Yesterday I did the Level 1 Keith Code School at Firebird International's West Track (Phoenix).
I had a ripping blast. I haven't had this much fun since I first learned to ride. This easily blew away my expectations of what a track was like.
Thursday night, I couldn't sleep a wink before the School. My stomach was in knots, and I threw in the towel at 3:30 am and made coffee and waffles...
I spent quite a while going over the bike assigned to me, looking at prior damage, nut-and-bolt check, etc. This bike had seen some lowsides for sure! Plenty of fairing repair - fiberglass galore on the inside.
The track at Firebird West is tight, with only a 1/3 mile back straight, and lots of slower-speed stuff. I was hoping to learn some higher-speed finesse but the fastest corners were only about 60 MPH or so. The track record is a 0:48 or so, and the instructors were able to put down 0:54-0:58s.
The first session on the track was the no-brake drill. Two laps for familiarization then go for 20 min with no brakes, fourth gear. The bike felt very similar to the ZX-10R in handling - just ever so slightly less heft while turning, and a slightly different tank and a slightly different bar angle. I felt very confident on the 208ZRs, and started running the bike into the corners deep and rolling on (the point of the drill was early cracking of the throttle and controlling the attitude of the bike with the throttle). I could feel the chassis under me - slightly under sprung, but damping was pretty good, and I could feel the extension on the gas, and my corner speeds were pretty high. Nothing too new here for me, except being able to see around the corner let me go in without fear. I lay down some very consistent 1:24s; mostly due to slower lapping traffic. I had some really nice railed corners though.
The second track session was about turn-in point. I had been using the same points, with about three exceptions, as the instructors marked. One of them was just too far outside in a chicane, and the other three were after straights, and I actually drove deeper and turned more past those points on my first session. I don't think I learned anything on this session, but it did point up something that I did learn on the next session. I had two gears here, third and fourth, and no brakes. I put down one of my fastest laps of the day here - I was the first one on the track and had no backmarkers for the first lap, and laid down a 1:00.29. This session flew by quickly...
The third session was about turn-in rate. I had always 'known' I should try to make a strong, positive control movement, and get the turning over quickly. What I didn't know was that what I had considered good enough wasn't... and that I was occasionally hunting for a lean-angle mid-corner. The instructor had me follow him for a few turns and I watched him snap it into corners, then the light bulb came on, and I passed him to show him I got it. So - I learned a few things right then. The suspension's high-speed damping doesn't let it change its extension much if the control input is over quickly and you return to a stable attitude very quickly. I could snap it in and not load the front!!! MAN, that was an enlightener! The under-springing of the bike wasn't that much of a worry all-of-a-sudden... Another thing I learned is that I can actually lean less by turning faster, and I don't need to hang off the bike as far - and yes, I was pretty far off the bike. I got a lot faster in three laps of following the instructor. I'm still shaking my head. Worth the price of admission right there.
So, I had lots of (now slightly faster) backmarkers all over the track. I took to pulling into pit row, and launching again after a wave of slower riders had passed, just so I could get some good corners in.
Fourth session was about processing information further down the track - committing to a turn point, but already choosing the next event point (braking, turning, whatever). I had the first shot on the track and laid down a 1:00.04, though I was stiff and sore already - but was chewing potassium tablets by the fistful and drinking water by the gallon... I had lots of trouble with backmarkers this session. This session, they were turning faster, and trying to hit the straights faster, and since they were still using the turn-in markers the instructors had left out (duct-tape x's in the corners), they were using the whole width of the track in the corners. Only a few times could I pass on the outside - the carousel was one, and the drive off the slowest corner. I tried to follow the 6-foot rule the track marshal had given us, but still got yelled at when I got off the track for closing rate - excuse me? This is a racetrack... but I tried to give everyone more room next session. It sucked because it wasn't challenging at all, but I wanted to finish the day, so I just nodded and kept it zipped. I don't think I learned anything new here, but was driving off corners very hard, punishing the 208 rear - I've been looking ahead before I lean the bike for a while (I read the Twist of the Wrist years back, and learned it then).
Fifth session was 'track day time', all gears, brakes, etc. I was first out again, and had one lap where I was playing with braking (slower lap) and one where I was not braking, but shifting and carrying more corner speed. I came to the conclusion that I over brake when I use the brake, and enter corners slower than I need to. So - I need practice both braking later for the amount I brake (it was the school's bike and I had a deposit to consider, so I did brake early off the straights), and determining/sensing when to let off the brakes. I laid down a pair of 1:04s not braking, and a 1:08 when I did. Lesson learned.
But... pissing me off big time, I got red flagged for someone else's action. I was on the inside of the front straight, following the instructor, passing a backmarker with about 60 MPH difference, and the SOB tries to apex a slight kink in the straight, practicing his hard turn-in skill on the one "corner" he felt confident on. He crossed 40 feet of pavement to cut me off... yes, he didn't know I was there, I know. I grabbed a fistful of brake, and cut hard around him on the outside as he drove into my line, and I got red flagged for not giving him enough room - on the outside. And boy, I was pissed, but rules are rules, and I was supposed to, no matter what, give him more room. Still - what do I do at over 100 MPH and he's at 40? The instructor was there in front of me, just as fast, so it's not a question of a speed limit on the track. I guess I should have backed off and 'waited' to see what the Buell would have done - but I was tired of doing that. So, I guess I earned the talking to for choosing a bad choice and not backing off.
All in all, a really great day. No damage to anyone or the school's bike, and now I know I am serious about my desire to get on the track more, practice and race. I know I'm competitive - both in will and in ability. I know I'm fast, and more than equal to the task of piloting the bike around the track fast, and I know I have plenty of attention and confidence left over to know what the other riders are doing. I know where I have at least one soft point in my skills - the over braking, and I know I can simply choose not to brake and hit the corners faster (but probably would be passed on the brakes by someone else). I know I can corner as hard as anyone, and learned some things about not needing to hang off or lean as much by turning in faster, and not upsetting or compressing the suspension by turning in faster.
I learned it's fun to wring the daylights out of a 600 - the revlimiter on the 636 slows you down... and I can spin the rear and lift the front on a 600 just like I can on the 10R, but it takes about 7,000 more RPM to do it.
I learned that it's always the overtaking rider's fault (Aaron Yates, you listening?), and that I should expect slower riders (especially those who have the benefit of 1 day's lessons, same as me) to do dumb things, so I really was responsible for giving him more room. I guess I understand the track marshal's concern for the closing rate, too. Even though I was trying to play with braking rates in the fourth session, I shouldn't enter a corner at double the speed of a slower rider in there ahead of me (even passing with wide margins). I don't think it will ever happen that way again outside of a school, since I should be grouped with faster riders in a track day, and in a race - well, in a race I don't expect anyone that slow would be out there.
Man, I think I'm hooked. Peter Egan said that "Road racing motorcycles makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty", and I think I am beginning to understand.