Five people, one truck, a trailer and seven motorcycles. No, it’s not the setup to a great punchline – although there were lots of laughs – but the basis for a 5,000 kilometre round trip adventure in search of a break from the Canadian winter and a chance to get in some pre-season track time at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in southern California.
With as much planning as seven busy individuals with full time jobs could manage – in addition to the five of us who would travel in the truck, two others would meet us at the track – on the evening of February 1 we rolled out of Calgary. Of course, within moments, sitting stuck in traffic, the part of our plan that included navigating rush hour with a one-ton truck attached to 28-foot trailer loaded down with motorcycles and a wide assortment of tools, equipment and paraphernalia, meant that we were already running hours behind schedule. But better late than never.
Heading south on Hwy 2, crossing the border and continuing on US Interstate 15, the question that remained front and centre on my mind was “when is it going to start to warm up?” No matter how often it was asked, or how annoyed I became, the cold seemed determined to hang on with the extreme cold temperatures remaining almost 2,000 km later when we arrived in St. George, UT for our second night on the road.
Hitting the road on the morning of day 3, with the thermometer still below freezing, but the forecast offering hope, the final leg of the trip got underway. By the time we rolled through Las Vegas a couple of hours later, winter coats gave way to warm sunshine all the way into southern California.
Arriving at the track in the middle of California’s Colorado Desert that afternoon, the sight of the 4.3-kilometre Chuckwalla road course removed even lingering thoughts of the marathon drive as somewhere in the background of my mind angels and trumpets reached a crescendo.
With bikes unloaded, pit area setup and cabins checked into – yes you can rent cabins right at the track, how cool is that? – a quick run into nearby Indio, CA secured food and other supplies for our scheduled three day stay at the track. All that was left to do was get a good night’s sleep while dreaming about getting on the track.
Getting to Know You
The thing about California is that track day enthusiasts can ride year-round and the continual seat time means no rust, unlike our Canadian contingent who were all at least four months removed from their last session on the track. Add in the fact that even though some of our group had previously been to Chuckwalla, none had experienced the counter-clockwise setup we were scheduled to run and this meant that it was a new track for all. A look around the room during the SoCal Track Days riders’ meeting confirmed that even though this open track day format was open to Expert and Intermediate riders, the group was heavily weighted to the Expert class. Throw in some MotoAmerica racers and this was definitely going to be a fast crowd.
Ask any track day rider what their biggest challenge is, and you will get a variety of answers. For me, learning a new track is definitely among the items at the top of my must-improve list. While some people are naturals at this, even remembering the sequence of corners takes me at least a couple of sessions to start to remember. In hindsight, maybe I was destined to be a NASCAR driver.
Taking a deep breath and heading onto the Chuckwalla circuit for the first time on my KTM 790 Duke, I set about the task of learning the track while having top-shelf Superbikes pass me at a pace that was both impressive and a little intimidating. Remembering the advice I was given when I first started riding on the track, and the same advice I now give to newer track day riders: it’s okay to ride your own pace, just make sure you stay on line and nobody will have any issues passing you. Well this would be great, if only I had a clue of where the line was. Fortunately, with a couple of sessions, selectively timed to coincide opposite of the fastest people on track, I was able to sort out some lines and get used to the track so I was circulating at a solid pace by the end of the first morning. This was a relief as our second day at the track was scheduled to be spent with the team from Jason Pridmore’s JP43 Training.
Coming off of the first day, I was feeling pretty good. New track sorted out? Check. Watching Supercross with the JP43 crew? Check and super cool. Looking forward to our scheduled training sessions on day 2? Definitely check!
For the second day at Chuckwalla, our group was split up into sub-groups of two, which were then paired with one of the JP43 instructors for a day of semi-private instruction. To be fair, to refer to these individuals as instructors is like saying that Gordon Ramsey can get a little vocal in the kitchen. In addition to Mr. Pridmore, coaches for the day included MotoAmerica aces Andrew Lee and James Rispoli.
The routine for the day had myself and fellow HardNoX Track Dayz control rider Chris, following our instructor, Andrew Lee, for two laps each session and then taking turns doing two laps in front of Andrew and his ever-present GoPro camera.
In the classroom between sessions, the onboard videos opened the door for Andrew to critique and correct our riding. And critique he did. Starting with selecting more efficient lines, then working through body position, braking, downshifting, positioning the bike for maximum drive out of corners and eventually deconstructing sections of the track to determine the real opportunities for reduced lap times honestly left me mentally drained by the end of the day and struggling to incorporate everything into my now defunct riding style. If nothing else, I gained an appreciation for how a golfer feels when a coach takes their swing apart and reworks it into something entirely new.
Our third and final day at Chuckwalla promised to be the best yet as the only people on the track would be our seven person Canadian contingent and a few of the JP43 crew. Of course, I was still pouty from having my riding reworked the day before, but also determined to give the new techniques a fair shake. While the first few laps felt like a battle between the riding style I had arrived with three days earlier and the one that Andrew had created for me, somewhere along the way everything clicked and I found myself lapping quicker and more confidently than ever. When I mentioned this newfound success to Jason, he wasn’t surprised at all, explaining that typically everyone needs a night to digest what they have learnt before it translates back onto to the track.
For anyone considering their own epic road trip, here’s a free piece of advice. Take a rest day on your way home. For our group, a day in Vegas in a spacious AirBNB home was the perfect solution. Hanging out in the backyard by the pool with stories and lessons from the last few days being exchanged was a great way to make sure that key learnings on (and off) the track were assimilated. Of course, the chance to spend some time on the Vegas strip before heading back to the Canadian winter made the upcoming two days of driving a little less daunting.
The challenge with learning new skills is that it only works if you have the opportunity to practice, and for road racing and track days in Canada this means hurry up and wait until the snow leaves. That being said, in the last week since arriving home, the ability to take track maps for each of the circuits here in Western Canada and start dissecting and introducing the concepts that Andrew provided will hopefully give me a head start when the tracks open.
Now if winter could just take a hint and go away…