Friday, January 20, 2006

Learning a New Track

Learning a New Track
Traveling to new race tracks and testing your metal against other riders, or simply exploring new tracks via track days is one of the best means of improving your riding skills. It is extremely rewarding and certainly breaks through the monotony of riding at the same places time and again. Add to this the depth of knowledge you posses at the tracks you are currently racing or riding. How well do you really know each set of corners? What I would like to do here is provide you with a base guide for successfully learning:
1) The nuances of a track you have never visited
2) The nuances of a track you ride at all the time

Track Maps: Useful Resource or Useless Notepaper?
Aside from having the general idea that, “After I take this left, I’m going to turn back to the right…” It has been my experience that track maps are more or less a waste of time. Unless the map was created directly from surveyor’s drawings and notes, the map will likely be wildly inefficient at teaching you anything outside of the basic run of the circuit. Have you ever looked at the track map of MSR in the club house or on a printed sheet? Rattlesnake looks like a 3rd gear sweeper instead of a tight, 1st or 2nd gear flick!
Here are some things to consider:
• There are no indications for elevation
• There are no references to changes in track width
• No reference for “line of sight” obstructions such as corner stations or walls
• Corner radii are commonly wildly incorrect and deceptive

Having said all this, track maps can be very useful. If you take the map for what it is, a basic guide, you can learn the flow of the circuit and begin to memorize where the corners lye so that you are not surprised by the sudden right hand turn when cresting The Bitch at Hallet! Once you’ve studied the track map for a few hours, literally, we can expect to know at least enough to get us around the circuit at low speed and with some amount of success. Once you’ve seen the track, I’m sure you can get yourself up to speed, but why not get up to speed sooner? I think this could be especially useful if you have limited track time for practice before racing.

Walking the Track
If you’ve been looking at the track map for a few days or hours you have likely gotten the gist of the track burned into some portion of your memory. So, you get to the track Friday night and have some time to walk the track. You exit the pit and head for turn 1 to get a good look and make your way around the track in an attempt to “walk the line” right? Wrong.

Walking it Backwards (Counter-Race)
When I first started karting my Dad and I always raced at the same track, Oakland Valley Raceway in Cuddebackville, NY. I’d been racing for about a year when my Dad decided it was high time to teach me something new. We started traveling to new racetracks and this presented me with a very unusual challenge. I was no longer in a position of knowing the track, I had to learn a new one and in only a matter of practice laps before qualifying started. To my utter disbelief my Dad suggested walking the track backwards… It seems silly, I know, but think of it this way: How do you know where to enter a corner, unless you know how you are going to exit it?

The best example I can think of is the World Rally Championship (WRC). For those of you who are not familiar with WRC, it goes something like this:
Take a highly modified all-wheel-drive sedan producing upward of 400HP and drive it down narrow, single lane roads covered with tarmac, gravel, snow and ice. Now consider that these same roads are littered with road crests, rocks and more gravel. Line the road with trees and rocks, 1 foot off the road or less, throw in some mountains and then have drivers race down the road as fast as they can, clearing the stage in as little time as possible. Oh, and the driver has never seen the road before, and if he has, it was at a vastly inferior speed compared to what he’s doing now. He has not seen a map, and the stage might be anywhere from 5 to 25 miles in length, depending on the rally.

Luckily, the drivers are not alone in this quest because the organizers were kind enough to give them some company in the form of a navigator. The navigator’s job is to:
1) Never, ever look out the windscreen at the road, lest he wet himself
2) Read Pace Notes that tell the driver what type of corner they are going to tackle next
3) Read quickly, accurately and provide only the needed details
The navigator is typically reading a few corners ahead and by doing so, the driver is constantly aware of what is coming up next, even though he’s never driven the road before and has no idea what to expect, aside from what the navigator is telling him.

For me, the only way to learn how to approach a given corner or set of corners, is to understand how best to exit that set of corners. I’m sure you have been told that the most important turn on the track leads onto the longest straightaway. While this is true, we cannot ignore the rest of the circuit because this is where we find most of our passing opportunities. Let’s use The Bitch at Hallet as an example of how to do this properly.

If we were to approach The Bitch in race direction (CCW) we might be a bit surprised by the little right hand kink following the crest in the hill and the position of the curb as we crest the hill. We might also be a bit surprised to learn that the track decreases in width and the radius changes as we approach the uphill. Now, keep in mind we’ve been examining the track map and we’ve been taking some slow pace laps to get familiar with the track, but as we add speed we can miss some major details about picking the correct line. If we’d walked the track first, we might have learned some things that would bring us up to speed much quicker. By first looking at the Bitch from the back side first, ground level, we can walk into the corner where we will be exiting. Ask yourself these questions:
1) What type of corner is coming up next?
2) Does the exit have a decreasing radius?
3) Is there any visible damage to the exit track surface or does the narrow unexpectedly?

As we walk up the hill (into The Bitch) on what we presume is the racing correct line, based on the entry to the next corner, the entry to the Bitch becomes even more clear because we are standing there looking right at it. If we’d walked it from race direction, we might walk a line, crest the hill and be pointing in exactly the wrong trajectory. The only way to correct this in your mind is to rewalk the corner on what you hope is now the proper line.

Also, when you walk the track try to walk it where you will be riding it. Seeing as how a bike is so narrow, this is easy to do. If you are walking with four or five friends, do yourselves a favor and get two by two or even single file as you look at a corner’s exit and approach. By doing so it will further burn proper track positioning into your mind for when you are at speed on the track. If you walk the track on the far inside, 6 feet off the line, you are not seeing anything useful.

Another reason we walk backwards is because we need to know what type of corner is coming up next. Often times it is necessary to sacrifice the middle of a set of corners so that you can get a clean run onto that all important straightaway. The only way to know this, without retracing steps on the first walk-through, is by walking it backwards.

If you must walk a track race direction do yourself a favor and turn around, literally walking backwards, as you exit the corner. Take a good look at where you want to be when you exit, then trace back with your eyes to find your apex and entry points. It is a lot easier to find the line this way then to guess at an early apex, only to have it spitting you off into the grass!

When Walking is not an Option
More often than not, we will not be able to walk the track before we ride or race on it. In cases like this it is necessary to late apex every corner. A late apex is one that leaves track to the outside of your given line at exit. Basically, you are not using the full width of the track. Each lap you basically move the apex further and further back until you are running out of track, go back to the last apex and go from there. Make sense? If you early apex a corner right off the bat, you’ll be left with nowhere to go but grass, and this is not a great way to get your day started!

Late apexes can also teach you where you might find some passing opportunities, but we’ll get to that in another episode.

This, admittedly, has not been easy to describe. Hopefully I’m doing it all some justice, but if I’m not please chime in and I’ll make some corrections or clarifications.

Now that we’ve gotten to know the line, we also know where other riders will likely be riding and, as luck would have it, where we might set them up for some passes! So, the next stage in our development as a racer is creating passing opportunities. We won’t cover the “what type of pass was that” so much as the “how can I set this pass up from three corners back?”


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