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A Massachusetts track day

Saturday, October 6, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: John Gamel #153274

There I was on my 2015 RT, leaning slightly to the right on a long right-hand curve, 5th gear, and a quick glance at my speedometer showed more than 100 mph. Off the throttle, a hard pull on the front brake, a 90-degree left turn at 45 mph into a chicane of cones, and then I relaunched into the fourteen turns of the Palmer Motorsports park.

I can tell you that nothing in my motorcycle riding got me ready for this moment. I had ridden some while in my 20s, but then life intervened. There was a war on, and after college the Navy was my home for a few years. Then, marriage, kids and other responsibilities kept me away from riding.

However, an early retirement from a career in law enforcement took a toll on my excitement/adrenalin index. Sailing was okay for a while, and ocean kayaking kept me interested a bit longer. And while winter mountain climbing was better, there was still something missing. I finally figured out what it was when I was 65 and came back to motorcycling.

Reduced to its essence, I got back into the two-wheeled world quickly. While I still had my motorcycle endorsement, I took a MSF Basic Course aboard a borrowed BMW 650 GS and then found a 2008 RT.

Back to 2018. My motorcycle friends who’ve ridden with me can tell you that I’m not what anyone could call a "spirited" rider. I’ve enjoyed long, solo, cross-country road trips on my 2008 and 2015 RTs, and I’ve accumulated about 80,000 miles with this type of riding so far. Still, I knew there was something missing, which my friends made clear: "You’re okay on the straights, but curves, forget it."

Fortunately, I live near Ken Condon, owner of "Riding In The Zone Motorcyclist Training" (ridinginthezone.com) and the author of numerous books and articles regarding effective and safe motorcycle riding. A couple of years ago, I attended a one-day street training tour of his which taught me a lot about lane placement, observation of road hazards, and safety around traffic hazards. I did receive a BMW MOA Foundation Paul B. Scholarship for that. More recently I heard that Condon ran a track day course at a track in Palmer, Massachusetts, for non-sport bikes, through a company called Tony’s Track Days. I did some web searching, watched some videos about what they were about, and then pulled the trigger (so to speak) and signed up.

Okay, I was apprehensive. Eight years of touring all over the United States with almost no crises or near misses meant I didn’t have a lot of experience. As Ken stated in the first session of our class, "Even if you’ve ridden for 20 years, it’s likely you have one year’s experience repeated twenty times."

My pal and R nineT rider, Jeremy Yamin and I rode out from Boston, stayed overnight in Palmer, then arrived at the track. After checking in, a quick bike inspection which included tread depth, brake pad thickness, covering mirrors and lighting, Ken spoke with each person and then assigned him or her to one of three groups. Blue for the fast bikes, yellow for more moderate speeds and red for mostly cruiser-style bikes.

By way of background, Tony’s Track Days had run two days for sport bikes prior to the day the non-sport bikes arrived for training. Some of our group had been there for two days and were familiar with the track from the sport bike days. Others had attended an actual walk of the 2.2-mile, 14-turn track the night before we ran. The track itself is built on the top of very large hill named "Whiskey Hill." The 140-foot-wide track climbs up and down around the hill with over 190 feet in elevation change.

After each group was given the rules for running the track, a slow speed tour of the track and an explanation of the "line" through the course, we started our runs through the turns. Each group by color was allocated 20 minutes of actual riding the curves, accompanied by instructors (in red vests) watching, and in some cases working with individual riders who needed some help with placement. After each 20-minute ride, the group pulled off the track and the next group began its runs. Immediately after leaving the track, the bikes were parked, and we all trooped into an air conditioned classroom for a discussion of body position, braking, line position, countersteering techniques, and the like. After that, a few minutes decompressing, hydrating, and talking and we were back at it for the next 20 minutes of track time. This sequence continued throughout the day, with a break for lunch.

To be honest, I started the runs as a very nervous rider. The rules of the track were that passes of a slower bike by a faster one could only be done in a very particular way while in the curves. Since everyone’s mirrors were covered, a rider never had to be or even could be concerned about someone behind them getting ready to pass. About the third lap around, I began to feel pretty comfortable and was passed frequently by others zooming by me. I started applying the lessons we were given in the classroom, ignored those passing and rode my own ride. I came to like certain turns better than others, oddly enough. Of course, some were more challenging and required more skill with body positioning, braking and the like. I found that as the day progressed I was touching my lowered pegs very often (arthritic knees are my problem). A discussion regarding body positioning helped with that problem. Eventually, I passed more than a few people!

After the last run of the day, I assessed what I had done while loading up my bike with Jeremy. We concurred that among the things that allowed us to focus on improving our cornering and braking skills were: 1) a perfectly clean track, 2) sweeping, cambered curves, 3) flaggers in ten booths around the track to communicate to riders, and 4) two ambulances with crews, all of whom fortunately got a day of rest.

During the course of the day, I rode about 95 miles on the track or a little more than 45 laps of the course. It was truly a fantastic experience and a tremendous builder of confidence in y riding but especially with my cornering skills. I’d say that the intensity of the experience combined with the safe conditions for highly technical riding gave us ideal conditions for learning. Ken and his crew never let an opportunity for learning pass us, whether it was during an interesting lunchtime discussion or when an instructor tapped the tail of his bike to help a rider find the correct line on the track during the runs.

I’ll definitely be back next year at age 74. Look out!

Note: This article ran in the October 2018 issue of Owners News; unfortunately, due to space restrictions, we weren't able to publish all of John's photos in the magazine. The ones he sent that we couldn't include are here for your viewing pleasure. Arcy Kusari of OnTrackMedia took the actual rider photos on the track; Ken Condon took the instructional photo and the group photo; Al Sandy of Palmer Motorsports Park took the aerial photo.

Comments...

John E. Gamel says...
Posted Monday, October 8, 2018
Thanks for publishing all the photos. All the photos or riders riding on the track were made by Arcy Kusari of OnTrackMedia, two others with people and motorcycles were provided by Ken Condon, and Palmer Motorsports Park (Al Sandy) provided the aerial photo of the track itself. It was a tremendous experience, I can certainly attest!

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