Adventures at motorcycle racing school

I know, I know, I’m such a tomboy.

Go ahead and read the end first:

My ‘torn muscle’ turned out to be a fractured rib. I tried to ignore it all week, just like a guy, but when I couldn’t turn over during a massage, my therapist forced me to go to the emergency room.

I had thought there was nothing they can do about it, so why bother? But now I have this tight band that holds my ribs in place. I can breathe normally again! And sneeze and laugh! Well, I have’t tried sneezing yet, I’m too scared. It’s good to know my rib isn’t in danger of puncturing my lung. And the pain killers… Feeling much better! Really!

Here’s the Start of the Story:

At the end of a track weekend in May I decided to take a break from teaching Porsche drivers how to drive their car on a racetrack, and branched out my interests a tad by taking a school to learn how to drive my motorcycle on a racetrack at MotorSports Ranch, Ft. Worth, Texas. I crashed my bike and am okay, but in increasing pain. Here’s a report I filed with the local Porsche club where I am an instructor:

Hi, all,

I stayed at MSR an extra day to attend a motorcycle DE put on by Lone Star Track Days ( It was pretty cool and all I can say is, I’m okay and I had a blast right up to my crash at Wagon Wheel and still had lots and lots of fun after that, even though it hurt. ;-)

Started out as a typical track day, with 7 am registration but with on-site tech. Mostly tech just wiggled things on the bike to make sure they’re attached. Had to tape up all lights and remove mirrors! Good thing too, otherwise I’d be buying some new mirrors right about now along with my turn signal and gas tank. Got my greenie sticker and was ready. Sit and wait.

Drivers’ meeting, then greenie classroom. We’re surprised to learn that in this school anyone can pass anywhere, *especially* on corners, no signal from the driver ahead and you’re not even ever supposed to look back to see if anyone’s coming up… overtaker has total responsibility for the pass. Just no passing on the inside of a corner, unless you’re sure you can make it and then it’s okay! ;-) There are only 3 groups, so we will be on track every 50 minutes for 25 minutes. That’s an awful lot of track time.

The main differences between cars and bikes on the track is that as soon as you track out, you immediately set up for the next turn, scootching your butt to the side you will be turning on. One smooth motion from side to side, or if it’s a left and a left, you ride the straight with your butt on the left. To turn you just lean way over, no arm or steering input. Hands as light as a feather. You turn in earlier than with cars, and don’t use the whole track (leaving about 3-6 feet at the outside!) but otherwise it’s the line that we know and love. Finally, you never, never never never look at the outside of the track (this is really important), you look as far ahead as you can down the horizon, because on a bike, where you look is where you go. Oh, and if you mess up, you don’t just spin with two feet in, you go down. Bummer.

The session before we go out, as we wait on grid, they have to tow four bikes off the track from various points. Is this what they call motorcycle school?! We blithely ignore them (“it can’t happen to me!”) and go out on track.

First session we do a lead and follow, like little duckies, one instructor to every 2 students. We wear a huge, brightly-colored T-shirt over our leathers and “armor” (Kevlar pads that keep elbows and knees from getting smashed) so instructors know which ducklings belong to them. The instructor is great. He exaggerates his motions and we learn to lean way over, so that when we apex we are hanging like a sidecar, literally over the red and white paint stripes! You can see them whizzing below you. Wow! We also have an additional control input that cars don’t, i.e. the degree that we lean over controls the steering and the line we take. It’s like adding an extra dimension of control, feels very powerful. The turns are so cool! We’re in heaven.

Second session, we are already on our own, with instructors randomly whizzing around the track and following you for a while, then they give a signal to follow them and they help you with trouble spots, exaggerating their movements so you can see what to do. I get a lot of thumbs-ups and at the next classroom when he comments on my clean lines I am forced to confess that I teach the track and actually spent the weekend there. This revelation actually contributes to my demise later on (one of many things that contributed to it), because they assume that since I know the track they can push me harder and faster than most, but knowing the track doesn’t mean I have the motorcycle control skills that I should. I didn’t grow up with dirt bikes, minibikes, and motorcycles like so many guys; I never so much as touched a motorized bike until I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation class 3 years ago. There is a lot I don’t know about controlling bikes that guys learned when they were, oh, say 8. Every mile I’ve ever done outside the class is logged on my bike, about 2800 miles. You’re considered a novice rider for the first 2500 miles, so I’m only a hair out of that category.

A lot of the guys are excited about having a PCA instructor in their midst, I think many of them wish they had a track car they just can’t afford it so they do bikes. They want to know all about PCA, the different models of Porsches, which are good track cars, how much they cost and so forth. One instructor in particular seems to take a shine to me, Mark, and he had been pointed out to me when he arrived when the guy parked next to me said “try to get that instructor if you can, he’s really patient and really, really good.” So I spend the rest of the time basically getting private lessons from Mark. He’s a racer and just drove down from a weekend at Hallett (Oklahoma).

I spend a lot of time working on my braking, I had been taught wrong and have to unlearn bad brake bias habits (in case one guy in the whole world doesn’t know, bikes have front and rear brakes that you work separately). Like a car, there’s lots of acceleration–braking point (way before the car braking cones), finish (way before the last car braking cone) and turn in early, moderating the turn with your lean and your butt. I do great on the back stretch through Buzzard’s Neck, Horseshoe, Boot Hill and Tombstone. Big Bend is so cool! and I’m awesome once I’m in Rattlesnake (it’s so much fun! Lean right, left, right, left), but I have trouble from the front straight getting into Rattlesnake (duh, it has the most braking). We work on that and my lap times improve significantly, I am hitting 75 or 80 on the straights (don’t laugh, it’s way different on a bike) and cruising into Rattlesnake with more confidence.

The fateful moment comes after lunch, when I am doing a lead-follow with Mark. He’s taking me into Rattlesnake faster each lap, but this time two racer-types pass me in the inside in the middle of Rattlesnake (remember, you can pass anywhere). The only way you know someone’s behind you is by the sound of an engine if the wind is right, you can’t turn around, so Mark can’t know, but he assumes I have come up onto his butt and am pushing him to hurry (I wouldn’t do that, but he doesn’t know).

He speeds up with the racers and exits Horseshoe faster than ever, when I make the fatal mistake of thinking I can catch up to them (“if they can do it, I can do it!”) and I hammer on the speed as I exit Rattlesnake onto Horseshoe. Mistake… but then I compound my newbie mistake by looking to see how close I am to the track-in cone on the right. You can NEVER look at the outside of the track on a bike, because you go like a heat-seeking missile wherever you look. A thousand times more pronounced than with cars. In the briefest flash I realize I can’t over-correct without going down big time, so I drive in a controlled manner straight off-track while braking to reduce my speed.

It’s a good plan until I hit a bump a few feet off the track and I’m airborne, helpless as a rag doll, and I land with my upper body down and my torso up, with my 450 pound bike on my right leg. Yowza! All the wind was knocked out of me, but when I can breathe I realize my bones feel intact. My armor worked great! I feel a searing in my shoulder muscle, where my left arm got jammed upwards while my body went downwards, but otherwise fine. I wriggle my leg out from under my bike, stand up (important) and give the thumbs-up to let the riders whizzing by know I’m okay.

There’s a time warp here, then my instructor and another instructor Maurice are with me, and they help me right my bike and it starts, yay! My left turn signal is hanging off and the gas tank is dented, but it’s otherwise fine. We putt up the pit exit to the grid and they ask me if I want to call it a day or go back on the track. I know it was a newbie mistake compounded by too many inputs in my brain, I know why I went down, so I say I want to go back out on the track. They are so relieved! They don’t want the girl rider to limp away.

I get two more laps on the session before the checkered flag, and when I get back they comment how happy they were to see me leaning into the turns as much as ever, I don’t let off at all. I trust the sides of my bike tires now as much as the bottom, I know what I did, and I knew that as long as I look where I want to go, it wouldn’t happen again. But I had gone out with much left shoulder muscle pain, as I had learned from running the marathon a few years ago that as long as you are sure of the source of your pain (like blisters), you can totally and completely ignore it until you finish.

I bike up to the convenience store and buy a pack of four Advil to reduce swelling and secondary pain, and wash it down with a Coke. I tell everybody I’m fine, just a torn muscle. The Coke helps to make me perky. They seem to think I’m a hero for getting back on the track, but I couldn’t consider not doing that. Nothing requires you to pay attention to it, says Kerry you can’t win if you don’t finish Watson.

Once the Advil starts working I’m much better, and I finish the day with a clean and restrained last session. I’m glad I did the last session to solidify what I was doing right, to know my braking is better than it’s ever been, I can turn with more lean than I ever, ever thought, to trust that I can go fast on the straights and still get around the corners fine and especially get through Horseshoe without it “Rattling” me. Can I claim I truly was bitten by Rattlesnake and wanted more?

I load up my bike onto my trailer by myself, that’s me, ouch, can’t ask for help, and spend another hour saying goodbye to everybody. I can never just sneak away from the track! I talk to a girl who owns a Harley who is thinking about doing it, and convince her to do so, not mentioning my crash. Then talk to Mark, who really wants to get into racing cars. I have a 5 hour drive to my home south of Austin, so I finally get out of there with email addresses in hand.

The drive back is both wonderful and horrible. I noticed how vivid the colors are, the corn in the fields the greenest I’ve ever seen, just like after I went skydiving the first time. It was an adrenalin rush all day long, and it takes about 6 hours for it to go away and for the colors to fade to normal (I don’t get that rush from cars on the track anymore, my body is accustomed to that).

I realize what an awesome day it was, Lynyrd Skynard’s Freebird is playing on the radio, I feel so free and laugh out loud at the magnificence of life. Of crashing and living to tell the tale. Then I cry for a while, from happiness and I can’t wait to tell all my friends. But it was also horrible, because my bruises were starting to come out, I couldn’t use my left hand to drive any more without my shoulder jabbing me, and this is when I hate being a track junkie girl on my own. Five hours of this all alone, hauling a trailer down I-35, no sympathy. Wah.

I pick up a bag of ice and keep it on my shoulder, getting more and more stiff by the mile. When I remove the ice, I get this odd sense that the ice has pushed a hole into my car seat. I realize later that I simply have no feeling left there from the ice. Home seems to recede by the minute and I wonder if I can make it, but I have no choice. So I do.

Today I have some funny bruises, but as long as I don’t sneeze and I keep taking the pain meds the pain is not as bad as I expected. I have learned SO MUCH and I know I am a much better rider on the road. Plus as bad as it sounds, I am lucky to have had such a controlled crash… I used to think going down was sure death.

Now I know that even if I can’t prevent a crash, I can moderate it… and to look where I want to go in life, and to never stop steering.