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The Spirit Of A Track


Keith Code
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Making Friends

 

Racetracks have character, they have a fascinating spirit and are a passionate subject with riders. In private, tracks are discussed in terms of living things; often with reverence and always laced with pride, even fond familiarity - like a trusted pet or perhaps a special girl - definitely something or someone with whom riders have shared intimate moments - "I get into that third gear sweeper hotter than anyone". Of course, conquest and performance have something to do with that but even bizarre crashes contain hints of exclusive intimacy, most often without the rider even being aware of his succinct understanding of the turn: "It started drifting right where the kink tightens by that patch, I went to the paint to save it but she flicked me off" - You can't touch this.

 

Good Tracks/Bad Tracks

 

Comments on the character of racetracks are modified, and do differ dramatically, according to a rider's performance: that's the conquest and win / lose - aspect of it. Take Willow Springs, Southern California's own piece of history in the roadrace world, as an example. Opinions on this track's character could not be more varied and the legacy of rider's experiences is vast but often confusing and changeable, even fickle in nature. Some love it some hate it and some just ride it because it's mainly the only one we race in So Cal.

 

It's somewhat ironic when you consider how many people's opinions about how many different motorcycles have been formed at this track. More consumer road tests, tire tests and races, for that matter, have been run there than any other track, possibly in the world. Except for the street and canyon portion of American magazine tests, your bike has most likely been judged as to its handling characteristics on these hallowed nine curves and 2.5 miles of asphalt.

 

Sister Willow

 

It is true, the little-sister 1.1 mile track, constructed by track owner Bill Huth, called "The Streets of Willow Springs", and located behind "Big Willow", has been the sight of many tests and It has great qualities for low speed comparison and steering and is infinitely more technical as far as lines are concerned, it's probably one of the best training tracks in the world for those points but is no measure of high speed stability and stress and despite the frequent use of brakes on the small track and the high speed of the big one, neither facility is much of a test for the heat and fade of binders.

 

From the point of view of training riders, "The Streets" is far easier to master the character of than that of the big track and riders make significantly more progress in skill level and technique because of it. In that wise, the big track is simply too vast for most riders to gain that intimate knowledge and communion, they find themselves lost much of the time, whereas "The Streets" gives most riders an immediate sense of accomplishment which transfers directly to road and canyon riding.

 

It's a rare and special ability to fully adopt the characteristics of a turn or a track, to become it in order to master it--know and love your enemy before conquering him--a few strokes to discover its spirit. Any track that refuses you that unique fellowship is not being friendly and Big Willow Springs can refuse you. Despite the fact that it has recently been beautifully resurfaced and widened, Big Willow's character remains intact, its problems still daunting.

 

Famous Likes/Dislikes

 

I've been curious about the comments on Willow Springs' nine turns for years. Why would riders like Doug Polen, Freddie Spencer, Doug Chandler and Scott Russell have a poor opinion of certainly one of the safest tracks in America, when one considers the decided lack of walls, barriers, curbs and etc. Then too, no comments are on record from previous or current track record holders like, Kenny Roberts, Randy Mamola and Scott Grey, Chuck Graves and Rich Oliver. Mike Hailwood rode there in the 60's but just won, grinned and went home. Then too, my school experience at Willow for the past 19 years tells an interesting story. Why for example did student lap times only improve a few seconds when bikes, tires, frames, aerodynamics and brakes have made meteoric leaps as have race times?

 

In the early 80's teams proclaimed that the track didn't prepare you or the bike for other courses; a broadcast statement for the Kawasaki and Honda teams back when Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Freddie Spencer were riding here and that opinion was contagious. Having run my own Superbike around there in the 70's had me agreeing with them - turn eight simply bullied any bike with a frail chassis and lots of horsepower, it still can to some degree. But nearly any 6th gear, almost full lean angle, very lightly banked sweeper could - except there isn't another one in this country!

 

What's The Problem

 

I agreed then but now realize it wasn't only the track and my bike's structural integrity that were at fault; understanding and knowing the turns' characters was the main deficiency. Any decent handling 90's street bike will respectably handle Willow's most glaringly obvious difficulties, when they are understood. Chuck Graves proved that by breaking Eddie Lawson's 500 cc GP absolute bike track record (on the old track) with a sub race standard, barely modified, Suzuki GSX-R. So why the complaints, is it just a vague piece of poorly designed asphalt, or does it require extraordinary skill and intimate knowledge to ride well?

 

Project: Lap Record

 

This isn't a chapter and verse expose on how to ride Willow, that information was the result of a project in June of 1994 when I asked Graves if he'd like to break that 2 1/2 year old track record, it is a broad thumbnail sketch of its idiosyncrasies. And just for the record, it's not that I have an enormous amount of experience at Willow, any club racer who has two bikes has started more events there in one season than I have since first riding the track in 1974 and I'm not particularly fast there either; but I do know something of the character of tracks and what riders are likely to adopt as techniques in response to them.

 

The lap record project required about 2 hours of thinking time on my part and another 3 or 4 hours with Chuck in preparation for that June Sunday when he went low 1:25 to snag the record on his Team Valvoline Suzuki, hastily prepped at his own shop and later found to be lacking 20 rear wheel hp from its normal output on the dyno! We're talking about conjuring up the spirit of a track and making friends with it not overwhelming it with horsepower. Note: Since Graves' record was set on the "old track", before it was widened, he will keep that record for all time.

 

The character and spirit of Willow Springs starts off with an interesting twist - each turn is vastly different than the next. While practically every other track has some design integrity with which a rider can create an intimate flow, Willow has none; not even a set of esses that aren't substantially varied in character. Street riders have enormous difficulty with the variety of changes and drawing on road experience to gain savvy doesn't work at Willow.

 

A Sketch Of Willow

 

Turn one for example is a third gear, 90 degree bowl with enough banking to make it 10 MPH faster than it looks to the untrained eye and contains a nagging uncertainty: you can't see the pavement edge at the exit from a mid-turn, down-in-the- bowl position. The fact that it's at the end of a 1/2 mile straight doesn't help. On a big bike or a 250 GP machine the 150+ down to 75 mph speed change is dramatic and attaining a consistent turn entry speed is difficult.

 

Once you've flicked it in is just about the time you realize the bike is stable, has 7 or 8 more degrees of lean angle available, and your speed is -5 or even -10 mph, but now you're down-in-the-bowl and that exit uncertainty hits and the critical 3/10ths second lag on the throttle costs you the drive - and the error lingers - all the way down the short shoot. The turn's character is deceitful; you feel foolish for being so careful coming into it, then, as it cradles you into a false security it smacks you in the face at the exit for being led like a sheep. The potential for emotional responses from apathy or anger all the way to interest and enthusiasm, is limitless.

 

For a multi-track experienced rider Willow has a kind of bump and stumble character to it that both attacks and balks every rider's basic desire to map out a conquering flow-plan for the asphalt. Six of its nine turns have a rise, fall, lip, shelf or drop in them or at their exit. As turn #7 is a flat out kink on any bike that means 75% of them are dedicated to crushing the rider's spirit, especially his enthusiasm for the exit drive. Why? Because they spin too much from becoming light over these sections and no amount of suspension adjustment can handle that. At each point where you rightfully should be able to have the throttle going to the stop, she's going to spin or slide and spin. It's not a problem on every bike just the ones with a healthy power to weight ratio and if you use the power everywhere you can it will toast your tires in five laps!

 

This is true for the exits of one, two, three, four, six and nine, they must be coolly calculated: you almost have to think of them in a backwards fashion from "normal" turns when you have power. When you want to go it wants to stop and it simply begs you to spin the tire because it's so easy to - and you've had fun - and you've smoked your tire. But even on a light bike with lower HP but good corner speed you still have the problem of being light on the exit and the outward bound forces are there to contend with to some degree in each of those turns. Knowing them makes the job of going fast just that much easier and more predictable.

 

Split Decisions

 

You can look at Willow from a number of other perspectives but its essence is the spectrum of changes demanded from and imposed on the rider. In a perfect universe any rider would prefer to have his attention on one thing at a time: WSIR splits you into pieces. Take the downhill section of turn #4 where you are setting up for #5, a section that has bitten some of the world's best riders and then, ultimately, #6, a very crested, banked and blind turn critical to your back straight speed.

 

#5 is basically a double apex turn that has you leaned over, braking, turning and downshifting plus a body position shift from right to left, while you set it up, on top of keeping your speed, looking up track and getting off the brake to turn. Pretty much the only thing left to do is adjust the clutch lever! Now, contrast that with turns #2 and #8 which are both over 1/4 mile long, both decrease in radius, neither allows you any visual understanding upon entry--can you get lost?

 

Another rider faculty pressed into extreme service is his Sense of Speed. The entrance to turn #2 is over 100 mph and into #8 is over 125 on most bikes. While plus or minus 5 mph is a small percentage of the total it is never the less another critical area for good lap times and eliminating potential mistakes in two of the fastest turn areas of the track. So, good throttle control pays premium rewards, as does a light touch on the bike for stability because; while one is not required to shut it all the way off for these turns, even on a fast bike, some roll off is required and any noticeable instability from a heavily weighted front end at these points slows the roll-on so necessary for maintaining entry speed.

 

Know - Love - Win

 

A goodly number of current top riders have been known to make excuses for not conquering Willow; that's part of the racing game and will always be. Whether or not it is a challenge which simply will not yield to impatience is historically clear. That a rider feels as though he needs either a million laps or else the special, secret techniques to conquer it is probably not that far from the truth for 99% of them. But then every turn and track has its own special character to discover.

 

Riders who actually understand the changes and how to deal with them at the 2.5 mile Willow have the tools to succeed at many tracks. For, no matter how baffling the others look at first, they will invariably show him a kinder character than will WSIR. You've gotta get the spirit...

 

ⓒ Keith Code 1997

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  • 1 year later...
Guest Brent Meeker

Making Friends

 

Racetracks have character, they have a fascinating spirit and are a passionate subject with riders. In private, tracks are discussed in terms of living things; often with reverence and always laced with pride, even fond familiarity - like a trusted pet or perhaps a special girl - definitely something or someone with whom riders have shared intimate moments - "I get into that third gear sweeper hotter than anyone". Of course, conquest and performance have something to do with that but even bizarre crashes contain hints of exclusive intimacy, most often without the rider even being aware of his succinct understanding of the turn: "It started drifting right where the kink tightens by that patch, I went to the paint to save it but she flicked me off" - You can't touch this.

 

Good Tracks/Bad Tracks

 

Comments on the character of racetracks are modified, and do differ dramatically, according to a rider's performance: that's the conquest and win / lose - aspect of it. Take Willow Springs, Southern California's own piece of history in the roadrace world, as an example. Opinions on this track's character could not be more varied and the legacy of rider's experiences is vast but often confusing and changeable, even fickle in nature. Some love it some hate it and some just ride it because it's mainly the only one we race in So Cal.

 

It's somewhat ironic when you consider how many people's opinions about how many different motorcycles have been formed at this track. More consumer road tests, tire tests and races, for that matter, have been run there than any other track, possibly in the world. Except for the street and canyon portion of American magazine tests, your bike has most likely been judged as to its handling characteristics on these hallowed nine curves and 2.5 miles of asphalt.

 

Sister Willow

 

It is true, the little-sister 1.1 mile track, constructed by track owner Bill Huth, called "The Streets of Willow Springs", and located behind "Big Willow", has been the sight of many tests and It has great qualities for low speed comparison and steering and is infinitely more technical as far as lines are concerned, it's probably one of the best training tracks in the world for those points but is no measure of high speed stability and stress and despite the frequent use of brakes on the small track and the high speed of the big one, neither facility is much of a test for the heat and fade of binders.

 

From the point of view of training riders, "The Streets" is far easier to master the character of than that of the big track and riders make significantly more progress in skill level and technique because of it. In that wise, the big track is simply too vast for most riders to gain that intimate knowledge and communion, they find themselves lost much of the time, whereas "The Streets" gives most riders an immediate sense of accomplishment which transfers directly to road and canyon riding.

 

It's a rare and special ability to fully adopt the characteristics of a turn or a track, to become it in order to master it--know and love your enemy before conquering him--a few strokes to discover its spirit. Any track that refuses you that unique fellowship is not being friendly and Big Willow Springs can refuse you. Despite the fact that it has recently been beautifully resurfaced and widened, Big Willow's character remains intact, its problems still daunting.

 

Famous Likes/Dislikes

 

I've been curious about the comments on Willow Springs' nine turns for years. Why would riders like Doug Polen, Freddie Spencer, Doug Chandler and Scott Russell have a poor opinion of certainly one of the safest tracks in America, when one considers the decided lack of walls, barriers, curbs and etc. Then too, no comments are on record from previous or current track record holders like, Kenny Roberts, Randy Mamola and Scott Grey, Chuck Graves and Rich Oliver. Mike Hailwood rode there in the 60's but just won, grinned and went home. Then too, my school experience at Willow for the past 19 years tells an interesting story. Why for example did student lap times only improve a few seconds when bikes, tires, frames, aerodynamics and brakes have made meteoric leaps as have race times?

 

In the early 80's teams proclaimed that the track didn't prepare you or the bike for other courses; a broadcast statement for the Kawasaki and Honda teams back when Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Freddie Spencer were riding here and that opinion was contagious. Having run my own Superbike around there in the 70's had me agreeing with them - turn eight simply bullied any bike with a frail chassis and lots of horsepower, it still can to some degree. But nearly any 6th gear, almost full lean angle, very lightly banked sweeper could - except there isn't another one in this country!

 

What's The Problem

 

I agreed then but now realize it wasn't only the track and my bike's structural integrity that were at fault; understanding and knowing the turns' characters was the main deficiency. Any decent handling 90's street bike will respectably handle Willow's most glaringly obvious difficulties, when they are understood. Chuck Graves proved that by breaking Eddie Lawson's 500 cc GP absolute bike track record (on the old track) with a sub race standard, barely modified, Suzuki GSX-R. So why the complaints, is it just a vague piece of poorly designed asphalt, or does it require extraordinary skill and intimate knowledge to ride well?

 

Project: Lap Record

 

This isn't a chapter and verse expose on how to ride Willow, that information was the result of a project in June of 1994 when I asked Graves if he'd like to break that 2 1/2 year old track record, it is a broad thumbnail sketch of its idiosyncrasies. And just for the record, it's not that I have an enormous amount of experience at Willow, any club racer who has two bikes has started more events there in one season than I have since first riding the track in 1974 and I'm not particularly fast there either; but I do know something of the character of tracks and what riders are likely to adopt as techniques in response to them.

 

The lap record project required about 2 hours of thinking time on my part and another 3 or 4 hours with Chuck in preparation for that June Sunday when he went low 1:25 to snag the record on his Team Valvoline Suzuki, hastily prepped at his own shop and later found to be lacking 20 rear wheel hp from its normal output on the dyno! We're talking about conjuring up the spirit of a track and making friends with it not overwhelming it with horsepower. Note: Since Graves' record was set on the "old track", before it was widened, he will keep that record for all time.

 

The character and spirit of Willow Springs starts off with an interesting twist - each turn is vastly different than the next. While practically every other track has some design integrity with which a rider can create an intimate flow, Willow has none; not even a set of esses that aren't substantially varied in character. Street riders have enormous difficulty with the variety of changes and drawing on road experience to gain savvy doesn't work at Willow.

 

A Sketch Of Willow

 

Turn one for example is a third gear, 90 degree bowl with enough banking to make it 10 MPH faster than it looks to the untrained eye and contains a nagging uncertainty: you can't see the pavement edge at the exit from a mid-turn, down-in-the- bowl position. The fact that it's at the end of a 1/2 mile straight doesn't help. On a big bike or a 250 GP machine the 150+ down to 75 mph speed change is dramatic and attaining a consistent turn entry speed is difficult.

 

Once you've flicked it in is just about the time you realize the bike is stable, has 7 or 8 more degrees of lean angle available, and your speed is -5 or even -10 mph, but now you're down-in-the-bowl and that exit uncertainty hits and the critical 3/10ths second lag on the throttle costs you the drive - and the error lingers - all the way down the short shoot. The turn's character is deceitful; you feel foolish for being so careful coming into it, then, as it cradles you into a false security it smacks you in the face at the exit for being led like a sheep. The potential for emotional responses from apathy or anger all the way to interest and enthusiasm, is limitless.

 

For a multi-track experienced rider Willow has a kind of bump and stumble character to it that both attacks and balks every rider's basic desire to map out a conquering flow-plan for the asphalt. Six of its nine turns have a rise, fall, lip, shelf or drop in them or at their exit. As turn #7 is a flat out kink on any bike that means 75% of them are dedicated to crushing the rider's spirit, especially his enthusiasm for the exit drive. Why? Because they spin too much from becoming light over these sections and no amount of suspension adjustment can handle that. At each point where you rightfully should be able to have the throttle going to the stop, she's going to spin or slide and spin. It's not a problem on every bike just the ones with a healthy power to weight ratio and if you use the power everywhere you can it will toast your tires in five laps!

 

This is true for the exits of one, two, three, four, six and nine, they must be coolly calculated: you almost have to think of them in a backwards fashion from "normal" turns when you have power. When you want to go it wants to stop and it simply begs you to spin the tire because it's so easy to - and you've had fun - and you've smoked your tire. But even on a light bike with lower HP but good corner speed you still have the problem of being light on the exit and the outward bound forces are there to contend with to some degree in each of those turns. Knowing them makes the job of going fast just that much easier and more predictable.

 

Split Decisions

 

You can look at Willow from a number of other perspectives but its essence is the spectrum of changes demanded from and imposed on the rider. In a perfect universe any rider would prefer to have his attention on one thing at a time: WSIR splits you into pieces. Take the downhill section of turn #4 where you are setting up for #5, a section that has bitten some of the world's best riders and then, ultimately, #6, a very crested, banked and blind turn critical to your back straight speed.

 

#5 is basically a double apex turn that has you leaned over, braking, turning and downshifting plus a body position shift from right to left, while you set it up, on top of keeping your speed, looking up track and getting off the brake to turn. Pretty much the only thing left to do is adjust the clutch lever! Now, contrast that with turns #2 and #8 which are both over 1/4 mile long, both decrease in radius, neither allows you any visual understanding upon entry--can you get lost?

 

Another rider faculty pressed into extreme service is his Sense of Speed. The entrance to turn #2 is over 100 mph and into #8 is over 125 on most bikes. While plus or minus 5 mph is a small percentage of the total it is never the less another critical area for good lap times and eliminating potential mistakes in two of the fastest turn areas of the track. So, good throttle control pays premium rewards, as does a light touch on the bike for stability because; while one is not required to shut it all the way off for these turns, even on a fast bike, some roll off is required and any noticeable instability from a heavily weighted front end at these points slows the roll-on so necessary for maintaining entry speed.

 

Know - Love - Win

 

A goodly number of current top riders have been known to make excuses for not conquering Willow; that's part of the racing game and will always be. Whether or not it is a challenge which simply will not yield to impatience is historically clear. That a rider feels as though he needs either a million laps or else the special, secret techniques to conquer it is probably not that far from the truth for 99% of them. But then every turn and track has its own special character to discover.

 

Riders who actually understand the changes and how to deal with them at the 2.5 mile Willow have the tools to succeed at many tracks. For, no matter how baffling the others look at first, they will invariably show him a kinder character than will WSIR. You've gotta get the spirit...

 

? Keith Code 1997

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  • 1 year later...

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  • 1 year later...

Keith:

 

This is one of your most beautifully written articles. Thank you.

 

I have often wondered how a track rider could best go about learning the character of a track. After quite a few sessions at Streets of Willow, I am beginning to understand how to put turns together there. However, it has not been an efficient process for me.

 

I would be highly interested in a Superbike School Level V course offering, covering aspects of learning the character of tracks. By this, I do not mean having a coach show students the "correct" line around a track, but rather a classroom/track curriculum that shows students what to look for in track conditions, shapes, turn sequences, and line options. The objective would be to make the student much more efficient in learning how to best use the options. If you believe that a disciplined approach to learning the character of a track is a teachable skill, please consider such an offering.

 

I would guess that the perceived "character" of a track would evolve with a rider's ability and knowledge of it, so the learning experience among a class of several students and coaches could be very rich. Enrollment requirements might be completion of Level IV and NOT having run a particular track more than 3 (or so) times. This would attract me to take Level V at several tracks around the country!

 

Best Regards,

 

-Eric

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Keith : Wow, after reading a short way into you article on Willow, my heart starting going a little faster until a few more paragraphs had me pinned to my office chair with the throttle cracked. I love reading your articles cause it brings me right to the track. Willow is one of those tracks I never made it to but I must say while reading this article it took me back to your class in 85 or 84 I can't remember which one at Laguna Seca, advanced class. And reminded me of the turn after the long straigtaway turn into that uphill banked like no other turn letting the rider think no prob, on the pin and leaning and then realizing the lip of the right upper bank is really closing in fast and my peg and alt cover are to the ground, "ack".

 

Anyway thanks Keith for keeping this sport alive, I cannot tell you in words the differences you made in my lap times by simply being able to get to the root foundation of our ability to succeed in anything we do, by removing boundries of the mind and what it does to us without even realizing it.

 

Keith I will be 55 if I make it to Sept 4 this year, I ride every day here in Hana, either one of my on off road bikes or my XR650R up at my race track, I have modeled it around the technical features that you have instructed for many years and applied it to dirt bikes of which I am on my 40th year of competition riding. I have done almost every form of motorcycle racing as most of your team has done including the men and women that are benefitting from your school.

 

I am very greatfull I had the opportunity and took it to go to your school, and since 85 I have not stopped talking about the time removed from my lap times from you simply stating, "when your in traffic and your engine is roaring and your in the heat of competition your mind tries to focus on someone elses bike and what you need to do is to become aware this is happening, re group and look at the entire picture". Since that day on "all" of the racing events I have competed in, I always recite that one point and again that one fact alone of that realization was worth more to me as a racer than any amount of money could have purchased for me in horsepower.

 

Keith thanks again, I always forward these articles to my dirt bike buddies here on the island of Maui.

 

Dale G. Basgall

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  • 4 weeks later...

REALLY great article Keith. I have only had one day at "Big" Willow but from where I sit you captured it perfectly. That whole day I just felt really intimidated, LOL. Now, after reading this and doing levels 1 and 2 I want to have another go at it and see how my visual skills and drills will serve me there.

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  • 2 years later...

Keith,

Holy petunias! I had a question nagging at me until I decided to settle into the article and learn. Wow, I never would have thought of all that except after years of track riding, hence, my obsession with your methodology. Being a scientist myself I gravitate heavily to your trial and error approach peppered with an emotional flavor in this article but I digress.

Which course will we be using at NJ Thunderbolt, Lightening, both or some combination? Hopefully someone will see this and answer for me before I speak to the office tomorrow about another matter.

Thanks Boss (sincerely)

Nic

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