Story by Dustin Woods, photography by Eamonn O’Connell
There is a common misconception that driving a motorcycle on a racetrack is a dangerous activity. The truth is, I’ve never felt safer on a motorcycle than when I recently completed Level 1 and 2 at the Fast Riding School over two days.
School owner Michel Mercier started working with Fast in 1987 and purchased the school three years later. He’s an accomplished road racer who operates the school with the help of a group of friendly, knowledgeable, and, most of all, patient instructors. They know their stuff. You can learn a great deal from them if you pay attention.
A day of instruction costs $475 if you bring your own bike and gear. If you want to use one of the school’s motorcycles, or the school’s protective riding gear, the day will cost up to $599. If you want the peace of mind of insurance, it costs an extra $129 per day. Groups of five riders or more can get a 5 percent discount, so there is an incentive to gather a few buddies and do the courses together.
Not only did the advanced rider training program provide a controlled environment with qualified instructors and paramedic staff on-hand, but everyone was going in the same direction while wearing fully armored protective gear. It’s about being safe, not looking or even being cool. Wearing a one-piece leather racing suit is damn hot, but it also makes you feel like Batman. You know what isn’t cool? Skin grafts.
Leave your ego at the door
The morning began with a sign-in and voluntary assignment into one of three riding groups: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. I was signed up for Phase 1 and Phase 2, but keep in mind that most riders participating in Phase 1 have little to no track experience. Breaking us up into different groups allowed for more focussed instruction, but also made it less stressful, because groups were organized by similar experience and ability. Don’t be a hero. You’re here to learn, not break track records. This means being realistic about your abilities and choosing conservatively. You aren’t going to impress the instructors with your speed; you’re only going to scare them and probably yourself.
Choose your weapon wisely
Bike options were the Yamaha YZF-R6, Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R or 300R, Suzuki GSX-R600 or SV650. I chose the R6 since I used to own one, so it would be the most familiar. I figured that if I got into a situation where a split-second decision was needed, maybe muscle memory would be my friend.
No, there weren’t any litre-bikes to choose from. In fact, these bikes are detuned specifically to keep riders from getting into trouble they can’t get out of. There’s always one rider who goes off the asphalt after getting in too deep and running out of skill. And track. Don’t be that rider.
Class is in session
We started off in the classroom, where Mercier walked us through the day’s schedule before presenting the fundamental riding techniques to be used in the first exercises. He demonstrated where to look and how to manoeuvre on the motorcycle, when to shift gears, and then offered some tips on smoother throttle control and braking using the front brake and the engine. You won’t be touching the rear brake at all, which takes some time to get used to, as did using two fingers for the clutch and front brake levers. This way, your left hand can keep the bike better stabilized and your right can be applying throttle and braking pressure simultaneously.
Each part of the track will require different inputs, whether keeping a constant speed, accelerating, or decelerating. Each of these elements will have either beneficial or detrimental effects on chassis balance and traction in different circumstances.
He told us how to identify the numerous forces that influence a motorcycle’s balance and traction while braking, accelerating and negotiating various kinds of turns, depending on radius or camber. We learned about how our weight should be distributed: lean forward under acceleration to keep the front wheel down and hang off the bike around corners. He showed us push, counter, throttle, and peg-steering techniques to find the fastest, most efficient way around those corners. Hours went by and we hadn’t even straddled or started a bike. Be patient: there will be lots of track time and you have to learn to crawl before you can run.
Back to basics
Each module and phase of the program builds on the last, from theory to practice. First in a lead-and-follow situation, then solo with input from instructors who were stationed around the track at marshal stands. From general to highly technical, directions were given before each exercise, then constructive feedback was provided to every rider afterwards.
The first on-track module was a simple acceleration and braking exercise, using the front brake exclusively and only two fingers on the clutch and brake levers. Cycling through the theory, then 10-minute riding sessions and an individual debrief, each track session got more advanced with more speed added. Smooth, deliberate acceleration, shifting, and braking seem simple, but each element was broken down to be rebuilt specific to racing rather than riding on the street.
Being fast also means knowing the track intimately. Each corner of every racetrack is unique, and most racers will have a different line that works for them. Kicking off the morning portion of Phase 2 on the second day, we spent an hour walking the 1.8 km Nelson Track, reviewing the ideal entry, apex and exit points based on the speeds we’d be running.
By the end of the day, I was feeling comfortable hitting triple-digit speeds on the back straight and balancing precariously off each side of the bike in the corners. Speedometers on the bikes were blocked out and lap times weren’t shared until the end of the program in order to keep the focus on skill development rather than bragging rights.
Tips to success
The instructors know more than you. They will provide constructive criticism on how you can improve. Don’t take it personally or get offended by it. People spend their entire lives learning the art and physics involved in racing, so don’t be deflated if you aren’t an expert right out of the gates. But if you’re doing well, they’ll tell you that, too.
Riding a motorcycle on a racetrack is exhausting. Physically and mentally. Get a good night’s sleep and refrain from drinking alcohol days in advance to ensure you have a sharp mind. You’ll also be sweating. A lot. Keep hydrated by drinking lots of water and replacing electrolytes. Avoid sugary drinks that may lead you to have a spike and dip in energy.
Not only does a track school improve your riding abilities in a safe, supervised environment, but it is also about as much fun as you can have in a one-piece leather suit. Almost. But in order to get the most out of the experience, you need to be patient and exhibit self-control. FAST’s instructors focus on slow, methodical, and incremental gains. It may not feel like you’re improving at all until the end of the day, when you look back at how far you’ve come in such a short amount of time. As Mercier said several times throughout each day: “Before you can be fast, you need to be smooth.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Shannonville Motorsport Park was free from distracted motorists and pedestrians, so we could focus on developing our skills rather than worrying about getting T-boned by someone texting and driving.
Find out more about the FAST Riding School.