Riding a Slow Bike, First 2022 Outing (Feb 19-20, Sonoma Raceway, Pacific Track Time)

Sonoma, Turn 9 exit, Andy DiBrino about to do one of his many overtakes

What I discovered early on with the 400 is that I find my plateaus quickly though I can get fairly consistent. In the first day, I spent most of my time trying to figure out the shift timing (most significantly, the T2 downshift right around tip-in), how the bike feels and works, and of utmost importance to me, accuracy (am I getting to my apexes, using the right control at the right time, et. al.). In the 9:00 AM session, where there were maybe 10 riders who braved it, I was able to get to an okay pace (2:10) while contending with traffic. In the subsequent sessions of the day, I plateaued quickly at 2:04 and wasn’t sure what to do next. I ran all sessions on Saturday and an extra one when I went out in B group.

Toward the end of Saturday, I wanted to check braking so I went to the hot pits and tried to do stoppies from ~40mph. It turned out I couldn’t do it with 2 finger braking because the lever was hitting my fingers on the grip. I could do it with 4 finger braking and realized I needed to do that for the remainder of the day for hard braking zones. In the next session, I became cognizant of the fact that I had already been doing 4 finger braking. I made a note to bring back tools and brake fluid to try to get the bubbles out for Sunday morning. That night at home, I reviewed a friend’s sessions closely to try to find some opportunities for Sunday.

Sunday morning came around and I learned the tricks for properly bleeding the Ninja’s brakes and got the lever feel and power where I wanted it so I could use 2 fingers to brake (thank you, Dominic!). In the slow first session I managed a 2:06 with traffic so I was optimistic. The weather was cooler so I was apprehensive about holding full throttle in a couple of areas (T5, exiting, preparing to exit T6, T10) so I know I lost some time in those locations but I did manage to get to a very low 2:04 in the 10:00 session and again in the 11:00 session though in the 11 o’clock session the front brake wasn’t feeling quite right. As I came through the pits the front brake felt bad and there was some new noise. I checked it out and discovered that my 11-session old SBS DC pads were completely spent and I was getting some metal-on-metal action. I did have my Street Triple with me on slicks (no warmers) so I had something else to ride to wrap up the day but I was disappointed as the warmest part of the day was coming and I wanted to work on making some improvements but not this weekend. I still had some remaining questions about just how much throttle I could use in certain spots (3-3A namely).

When I switched to the Street Triple, as I expected, the first couple of laps were kind of messy but by the end of the session I was hitting my marks pretty consistently. In the 2 o’clock session a MA rider made an excellent pass on me in T11 that was awe-inspiring. I’ll remember that for years to come as a benchmark. Another was on his KTM 890 doing amazing things with a combination of street and flat-track style. It was so much fun to watch.

For me, my little bike takeaways:

  1. I hit my plateau early, finding improvement mostly focused on getting to the throttle and WOT sooner. 
  2. Grip and track imperfections play into performance substantially. Most of Saturday the apex of T4 & T9 were dirty. I never lost traction but it did compromise my confidence to act as I wanted. Between it getting cleaned up and my confidence building, I was able to make some incremental improvements there.
  3. It took me a while to get the timing of controls right for T1. This has been a historical problem for me as I’ve often been on the brakes past the apex. Ken has pointed this out to me before but the action item for me is to be sure I’ve finished my braking before the apex and to drive across the apex. I just need to be sure my steering input is substantial enough that I hit the apex. There’s pretty much no pause between coming off the brakes to going to the throttle.
  4. I need to be a bit more assertive with my passes. It was far too easy to be overly cautious and then punished by spending 2 laps trying to get around the same person. I could have easily made the pass at one point but I gave it up too early.
  5. Not sure but I *think* my T2 turn-in is either too early or too fast. It felt fine on track but looking at the video it seems like I might be getting to the curb too soon and waiting to get around it before I start to drive.
  6. T5 turn-in should be a little later. While riding I feel like I’m past the left-hand curb for a while before I turn-in but it doesn’t look like it in the video.
  7. Q3+ tires w/o warmers are totally fine and sufficient. I never experienced a lack of grip, hit some substantial lean angles, no problem.
  8. A few days before this outing, I had my mechanic (P&M Cycles in Petaluma) install the Spears shift kit and clutch kit.  I only had a couple of false neutrals and maybe 3 or 4 times the entire weekend the QS didn’t respond to an upshift.
  9. Graves flashed the ECU and the bike felt stronger though it did feel like it ran out of steam ~1500 rpm before redline so I just started shifting when it felt like it was only making more noise and not going faster.  It is the stock intake and exhaust so that’s to be expected.
  10. The upgraded 6mm Braketech rotor worked a treat. The SBS Dual Carbon pads were short-lived. I won’t be using those again. 11 sessions and they were literally vaporized. Braking is different on the little bikes, I never generated the amount of deceleration G-force as I do on the big bikes (dual rotors). It’s probably a good thing since I’d likely over-slow every braking zone.
  11. The stock suspension (rear preload maxed out) is completely sufficient for my pace, I never once felt like the suspension was holding me back. The other benefit was that Sonoma, notoriously bumpy, felt pretty smooth.
  12. I was actually able to pick up some brake markers to work with on the 400 that I’d not found on the bigger bikes and when I rode the Street Triple in the afternoon, I could use those though of course the relative position to them was different. A brake marker doesn’t mean that you necessarially need to be on top of it to use it, but instead it can be your relative position to it.
  13. Because speed and pace are lower with the little bike, I think I’m generally less afraid of trying slightly different things.
  14. I was more accurate with the Ninja 400 compared to the 390. With the 390 I found myself taking wider swoopier lines and often missed my apexes. My riding has improved since then but I think the hardware made a difference too. The 400, particularly with the 160/60 rear tire, feels more like a big bike to which I’m accustomed. The 390 always felt “nervous”, even in a straight line above 50mph. Full tuck was easier on the 400 too.
  15. Any small bike affords you more time to get your head around what’s coming up next because it takes longer to get there and your brain isn’t getting overwhelmed. My top speed was 96 or 97mph. With my Daytona I usually hit 118mph on the way to T7. When I exit T6 strong with the Daytona, it’s a struggle to get it back to the left for T7. I have plenty of time with the 400.
I was able to do lots of 2:04s over the weekend, this one was marginally the quickest (shows as lap 3, 4:12 into it).
Sunday 11:00 session, when the brakes were shot and the penalties of not passing when you should. Yes, on one lap I ran wide on T7 to let the big bikes come through.
Speed and Brake data from my best lap
No wonder the brakes felt and sounded off. This is embarrassing honestly, but I’ve never burned through a set of pads this quickly.
Heart Rate data. Pretty much the same as last year riding the bigger bikes other than the little 142BPM blip on Saturday, that was likely the shitshow in the first session after lunch (someone explain the post-lunch session to me, it’s often chaos). Otherwise about 120BPM is my typical high.

2022-02-23 Update
Gave the info to a couple of trusted sources, got the following back:

Best turn-in for T1 I have seen from you.
T2 was too early a turn in
7A apex – were you giving other riders room?
Still – a lot of room – to go to the brakes later, but it seems that the SBS pad had already gone off by that point. Let’s revisit when you get the Vesrah’s.

T2 – turn in too early
T7 – tighten it up, park the bike at the slow point like Wyatt
Upgrade master cylinder if still problematic

So as I suspected, turn-in for T2 was too early, I think I can drive slightly longer and use a similar turn-in rate, I need to be handling that as a late apex and not dwelling so long on the inside of the corner.
T3 – I know there’s opportunity there but I need to build up to it and smooth it out
T7 – make sure I’m tight on the apexes
Push the braking a little deeper in (later)