As the 2022 season wraps up, I’ve been satisfied with my progress and have continued to develop as a rider with a technical eye and safety as an underlying theme. Looking toward 2023, my goals are starting to develop. I was fortunate in that I was able to work with two professional coaches for a total of 6 days in 2022 and with some personal goals through the season, I was able to make some nice progress. I also spent over 1,300 track miles on my mostly stock Ninja 400 which helped me better break through some mental barriers. Pace-wise, 4 second improvement on the D765 at Sonoma, 5 seconds at Thunderhill East, >10 seconds at The Ridge, 3 or 4 seconds at Laguna. I still have lots of opportunities at all and I can readily identify them.
Ninja 400 – What I Learned
The little bike helped me in several ways. Specifically, it has helped me with the following:
* Building a feel for a collapsed front end – This is working on pushing my braking so that I feel the front end collapsed in hard braking areas, how the front end starts to squirm as you use up the front suspension and the tire is the last bit holding the front end up. You can’t turn in on the collapsed front but you can as you slightly release brake pressure and the front end settles down.
* Gathering references – Riding a slow bike gives me more time to identify references for riding the bigger bikes, you have time to take in the scenery.
* Turn-in on throttle – In order to go faster with the N4, you have to come to terms with turning in on full throttle. This doesn’t apply as much with a bigger bike but in those areas where you can improve your pace by turning in on throttle, it helps you break through this mental barrier that I didn’t realize I struggled with on the bigger bike. A perfect example is between T9-10 at Sonoma Raceway and several at The Ridge.
* Burning in technique – It also builds some muscle memory on the notion of speeding up your throttle hand and properly holding the throttle open and keeping it WOT until your braking markers.
* Smooth – Riding a little bike amplifies any abruptness in your riding. This will be particularly noticeable in your body transitions.
* Although… – If I do too many sessions on the N4 and then jump to the Daytona, I find the speed difference a bit overwhelming, more so if it’s at a faster track. Sometimes my best results come when I do 1-2 sessions at the beginning of the day on the N4. It’s also a nice way to end the day if I find that I’m getting worn out riding the Daytona. I’ve even done PBs on the N4 at the end of the day. It does seem to take me longer to find my pace on the N4 though, it usually happens after at least 6 laps whereas I can find good times on the 2nd full lap on the Daytona.
* Throttle Usage – On the bigger bike (Daytona 765), I have spent a lot of mental time working up to keeping the throttle wide open until braking points (where applicable). I’ve made good progress this season. I spent 2 full days at a fast track (Thunderhill East) working on just that which has paid dividends. This requires having proper and easily visible braking references. I’m also trying to get into the habit of using some throttle whenever possible, say the middle of T2 at Thunderhill East, T6 at Sonoma, Riverside at Buttonwillow, etc. While there are still some opportunities for me, once going to the throttle a smooth buildup to wide open throttle is another area of conscientious development.
* Minimize ‘dwell’ time – Without really focusing on it, I’ve been able to reduce my off-throttle/off-brake time, this would be in the transition between the end of throttle/beginning of braking/back to throttle. Some people call this coasting time.
* Gear selection – while my personal gear selection for some corners may not be entirely conventional, I’m finding that it’s allowing me to use more throttle sooner and maximize what I can do for the corner at hand. This has come along with my comfort in turning on the throttle. While there might be some slight improvement with being closer to the top of the power band, I’m personally more comfortable with the bike being a bit more settled using a higher gear.
* Butt off the seat – I’m really getting a sense of ‘weighting the inside peg’ or ‘tightening the core.’ While this has value shortly after turn-in, it also has huge value mid-corner as well. While carrying more weight on your pegs doesn’t much impact the physics of the vehicle, it does remind you to carry the weight lower and use your lower body to carry some of the vehicle load (which includes your upper body). At or shortly after turn-in, it helps reduce the pressure from your arms which will impede the bike’s ability to turn. In corners like T5 & T6 at Sonoma and T3/4 at Thunderhill East, I find myself able to more comfortably carry more speed through those turns. When done right, I can feel the bike working beneath me through my thighs. I try to carry as little weight as possible in the seat. This also helps you ‘push’ the bike upright as you exit. It’s tiring to ride this way but my best laps come when I’m able to consciously execute. I know I’ve done it right if the balls of my feet hurt the next day.
* Data Review – Just getting more seat time in reviewing data has led to new ways of looking at data. This includes simply more efficiency in using the software and configuring the hardware to finding new things to look at data. I’m coming to refine what ‘slow point of the corner’ means to me because I’ve found that the vehicle is still slowing when the rider first gets back to the throttle so when reviewing reference data, I’m looking for end of braking instead of slow point. Just looking at GPS speeds between riders, we’re still looking for the slow point being the same as the reference rider, but for my own riding, I now understand that the slow point doesn’t mean that is the end of braking but should actually be just past initial throttle application.
* It’s all physics – With a decent grasp of basic physics, I’m coming to understand that a huge component of riding well and safely is to not fight physics. This means proper control timing/usage, don’t fight the bike but lean into what makes sense at the right time.
Assuming I can get back to the above areas in a reasonable time once the 2023 season is underway, I want to work on the following:
* 100mm of suspension travel at turn-in – For me, the notion of 100mm of suspension travel at turn-in has been somewhat elusive. Most of the time I seldom hit 100mm of front suspension travel. Data on my bike from trusted reference riders shows 105-110mm of front suspension travel. This will involve adjusting my braking graph saving more braking for slightly later into the deceleration zone. This will mean carrying slightly more speed longer in the braking zone so marginally less brake pressure initially and possibly going to the brakes slightly later. This will be a big mental shift. Part of me wonders if this is an organic development as fast riders continue to push their braking markers and are by necessity required to turn-in while still significantly braking.
* Vision – I have a tendency to look at the apex a little too long so I need to work on moving my eyes up to the next reference slightly earlier, keeping the apex in my periphery.
* Further line refinement – I want my knee on/over the curb at every apex. My accuracy and control timing is generally pretty good, but it can be tighter. To do this I may need to turn in slightly earlier and/or apply slightly more braking force at tip-in. Considering that one of the earlier mentioned goals will be 100mm of front suspension at turn-in, these may work well together.
* A bit more roll speed consistently – My roll speed in faster corners isn’t as consistent as I’d like. I’ll have laps where my roll speed on T8 at Thunderhill East will be as fast as 91mph, and others where it’s 85mph. I’d like to build some consistency on that, even if they aren’t all 91mph. I know there are plenty of corners where I can increase roll speed entirely.
* Build more throttle sooner on exits – While my exits have improved dramatically, I very seldom hit the TC (traction control) on corner exits. I do see up-down TC activation (which on my bike equals wheelie control).
Methodology – What in my process works
* Specific objectives for each day – Going into each track day with a very specific and definitive plan has yielded tangible results for me. In early October I went to Thunderhill East for 2 days with the plan to work on my braking and wide-open throttle. Every session for those 2 days, that was my focus. I didn’t achieve a PB in those 2 days (at best I was ~1 second off), however for my final THE outing for 2 days, I was far more confident in my braking and throttle application for T1 and T14 and was able to hit new top speeds consistently. As tempting as it might be to just shoot for PBs every session/day, I’m finding that it works better for me to focus on technical aspects for an entire day or two and the PBs evolve organically.
* Note-taking – I’m far from perfect on it but I continue to try to improve my own process for note-taking after each session. I’ll also note any sensations I notice while riding, other riders who do something that I might find useful to review in the video, etc.
* Reviewing reference videos and data a week prior – My process has long been to re-watch reference videos, a bit of my own but more so from trusted reference riders. Ideally, chase videos on trusted sources so I can better identify turn-in references, brake markers, etc. The best yet is if there is a data overlay, though I’ve discovered this year that there is a very slight lag between what the AiM SCHD2.x cameras display and actual control inputs. I now watch the video within AiM RS3a looking at end of throttle/beginning of braking since there is a fractional delay on the video overlay. I take notes during this process, noting a reference rider’s exact point of throttle release and brake initiation.
Attitude and Mindset
Of course, we all want to win every track day, but coming at this with focus and definitive objectives will yield results. Be positive, encourage others, engage yourself and focus on the task at hand. There aren’t a lot of us who share this passion so build friendships with others who do. I’ve made some amazing friendships through this sport, I have been invited to some amazing events (even got to be a test reviewer for a bike comparison), and this stuff makes me happy. This sport can be so rewarding if you properly focus on it. If you find that you’re having an off day or your pace is decreasing through the weekend, just start working on skill development. Always go to a track event with 2 or 3 items you want to work on, in order of priority.
I attended a couple of private track days with open sessions. One had a bunch of rain and I went and rode the N4 on Q3+ DOT tires. I wasn’t fast by any means, but I learned a ton about how the bike handles in the wet and what you can and can’t do (a Ninja 400 can light up the rear on every exit in the wet, the front grips so well under braking). The other private day had a very big spread of skill levels on track at the same time and I quickly came to realize that it wasn’t safe to be chasing PBs but it was super fun to work on skills AND a few of us swapped bikes so I got to sample a couple friends’ bikes at a pace you just can’t do on the street.