2024-01-15 – Winter Break Rumination

My last big track day was at Buttonwillow in late October 2023. Since then, I’ve been going to the Sonoma kart track every Monday afternoon that I can and have been re-reading my usual books and online programs that I’ve subscribed to over the years and reviewing data, and building plans. It’s winter here in Northern California which means fairly cool days and a good amount of rain again this year with more in the forecast.

This afternoon I took off for a couple of hours on a ride on my big BMW GS headed for West Marin and West Sonoma County areas to check out some of the reservoir levels and take in some scenery. There were quite a few mini-mud slides (typical when we get a lot of rain) and a fair amount of water running across several of the roads. Even though a lot of these areas were well within blind corners, none of it caught me out or put me in a bad spot. Because I adhere to the concept of holding at least some brake pressure until I can straighten up the bike and take away lean angle, I’ve preloaded the front tire and can easily and safely add brake pressure as needed. No, I didn’t roll around with as much lean angle as I normally do but I also didn’t putt around. Because I’m riding on roads that are extremely familiar to me and not traveled by many others, including law enforcement, I’ll imbibe in some throttle when and where it’s safe.

On this ride, even though it was to be a leisure ride for me, I still went out with a plan of one or two things I wanted to work on. This time out it was linear throttle and brake application. When it was time to go to the throttle, I’d smoothly wind on the throttle. When it was time to brake, I’d target shark fin brake graphs, trying to build maximum brake pressure quickly without stabbing the brakes and then tapering off.

The last leg of the route is on an extremely bumpy and seldom maintained road between the Sonoma coast and Petaluma. The first several times I rode this route 15+ years ago it would terrify me because it was so rough and had so many blind decreasing radius corners. As time went on I became more familiar with it and it wasn’t really scary, just bumpy and annoying (though beautiful). As I rode it today, I found myself doing my throttle builds to redline in 3rd gear, the front of the bike lifting over some of the bumps–none of it being scary or annoying any longer. There’s a certain stretch going uphill that rises up and plateaus briefly. At speeds less than 80 mph, you’ll feel the suspension unload, above that and you’ll be airborne. Today, I had no reservations about hitting the rise at 90 mph, there wasn’t even a second thought. That got me thinking about my bikes and what I’ve learned from each of them on track.

My Ninja 400 isn’t particularly special, it has Q5 tires and stock suspension. It does have an upgraded front brake rotor & pads, a tune and exhaust, and some ergonomic things, but it’s not fully built. I’ve been taking this bike to the kart track any Monday when the weather is 55° F or warmer with at least some sun. The first time I rode a bike like this at the kart track I swore off it (my RC 390 at Kinsman). It was too much work, not fun, and it hurt! Knowing that now and going to the kart track with the 400 has been phenomenal off-season training. The 400 feels like a MotoGP bike at Thunderhill West – it’s unrelenting, there isn’t a chance to relax. It’s full throttle to full brakes, and by full brakes, we’re talking 80+ mph to ~18 mph, 60 mph to 17 mph, and so on. Depending on the config of the track for the day, lap times are between the low 50 seconds to about 1 minute. Riding at the kart track on the 400 has taught me just how much brake pressure at lean is possible, it’s built my confidence in turning on throttle, and it builds stamina.

Because my A bike was out for the last 2 months of the season, I rode my 400 and my street bike, a Tuono V4 Factory, at the big tracks. I started my season on the Tuono and it was terrifying. The front end would come up with the slightest provocation, even on the front straight at Thunderhill and it would be bouncing up and down on the front straight at Buttonwillow. My last outing at Buttonwillow I felt like I had come to terms with the front end coming up so I stood on the pegs and kept it pinned with the TC light flashing incessantly cutting power to keep the front end down. Toward the end of the year I felt like I was finally understanding the electronics and for the last couple of sessions I dialed down the TC and WC to ‘1’, the lowest setting for both short of turning it off all together. For the last corner, Sunset, I approached it a bit unconventionally, treating it as an entry corner which altered my line enough that I stayed out of the massive sinkhole that you’ll hit if you treat it as an exit corner (which you normally would because it leads onto the front straight which is longer than the straight leading up to it, though not by much). I found that I really liked going hotter than I would intuit into that corner, often thinking I would miss my apex but the bike just turned while on the brakes, I’d hit the apex, and build throttle as quickly as I could just past the apex. It felt great, it felt intoxicating to be pushing on the front that way. Buttonwillow’s Turn 2 exit is a test of patience and a sense of what the rear tire is doing as you exit and dole out as much throttle as you dare without spinning up the rear too much (resulting in a high side). I could just feel the rear squirming as I rolled on throttle, and I’ll be able to do this on the A bike next time out.

I’m finding that I have newly found comfort with a bike that might not be always inline and tight to the track. I’m okay with it as long as I’m not fighting physics but letting the bike move around more beneath me. It’s okay if the front end comes up, due to power or bumps on the exit. I can’t wait to get back on the Daytona. The Daytona’s wheelies over bumps are benign by comparison to the Tuono. Riding the big tracks feels slow now compared to the kart tracks, you have so much more time to setup for the upcoming corner, you can process it. Yes, you are going faster but the sensation of speed is reduced (for me) because there are multiple seconds between actions, not 1-2 seconds with 18 mph corners. Pivoting my head to keep my eyes on the upcoming reference has been big.

My first big track day is still a month out and I hope I can get a couple more kart days ahead of that but I already feel like my A bike is pretty chill compared to the Tuono and riding the 400 at the kart track. That and the A bike is a proper track bike, very nicely setup and it has a fresh motor with some significant upgrades. Let the riding commence!