Experiencing the COTA Track on the Back of a Honda CBR1000RR Superbike
Last week, on the back of a motorcycle, I got the experience of a lifetime.
Prior to that day, my primary experience had been limited to street riding, precariously perched behind a boy I was gripping tightly for a variety of reasons. I’ve never driven a motorcycle. I’ve had some fun encounters while riding my road bike around the Decker Lake area during the annual Republic of Texas Biker Rally (I love the sound of a Harley), and I have a couple of friends who avidly ride, but that’s about the span of it.
Geico Motorcycle Road Racing has a unique approach to educating the media about this sport—they’re putting us on a bike. AMA Pro Superbike Champion Chris Ulrich, who recently finished 10th at Daytona in the AMA Pro Superbike Race Two, suits up and rides a two-seater Honda CBR 1000RR Superbike, giving media a taste of what it’s like to be on the track as a pro. The group also participates in a fundraiser for charity, and at the last event, project manager David Swarts said that Ulrich gave 77 rides over two 8-hour days for more than 500 miles at near race speed. “It gives Chris a lot of experience with riders of many different skill sets,” Swarts said.
In the introduction to the morning’s ride, Swarts called this education effort “motorcycle evangelism.” Those of us riding were briefed on safety and procedure: the balls of the feet stay on the foot pegs; hands grasp a special bar welded to the gas tank in front of Ulrich. Lean with Ulrich and don’t resist. On the straightaways, get as aerodynamic as possible (for our comfort, due to the higher position of the second seat, as much as for Ulrich’s ease of handling). Ulrich let us know what to look forward to; there would be those signature leans to experience and speeds in the 140 to 160 mph range. Three main things Swarts and Ulrich hammered home: Trust. Remember to breathe. Don’t wave.
I have to say that the gear is cool. We were outfitted in suits just like the pros: leather one-piece suit, fairly weighty, with thick knee protectors and extra padding at the shoulders. Underneath the suit went a spinal protector that strapped around the waist and could’ve been a Teenage Mutant Ninja costume piece. (I have to say that strapping on this piece of gear did give me some hesitation…what exactly was I getting myself into?). Boots and leather gloves covered the remaining exposed body bits, and we were fitted with a helmet. Ulrich was very friendly and did everything he could to put me at ease; he even helped strap me in my boots and get the suit’s legs zippered around them. I chatted briefly with this nice guy who was also ready to ride; I was so nervous and preoccupied that it took about ten minutes for me to realize he was Kevin Schwantz, COTA’s MotoGP ambassador and 500cc World Champion. Our first lap around the COTA track was to get accustomed—us to riding and Ulrich to us—and the second lap was to see what it was like to pass and be passed and take it up a notch, which was where Schwantz fit in.
I had several goals for the ride—no throwing up, wetting my pants, or squeezing Ulrich with my elbows (the sign to slow down). I wondered if the GoPro mounted on the bike would pick up any shrieking. The first rider took off and, watching, I considered that perhaps my goals were ambitious. Before I knew it, it was my turn.
The equipment is somewhat bulky and the passenger seat pretty high, so a step stool was necessary. Swarts got me situated in the proper position, all while gently reviewing the rules: Trust. Remember to breathe. Don’t wave. The crouched position was actually pretty comfortable and, because of all the layers of leather, it didn’t feel weirdly intimate to have my arms wrapped around Ulrich. Swarts pulled down the visor and checked my helmet. Ulrich started the bike, gave my hand a pat (to signal we were about to get moving as well as to remind me to relax), and we took off.
The sound of the bike is like a Formula One engine—it provokes a pure pleasure reaction that simply cannot be squelched. You want to go fast and go fast NOW. My fear of sliding around on the back evaporated by the time we made Turn 1; I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d been completely unprepared for how smooth a ride it was. My arms and legs relaxed. Ulrich was taking the brunt of the wind and, tucked behind him, I simply had to find the best position for my head as we cornered—the wind’s force was significant and the pressure on my neck (which Swarts had warned us about) was the only item of discomfort. Because I’d been on the track for the Formula Run and covered both F1 races, I knew COTA’s layout, anticipating turns and thrilling at the speed on the straightaways. By the time we finished the first lap, I was pretending I was driving. We passed the grandstand and then Ulrich took it up a notch.
Did I just image the sound of Ulrich’s knee scraping the ground as we took those corners? I don’t think so. It was intensely and gloriously thrilling. I could see Schwantz ahead—I knew he wasn’t going anywhere near race speed (that can be as much as 220 mph for MotoGP), but we came up to pass and were then passed by Schwantz. I can only imagine what an actual race must be like, with multiple riders jockeying for position and pushing the envelop on speed all while making tactical decisions.
We were about ¾ of the way around the track when I realized that a third lap would’ve probably knocked out one of my goals. When I’d worried about throwing up, I’d been thinking purely about fear; it never occurred to me that I might get motion sickness. None too soon, we came into the pit area (I love watching the F1 pit stops, so it was totally thrilling to roar in). When I climbed off the bike, I realized that, while my whole body was quivering, I was exhilarated. Had it not been for the slight motion sickness, I’d have definitely gone again…and again. Those two laps lasted less than 7 minutes but that’s all it took to make me a fan.
MotoGP hits COTA this weekend, and I won’t miss it. In addition to the actual preliminary events and race, there will be live music, freestyle motocross demonstrations, MotoGP rider autograph sessions, and the opportunity to walk on the track after the race (just a few the free activities offered to members and guests with paid admission). Julie Loignon, COTA’s vice president of public and media relations, said, “Our MotoGP event is like the ‘Oscars’ for motorcycle enthusiasts and manufacturers who come to Austin to celebrate their love for two-wheeled recreation. And our diverse entertainment schedule offers plenty for casual fans and families to see and do in between the on-track action.”
Cool stuff during MotoGP weekend includes skydivers with the Red Bull Air Force jumping into the pre-race action at COTA on race day, April 13. On April 11 and 12, fans can enter a drawing for a brand new sportbike to be given away following the MotoGP riders’ autograph session at 4:25 p.m on Saturday. For those fans who’ve purchased “Buy and Ride” three-day passes, there’s the opportunity to ride their own motorcycles in the track parade on Saturday—and I can vouch for how awesome that would be.
Tickets for the Red Bull Grand Prix of The Americas start at $39 per person. Children ages 12 and under receive free general admission with a ticketed adult. Tickets can be purchased at http://circuitoftheamericas.com/motogp/ through Thursday, April 10, and at COTA’s Grand Plaza Ticket Office throughout race weekend.