Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Lean and Mean It: With proper training, even novices can learn to drive a sportbike fast
GEORGE P. BLUMBERG
Published Date: 12/5/05
Sportbikes are the performance bargains of the planet. Even an $8,500, 600-cc model screams to 60 mph in three seconds, nails the quarter-mile at more than 128 mph in less than 11 seconds, and approaches a 160-mph top end. Spend even more and get more displacement and more speed.
Perhaps because of the confidence-inspiring power, brakes and razor-sharp handling, it’s easy to get in over your head fast here. Adding traffic to the mix can be deadly. But short of wreaking havoc on public roads, where can riders safely exercise a sportbike’s potential?
“A track day is a supervised opportunity on a racetrack with no cars, pedestrians or distractions,” explains Monte Lutz, who started Sportbike Track Time in 2001. Lutz and his wife/business partner Bonnie Strawser, both 41, sportbike junkies and former corporate types, will run 100 track days this year at 27 venues, putting 10,000 riders on the track. “This isn’t a race school,” cautions Lutz, “and we’re not open practice for racers. Here you hone your skills, with highly qualified instructors.”
Exploring a sportbike’s potential differs from street riding. Everything happens so quickly. Incomprehensible to many is the mystery of getting your knee down in a turn, scraping the Kevlar knee puck. It seems a rite of passage. But how does the bike get so far over and yet stick on its tiny contact patch?
To test this out we headed to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, for a two-day track weekend, run by Sportbike Track Time and co-sponsored by motorcycle-maker Aprilia, which had several demonstrators on hand. The 2.38-mile track has 16 turns of every conceivable type.
Bring your motorcycle and gear, and pay $195 for the day or $375 for the weekend.
The 140 riders were sorted into novice, intermediate and advanced groups, with even experienced road riders declaring novice status if they did not have track savvy. Twenty-minute classroom and track sessions alternated.
“Relax and breathe,” advised on-track instructor Jim Calandro. “No death grip on the controls,” he cautioned, “you can try to strangle the bike but you can’t kill it.”
Other key points the 59-year-old Ducati pilot made are some of the same things you would hear at car-driving school: “Avoid ‘low eyes,’ look far down the track—you go where you look, eating up pavement fast. Some things are bike-specific: Keep the balls of your feet on the pegs, don’t carry weight on the bars, maintain a light touch.” And more: “Don’t look back. If the guy behind is going to hit you, there is nothing you can do, so forget him.”
To see for ourselves, we slipped into a hand-crafted Vanson leather race suit, wondering the number of cows sacrificed in the name of safety. It must weigh 35 pounds, armored at knees, shoulders, arms and back. Gauntlet gloves for the hands, Suomy race helmet and Kevlar-reinforced boots finished the kit.
Our first stint was aboard an Aprilia Tuono 1000R, a 410-pound Italian thoroughbred with a 997-cc, liquid-cooled V-twin making 126 hp at 9500 rpm, routed through a six-speed tranny. Under full power it lofted its front wheel in third gear.
Calandro led us novices around the track piloting an old 70-horsepower Ducati. We started slow, concentrating on technique and choosing good lines, with smooth transitions from braking to turn-in to acceleration.
Even on his anemic ride Calandro dusted the group, carrying speed through turns with minimal shifting and braking.
“Turns are for accelerating,” he explained. “We make braking and shifting transitions before the turn, and accelerate out.”
Back to a classroom debriefing, then to the track, and so it went. The pace picked up, passing was allowed, and hotshoes rocketed by, even in turns.
The elusive knee-down maneuver became obtainable—toes up on pegs, shift weight as you lean off the bike to the turn’s inside, lock outside leg against the tank.
At the end of the day it is thigh and calf muscles that ache, not arms. And you realize you’re smoother, more confident, and you understand motorcycle dynamics better than ever before.
FOR MORE ON SPORTBIKE VENUES:
> FASTRACK RIDERS (National)
> Northeast SportBike Association (National)
> PACIFIC TRACK TIME (California)
> SPORTBIKE TRACK TIME (National)