Track days were always something I wanted to do. The second I heard about them, that they were a thing, I wanted to start doing them. I was probably like 10 or something. I was in my mid-20s before I did my first one.
Then I started racing. Spent way too much money. Stopped racing. Sold all the bikes. That’s a story for another day.
Now I have more bikes. One of them will see the track soon. As a person who has been there and done that, I thought it could be useful to motorcycle people if I wrote a “beginner’s guide” to getting started with track days.
Beginner’s Guide: What to Expect
Nothing about “real racing” will be covered here. The two subjects relate to one another, but they’re very different things. “Real racing” means different things to different people. Your friend who has no interest in racing will tell you that club racing is bullshit, and you gotta be on the MOTOGP grid for it to be “real.” Your track day friend thinks track days are “real racing” because you can go as fast as you want. To all of that, I say whatever.
“Real racing” means you grid up, and, when the green flag drops, you go for broke, for the win. I don’t care if it’s rinky-dink club racing or MOTOGP. At a track day, there is no green flag. There is no checkered flag. Track days are not “real racing.”
Let’s get one thing straight: nobody in their right mind, as an adult, goes to track days or starts racing thinking that anything other than personal satisfaction will come from it. None of us have a realistic shot at winning a MOTOGP ride or any ride that will pay us a year’s salary for participating. I shudder to think there are people out there who think those of us who do this stuff are that delusional. That’s how much I care about what other people think, by the way. Had to clear the air there. Ahem. Let’s get started.
The bike matters. It is, in fact, about the bike. There’s a disgraced cyclist out there who claimed one time that it wasn’t about the bike. It was. Always will be. Although he was talking about bicycles, and he was wrong, this notion that it is, in fact, about the bike goes double or triple or 10x when we’re talking about motorcycles.
There’s a good reason that bike above is propped up on stands. It was just too damned good to let it touch the ground unless it was in use. If those tires were on the ground, it was because I was on top of it and about to wring its bloody neck at a race track somewhere. Otherwise it hovered on stands. That was my first track day bike. I bought it brand new and “prepared” it myself. When I sold it, it had almost 2000 miles on it. All of them at a race track.
Go ahead and take your beloved street bike to your first track day. Before you do, consider this:
I realize a great many people start riding in their very late teens, early 20s, or even older, and they start riding on the street. This might even be you. Everyone starts with just one bike. If you can ride that bike on the street, you can ride it on a racetrack. It doesn’t even matter what it is. It doesn’t even have to be a sport bike. It doesn’t have to be fast, or sporty, or anything special at all.
I’ve seen guys show up sporting liter bikes for their first outing and do just fine. I’ve also watched a dude miss his braking point on a big, scary-fast bike after a long straight and fly straight off the track at 150mph+.
Ever seen sliced up leathers hung out to dry and making a pool of sweat and blood and cluge underneath them? I have. It’s spooky. It’s doubly spooky looking at that sort of thing and realizing you have absolutely zero hesitation about getting back on the track in a couple hours. What the hell is wrong with us, anyway?
The track had to be shut down for a couple hours to make way for a flight-for-life chopper.
That guy survived. Some people don’t. When you take a bike to the track, you’re putting your life up. You’re pushing it into the pot.
I say this to underscore the huge risk you take when you take an extremely powerful machine to a place where you have the opportunity to use it to its full potential. It takes a hell of a lot of practice to use a liter bike to its full potential. If you have a wife and children, maybe you would be better off playing with RC drones instead of stupid-fast motorcycles. Track days are the deep end of the motorcycle hobby. Don’t jump in unless you know how to swim.
If you choose to take your beloved street bike to the track, know that you probably won’t feel comfortable exploring the racier parts of its performance envelope for fear of crashing it and destroying it.
If that bike happens to have a ton of power on tap, you run the risk of destroying yourself, too. Even if it doesn’t have a ton of power, you can still get hurt.
And what’s a race track good for, anyway, if you can’t or don’t want to beat the piss out of a motorcycle? Wring its bloody neck? Find out how fast your reflexes really are? Aint no good at all, in my opinion. You might as well stick to riding on the streets if that sort of thing doesn’t get your blood pumping.
To do that sort of thing, you’re going to need another bike and a bunch of gear.
The “proper” number of bikes to own is always equal to “N + 1” where N is the number of bikes you currently have. Also: “S – 1” where S is the number of bikes that will result in a divorce or separation from a long term partner. Or financial destruction, bankruptcy. The minimum is 3. It is improper to store motorcycles outdoors, so you also need a place to put them.
Welcome to the motorcycle hobby, by the way.
Some of us turn it into something of a “lifestyle,” though I think the word “lifestyle” is mostly used by marketing professionals trying to sell us stuff. That non-marketing people use a word like that proves something that would be off-topic AF to explain. But I digress.
If you love these things, the bikes, they have a habit of worming their way into the center of your existence. Their pull is that strong for some people.
What kind of bike should you get for track days?
That depends on a lot of things. Let’s assume you already spent most of your money on your beloved street bike. Your choices are going to be limited by your budget.
The biggest rule here is you shouldn’t ride anything on a race track that you wouldn’t be 100% cool with throwing in a dumpster at the end of the day. You have to be ready and willing to throw $1500+ into a dumpster if things go wrong. Crazy, right? What the hell is wrong with us again?
Cheap and ugly is what you’re looking for. It doesn’t need to be fast. You will be surprised by how fast a slow bike feels when you’re threshold and trail braking into a corner starting from 100mph.
Here’s a list:
- Kawasaki Ninja 250/300
- KTM RC390
- Suzuki SV650
- Yamaha FZR400/600
- Yamaha R3
- Honda CBR250/500
- Suzuki Bandit 400/600
- Kawasaki EX65o
- Yamaha FZ07
- Aprilia RS125
- Any supermoto bike (MX bike w/ 17″ wheels)
- Any 125cc GP bike
- Any bike with less than about 65hp that has 17″ wheels
Also good, if you have some self-control and a good sense of self-preservation, are older 600cc sport bikes of the Ninja/CBR/YZF/GSXR variety. If you look hard enough you might be able to “inherit” someone else’s first track day bike or race bike for pennies compared to what the previous owner spent building it, discounted for all of the piss he took out of it, obviously.
On the low end, I imagine if someone looked hard enough he or she could find an old Ninja 250 in serviceable condition for between $500 and $1000. Clapped out 600cc sport bikes go for about the same money. The sky is the limit for a ready-to-go track day bike, but the prices tend to start at around $1500.
Preparing Your “New” Track Day Bike
Unless you buy a bike from someone at an actual track day, or you pick up an old race bike, chances are your new bike will need some preparation before it will be ready for use on the track.
Most people don’t bother to bring the maintenance up-to-date on well used machines they intend to sell. They leave that for the new owner. That means you. It’s a good idea to check all of the basic maintenance items before you take your new bike to the track.
This gets into a whole other topic, which is working on your bike. If you would rather leave working on your track bike to “the professionals,” I hope you have a lot of money.
Motorcycles designed for high strung, balls-to-the-walls performance, like motocross bikes and sport bikes that are regularly used at or near “racing” speeds, require more-or-less constant maintenance and looking after. I don’t keep track of the time I spend working on my bikes, but, if I had to guess, it equals or exceeds the amount of time I spend riding them. Let that sink in for a minute. If you don’t like to get your hands dirty with mechanical work, motorcycles might not be the best hobby for you.
You’re going to need tools, which are expensive. You’re going to need know-how that you can only get from fighting with broken, worn out bikes and parts. This means bloody knuckles and dirty fingernails. You’re going to break things, which means paying twice for parts until you learn how to touch your bike properly with your tools. This makes working on your bike seem expensive at first. The more you work on bikes, the more you learn, the more tools you acquire, the more money you save working on your own bikes.
Marketers would like to have you believe you can buy the motorcycle lifestyle from the companies they work for and represent. In reality, you have to earn it. With bloody, sweat, and sometimes even tears.
At a minimum, it’s a good idea to check the following items off of your list:
- Address any and all fluid leaks. You won’t be allowed on the track surface if someone catches your bike “marking its territory.” This includes your engine, forks, shock, brakes, fuel tank. Oil, coolant, brake fluid, fork oil, fuel.
- Check brake pads and rotor thickness. Replace parts as necessary.
- If the brake fluid is anything other than “crystal clear,” replace it.
- Check steering neck bearings for play. Adjust or replace parts as necessary.
- Check the chain and sprockets for wear. Adjust or replace parts as necessary.
- Check swingarm pivot points and linkages for wear and play. Adjust or replace parts as necessary.
- Check rear suspension sag. Adjust as necessary.
- Check the forks. Do they compress and rebound like they should?
- I would say “check the tires,” but you’re probably better off replacing them with new rubber if they’re not brand new.
If you’re taking your beloved street bike, or any street bike, to the track, then you may also need to perform the following work:
- Tape your mirrors. This is to prevent them from scattering glass everywhere in the event you eat shit.
- Tape your headlamps, tail lamps, and signals. Same thing. To prevent scattered glass.
- Change your anti-freeze for coolant. Distilled water works fine. This is to prevent your bike from spraying slick and difficult-or-impossible-to-clean fluids all over the track in the event you eat shit. Some tracks don’t even check this, but, if you leave anti-freeze all over their surface, you may not be welcome back. Ever.
You don’t have to do these things if you have a dedicated race or track bike. Most bikes modified for track use don’t have lights or mirrors or license plates or side stands or any of the other bullshit that is attached to street bikes. Some of them don’t even have starting or charging systems.
Bikes like the Honda RS125 and Yamaha TZ125 don’t even have an idle circuit in their carburetors! After you push start one of them, you have to sit there and rev it or it will sputter and die. True race bikes tend to have absolutely no concessions to comfort or usability attached to them whatsoever. You’re on your own when it comes to making them work. They weren’t designed to be comfortable, intuitive, or user friendly. They were designed to tear the competition’s face off at the track.
Converting Your Street Bike
Yes, you can convert a street bike.
This “conversion” involves getting rid of all of the street stuff and then optimizing the bike for track use.
Getting rid of the “street stuff” is easy enough, but your factory bodywork will be left with a bunch of less-than-aerodynamic headlamp and tail lamp shaped holes in it. You can get “race glass” from companies like Hotbodies, SharkSkinz, and Airtech Streamlining.
A word about race bodywork…
Some companies drill the holes in the bodywork for you. Others do not. “OEM fitment” is not a feature these companies offer. Many enthusiasts don’t want their panels to fit like OEM because their bikes are nothing like factory bikes. For example, I would be slightly pissed off if someone shipped me bodywork with holes already drilled in it, especially if I’ve already fabricated my own brackets and hangers. Someone else might be pissed because he has to drill the holes him or herself.
Be prepared to “get creative” with how you mount your aftermarket bodywork. There are all sorts of little tricks you can use to mount fiberglass panels. Use your brain. Be resourceful. Don’t complain that the company sold you parts that “don’t fit” unless they straight up shipped the wrong parts. You make the parts fit.
As far as “optimizing” goes, some people like to install aftermarket rear sets. There are some newfangled “lever guards” out there designed to avoid accidental brake actuation during close-quarters racing. They’re not particularly useful for track days where you won’t be rubbing and grinding your way to the front of the pack.
If your bike’s swingarm accepts spools, go ahead and buy a pair and install them. They’ll work well with the other stuff I’m about to tell you about. Timing your laps won’t even be remotely necessary, at first. No transponder needed for a track day. Get some sticky tires. Make sure everything on the bike works like it should. Bring the maintenance up to snuff.
The Gear for The Bike
Once you have a bike, you still need a few things for it before you’ll be able to do your first track day.
The biggest one is a way to haul the bike to the track. I’ve seen guys ride their beloved street bikes to the track. In my opinion, there’s no way to go fast knowing you have to ride the same machine home at the end of the day.
There are a bunch of viable ways to get your bike to the track. The most obvious is to use the pick-up truck you already have. Pick-up trucks come with a few downsides. Your bike, and your gear, will be exposed to the elements as you drive. Some trucks have way more than enough ground clearance, and pushing a 400lb bike into the bed becomes a chore that requires no fewer than 3 strong, burly men. Your bike, and your stuff, are vulnerable to thieves. This makes it nerve-wracking to stop for a bite to eat on the way home at any restaurant that doesn’t have a drive-thru. If you also use your truck for work, you have to clear all of your work stuff out before all of your bike stuff will fit. There are better ways.
Enclosed trailers are good. Vans are good.
After having a truck for a while, I upgraded to a van and haven’t regretted it one bit.
You’re going to need a stand, too. At least a rear stand. A front stand won’t be stable without a rear stand, so buy the rear first. Harbor Freight sells them cheap. Pit Bull sells a much nicer version of the same thing for more money.
The best kind of stand fits underneath the spools you have mounted on your swingarm.
I’ve experienced all sorts of problems with stands designed to lift from the bottom of the swingarm. The little platforms on the stand tend to deform. You could scratch your swingarm. Some swingarms are not perfectly flat on the bottom. If you throw the stand under the swingarm crooked, it’ll lift your bike up crooked, too. I’ve broken the fins off of cush-drives by not paying ridiculously close attention to where the stand is underneath the bike. After a bunch of laps on the track, you’re not going to be in the mood to pay super-close attention to where your stand is under your bike. If someone else throws your stand under your bike for you, you can bet they’re not going to be super careful, either. Install some spools and use a stand that was designed for them. It’s worth it.
Motorcycles don’t get very good gas mileage when you ride them with the throttle all the way open, all of the time, so you’re going to need extra fuel at the track. You’re going to need a fuel jug. I like the fancy kind that look like a giant baby bottle with a hose sticking out of the top. You can use whatever you want.
That’s the bare minimum: a truck/trailer/van, a rear stand, and a fuel jug.
Beyond that, there are all kinds of things you may want in the future. I consider a cooler full of ice a necessity. Tire warmers. A generator to power them. A place to sit, a chair. A table. Your own source of compressed air. Tools. Spares. The list is endless. Some people take RVs and toy haulers the size of tour buses to the track with them. When I first started, I had a beat-to-heck pick-up truck, a cooler, a stand, gear, a bike, and a fuel jug.
The Gear for Your Body
I don’t think you intend to ride naked, right?
Some tracks and track day organizations have rules about what kind of gear you need to bring with you. Most of their requirements look something like this:
- Leathers made of leather. If it’s a “2 piece,” it will need to zip all the way around your waist. If it’s a “1 piece” you need not worry.
- Gauntlet gloves. These are made of leather and extend out past your wrist, up into your forearm.
- Boots. I’ve heard of guys going out in cowboy boots, but you’re probably better off buying something that was designed for motorcycle racing. MX boots will NOT work very well at all.
- Back protector. Some organizations don’t require this, but it is almost always “highly encouraged”.
- Chest protector. Most organizations will NOT require this, but it’s a good idea.
- Helmet. Buy this new. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. No skull caps or open face helmets.
Beyond that, you’ll need all of the personal stuff you require for a day in the sun. Track days are usually an all day affair (even if you’re only participating for half the day). Food. Water. Sunscreen. Medications. Whatever it is you need for a day away from home, take it with you.
I won’t get into the ins-and-outs of buying leathers or any of the other gear. Know that you can get gear at a significant discount if you buy everything used, including leathers. I paid $50 for the leathers I have now. I paid $150ish for the leathers I had in the past. There’s no reason to buy a $1000 suit unless you really want to. The only exception is the helmet. You’ll want to buy that new.
Finding a Track or Track Day Organization
Use Google. Beyond Google, you may need to find a local forum, seek out local people, make phone calls, ask questions, and figure out how they do things in your neck of the woods. Did I mention very little about this is “user friendly” yet? Well it’s not. Most motorsports websites are not slick or user friendly, and the entire experience of getting a bike out on the track is somewhat haphazardly “designed” to test your meddle before you even get to start your bike and pull on to the track. If you’re expecting this to be a catered “experienced,” you are going to be disappointed. This is a motorcycle track day we’re talking about here, not tandem skydiving or a wine tasting or a Sunday drive in a classic car.
You can also try https://www.motorsportreg.com/.
Where I live, in Colorado, we have three “big” tracks and a small kart track. Of the three big tracks, only one them publishes information on the Internet concerning regularly scheduled track days. That track is called High Plains Raceway, and it takes about as long to drive there from Denver as it takes to drive to Vail to go skiing.
The other tracks are Pueblo Motorsports Park and Pikes Peak International Raceway. If you want to ride at PPIR, you’re going to have to rent the whole track for the day ($$$) or go racing with the MRA.
They do track days at Pueblo, but they require a minimum of 20 riders to sign up before it’s a “go.” I imagine riding at Pueblo would require some coordination and cooperation with other enthusiasts to meet the minimum requirement.
In Colorado, the most accessible place to do your first “track day” is at IMI Motorsports Park. It’s cheap, but you get what you pay for. It’s a 1 mile kart track. The last time I checked they charged $25 “per vehicle,” not per rider/driver. It’s worth it. There is no tech inspection. If you’re a jerk to the guy who takes your money, he’ll throw your ass out (as is his right). If people who want to rent a kart show up, you’ll have to wait until they leave before you can ride. If you’re really unlucky, you’ll pay your money and not get to ride at all. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the risk you take. There are worse ways to spend a weekend than watching rental karts go ’round the track.
I’ve seen all kinds of crazy stuff at IMI, like a DSR (D-Sports Racer) car and a Ducati Desmosedici. It’s very relaxed, few rules. Many of the rules seem to be unspoken, basic common sense. The track is too short for you to get going terribly fast, regardless of what you’re riding. I keep waiting for someone to kill themselves there doing something stupid and ruin it for the rest of us, but that hasn’t happened yet. I figure the owner is really good at spotting idiots and throws them out before they become a problem. Regardless of what track you choose, don’t be an idiot while you’re there.
The price to ride at a big track is $150 for the full day or $100 for a half day at High Plains or Pueblo. If you’re worried about not getting enough track time during a half day, I think you need to stop worrying. Hustling a motorcycle around a track takes a lot of energy. You’ll be very, very tired after just 2-3 20 minute sessions. If a ton of people show up, your track time may be limited. If few people show up, it could be a total free for all, as much track time as you can stand, and you’ll get really tired really fast. For your first day, it’s more than OK to commit to a half day rather than a full day. Save some money. See how the experience affects your body and mind. Adjust accordingly.
What to Do When You Get There
Don’t be an idiot. That’s rule #1. Sign the release form at the gate if there is one. If there’s not, and the gate is open, drive in. If the gate isn’t open, you’re early, and you need to wait for someone to open it.
Once you’re in, find a place to park.
If there’s a rider’s meeting you need to attend, get to the track before it starts. Don’t expect special accommodations if you show up late. You may or may not get them. Everything you need to know about the day should be shared with you during the rider’s meeting. Run groups, if applicable. Passing rules. Some organizations only allow passing in straights for some run groups. A warning not to ride over your head, to be careful, to take things slowly. The break time for lunch. General information about the track, where to enter and exit and how to signal to other riders.
Pay attention because the rider’s meeting is important. If you consider something that wasn’t covered important, speak up and ask about it. If you break ANY of the rules explained during the rider’s meeting, you should expect a serious talking to at best, getting banned from the track at worst.
Getting dressed can be weird at first. I wear an under-suit under my leathers, so I put that on under my street clothes. I don’t mind being hot-and-sweaty one bit, so wearing a bunch of extra clothes doesn’t bother me even when it’s 100+ degrees outside. Your mileage may vary. I change into my leathers next to my truck or van.
If you have to get naked to change, do it in a bathroom. If there are no bathrooms or changing rooms, have a look around, make sure nobody’s looking, and get changed pretty much wherever. Don’t try to change in a port-a-potty. That would be dumb. Just be quick about it.
If you have any other questions, give me a call or send me an email.