Phil Hall looks back on his first track day
Years ago, when road race meeting had travelling marshals, I used to perform that duty and I really enjoyed it. I restricted myself to “C” Grade days and club meetings as, even back then, the long arm of officialdom was beginning to insist that officials’ duties be performed by people who had qualifications. Since my only qualifications were enthusiasm and willingness to help, they were deemed to be insufficient.
For those who are not quite sure what a travelling marshal actually did, the job entailed lining up at the rear of the grid for each race and following the field around until the end of the first completed lap. Should there be an accident or an incident, the marshal would park the bike and provide the assistance required until help arrived. The idea was that you parked your bike in a conspicuous place and one where you could have the best view possible of the rest of the circuit. Bearing in mind that this was before the days of effective and reliable two-way radios, the use of travelling marshals provided the quickest means of getting an official to an incident on the track.
As a further aside, I must add that we at Canberra Road Racing Club probably instigated the first technology-based marshalling at the road closure meetings around Macarthur Park. As many of our members were also keen CB radio users, we arranged to have a car with a CB radio in it at each flag marshal point, monitored by an experienced user, and for them to provide a back-to-base communications network that covered the whole circuit precinct. And it worked brilliantly, though we also used travelling marshals as well, one of them being the late Warren Weldon.
Being a travelling marshal was fun. It got you close to the action and allowed you to do countless laps of the circuit where you were without actually racing or having to pay an entry fee. Understandably, it was a coveted job.
BUT, that was a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, far away.
In fact, the last time I rode around Oran Park was 1984.
Fast forward to the present and, with track day fever running rampant everywhere and especially within the group to which I belonged, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to find excuses for not having a go myself.
So, after a lot of thought, I decided it was time to get out there again and see what changes had taken place in the intervening years.
It was April 29 2007. I rode up to Oran Park on my road bike, wearing my leathers rather than my customary Draggins and Textiles. Thankfully my wife either didn’t notice or didn’t see fit to ask. Had she done either, the jig would have been up and my track day would not have happened.
I had done a fair bit to help the people organising the day over the previous couple of years and had been told by the secretary that, if I turned up, I could do a “few sessions” without having to pay the customary entry fee as a “thank you” for my efforts.
I arrived late are the track and assiduously avoided the pit garages where my friends were pitted. I signed the appropriate paperwork and waited till the first D Grade session was called and tacked myself onto the end of the queue. I was being sneaky so that my friends wouldn’t know I was there in case I made a God-awful fool of myself and they’d have enough ammo to plaster me with for the next five years. While I had shown myself to be a more than competent road rider when we regularly rode together, there was a clear understanding from everyone that, while I wasn’t quite Captain Slow, I certainly wasn’t Casey Stoner.
So I tootled out into the first “D” grade session, determined to either succeed or look very foolish. Mostly, though, I was determined to be invisible. To be honest, though I had nearly forty years of riding experience by this stage, I was terrified. All manner of terrible thought were rushing through my head as bikes disappeared into the distance leaving me all alone on the track.
That surely turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it gave me time to settle, concentrate and re-acquaint myself with the track. And just as I was starting to breathe and to realise that, yes, I was still alive and I hadn’t done anything incredibly stupid, the session was flagged off with only two laps completed. Someone had binned a bike and spilt a large quantity of oil on the track. Everyone back to the pits while the oil spill was cleaned up, please.
I was a little annoyed because I was just starting to enjoy it.
For me, however, the sudden halt to the session also meant that the jig was up. One of my friends watching on the pit wall had spotted a familiar red VFR circulating down the back of the pack and, as I pulled into pit lane, I was accosted by several of them with huge grins on their faces, looking like the cat that had been at the cream. Well, there goes my plans of anonymity. I explained my situation and was immediately given a load of advice and encouragement, both of which I appreciated but knowing that I was now a marked man, so to speak, didn’t make me feel confident at all as the session was called up to continue.
Back on track again and I fell in with a guy on a GSX-R of some sort. He would HOSE me down the straights, but I caught up with him in the twisty bits. I later learned that this is a most common occurrence at the track, but it was a bit daunting at the time. It became very apparent to me as bike after bike passed me at frightening speed down the straight only for the riders to sit up and tippy-toe around the corners that the majority of the riders in my session had no idea whatsoever about how to use the correct racing line on a race track.
I learned early on in my riding career that I had neither the aptitude nor the courage to go fast enough to participate in competition. But I did make it my business to be as smooth and as good a road rider as I could possibly be. One of the most important skills was to translate the “start out wide, shave the apex and end up wide” technique into my riding. I also tried to make the “slow in-fast” out technique part of every ride no matter what its distance or its intention. And it became clear to me almost immediately that I was sharing the track with riders who knew little or nothing about these two basic riding techniques.
So, once I got over this realisation, I concentrated on doing what I was doing as well as I could do and ignoring the perceived faults of others.
The track was just as I remembered it being from over 20 years before (only rougher). I soon found that the flow had returned and it was all just so smooth. The lines came back and it suddenly became easy. I was mentally pinching myself. Surely I must be doing something wrong, this isn’t hard at all! I started to increase the speed and it all just fell into place, Amazing. Amazing, that is, until the guy on the Zook who had been hosing me, looked behind him in Turn 5 and saw me there, gassed it up and high-sided straight in front of me. Oh crap.
Rider and bike were skidding up the track towards the bridge while track day novice me was burying the bike on brakes and aiming for the ever-decreasing gap between him, his bike and the edge of the track. I missed his helmet, but only by a Maxwell Smart distance. And all the time (a matter of seconds but it seemed longer) my thoughts were centering around, “How am I going to tell Helena?”
Session red-flagged again, this time for good.
After the clean-up the next sessions proceeded. This time, instead of hiding out down near the pit exit, I went back to the pit garages where I suddenly found myself to be “one of the boys” Various experts came around offering advice, assistance, telling me that my tyre pressures were all wrong and offering me a congratulatory cup of coffee. I felt like I had crossed a major hurdle.
I went out in two more sessions and called it quits after that. I could have gone out for the last 2, but figured I’d had my fun and I’d proved my point. I COULD ride the track, and do it pretty effectively too. By the last session I was feeling very comfortable and was starting to worry less about the people behind me and more about what was in front.
It was a hoot. I rode my pace and concentrated on line and smoothness, as I like to do on the road, and it worked.
The opinions of others about how good a rider you are do not matter. As long as you are riding to the best of your ability, either on the road OR on the track, that is all that matters. But, I tell you what, there is something very satisfying in hitting the track after 20 years and doing it right.
Finally, it is not my policy to provide links to other sites from my articles, but I was pointed to this one yesterday and I feel it is too good not to share as it explains well how to prepare for your first foray to the racetrack.