Return the shopping cart, your lap time depends on it

mechanical sympathy racing line lede
Kyle Smith

The racetrack is identical to a Walmart parking lot in at least two ways:

  1. You are guaranteed to meet a few characters if you hang around for more than an hour.
  2. It proves that people think they always do the right thing, yet often show they do not.

The first is obvious, so let’s talk about the second. I’ll clarify this example for those who may not be as familiar with racetrack antics. The parking lot of your local shopping center will stand in for the race surface. We’ve all been there. We pay for our bag of frozen chicken nuggets and pint of ice cream like the proud 32-year-olds we are and, despite showing our best restraint grabbing other things from the aisles, we exit the checkout line with too many bags to carry. We roll the cart to the car, unload our bags, and are suddenly thrown into heavy psychological warfare as we debate what to do with the cart. Leave it in an open parking spot, or take the time and effort to return it?

If you return the cart to its metal corral, you are a good person. That cart is you and your machine when you are on track, and the corral represents the proper racing line. In the parking lot, there is no incentive to do the right thing. You only return a cart because you believe in doing the right thing and will do it even when the act is inconvenient or otherwise taxing.

The racetrack presents a similar situation. Except instead of a shopping cart, you’re responsible for your machine and your body. Putting them in the right place on the track matters, and being selfish about your efforts affects more people than just yourself.

It’s an odd thought. The uninitiated may look at a closed course and think, “Cool, I can do whatever,” and that is kind of true, but mostly fiction. You can do anything you want—so long as it is predictable and safe. Not “anything you want,” at all. As in that parking lot, there may be fewer hard-and-fast rules compared to driving on the street, but there are still rules—just a different set.

The first is that the race line matters—until it doesn’t. I was sitting in a race organization’s “road race school” last year and early in the session the instructor declared: “The race line is the race line is the race line. There is no reason to be off that line.” I stared off into space for a bit as the two sides of my brain hotly debated if I were stupid or if he were stupid.

The race line is the ideal course around a track, but once you add other racers, that ideal path becomes a suggestion. Maybe that teacher wanted to set us up for success; it is the smartest idea to be able to turn consistent and safe laps on the race line before you introduce the complexity of setting up and executing passes. The race line is also the most predictable place for a “slower” rider to be. Think about returning your cart. If you make a mistake and run off-line for whatever reason, that is akin to taking your shopping cart all the way to your car and it is prudent to return yourself properly to the line and behave predictably for anyone that might be chasing you. The race line is the safest place for your “cart” just like the corral is the safest place in the parking lot for a paint-annihilating, free-wheeling metal basket on wheels. The racing line is where other folks expect you to be. Stay on it, and a faster rider or driver can basically read your mind and easily navigate to get around you.

Yet the hardest thing for some folks is to be shown a wheel going into a corner and exercise the self control required to let that person by. The vast majority of racers—myself included—are hobbyists. We don’t get paid to win, and even if we do, we still need to be at work on Monday to make ends meet. That’s why it always surprises me when some club racer decides to leave their cart out in the middle of the parking lot. Chaos for no reason … unless you count pride.

Hubris can easily take over, and we can’t for a second believe we are in the way or otherwise slow, despite the readily available metric: time. All racers know there is an ideal race line. Leave it, and your lap times suffer. Watch any professional race and you will likely hear some commentator say something like, “Now [the leader] has clean track and it’s going to be hard for the chase group to catch them.” That isn’t because the front-runner is superhuman. It’s because the chase group is playing defense against each other and therefore bleeding time compared to the first-place rider, who can maintain the ideal line without distraction.

Our pride gets in the way and we think we are the exception. We are the person who can ride fast in spite of being off-line. Here, there is actually incentive to do the right thing, yet so many who think the race line is a suggestion, and that feeling fast is being fast. That’s not how it works. In order for you to feel fast, you may be leaving your shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot and screwing the race up for others.

The connection between turn 16 and 17 at Barber Motorsports Park is one such example. I was on a burner of a practice-session lap aboard my SV650 just a few weeks ago. Out of nowhere there was a bike beside me. In front of me. Off in the distance. A MotoAmerica rider had joined the club racers for a weekend. If I had been off-line I have no doubt he could have gotten around me, but not nearly as cleanly as he did when I was in the proper place. My little effort to do the right thing when I thought no one was around paid off: Each of us could pull into the pits under our own power.

Being predictable and doing the right thing can seem boring and often comes with no immediate reward. Yet it is still the right thing to do and unlike that shopping cart scenario, there is a reward: safer, faster laps.

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