Twenty harrowing turns make for an exhilarating day on two wheels.
By Niki Jones
It’s not a matter of if you’re going to wreck; it’s a matter of when. I’ve never forgotten those words a local police officer told me in 2005 when I began motorcycle riding. He continued to tell me I was crazy to ride a motorcycle in Austin, and that was back before everyone was distractedly driving as they checked their smartphones. I’m lucky enough to have ridden unscathed for the past 14 years, but I will admit I’m very much a fair-weather rider. I don’t ride when it’s too hot, too cold, too dark, wet or during hours when there is a high volume of traffic on the road. Regardless, the cop’s words of warning echo in my head every single time I get on my bike.
Mitigating the risk of being injured—or worse— comes down to two things: situational awareness and skill. Avoiding a situation that can go sideways is the surest way to stay safe on the road, but should you find it impossible to avoid an accident, skill is your strongest asset. That’s why I decided to finally take a course I’ve been wanting to take for years: RideSmart Motorcycle School’s track day. RideSmart has been teaching riders to “ride in control” for years and hosts track days at various locations throughout Texas. I figured if I were to do it, I should go big, so I signed up for track day at Circuit of the Americas.
Preparing for track day started at least a week prior. I needed to make sure I had all the items on the handy 57-point checklist the school provided. Then came the laborious task of prepping my Suzuki SV650S to adhere to the gear-and-bike requirements list. This included, among other things, disabling brake lights, removing side mirrors and the license plate and taping over headlights, taillights and all reflective surfaces. (Brake lights can cause a distraction to other riders, and taping surfaces prevents debris from being strewn across the track in the event of a crash.) I wasn’t sure my well-worn street tires were going to cut it on the COTA track, so I replaced them with a brand-new set of street/track hybrids.
As track day loomed ever closer, I got incrementally more nervous, but RideSmart Owner Dave Wonders assured me these feelings were normal for a first-time track-day participant. I made sure to get plenty of sleep the night before so I’d be sharp and alert; arrival time at the track was scheduled for 6 a.m.
When I woke up the morning of track day, I looked out the window and saw a thick curtain of fog accompanying a steady rain. My worst-case weather scenario was happening. Since RideSmart’s policy is “ride rain or shine,” I had no choice but to buck up.
Pulling into the paddock area of Circuit of the Americas, I was floored by how many campers and trailers with bikes were set up; the entire paddock parking lot was full of them. I opted for a garage space (available for an extra fee), so after I unloaded my bike from the trailer and rode it over to the bike-inspection station, I found my assigned garage space directly on pit road, making the track effortlessly accessible, and began to set up.
After check-in and an orientation, we split up into our levels for classroom time. RideSmart’s track day is for riders with a minimum of 5,000 street miles, but anyone participating in track day for the first time must begin at level 1.0, no matter what his or her skill level may be. The first thing we learned about the COTA track is that it is treacherous when wet, a fitting lesson considering the day’s ruthless weather. Our instructors told us to exercise extreme caution when navigating around the turns—all 20 of them, including the first turn, Turn 1, a sharp left set atop a 133-foot hill. The COTA track, which hosts prestigious international events such as Formula 1 and Moto GP, is a 3.4-mile circuit and has 11 left turns and nine right turns, a few of which are infamously tight hairpins.
As I listened to the near-deafening sound of level 3 riders (RideSmart’s most advanced level) rev up and take off on the track below our classroom, my nerves got the best of me. I feverishly took notes as my instructors detailed how to ride the track, specifically how and where to hit the turn apexes to minimize the time it takes to cover the distance; this is called riding the line. On dry days, X’s mark these points as a visual guide, but because the water on the track wouldn’t allow the X’s to stick, we had to go without the visual signs. This raised my anxiety level to an all-time high.
After completing the class and heading back in the garage, my anticipation and fear built at a rapid pace as I heard the 10-minute call over the PA, then the five- minute call and finally, the scariest words ever: “Level 1 to the grid!” I had no idea what awaited me at the COTA’s ominous 20 turns. For all I knew, the surface of the track would be as slick as an ice-skating rink.
Suited up and feeling unfamiliarly constricted in my leathers (which I had borrowed from a girlfriend and had never ridden in), I got on my bike. My panic was undeniable and my terror was palpable. I put the bike in gear and slowly rolled down pit road, my heart beating hard and fast, and all outside sight and sound disappearing around me as I approached the grid ahead. I joined the rest of the riders, stacking up in single-file lines of eight, each group following an instructor. This was meant to get riders familiar with the track and learn the line by riding in the exact path of the instructor in a round-robin format for the 20-minute session. My instructor, Maclaine, one of the few female teachers at RideSmart, imparted to me these wise words before we hit the track: “If you lose me, just keep going. Ride your ride and don’t worry about anyone else.” I was last in the group and fell behind but kept up for the first couple laps—until I lost my pack after taking the straightaway before hairpin Turn 11 more slowly than I had on the previous lap, having over-anticipated that turn, one of the many ways I continued to psych myself out.
While other groups of eight riders were on the track at the same time, we were staggered, so when I lost my group, I was the only one on that section of track, and it was suddenly awesome. The pressure to keep up faded and I could take Maclaine’s advice to “ride my ride.” It was wet, but I didn’t feel my bike slip at all. Sweaty and exhilarated with a big smile on my face, I rolled back down to pit road and into my garage.
Back in the classroom, we further discussed the turns and desired body position and reviewed our rides. I returned to the garage to prepare for the next session. My anxiety level decreased slightly when I discovered we had the option to ride behind an instructor in groups of three. Students who opted for this (many didn’t) were outfitted with brightly colored jerseys to wear over our leathers so it was clear to other riders which group we were with and that we were novices. Again, I got behind Maclaine and followed her line. The other two riders in my group of three were in level 1.5, so they were more advanced than I, or at least they’d taken the RideSmart course before, so eventually, their speed exceeded my ability to keep up and I happily found myself navigating the track on my own terms again, smoothly and at a speed with which I was comfortable.
The day continued with more classroom lessons followed by riding sessions. Amazingly, halfway through the day, the sun came out and the track began to dry, which did wonders for my state of mind. But then I learned the following session would allow passing on turns, a development that completely freaked me out. I didn’t feel confident enough in my riding skills on that track to stay out of other riders’ way. And while I was pretty sure I had memorized the correct lines and apexes, I didn’t want to get it wrong, especially if someone was trying to pass me. Fully freaked out, I texted Maclaine from my garage, telling her I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up and she should just go out with her other two students. Moments later, Maclaine appeared in front of me with her hands on her hips.
“Unacceptable,” she said, adding that she would ride with just me, the first lap with her in the lead, the next with me leading her.
Riding alone with Maclaine was fun. She kept up with my pace from ahead while I followed her lines. And I trusted she wouldn’t put me in the path of anyone behind me. Once it was time to switch and she was behind me, I was so afraid of making a mistake with my lines, I took the whole track extra-slow, but Maclaine graciously followed and I had a lot of fun. Wanting to end on a high note, and giving myself a mental high-five for having not wrecked, I decided to call it a day.
Riding, at least for me, is very much a mental exercise. My day conquering a formidable world-class track has undoubtedly made me a better street rider. And the next time I’m out riding on the streets and the conditions are less than optimal, I’ll remind myself: I rode COTA—while it was wet!