After dozens of track days at an assortment of circuits, it's easy to forget how intimidating a racetrack looks to the uninitiated. Even riders who live for interstate cruising can feel at home on a closed course after a good morning of lapping. But from the outside it's too easy for those riders to imagine all track junkies as crazy egomaniacs who'd rather summer in hospital emergency rooms than enjoy a mellow ride.
That's what I thought back in the days when my garage was full of cruisers and choppers, and apparently the folks behind Buell's Inside Pass track days realized how many riders share a similar level of trepidation. Which is why this group of Buell enthusiasts-led by Harley-Davidson Rider's Edge training implementer (and Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor) Leon Winfrey-set out to create Inside Pass, a track day that provides a welcoming first-time experience for enthusiasts curious about closed-course riding but reluctant to take the plunge.
The word "race" is not part of the Inside Pass vocabulary. Instead of stuff-passing your buddy, the Inside Pass staff (most of whom also instruct for Winfrey's other venture, www.privatetracktime.com) emphasizes riding safely at your own pace. Not used to draping yourself all over a sportbike? Inside Pass' Kreig Robinson says bikes of all kinds are welcome, even cruisers, which allows riders to test their cornering clearance at a leisurely pace. "Our main goal is to have people who've always wondered what it's like to ride on a track-and those who've always wanted to try a Buell in a controlled environment-come out and enjoy themselves," Robinson said. Once their appetites are whetted, these newbie track riders might be tempted to buy a Buell, or at least return for a few more of the 12 Inside Pass events hosted at various tracks around the country.
During a recent event at Alabama's stunning Barber Motorsports Park, the target audience was represented in force as the paddock echoed with both the high-pitched whine of inline-fours and the distinctive Harley-Davidson V-twin rumble. Welcome to the only track day in existence where engineer boots and drag pipes mix freely with leathers, clipboards and lap timers. Motorcyclists are a self-segregating bunch, and for the cruiser faithful, risking injury-and the ridicule of one's peers-by venturing onto the same track with a bunch of sportbikes can be an intellectual challenge. But for riders like Nick Fields, an Electra Glide owner from Clarksville, Tennessee, the opportunity to get some seat time on a Buell in an environment free of cars or VASCAR speed traps was too good to pass up. "I'm not sure I'd ever give up my Harley for one of these sportbikes," he said, "but I've always wanted to ride on a track, and there aren't many in my area. The Buell seems like a nice way to get into it because the power is easy to use," he said.
With no restrictions on the throttle aside from gravel traps and self-preservation, a little instruction was welcomed by many of the track neophytes. Though Inside Pass does not offer a pre-packaged curriculum per se, most staffers are either experienced road-racers or instructors at Harley-Davidson's in-house Rider's Edge academy, and are both accessible and willing to share their secrets. Those struggling to master Barber's cheek-clenching downhill braking zones or avoid the red-and-white curbing could always call for assistance.
Don't look at the gravel trap, don't look at the gravel trap...fark!
Grabbing a blue Buell XB12R Firebolt and following Winfrey for a few laps revealed an instructor who rides with a reserved poise and inch-perfect discipline. Instead of trying to wow students with his speed, Winfrey is more concerned about helping everyone else get up to speed. A pair of cruiser riders followed us at a safe distance, their highway pegs throwing a shower of sparks that would have made Troy Bayliss envious. After a brief pit-side chat with one of the other instructors about the relative merits of a Buell XB versus a Dyna Wide Glide, the cruiser duo returned to finish out the session, closer to everyone else than they were at the beginning.
Aside from the Ulysses rider I saw sample one of Barber's beautifully manicured run-off areas, there were fewer incidents than I'd seen during other track days at this facility. This is partly due to limited enrollment, designed to avoid the traffic jams common to overbooked track days. I also found instructor Dave Ruocco's coaching about peripheral vision and smooth braking far more valuable than some of the more race-oriented instruction offered elsewhere. Like most Inside Pass riders, the majority of my riding tends to be on public roads, where lessons on consistent braking and proper visual skills are far more useful than tutorials on advanced knee-down techniques. "Calm down when you slow down" and "take it one corner at a time" are examples of Ruocco's practical mantras.
Hands-on, personalized attention was always available from the Inside Pass staff.
With manageable torque and a top-end rush that's more P-51 Mustang than F-14 Tomcat, Buells prove a great track-day companion for beginners. To make sure I wasn't just imagining a decent pace around Barber's 2.38 miles and 16 turns on the borrowed XB12R, two laps on a begged Honda CBR1000RR proved it. Despite the Honda's 50-something rear-wheel horsepower advantage, my lap times were nearly identical. That may change, of course, when the new 145-horsepower Buell 1125R rolls in for the remaining 2007 Inside Pass dates.
With sessions split between novices, intermediates and advanced riders, Inside Pass is open to those of all skill levels and on-track test rides of the Buell product line are always available on a first-come, first-served basis. By mid-day some Harley-Davidson faithful had submerged in Buell waters, including Bruce Wallace, a Huntsville, Alabama, native, who rides a Softail Deuce. Inside Pass was Wallace's first track day but certainly won't be his last. "I'm extremely impressed," he said. "These bikes are so controllable, they seem to know where to turn before you tell them. And everything the instructors told me, from being smooth on the clutch and moving my weight, applies to the street."