It’s been over a year since I took the Ninja 400 to a kart track and that was a big oversight. The winter of 2021-2022 California had a bunch of sunny days over the winter (too many, enough that it put the summer of 2022 into a super-dry situation). On the positive side, over the winter I got in a good amount of kart track days. Most of the time it was with my road-prepared CRF100. I did a couple of days that winter with my Ninja 400. The first time I rode the 400 on a kart track I was extremely tired and sore and pissed off about it. Hustling a 400 around a kart track is a lot of work, stuff happens fast and the corners are SLOW. Winter of 2022-2023 in Northern California was particularly wet so I didn’t get any kart training in this past winter.
A little more background–the way I structured my summer 2023 track schedule is that I’m almost exclusively riding the Daytona 765 (my A bike) at the Ridge Motorsports Park. I’ve left the bike up in Washington since the end of May. My plan was to avoid the summertime heat at Thunderhill and since there are relatively few Sonoma and Laguna days this summer, it has worked out well. I did ride the 400 at Thunderhill West (the smaller and tighter track at the park) but in the 3rd session I was feeling like I could put in a solid session, I bent the shift lever while leaned over in T2. Gratefully I had brought my Tuono and rode that the rest of the sessions, as well as a session on Christian’s R7.
Back to this past Monday… Since I had some after-hours work to do Monday, I’d made sure to keep Monday afternoon clear so I could zip down to the Sonoma Raceway kart track with the 400. It’s about 20 minutes from my house making it incredibly convenient. I got there, checked in with the registration office and paid my $60 for the afternoon and unloaded the 400, got suited up, and hit the first motorcycle session. This kart track, like many, has multiple configurations but I’d only ridden one config there and this time they used the SIM-R Short configuration, which was all new to me (though it did show up in my AiM data logger). I didn’t have a track map but I just went out and kind of figured it out in the first 15 minute session. This time, knowing well ahead of time that it would be a lot of work on the 400, I was prepared and it wasn’t too bad. Going into the afternoon, I had a few things I wanted to do and work on:
- Since my next outing to the Ridge next week will be warm (low to mid 90° F), this was a hot day at Sonoma so I wanted to acclimate to the heat a bit.
- My last big track outing had me working with one of my riding coaches and he’d given me some homework for body position and with all the rapid transitions at a kart track, this seemed to make sense.
- On the bigger bikes I’m guilty of rolling out of the throttle while approaching my brake markers and I wanted to make sure that I was minimizing that on the kart track with the 400. Most of the time on the 400 I don’t roll out early but that’s on the big tracks. Riding the 400 at a kart track is almost like riding a superbike on a smaller big track so it seemed like it would make a good analogy.
Those were the main things I had in mind going into the afternoon at the Sonoma kart track, but I ended up with a lot of other things as a result of 1.5 hours riding around on a track with slow corners in the ~15 mph range and top speeds of ~62 mph.
- It was a really good experience for me to go ride a track whose layout I didn’t know and hadn’t prepared for. This forced me to figure out the best lines and gave me the opportunity to try different lines and approaches. It made me figure it out on my feet. Because I didn’t initially know which direction the next turn would go, it forced me to use my eyes more than if I knew what was coming up. I’m often guilty of lingering on the apex too long.
- Riding such a tight config I found that I could just leave the bike in 2nd gear everywhere. This relieved me from having to think about gear selection and I could just focus on braking, throttle initiation and application, and direction.
- Even though my brake pads were brand new and the fluid not very old, I was getting significant brake fade only a few minutes into each session. In order to brake the way I wanted, I had to 4-finger brake. That’s not ideal but it forced me to adjust to changing situations and improvise.
- There were a couple of hairpin corners where, if I wanted to go fast, I’d have to swing out wide, hit the brakes, and pitch the bike onto the side of the tire and try to hit my apexes. Some laps I did it better than others but it put me deeper into lean at low speeds than I’m accustomed to. I went for a street ride on one of my well known back roads with the BMW GS after the kart day and I found that I was considerably more comfortable leaning the bike over and even going to the brakes with some lean. On the kart track it felt like the deeper I went in and the harder I keeled the bike over, the better it stuck. This is somewhat new for me and something I’ll be processing for a while.
- Because it’s not my normal riding venue and I didn’t have people immediately in front of or behind me, I didn’t worry about trying things a little differently on some laps. I tried carrying the throttle a little longer in some spots and would go as deep as I could until I missed my marks.
- There is a really slow and tight little chicane and I played with different approaches there until I found one that felt right. Even though I settled on one approach, the timing and degree of inputs (throttle and brake and body transitions) is absolutely critical and delicate. I was only really happy with it a handful of laps on my last session.
- I feel like I’ve got a lot of things to continue working on with that configuration and want to refine what I’ve already established as a baseline.
- I played with carrying a good amount of brake pressure into the corners, more than I normally do. When I reviewed data, I was well exceeding the trail braking G-force that I do with the Daytona and Aprilia on the big tracks.
- The front tire was frequently spitting up chunks of rubber–I’m not sure if they were mine or rubber I’d been picking up from the track, but either way, I’ve never noticed that in 4+ years of riding big tracks.
It turned out to be a fascinating experience, and I’m going to try to figure out ways to coordinate my Monday work schedule around that to do more of these Monday afternoons. Because I’m not dealing with warmers, checking tire pressures, fueling up, etc., while I wait for my session it is true down-time. I can actually do some light work in between, stuff that doesn’t take that long or require uninterrupted attention so I think this could work out well. Incidentally, it’s amazing physical exercise to ride a 400 around a kart track, I closed all my rings in my time at the kart track that afternoon alone. Tire and brake wear are not insignificant, and I think it’s my all-time fastest fuel burn rate on the 400.
As an excellent reminder to myself, some of the reasons to ride the kart tracks, particularly with a Ninja 400 / R3 / RC 390 / etc.
- Convenience – you may have a kart track closer to you than a big track and schedule is often more frequent
- No track-day provider to deal with; just go to the pay booth and pay your fees
- No tech inspection – if you generally keep your bike in good shape, this is a plus and a time-saver. If you’re not diligent, it could be a bad thing.
- Inexpensive – Sonoma is one of the more expensive kart tracks, $90 for a full day, $60 for a half, still way cheaper than riding a big track. I used one full tank of gas that day. Yeah, my consumables (tires and brake pads) may have taken more of a hit though.
- Varying configurations – assuming the kart track is one with multiple configs, it may force you to learn a new one.
- Potential consequences are much lower – if you overcook something and go off track, you’re probably going under 30 mph and instead of taking an ambulance ride, you might just be laughing.
- More willing to try new stuff – like the bullet point above, because you’re going so much slower, you might be less tentative about trying to carry more brakes while going in to the apex or trying to get more drive out of a corner earlier; I lost the rear a few times and it was no big deal, it was a reminder to push the bike upright at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever pitched a bike on its side with as much commitment as I did that afternoon.