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Race Face

Keith Code

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Roadracing has often been described as more of a mental than a physical exercise. Each racer goes through his or her own mind-driven personal rituals of preparation in order to make the best of a race day. Some riders are pointedly outgoing, friendly, gregarious, purposefully keeping their minds off the start or the race. Some are introspective, savoring the race day environment of tension and expectation using it to elevate their spirit to their desired pitch. Still others choose a disposition of defiance or bravado. They're all tuning an instrument, a complex instrument, searching for the desired note or harmony they'll ride for the day.


The Forces To Beat


Street riding is both more and less dramatic than racing. More because the barriers you may confront are often more likely to be random: like unconscious car drivers, road hazards and so on. However, the forces are similar: braking, quick steering, life saving acceleration, traction, cornering, weight transfer affect the external world; and the emotion of fear on the internal side of things.


Street riding is less dramatic because the factors of maximum speed and competition are rarely the main concern. But, I'd be willing to bet, for most any rider the mere thought of taking a ride was (and hopefully still is) elevating enough to create definite and palpable sensations of anticipation.


On race day you have to look closely to spot the indications; but everyone is doing something to prep himself for the alluring, enticing and dangerous delights of racing--it's part of that game. The game is embracing forces, barriers and sensations. Forces that you see or don't see; barriers that are real or not real; near overwhelming sensations which can suddenly vaporize; then transform into the sharpest possible focus of oneness with bike and track--the instant the flag drops.


Force In-Image Out


Each rider has his own way of waiting; tapping toes, cleaning faceshields, chatting, thinking. Every possible device can be and is used to either capture or in some cases to hide from his own view, the ripe and blistering reality of the forces he'll soon confront. Those forces and barriers are either all directed towards him, dangerously testing his ability to perform, or he is pressing himself out to meet them. Reaching into the riding environment with the idea of leaving his mark. A street rider's version of leaving his mark may be to express his individuality by the bike he chooses to ride, the modifications he makes to it or his riding style. Sport machines, with their rakish angles for both man and machine, make one statement; a cruiser's kicked-back comfort another; certainly, touring bike riders have yet another intention and create an altogether different impression. Kocinski's Way


John Kocinski had one of my favorite track day demeanors; what a sublime example of perfect enthusiasm. There simply was not anywhere else he wanted to be. John treated race day more like a surfer, he caught his wave on the first lap of practice and never dropped out of it until the checkered flag.



From the very first time he said, "Hey, did you watch me out there," I knew. Of course I watched him out there, everything he did on Bud Aksland's TZ when he was competing in AMA 250 races was larger than life and he knew it. Cleaning every bug speck from his leathers in the pits, for an hour at a time, was simply his way of taking in and holding the track, its changes, his changes. You could sense the sheer joy, the elation he derived from crisply carving the track and the other riders. He was on a wave--don't get in my way--this is my wave--you can't catch it. "Ya," I said "I watched you in the esses. Every time you turned it in there you got it flicked so hard the front pushed six inches before it hooked up--every lap." He grinned, his eyes turned to paper thin slits, freckles lit up on high color rushing into his normally pale, freckled face, a chortle issuing from his lips. Then he shaped his mouth into a perfect O, eyes widening with an intense inner stare, as he created a duplicate sensation of the exact moment I was describing; then back to the slits and grin. He was in the tube of a ten footer he intended to ride into the winners circle.


One life threatening encounter per year is enough to wake up most riders, here was a guy who challenged every turn, every moment, inviting and taunting the gods of force to throw everything they have at him, no problem, he was here to smoke them and anyone else that threw their hat in the ring. This is an attitude that goes beyond simple survival and into the realm of conquering your environment; but when you consider the possible benefits, it is probably the most practical approach to street riding as well.




There's an annoying quirk some race announcers have of second guessing what the rider is thinking. "He's thinking...", "He wants to win this race because...", "He's thinking, If I could just..." I don't think so. Racing's most obvious aspect, when you are ON, is its full dependence on and utilization of accurate observations. That is a very refined and far higher level of awareness than mere thinking. Compared to that level of operation thinking is coarse and abrasive, you could even say it was stiff and notched in character. You have already gotten the thinking done in practice, now it's time to race, not fill out your tax forms. Some riders have had their thinking processes so invalidated by public school systems and other sources of "authority" that they do not feel qualified or comfortable even skirting around the idea of being capable of having two thoughts to rub against one another. Wrong. Before someone could be considered truly able to think they must first be able to observe--and riders can observe--they prove it consistently with good performances--and they would probably win any observation test given but I don't recall any course called Observation 101. You're kind of left on your own to sort it out for yourself.


Faster Than Thought


Indeed, they can think. Taking in and retaining the enormous quantities of information, at what would be a horrifying rate for most people, and the constant high speed sorting process that stems from the rider's ability to juggle them in real time makes even the best computer technology look shoddy and mechanical by comparison.


Are good riders observant? I would say so. Are they able to think with time and space? Got my vote. Do they have the ability to locate and focus energy with deadly precision? Kinda looks that way. Can they fully communicate with and understand their environment? In the finest sense of those words. And do they possess certainty of and confidence in their own observations? Of course, a racer or street rider would be a frazzled wreck if he didn't. What would it be like trying to enter a turn at pro race speeds without them? Pretty bad.


Street situations can parallel this. It only takes one or two panic circumstances to realize that thinking something through is not an option out in the war zone of traffic. If you somehow did not notice a situation unfolding around you, like a quick lane changer, chances are you went to the adrenaline pump for inspiration. The situations that don't happen because your powers of observation were intact and correct are numerous. Panic button situations all start where precise observation was dropped out.


You have to appreciate the difference between a racer who looks at a track not from the viewpoint of how he can adapt to it but how it will conform to his own demands, his goals. When a good rider imposes his will on the track it conforms, it is conquered. This is thought plus action at the very highest level. The point? There are no unobservant, stupid, fast guys or competent street riders.


Master The Forces


You can see where the excitement comes from and how the carefully woven and intricate patterning of a rider's race face could evolve. Keeping each and every delicately constructed nuance of a course neatly wrapped and stacked like mysterious presents. These packages, later to be thrashed open and used like a ten-year old at Christmas, contain all the rider's hopes and plans for success; and accurate impressions of each sensation; each erg of cornering, acceleration and traction forces, each visual cue, each instant of time and timing and every control action it takes to reproduce them.


A good rider's sense of space encompasses even the quality of the form of his or her cornering arcs. A sense of space so keen it can transform turn-entry environments into intimately familiar places with sweet spots that practically glow with invitation to him. They're his, he owns them. Anyone with a high degree of certainty of his skills feels this way about even the most mundane traffic riding. Knowing where you want to be and exactly how you want to be there, and what it should look like, is ultimately the most efficient way of riding--anywhere and anytime. And if you weren't willing to keep your arsenal of skills laid out and ready for action, with a solid understanding of how they would apply if you needed them NOW, NOW and NOW; every moment of every ride, you'd feel imminent peril was stalking you. So maybe you'd just call this attitude your ride face.


Words Of Speed


For a racer, the challenge of communicating his collage of impressions about the forces is daunting; who would understand them but another racer and even his sense of them could be quite different. From a practical standpoint, the language to describe them hasn't been developed: we don't have words yet that describe action, sensation, observation, control and intention--simultaneously. They just don't exist. Slang and carefully chosen words that evoke these dynamic processes are as close as we come. I asked Eddie Lawson one day in 1981 at Riverside Raceway what he did to bring his lap times down a half second on his Superbike. He said, "I just ran-it-in there [to turn #9] harder." Eddie was spare with words in those days so I thought about what he said. The word "there" kept coming up in my mind. What did he mean by "there".


The entrance to turn 9 was a place for him, it was cleanly defined space, a definite area with a particular character. Not just a four lane, banked stock car turn with a vague feel-my-way-in approach. That turn and ones like it took on a whole new meaning for me and brought back all the times I had felt that way about a turn. It was clear that if you didn't have a sense for the turns you were riding and their character, you would never conquer them.


Here again, the road, any road, has a character with a potential for sweet spots, even the freeway. I suppose if you rode with the attitude that you were always seeking the sweet spot in your lane, and you found it, you would also achieve the most tactically advantageous position for maneuvering as well as making you feel good. This is not an alien concept to riders, we already do this to a great extent. It's one of the joys of riding.


Predators of Space


Racers cause things to happen. An inspired ride is inspiring to behold, race fans know that. Riders achieve that level of performance with their adeptness at embracing a track, challenging its seemingly unyielding nature with a precise but predatory enthusiasm that communicates like a lion on the back of a running roebuck with its teeth sunk in to the gums. Still, there are riders who consider themselves to be more of a spectator, waiting for things to happen to them. It is not a subtle difference between these two. One is probing outward, conquering space, the other is suffering the challenge of it. Observation does require communication with the environment and communication is an outward bound force of presence.




It's something to note that when street riders feel ON they generally don't have trouble with cars and other potential distractions. That attitude of command is, or should be, part of any riders portfolio of tricks. Having a presence is an ability everyone has to a certain extent. Actors are people who have a special talent for it, riders, both street and race, express it differently in their craft but it is presence nevertheless. Establishing your presence on any ride is a moment to moment activity.



New riders can't do this. They are still battling the challenge of just riding. You can see that their command of space goes out about as far as the clutch lever and then out about three feet in front of the bike and then hopefully improves with experience. So, space is one of the forces to be dealt with and a rider commands it or it commands him. One commands space with presence.


Masked Force


You may say a race face is a protective mask to prevent outside influences from entering into a racers world, or, you may say the mask serves to bridle a rider's own force, keeping it ready to be unleashed and do his bidding at the appointed time. But why not wear one when the cost of error is so high? The price of protecting that delicately self-constructed universe of perceptions and intricate maneuvers may be high but failing to spend your last nickel on it would mean your aim as a racer was less than great or your sense of survival as a street rider was low. The mark of a champion is total commitment to his observations and his unshakable belief in them and an unwavering responsibility for them. These are the tools used to achieve that perfectly pitched note or to ride that wave. Riders seem to need a race face to maintain this. It's part of that game of embracing and commanding the forces they'll contend with. Try one on.


? 1999 Keith Code

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  • 5 years later...

Very interesting read! I know this is an old post, but being new here, I'm going through a lot of things not recent because there are always things to learn.


Just before I began reading this article, I was thinking that the most important thing about riding is to stay alert and focussed. Not scared or stressed, just fully aware of what's going on.


So you can say I was more than a little surprised that an article titled Race Face would basically discuss the very same thing!


During my 30 years of street riding, I have found that the most dangerous thing to do (for me) is to go a little fast, but not fast enough to concentrate. It took me many, many years to grasp this simple fact.


Riding in dense traffic has never daunted me (unless I start to act daft and hurry things beyond my ability to observe and process what's going on). By looking well ahead, constantly checking mirrors and surroundings, looking out for indecisive or erratic drivers and so on, even the densest and craziest city traffic can unfold in slow motion.


It's the same with the open road; be aware, have a reserve plan, keep your mind from wandering, and much has been gained. My biggest issue is myself; I enjoy the corners so much, I often go in to and through them faster than I know is sensible. Not because me or my bike struggle with the pace, but because I do not leave as much in reserve for the unexpected as I should. Still, it's a risk I know about, understand and accept because - at that moment - the risk is worth it for the joy of living 100%.


Even at an elevated pace, you are likely to get away with it as long as you are totally focussed on your riding. I find that the stupid mistakes are usually made when my mind starts to wander and I don't slow enough to compensate. In this case, slow enough can actually mean come to a complete stop.


Sorry for the rant - and thanks again for an enlightning article B)

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  • 3 years later...


I have no race face that I'm aware of. I just am. I've never raced a motorcycle. In Colorado you didn't have to wear a helmet when I was doing my early learning. A riders face could be plain as day in the foothills and mountains around Boulder. We had tracks near Denver and Aspen. Wow! What more could a rider want and even though I didn't race I spectated. What would you expect but a big grin or something akin to it. So maybe that's my race face. Thank you for all that you've done for us riders and road racers alike.

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