Passing at a trackday is the subject of the next two Mandatory Riders’ Meeting articles (this is the first) because so much is at stake when two or more riders are in close proximity; our sport is challenging enough without having someone else smashing into you. We have all heard of or seen on-track multiple-bike crashes, so let’s discuss passing at the racetrack, examining the physical and mental aspects involved. These articles will require focus on the reader’s part because correct passing isn’t as simple as “outside” or “inside” or “on the straights.”
If one word should describe trackday passing, it would be “polite.” That isn’t a technique, but a mindset. Faster riders must pass politely and with the slower rider’s comfort in mind. That means plenty of room and on the correct side at the correct time. If you and your trackday group will pore over these passing articles, you will find polite passing is possible with the simple idea of being “parallel with or going away from the slower rider.” Parallel with or going away from. It’s a bit more complicated than “outside,” but passing on the outside is incorrect and dangerous most of the time. Let’s start by examining the role of the faster and slower rider, and next week we will focus on where and why passes are safe or dangerous.
The Fast Rider’s Responsibility
The rider making the pass is responsible for completing it safely, period. Let’s get that straight immediately. Track bikes have no mirrors, so the faster rider must evaluate the slower rider about to be overtaken, form a safe plan, and carry it to a successful conclusion. A mistake by the passing rider could involve two souls, so a poorly conceived and implemented plan can hurt doubly.
Each of us must ask ourselves some questions when we find ourselves behind a rider whose speed and lap times are similar to ours; this is a rider we can’t quite squeeze past yet is holding us up in a few sections of the track. What if we ended our day never passing this rider? What if we put our hand up to exit the track and cruised through the pit lane to find a clear track? Would that hurt us? Would it hurt as badly as asphalt rash and repair bills? We need to know these answers now, before our bike rolls out of the pit and our adrenaline rises.
The Passing Process
Consider the process. Our pass begins well before we arrive at the tailsection of the slower rider because our forward-searching eyes and calm mind have already begun building a critique of the rider ahead. We are judging his riding against ours, observing his weaknesses against our strengths. It can be something as simple as “his 600 is slower than my 1000,” or as infinitesimally subtle as “she turns in too late for turn 10.”
Our observations might need an entire track session to jell when chasing a rider similar in speed, or two seconds as we shred past someone considerably slower. It’s important to constantly judge the riders around us, quickly noticing their strengths and weaknesses. We must learn to form and discard these evaluations quickly and habitually, knowing that the more laps we run and the more riders we see, the simpler passing becomes. Perfecting passing is one of the main reasons we all watch video together at Champ school; the more you see, the more you know.
We must keep the politeness maxim in mind when overtaking another rider; we must give them room to ride. In organized racing, that might mean leaving 2 feet of track on the exit of a corner, but for non-competitive events such as trackdays, that room to ride should be much more like 12 to 15 feet. Racers might occasionally brush elbows during a heated scrap, but anyone being that aggressive at a trackday will soon be talking to the organizing officials or an angry rider upset over being passed too closely. Let’s refine that: The rider is upset because he was passed too closely for his comfort. His comfort. Because that’s a relative term, faster riders have a responsibility to give others plenty of room, and if a pass is made too closely, an apologetic wave goes a long way toward defusing the situation.
The apologetic wave should extend into the paddock as well. If we’re approached by another rider who accuses us of passing too closely, we should apologize immediately. His comfort levels were encroached upon and no reasoning or excuses we give will change that. Apologize, and make a note to give him more room next time.
Any of us who are passed too closely at a trackday should let the organizers know, rather than confront the individual. Let the organizers speak to the aggressive passer because the organizers are extremely interested in the comfort and joy of every participant. If there is aggressive passing happening, they want to know about it so they can adjust the problem.
Before we get into the mechanics of passing, the mental aspects must be understood. There are more dangerous passes attempted from mental misjudgments than from physical mistakes. Ego, pride, anger, rage, inattention, or disrespect: These are attitude problems that the best riders have put behind them when dealing with others on the track. We need to make this mental step, riding as clinically detached from ego and pride as our motorcycles are. Visualize other riders on the track not as personalities, but as riding types. Or simply other machines. We don’t like or hate anyone; we just deal with them as another challenge to catch and overcome as neatly as possible. A calm mind leads to relaxed muscles, smooth hands, and minute inputs—all the physical characteristics we need to excel in this sport.
The Slower Rider’s Responsibility
We must be clear that it’s the passing rider’s responsibility to make a safe pass, but it’s become apparent to me that slower riders have responsibilities too; when these responsibilities go unmet, faster riders have a much more difficult time planning and executing safe passes.
I’m writing “slower rider” as a relative term because we’re all slower riders depending on the organization we ride with. I’ve won at the AMA national level but I’ve also been on the track with Valentino Rossi aboard 500 GP bikes and you can bet I knew what was expected of me as a slower rider. As you read about a slower rider’s responsibilities, realize that these are the responsibilities of us all.
Don’t Grab, Flick, or Stab
Let’s begin with predictable smoothness. A slower rider who yanks at the brakes, stabs the throttle, and flicks the bike into corners will lap with an inconsistency that is difficult to predict from behind. Aggressive throttle, brake, and steering inputs are not the secrets to success in this sport, and not just because they create passing dilemmas. I’ve written endlessly about smoothness but in this case control-input smoothness allows a slower rider to be significantly more predictable to the rider approaching from behind.
Re-imagining the Racing Line Is a Bad Idea
A slower rider must attempt to have their bike as close to the “right” line as possible. We can define this line as the fastest, safest line, or the line requiring the least lean angle. Faster riders expect the bikes they encounter to follow the basic tenets of this sport, to be in approximately the right place on the track no matter what the lap time. If we exhibit wildly divergent lines from everyone else on the track, we will continue to be shocked and scared by faster riders squeezing past; ultimately, we will be struck because our lines are nowhere near correct (fastest, safest). Pay attention to where the fast folks are and figure out why they’re there. Ask questions, attend riding schools, watch the good riders, especially the trackday coaches assigned to help the new groups.
The biggest single problem with wildly divergent lines occurs when the slower rider runs a straight line deep into a corner, missing the proper turn-in point in the mistaken belief that every apex should be a super-late apex. This overly deep entrance is followed by an overly sharp turn-in which puts the slower rider at the apex not only going quite slowly, but almost perpendicular to the correct (fastest, safest) line.
An overly late apex never allows the bike to track off the corner using all available pavement. Instead, the late, sharp, slow turn-in makes the bike come off the corner low or tight. In other words, slower and more risky. The word “risk” is interchangeable with “lean angle.” Slower and riskier? Not a good combination when a faster rider is sizing us up for a safe pass.
Some corners require a late apex to set up the entrance of the next bend, but I’ve seen riders fall into the mistaken belief that a late turn-in is a good turn-in. The terms “late turn-in” and “late apex” are again relative, but here’s the trick: Employ the amount of racetrack you’re using on the exit as a good yardstick for your turn-in point. If you get thrown to the edge of the track at lean angle, your turn-in point and apex might be too early. If you never reach the edge of the track on your exit, your turn-in point and apex might be too late.
Riders who run it in deep and turn it late often don’t trail-brake, and the approaching faster rider must recognize this lack of skill from behind. And for those of you who aren’t trail-braking on the track and street, you need to seriously update your riding technique. Your lack of trail-braking not only makes you slower and more prone to crashing, but also makes you a difficult rider to predict from behind. If you’re difficult to predict, some of those passing you will be a bit close for your comfort, and it’s not all their fault!
Tuck in, Sit up: The Visual Brake Light
Track riders must learn to tuck in behind the windscreen on the straights and sit up as they roll off the throttle to the brakes. This practice not only allows a rider to see further into the corner and create a wind drag with their chest (and extended inside knee), but also becomes a physical brake light that signals those following that the acceleration is over and the brakes are on. The rider who never tucks in on the straights or sits up on the brakes risks getting hit from behind because there are no brake lights allowed on the racetrack. Tuck in and sit up for safety, because that rider approaching you from behind with 30 mph in hand needs to know what you’re doing. You can practice these moves in the pits with your bike on the stand; it’s mandatory for your safety and the safety of those behind you.
Another necessary body communication is moving your head into the corner as you begin your turn-in. Lead with that head, like any of your racing heroes…not just to help load the footpeg, but to signal those behind you that you are beginning to turn into the corner. If you stay stock-still and simply countersteer the bike into the corner, you don’t give the rider attempting to pass you on the inside any warning that your turn has begun. Get that head moving.
No Passing on This Side, Thank You
We must learn to never ride down the center of the track on straights, but move ourselves onto our entrance line as early as safely possible. For example, if the corner following the straight is a left-hand bend, the fastest, safest entrance line is all the way to the right edge of the track. Slower riders need to exit the corner leading onto this straight and then in a workmanlike manner (smoothly, methodically) move themselves to the far-right edge of the track, clearly indicating to those behind that the passing zone is on the left. We don’t “flick” our bikes across the track onto the correct line, we get there smoothly but relentlessly. This will become clearer in part 5B next week.
Slower riders in the middle of the track will be dive-bombed on both sides by faster bikes and it won’t be much fun for any of the involved parties. Riders traversing straights in the middle of the track often swerve right (in this case) at the last minute to open the entrance radius, and that swerve can take them directly into a rider running 30 more mph while attempting a pass on the incorrect side. Anticipate this and begin the run to your entrance line early to signal faster riders that only one side is open for passing.
Newer riders need to focus on going fast where it’s easy: on the straights. As the bike stands up off the corner, learn to roll the throttle wide open and maximize each gear by running the engine to redline before upshifting, all the while tucked in behind the windscreen. Ideally, your speed should be dictated by the length of the straight, not by whatever gear or throttle position you choose. Think about that. If that sounds a bit scary, remember this simple motto: More speed, more brakes. To offset your newfound speed, plan to squeeze on the brakes a little bit earlier and perhaps a little bit harder, using them a little further down into the corner (trail-braking).
Thanks for the Lesson
Stay calm when you’re being passed. Stay predictable. Remain focused on your future, on what’s next for you. Don’t target-fixate on the rider who just passed you but mimic their lines if it’s someone you respect; we can learn a lot from faster riders. If we think of every rider who passes us as a mini-tutorial our learning will grow in leaps and bounds, especially in regard to trusting the tires and placing the bike in the right spot at the right time. Rather than get angry or upset, or down on yourself, go to school on faster riders, learn from them, and let their speed bleed into your riding. Don’t let a faster rider make you doubt your abilities; let a faster rider challenge your skills and show you what is possible.
Next week is the second installment of the Mandatory Riders’ Meeting on passing.