden. I rode them very conservatively, conscious of the thousands of dollars between my legs that I might be responsible for if something happened unexpectedly.
As the day progressed, I learned very quickly that the ZX-6R was the ultimate track bike. I rode through the other Kawasakis and the Ducati, but nothing excited me nearly as much as the ZX-6R. As soon as I took my first turn on that bike, I knew how much I loved the track. And how much faster I wanted to go! Every turn resulted in a little more throttle, a little more head turn. By the end of the day I learned 2 very important lessons. First, a proper track bike can make you love cornering. Second, I can Never go back to the track or it will turn into a very expensive addiction.
After my first and last Femmoto, I decided I wouldn’t return for a really long time. It might’ve been a terrible decision.
Fast Forward 5 Years
Choosing ZoomZoom’s VIP Women’s Day on June 3, 2011 was the perfect way to get reacquainted with the track. Kathy and Shawn Reilly put together a fantastic program with sponsors such as Yamaha, WerkstattSF, Motion Pro, Pirelli and Got Blue Milk Photography. They also hosted a meet n ‘greet dinner, and a QnA session the night before. On the day of, we had a wonderful catered lunch, a raffle (courtesy of our sponsors) shirts to commmemorate this day, an extra seminar, and a bbq at the end of the day. The vibe was never tense or stressful. It seemed like everyone in our group was having fun.
On a typical track day, they separate you into experience levels; A (Advanced), B (Intermediate) and C (Novice, no track experience) groups. The men were only allowed to ride in groups A and B that day. Since this was a VIP event, the C group was gently reorganized as the W group, women only.
There were a lot of instructors out there that day, including 6 female instructors which is quite unusual compared to other schools. The day started off with a mandatory meeting at 8:20am which covered the schedule, safety rules, flags and some other track details so you knew what to expect. Sessions started at 9am and every 20 minutes a group would go out, starting with A, then B, then C. So a session consisting of C group only would be running every hour at 0:40 minutes. It was up to me how many sessions I wanted to participate. At the :00 on the hour, we had classroom sessions about 20 minutes long covering a variety of topics from body positioning to motorcycle riding fitness to throttle management and braking. Unfortunately I was starting to get tired around the 4th session so I missed a couple classes.
By the time we were ready to go out for our first sessions, I was nervous but excited. I’ve never been on this kind of track. Will I be too slow? Will I be horrible? Am I going to make a fool of myself? I never thought about crashing because I knew I would be going really slow compared to everyone else out there. Although we were an all women’s group, we had a variety of women riding who had a range of track experiences and riding levels. One of my girlfriends was in B group but rode with us a couple times as well. There’s something about riding with women that is a completely different experience than riding with men. Some might say that women are too slow. Some might say that we don’t push ourselves. There are male and female riders who ride both ways. I think the key difference in riding with women is that our biggest challenge is ourselves, not the rider next to or behind us.
You never felt like the rider next to you was out to ride better than you or faster than you. Not once did I feel pressured or stressed by anyone but myself. It was left to me to ask for help and decide when / if I needed it. I wasn’t followed or guided at every session, but there were always instructors out riding with us. I think in the beginning I just wanted to get a feel for the track and every turn, absorbing the range of corners, the varying radius’, every nuance on the track that I could see and feel. I think it’s a good idea to ride the track in the first session without feeling like you need to be the best or perform at a certain level when you’ve never ridden there before.
During my 2nd session I was followed by one of the female instructors and given some really great constructive feedback. I couldn't believe it, I was falling into the very same habits that many new riders fall into! Instead of looking ahead of my turns, I was staring right into them. My body position and posture was also really stiff and not very relaxed. Going into it, I felt like I had some really solid techniques from all the twisty riding that I had done previously, but this required a different set of challenges and skills that I frankly wasn't sure of. I felt the bike wobbling beneath me as I tried my best to smoothly transition from one side of the seat to the other, slowly shifting my butt over before each turn. But why couldn't I do it gracefully? Why couldn't I transition in a way that didn't upset the balance of my bike as it approached these corners?
I was also riding painfully slow. I stayed to the right as much as I could so that I wouldn't slow anyone behind me down. I saw a couple of my friends pass me as I made my way slowly around each turn. I felt like I should be able to ride better than this, what is wrong with me?
I knew that I would have a ways to go. It might not come together by the end of the day but I was ready to ride and practice as much as I could to improve these bad habits. This was a completely new set of skills that I hadn't yet mastered, and I had to give myself the time and patience to learn, implement and practice them over and over again. I had to cut myself some slack!
After the 3rd and 4th sessions I began to feel more comfortable with the corners and learned how to start anticipating them. I got back to basics and relaxed my body a bit and started looking further out ahead of the sweepers. I tried my best to improve upon the areas that my instructor had mentioned were falling short.
I also started to tire out a little bit mentally and physically. I mean, I do 4-5 hour rides on weekends all the time, how tiring could a few 20 minute sessions be? I guess it was all the excitement of my first track day. I was tempted to sit out the next session but I thought that I should take advantage of every second on the track I could while I was there. I’m so glad I made that decision. With every session, I felt more confident, happier and most importantly, was having even more fun than the previous one! Lucky for me, my friend Connie was there too (another track junkie. Thanks Connie!!) and she gave me some really great advice that just made everything click for me. My elbows, my shoulders, my feet. Somehow I managed to put them in the right places on my bike. By the 2nd to last session, I felt like I was seeing the track in a completely different way.
Since there were so many of us out riding in C group, the student-instructor ratio was roughly 3:1. It was difficult for me to find an instructor during the middle sessions. I also felt a little lost, not knowing if I was riding better or worse but I was still enjoying each session on the track. I feel like I could’ve used a little more 1:1 instruction, but I didn’t reach out and ask for the help until it was the end of the day. On my final session, I asked Kathy Reilly if she would come out with me. She gently reminded me how my lines should go and where my entry and exit points should be. By that last session, I felt amped and ready to ride another 10 sessions. My speeds were definitely up, my throttle felt like it was opening up and I just felt ready to go. I was exhausted but was so excited at everything I’d learned that day and wanted to keep implementing all these new techniques.
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
I'm a self proclaimed twisty junky. I LOVE riding the twistiest, tightest, craziest hairpins and decreasing radius turns you could think of. The turns that most people dread, I absolutely adore and I feel incredibly comfortable in. I'm not comfortable going 80-90mph approaching turns. I'm more comfortable going 40-50mph approaching what should be a 20-25mph turn.
Thunderhill was definitely a huge change in speed. It's well known as a fast track, with huge sweepers, large turns and very few tight ones. It felt completely and totally new to me in every way possible. It was definitely intimidating, but in a good way. I knew that I was there to learn something, improve my riding and figure out things that I'd been struggling with for awhile (like how to take larger turns even faster!).
A track day experience is only as good as you make it. It’s up to you to ask a ton of questions, prepare your bike, your gear and your mind. As adults, I think we benefit the most in a new environment when we’re proactive and take control of our own learning.
For my next track day, I definitely plan to reach out to the instructors a little bit more and not feel hesitant about asking for someone to help guide me. I also plan to get better track boots and hopefully a 1-piece. Going out your first time in your street gear is ok, as long as it falls in line with the school’s minimum gear requirements. I don’t think it’s fully necessary to invest a couple thousand dollars on a 1-piece if you’re not even sure if you’ll go back. I rode with my 2-piece leather Dainese outfit that had a 3/4 zipper, and felt completely safe. But I plan to participate in at least one more track day this year and hopefully 3-4 next year. Wearing my sport touring boots aren't going to cut it. I'm on the lookout for a pair of Euro 37 track boots that will fit my petite feet (almost impossible!) and a track grade 2 piece or 1 piece suit.
Why and How
You might be wondering, why would I ever want to get on the track if I don’t intend to go racing? Well there are a number of reasons why you should. First, it’s a safe, controlled environment for you to push yourself a little bit further than you normally would on the streets or through your favorite twisties. Second, annoyances and distractions such as jaywalkers, buses, taxis, bicyclists, cell phone drivers, potholes and tourists are nonexistent. You can focus 110% on your entry speed, braking points, acceleration, focal points and throttle control. ZoomZoom just came out with a new program called Roadriding 2.0, specifically for improving your road riding skills. It doesn’t matter what kind of bike you ride. They cover a variety of topics including bike inspections, emergency maneuvers, advanced cornering and more!
And if you don’t want to ride on the track, I strongly suggest and advanced road skills course likeLee Parks Total Control (various locations nationally), which is taught in a parking lot, orStreetmasters (Willows, CA). As motorcyclists, I believe it’s our responsibility to continually improve our riding skills, not only for our own safety but the safety of others. I think as we ride more we can become complacent with our abilities and forget that there is always something to learn.
San Francisco Bay Area Track Resources:
If you don't live in the Bay Area, there are advanced street clinics and track schools near you too! Here are a few others across the nation:
Advanced Street Skills - Puyallup, WA
BMW Motorcycle Rider Training - Greer, SC
Streetmasters - Willows, CA
Zalusky Advanced Riding School - Rosemount, MN