Like a squadron of F-18 jet fighters preparing to launch off the deck of an aircraft carrier, 40 students and instructors in my Cornerspeed track class at Virginia International Raceway are revving-up the engines of their high performance motorcycles in a snarling, deafening roar. Finally, the pit boss receives the track all-clear message through his headphones and signals the first instructor and two students to launch their machines out onto the track in quick succession. Following them, in controlled three-second intervals, additional instructors and students roll out of the pits. Exhilarated, but slightly apprehensive of my first time on a racetrack, I realize that in just a few more seconds it will be my turn for takeoff.
Flying out of the pits onto the straightaway, I almost immediately downshift and tap the front brake for the first curve. Remembering the admonition to warm up cold tires before pushing too hard, I take it easy, but rapidly fall behind the other two more experienced riders in our threesome. Reaching the “S” curves on the backstretch, I feel alone on the track, but this false sense of security lasts only until I reach the front straightaway. Ducs, Gixers, Ninjas, and other two-wheeled guided missiles blast past me at seemingly supersonic speeds. With my instructor now out of sight, and me cruising alone at subsonic speeds on my street-oriented Honda VFR, I feel a little like the pilot of a small Cessna airplane who has accidentally strayed into the controlled airspace of the Navy’s Top Gun fighter training school. Although my rear view mirrors have been removed, I can almost feel the other riders putting me in their cross hairs.
Just as my anxiety level starts peaking, another instructor quickly passes and pulls directly in front of me, signaling that I should follow his bike through the curves. I’m amazed at the positive effect riding his line has on my corner speed and begin attacking curves more aggressively. Looking back at me, using just one hand to steer his bike, my new found guardian angel is simultaneously evaluating my riding and watching my back. Before being overtaken by a phalanx of supersonic riders, he ushers me to the inside of the track and then back out once they’ve all passed. At the end of the first 20-minute session of track time, I follow my instructor into the pits for debriefing. I’m more than a little deflated from my first track outing.
After introductions, TC says my form is good and not to worry about speed, because he’ll have me passing other riders by the end of the day. I’m more than a little skeptical about this prediction. He then tells me the story of a former 78-year old student of his that, through practice and patience, became very fast on this track, riding a 600cc sportbike no less. The unspoken message: if he can do it, so can I.
Sit Up Straight and Pay Attention!
With oversized sergeant stripes emblazoned on the sleeves of his customized leather racing suit and unbounded enthusiasm for teaching the art of riding fast, there is little doubt that chief instructor Aaron Stevenson is running the show and having a wonderful time doing it. After a successful career racing vintage superbikes in WERA competition, Aaron founded the Cornerspeed Rider School on the simple, but highly effective, proposition that, “It’s not what you ride, but how you ride it.” Most of the instructors are on bikes with less power than their students, but they’re blowing by us in the corners like we’re stuck in molasses. And, just in case any of us guys are still feeling macho, one of the instructors is a young, willowy female that has no trouble leaving us coughing in her dust. We quickly realize that riding fast really is about learning the proper technique, not having the latest technology.
Aaron’s classroom sessions, taking up the other 40 minutes of each hour, are both entertaining and insightful. He does a dead-on impression of Valentino Rossi that has all of us in stitches. He also accurately pantomimes what many of the students were doing in their first track session: grabbing a handful of throttle on the straightaway, followed by a handful of brakes just before horseshoe-shaped turn one, and then muttering to themselves as they shakily negotiate that first curve, “I hope I don’t crash, I hope I don’t crash, I hope I don’t crash …” His not so subtle point is that anyone can twist the throttle, but it takes considerable skill to ride swiftly and smoothly through curves. And, a rider’s speed through the curves on a track is the key factor in reducing lap times.
We learn that optimizing the three parts of a corner is the secret to finding the fastest line through them. The process begins with the entrance or turn-in point to the corner, because if that is off corner and exit speed will be sacrificed. The second part is the apex or the imaginary point that divides the corner in half, which is where the entry ends and the exit begins. The objective is to get to and beyond this slowest point in the turn as fast as possible. The exit, which is the third part, is most important because a good exit allows you to roll on the throttle as early as possible. We also learn that early apex-ing a turn can result in riders going off the track’s outer edge during exit. To help students find the best line, orange cones have been placed around each corner at the three key reference points.
Wax On, Wax Off Daniel San
Aaron tells us that his other great passion in life is martial arts and that skill development in both disciplines—motorcycling and martial arts—involves mastering small steps in a sequential, building-block process. Each succeeding track session, therefore, will concentrate on building one particular skill at a time. This process reminds me of the movie The Karate Kid, where Mr. Miagi has his student Daniel execute everyday tasks around his house, like waxing his car, ad nauseam. Only later does Daniel discover that all of the individual motions he has been mastering have a specific purpose when they are combined with highly effective karate techniques.
Back on the track, TC, my own personal Mr. Miagi and track guardian angel, tells me to bend my elbows more, lowering my upper body over the gas tank and also to shift my upper body more to the inside of the curve. This relatively small shift in my center of gravity pays big dividends, it allows me more speed on entry and to get back on the throttle earlier during exit. My VFR is now effortlessly flowing through turns at a noticeably higher rate of speed and, before too long, it’s mostly just the other instructors that are passing me in the corners.
The next building block exercise requires students to stay off their brakes and use only engine braking to slow for curves. This has a substantial dampening effect on straightaway top speeds, as the speed junkies now approach corners more gingerly. This riding technique is natural for me, though, because it’s the one I use most on the street. During this exercise I discover that downshifting all the way to second gear for the corners isn’t necessary and start using just two gears: third and fourth. Less shifting smooths my entrance and exits from turns, further increasing my corner speed.
After a quick lunch, we’re back out on the track for our fourth session, trying to execute the next assignment. The challenge this time is to actually hang-off of the bike on the inside of the corners. This exercise gives me the most difficulty of any during the day. I’m moving my butt up and over, but the motion unsettles the VFR’s suspension and produces a lower corner speed than I was achieving in the previous session. During the debriefing, TC explains that I am exaggerating my hanging-off motion with a side-to-side movement. Instead, he says, I need to just shift around the gas tank in a “U” motion, while also lowering my shoulder and upper body to the inside of the curve.
Putting It All Together
Rather than working on the fifth session’s braking drill, I spend it getting rid of the bad habits I picked up in session four. With my building blocks for fast smooth riding now back in place, I tackle the sixth and final track session, trying to put together everything I’ve learned during the day. Because I spent most of the day focusing on cornering, rather than maximizing speed on the straightaway, I’m now catching slower traffic. Bikes that whizzed by me on the straightaway are slowing me to what seems like a crawl in the first corner. After the “S” curves on the backside of the track, I’m again overtaking slower traffic on the approach to my favorite corner. This ninety-degree right-hander is followed by an incline with a blind corner at the top. I’m not sure why this curve is easier for me than for some other students, but it’s exhilarating. Looking up and over my right shoulder, the bike immediately responds, climbing the hill in one fluid motion, it feels like my bike is actually taking flight. At the crest, I’m immediately lined up for the next curve and power into it with a new, bold sense of confidence. As I attack the down hill curves that follow, I’m starting to hang off the bike in a more natural way, although I’m clearly not yet a knee-dragger. Accelerating onto the straightaway, I shift all the way up to fifth gear and, with the throttle wide open, this time nobody passes me.
Pulling into the pits after my final track session, an adrenaline high is buzzing in my head. Although I’m dead tired after the day’s intense ten hours of instruction, I’m certain that my riding skill has improved dramatically.
Overall, I’m very satisfied with the Cornerspeed course and I’m especially impressed with both the scenic beauty of the VIR’s location in the rolling hills of Virginia’s Piedmont country and the high quality of the track’s road surface. The military like precision, displayed by the Cornerspeed organization in simultaneously orchestrating two training classes plus track time for sport riding enthusiasts, was most impressive. And, it was all done with a heavy emphasis on rider safety.
All in all, my first track experience was incredibly positive, but there’s just this one problem—now I’m hooked on track riding and have to have more of it.
Photography by Karen Parks and Pics-of-You