I've done many track days in cars, and for a long time, I swore I wouldn't do them on a bike. I couldn't afford a dedicated bike and full leathers, and if I was going to rip around a track I wanted the protection of a steel cage around me. Yet I've heard Kate raving about the joys of motorcycle track days, even on a street bike. Riding among much faster sportbikes can still be intimidating, but I found out about the non-sportbike events put on by Tony's Track Days, a popular motorcycle track day group here in the northeast. Once or twice a year, they hold a track day specifically for bikes you don't normally see on the track. The emphasis is on practice and training for street riding, not racing techniques (although there is certainly some overlap). Other people in the New England Riders Facebook group ranted and raved about how great these events were. So I got over myself and signed up for one. I'm so glad I did.
(Full disclosure: I entered this event as a paying customer, with no incentives, freebies, or compensation whatsoever. I was just another rider.)
Although there are no speed limits, and I did learn that my Honda PC800 will hit 95 mph, the emphasis here is on practice and learning skills for the street. The idea is that in the controlled environment of a race track, it's safer to push harder and practice those skills, knowing that no one is about to pull out in front of you, or that there's gravel around that blind corner, or that you're going to get a speeding ticket. At higher speeds, small mistakes you get away with on the street become more pronounced, as well as the benefits of learning and using proper riding techniques.
I prepared my bike for tech inspection. Besides regular maintenance (oil level, tire pressures, etc.) this involves nothing more than removing everything I can and taping over the mirrors. Why the tape? It keeps your focus 100 percent on what's in front of you, not worrying about whether you're about to get passed. If you're the one doing the passing, you know the other person can't see you coming, so you plan your pass accordingly to make sure everyone has room and no one is knocked off-line. I breezed through tech and got placed in the intermediate run group based on my bike's capabilities as well as my own.
After a rider's meeting where they explained the "rules of the road" and what the flags mean, our first track sessions of the day were a slow lead-follow in small groups behind an instructor. This was how we learned our way around the track. Each of us would get a lap directly behind the instructor, demonstrating the proper line, then move aside and fall to the back of the line, like a bicycle peloton. Since the instructors can't communicate with you well on track, this was a good way to make sure we had a basic idea of where we were going.
Finally, it was time to hit the track on our own. O, M, G, what a blast. My PC800 may not be a track bike, but the opportunity to push much harder than I ever would on the open road was so much fun. It was also educational. At slow road speeds, you can get away with a multitude of small mistakes that you never even notice. The higher speeds of the track amplify these mistakes. I have a habit of riding with the arches of my feet on the footpegs. This makes it easy to shift gears and brake anytime I want. On the track, with the extra lean angle at higher speeds, I found myself occasionally brushing my toes against the pavement. I needed to put the balls of my feet on the pegs, not the arches. This not only kept them off the ground, but it also gave me better control of the bike.
Several instructors were out on track with us, circulating among us and watching what we did. They wear special red jerseys, and they do ride sportbikes so that can go much faster than us and see everyone. Sometimes they would motion us to follow them for a lap or two to demonstrate the proper line. More than once I watched them do this for a bike I was gaining on, and after following the instructor I couldn't keep up with them anymore. That shows how much this simple gesture improved their riding. Other times, we would talk with instructors in the paddock after the session about what they observed. In my case, when I was dragging my toes on the pavement, an instructor gave me some pointers leaning my upper body into the turns more than I had been. This keeps the bike more upright and helps avoid scraping.
After every riding session, we had a classroom session in a nice air-conditioned trailer. Throughout the day, the instructors would teach us more about the track, as well as riding techniques such as proper body position for the turns. (I was a little ahead of the game in my one-on-one chat with an instructor about body position.) We also had many opportunities to ask any questions we had about specific turns or techniques we were having trouble negotiating.
I had no major "eureka" moments out there as some people did, but I made many small changes and improvements throughout the day. The end result was that by the end of the day, I was riding harder, faster, and better than I ever have. Where I was once afraid of leaning the bike over too much, for the first time in my life there were no "chicken strips" of unused rubber left on the edges of my tires. I was using every last millimeter they had to offer.
I felt the greatest benefit from the event on my ride home. Cruising down public roads at reasonable speeds felt like I was dawdling down pit lane after a track session. I knew the bike and I had so much more performance potential than we were using at that point in time. While this might sound boring, it's actually an enormous safety margin. Should a situation arise where I need to maneuver the bike quickly, I know exactly what it can do and how to do it. Everything I learned at high speeds still applies at low speeds, and with 95 miles of track practice, it has become muscle memory at this point.
Riding like a bat out of hell on a race track is a ton of fun, for sure. The main reason I recommend doing it, though, is for the training by experienced instructors and the practice you get applying these techniques to improve your street riding. That's what these non-sportbike track days are all about. Sure, many techniques are the same as you'd use if you go motorcycle racing, and as a side effect, they will make you faster on your current bike. The point, however, is to make you a better rider, which this training accomplishes in spades. Parking lot practice is good and important, but there's only so much you can learn in low-speed technical maneuvers. This provides that missing aspect of bike control. I'd highly recommend it for everyone, regardless of what bike you ride.