By Dan Sutherland
It has been said that there’s nothing like racing to improve your road and trackday skills. Riding in close proximity at high speed, pushing your bike and tyres to the limit is the ultimate in track-riding nirvana.
You must trust those around you implicitly as you fight for every apex and slipstream for that top-speed advantage down every straight. It’s a focusing, intense workout for both your body and your mind – and something every racing enthusiast should experience at least once.
Like many trackday riders, I have often wondered about the option of going racing, and growing up with the fantastic Cadwell Park on my doorstep I have spent many a weekend watching swarms of club racers push themselves (and their budgets) to the absolute limit in pursuit of victory.
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It’s something I have always wanted to do and lining up on the grid at Brands Hatch Indy back in March was my first opportunity. Lying 18th on a 29-strong grid, I am surrounded by a pack of focused riders, all waiting for the timing lights to go out and the action to start.
It’s the first race of the year for the ACU Team Green Junior Cup and BMCRC Senior 300 Series, supported by Kawasaki, which runs as part of the British Motorcycle Racing Club; known by all as ‘Bemsee’.
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The price of fun
I am riding a Kawasaki Ninja 400 hire bike, which is available to anyone with an ACU licence and club membership for just £100 a day (plus crash damage), alongside entry fees of £160 for the Friday test and £320 to cover both the Saturday and Sunday.
This price will also bag you all of the necessary consumables like tyres and brake pads, with the rider only needing to provide fuel and an extension lead for the tyre warmers. It’s a good idea to bring a few of your own tools, too.
With every bike on the grid using the same Bridgestone R11 rubber, running gear and MSS Performance kit, it’s a mechanically level playing field, with the club’s 400 receiving an air inlet restrictor to cap the power at a dyno-measured 37bhp.
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Get in the ring
I am desperate to do well, all the while battling an intense anxiety in the pit of my stomach, which feels likely to cause a return viewing of my breakfast at any moment.
Seconds feel like hours as I wait to drop the clutch and do battle around the 1.2-mile Indy circuit and although I should be completely focused on the task in hand, I can’t help but question my right to be on the grid.
Will I be fast enough? Am I going to be lapped? What if I crash the bike? After a prolonged two seconds, the stack of red lights go out above the start/finish line and I drop the clutch in a symphony of amplified parallel twin racers, all aiming for the same slab of tarmac at the entrance to the steep drop down into Paddock Hill.
Although I had already enjoyed a full day of testing and a morning qualifying session on the Kawasaki, it takes me a couple of laps to truly shake my trackday mindset of forgiving, wide passes and once the tactical red mist descends, I stuff it up the inside of someone on the brakes into Druids.
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Feels like heaven
“This is f***ing amazing!” I shout to myself in my helmet, as beads of sweat from the exertion begin dripping off the end of my nose. Latching onto the back of a group of faster riders, they tow me round for the remaining seven laps.
Although I look for a way past, there is nowhere to go. After 10 laps of biting the screen and pushing my own riding ability as far as I dare, I take the flag.
I have no idea where I finished, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve done it, I’ve raced a motorcycle. Slowing down, I take in the crowd and wave to the marshals, who light up the outskirts of the track like a sea of bright orange.
I can’t help but laugh uncontrollably at what I’ve just done. It’s too much to process in one go as my whole body shakes with the biggest shot of adrenaline ever. Forget drugs, take up racing.
Peeling off the circuit, I am met by beaming Chief Technical Official, Mark Dent, who gives me a big pat on the back and tells me I’ve shaved 2.5 seconds off my qualifying pace for a 1:00.013 lap time and finished a position higher up the order.
Coming into the weekend, I set myself a goal of a one minute lap time, to finish a race and not to come last and I had just completed the lot. My eyes are on stalks and my jaw aches from the beaming smile wedged inside my Shark helmet.
Once in the garage, the buzz begins to fade. I am on the comedown and already longing for my next fix come the afternoon. Emotionally and physically drained, I take on fluids and any food I can get my hands on and begin prepping the bike for the next outing.
The tank is drained and refuelled with just four litres and the tyre warmers are wrapped around the sticky Bridgestone rubber. The dust caps are also removed and placed above the fuel filler cap, reminding me to check the pressures just before each outing.
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Three races follow over the rest of the weekend and with each drop of the lights my hunger to go faster, finish higher and pass more aggressively heightens. Before the weekend is out I am already entertaining thoughts of buying a bike. Sure, it’s an expensive hobby, but for thrills, racing is hard to beat.
As fellow competitor, 53-year-old Colin Hall, told me afterwards: “I thought ‘I need to have a go at this racing and see what it’s all about before I die’. At my age, I’m never going to be world champion but it’s just a good laugh.”
Road to racer
Alongside regular 5K runs to stay fit, to compete you also need a race licence, obtained through a classroom-based multiple-choice Competitor Training Course (CTC) and Basic Rider Assessment (BRA). I did mine in February with Bemsee at a cost of £160 for both parts.
Teaching you the need-to-know info surrounding the layout of a race weekend, as well and the important safety info regarding flags, procedures and your own bike and riding kit, a number of top-class instructors and high-ranking club officials are on hand to answer any questions and guide you towards being a safer motorcycle racer.
Before you can do this, you also need to sign-up to the club itself at a cost of £35 as well as pay for your ACU licence application.
As I have a road licence, this was £52, as I am classed as an ‘intermediate novice’. You also need an optician to fill out a section at a fee, to prove your vision is good enough. It’s £7 for your rookie bib, too.