Even in the rain, the track is safer than the street

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Evan Salzman/SPImages

In the interest of starting the Michigan riding season off correctly, I swiped my credit card for two days at Grattan Raceway with Sport Bike Track Time (SBTT) in the hopes of learning something. My main takeaway? I never really loved street riding. I certainly don’t now.

My greatest fear while riding is the road. Specifically, encountering unexpected events on said road. Riding within prescribed limits means I can only go quickly as I can see. Many times, I putter along on what could be a fun, twisty stretch of pavement because I lack the sight line required to dial up the pace. Even riding the same public road twice is not the same as riding two laps of a track, where there are corner workers to alert you of what’s ahead. As much as any track rat hates to see the yellow and red wave together, knowing that a watchful someone is holding those flags and knows when to use them keeps me comfortable.

Sadly, the red and yellow got much use during my last weekend at Grattan. From the moment I parked the van and set up camp on Friday night, paddock discussion revolved around rain. A few well-equipped riders had a set of wet-weather tires sitting under their tent or leaning against a trailer in hopes of scaring away the sky water … and the strategy worked. Kind of.

My alarm stirred me on my cot inside the van at 6:30 a.m. Saturday. I immediately knew the weather was brisk. The crisp air wasn’t yet thick with moisture but my phone told me that the current temperature of 45 degrees wouldn’t improve much. After pulling on an extra layer and brewing a cup of coffee to keep my hands warm, I pushed the SV650 out from under my canopy and over to registration and tech inspection.

This was a slightly comical experience, since I had purchased this humble 650cc V-twin precisely because it was already race-prepped. Sport Bike Track Time is fairly lenient when it comes to what novice group riders are allowed to run. Is your motorcycle safe? Does it operate smoothly? Wear a fresh set of tires and brakes? You are probably good to go. Only once the pace increases do safety wire and fluid specifications become mandatory. My SV was fully safety-wired, ran non-ethylene glycol coolant, and flaunted fresh brakes and DOT race tires. Total overkill for a first-timer, but I’m no longer a rookie—though I was new to this bike.

Saturday’s goal was to learn the SV, expand my library of corners, and get comfortable with the song and dance of running tire warmers—all without the pressure of competition. With only two race days under my belt, I followed SBTT’s suggestion for newcomers and signed up for the novice group. This placed me in instruction sessions between on-track runs and put me under slightly closer supervision all day. No matter to me, I was just happy to be out on a motorcycle.

Of all the work I did to prepare for this track day, my best decision was to attend American Supercamp and SoCal Supermoto before being let loose to lap on my own. First-time mistakes solidify into bad habits almost immediately, and the coaching provided at those two venues set me up for success by identifying exactly what I needed to practice.

SBTT provided coaching at Grattan, but the sheer number of novice riders compared to the number of volunteer coaches made the latter more guides than instructors, though each was fast, helpful, and clearly familiar with the track. I didn’t receive much formal coaching, but a self-guided tour of the 2-mile, 12-turn circuit was a great way to spend the day.

Then the rain came. It poured right after lunch on Saturday, causing much of the paddock to pack up and file out the exit gate. I had registered for Sunday as well, so I was not about to leave, but neither was I enthralled with the idea of wriggling into a wet Alpinestars suit come Sunday morning. It took exactly one session spent on the sidelines to get over myself, however. I geared back up and rolled out for an afternoon of rain-soaked fun.

If you let it, a wet track will teach you a lot. I learned during a brief shower at Blackhawk Farms last year just how much traction is still available—far more than your brain initially thinks. Nothing forces you to be smooth on literally every input quite like cold DOT race tires and a cool, slippery track. Even with those factors in play, Saturday afternoon provided the perfect opportunity for me to acclimate to the GP-shift on the SV. This reverses the normal shift pattern and movements: To engage a higher gear, push down on the shifter. Get it wrong, and you can money-shift your bike without any warning. Even though I think I’m getting better at engine-building, the SV’s V-twin is not a project I want to take on right away.

Rain was still lightly falling when the checkered flag flew. I retreated to the van to cook dinner and have a warm drink.

Sunday morning, I woke to the paddock loudspeaker. Tech registration was open for the day, but this event only required one registry and inspection for the weekend. I had checked those boxes yesterday, so I brewed coffee and did a quick paddock walk to warm brain and body. A few riders had lingered overnight, like I had, but most of the bikes and riders were new and filled with fear over the forecast. Happily, the sun broke out, but low air temperatures kept the track from inspiring confidence. A 50-degree track can only provide so much grip.

At first read, this may sounds like a rough weekend at the track. Cool, wet, treacherous—who enjoys those conditions? I walked away convinced that this is the wrong attitude. Most motorcycle riders should go to the track, especially in bad weather. A safe, controlled environment in which to hone your technique is invaluable, even if you only intend to ride around town. I would never ride as fast as I did at Grattan on a wet street, but thanks to dozens of rain-drizzled laps, I now understand just how much traction a surface can hold and how smooth I can be if I am focused. Every rider can benefit from more experience in those areas.

As for my newfound dislike of street riding? The safety personnel, the lack of traffic, the corner workers sharing information in real time, and the company of people who understand the risks assumed produce a much more fun environment than casual street riding, when you are constantly guessing at other drivers’ (and riders’) intentions. I’ve run a few errands on the 1983 Goldwing since returning home and each trip felt chaotic. I didn’t know what goals those around me had: Send email before the traffic light changes? Get the baby to sleep? Cram last bite of burger down the hatch? I’ll still ride the street, but one rainy weekend at the track put the street in a total different perspective.

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