Having watched the two WSBK races from Assen this weekend, and in preparation to watch the MotoAmerica races from Atlanta, I find myself reflecting on the old adage that “Racing Improves the Breed”. Having spent my formative years in Texas (though certainly not claiming it as my place of birth, for that I go back to the state where the grass is blue) I never gave much ken to the world of racing outside of what I could easily find on TV on any given weekend. I spent some time in high school and college following NASCAR, though not with the obsession of others with faces painted and driver numbers tattooed on their skin, and while like any latent gearhead I enjoyed the noise and the smell and of course the crashes, it was just empty entertainment calories filling me with nothing of substance. To put it less poetically, I wasn’t getting anything out of it.
Well as outlined in my introductory blog post I live and breathe bikes, so at this point: Enter Motorcycles.
Hell, even from the outset I had no idea that motorcycle racing would come to be what it is in my world. My early years of riding were spent merely honing my skills with what I could learn from the MSF classes I attended, or even more so the years and miles of riding I undertook. Considering that my first bike was a rundown Harley, sportbikes were a foreign and frankly uncomfortable way to engage in something I enjoyed, like watching a Spanish version of Brokeback Mountain. So I paid them little mind, and figured that wherever they raced them, they were utilizing aspects of motorcycling that had little bearing on my riding style. What more was there to racing than outright speed, either in a straight line or around a gentle curve to the left?
My mind was changed as I came to realize just how much fun it was to see the chicken strips on the edges of my tires get rubbed away. Once I realized what the bike could be made to do with a little more lean angle, a little more attention to body position, and little better notion of where the apex of a turn was, I started to rethink my stance on MC racing. But even then, it wasn’t until I moved from cruisers to a sport touring Ducati, and subsequently entered the world of Ducatista that I started actually paying attention to the sport. Suddenly I planned vacations around the summer break in the racing schedule, finally learned to program my DVR in order to catch the live broadcasts of overseas track events, and started to see what true mastery of a motorcycle looked like.
As an inveterate cheapskate, I have never gone so far as to buy the latest and greatest technological wonder when it comes to the sportbikes I have since owned. I understood that the five year old R6 I was riding in ‘08 was loads better than the old YZFs and CBRs that sped around tracks in the late 90's because of technological developments brought about through racing. But that didn’t have any impact on me. But you know what did? Just paying attention to racing. Watching and actually trying to learn something from the way Haga moved around on the bike in a chicane, noting how far from the entry of a turn the bike’s front end would dive showing where the racers entered the braking zone, seeing Rossi jut out that leg before leaning in to a tight left hander (quickly copied by every other racer out there because reasons), just coming to the realization that what these guys and gals are doing with their machines is the result of training, not mere happenstance. This lead to buying books on advanced riding, and learning from them as well. And despite the disparity of skills from pro racers to little old me, the physics don’t change; what they do I can do to achieve the same results. Smoother lines through a turn. Better braking. Safer execution of a maneuver in traffic. Practicing these techniques whenever I safely can. Seeing a racer get up and walk away from a lowside and long slide across the track into the kitty litter made me understand just what a difference leathers and armor could make.
While riding a track day is a milestone I have yet to achieve, just becoming a student of racing has made me a better rider. Racing has improved me.