Having a 140-horsepower sport bike in your garage is great. Learning to ride it to its potential -- and yours -- is even better. But most of us are limited by the realities of cops, crowded roads and the dangers inherent in trying to "learn on the go" by ourselves. It's a recipe for a mile-long Department of Motor Vehicles record, impossible insurance premiums -- maybe even broken bones and a trashed bike.
We don't learn much, either.
That's where a couple of days with Sport Bike Track Time (www.sportbiketracktime.com) come into play. You'll get professional, individualized instruction on some of the country's most technically challenging road-race circuits, including the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. (www.barbermotorsports.com). I spent two of the best (and most useful) days of my riding life at Barber, lapping the 2.3-mile, 16-turn course with a group of fellow writers to evaluate the latest Aprilia sport bikes, including the RSV1000 R and Tuono Factory.
Each day is set up to provide maximum seat time, with seven revolving 20-minute sessions that keep you on the track from morning to late afternoon. A typical day works out to between 120 and 160 miles of track time. Trackside tire service and a catered breakfast and lunch are included. A professional photographer is on site; you can even camp out overnight.
Though not a basic course -- it's assumed you already know how to ride a motorcycle -- Sport Bike Track Time is not just for extreme lean-angle racers. You do not need to have a competition license sanctioned by the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association, Championship Cup Series, Western Eastern Roadracing Association or other organization to get on the track. Your bike just needs to pass technical inspection (see the Sport Bike Web site for specifics), and each rider must have appropriate one- or two-piece leathers, a Transportation Department-approved helmet, boots and riding gloves.
Riders are grouped according to their skill level: novice, intermediate and advanced.
There is no pressure to play racing great Eddie Lawson, although you will grow in confidence as the day progresses and speed picks up.
The groups are fairly small -- five to six students per instructor -- to give each rider as much individual attention as possible.
The founders and operators -- Monte Lutz (who rides a BMW R100GS) and Bonnie Strawser (who rides a Yamaha R6) -- launched Sport Bike Track Time in 1998 to provide fellow sport-bike enthusiasts with the opportunity to ride and learn in a safe, controlled environment where the emphasis is on riding smart, not just fast. Anyone can grab a handful of throttle on a straight road, but it takes real skill to take an off-camber, decreasing radius left-hander at speed without testing how well your sliders work.
This is why there are three riding groups, each tailored to the experience and comfort level of the rider. The novice group is for street riders with little or no on-track experience. Instructors teach throttle control, lean angle/rider positioning and other basics, in addition to showing the group "the line" around a particular track, as well as track etiquette.
The first novice session starts with a couple of familiarization laps, with speed building gradually. Instructors observe each rider's technique. After every session, there is a "classroom meet," where the session is discussed, questions are asked and pointers are given to each rider before the group heads out for the next 20-minute session.
If you've never ridden on a track, this will be a tremendous learning experience in a nonthreatening environment.
The intermediate and advanced groups are less structured, with no formal classroom meeting between sessions. However, instructors ride with each group to make sure everyone's riding safely (you'll get red-flagged if you aren't) and to be able to offer constructive criticism of riders' techniques.
A rider in any group/skill level can ask an instructor to follow him as he laps the course, then into the pit for a one-on-one evaluation of what he's doing right and where improvements might be made.
To ensure safety, Sport Bike Track Time insists on a "6-foot passing rule" for the novice and intermediate classes, and close attention is paid to each group to make sure no one's riding recklessly or out of his depth. Instructors will drop an intermediate rider to the novice group if they deem he's unable to keep up safely. And they'll yank anyone who showboats (wheelies and stoppies are verboten) or does anything to endanger the other riders.
In addition to its novice, intermediate and advanced group programs, Sport Bike Track Time offers "hard-core" limited endurance days for intermediate and advanced riders; a Femmoto program for female riders; and a PRO school for serious riders (AHRMA/WERA) looking for 120 to 150 laps (220 to 250 miles) of track time with two groups of 20 to 25 students per event.
These programs typically sell out well in advance, so plan ahead if you're interested. Details of the 2005 season and pricing are available on the Sport Bike Track Time Web site.
Bases offer safety courses
Hold on a sec, Easy Rider. Before you dash off to buy a crotch rocket for a spin around a racetrack, make sure you know what you're doing.
If you're a motorcycle owner, you have to pass an on-base motorcycle safety course just to ride, much less race.
Most bases offer basic motorcycle riding instruction and safety courses designed to get even a beginner up on two wheels.
You'll need at least a helmet, eye protection and gloves to attend, but check with your base safety office for details on what you'll need to bring.
Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at Epeters952@aol.com.