Track Days and the Lead Cow
I have attended at least a dozen track days and similar events, and enjoyed them all. Having said that, I have never actually ridden my motorcycle on the track at a track day, for a reason I will explain.
The most professional and best organized of track days, in my experience, are put on by 2Fast. Mark DeGross has his events honed to near perfection. There is a tech and gear inspection, the plans for the day are well laid out, and a morning tour of the track with advice on each section is provided. One of the rules is you must tape off or remove the rear view mirrors for each session. I understand the logic for this, as you are to be focusing on what it coming at you. It is the responsibility of an overtaking rider to make a safe pass. I have rejected this, as I am unwilling to give up anything, particularly the rear view mirrors, that might help me avoid being a part of someone else’s accident. All too often someone charges into a corner with their right hand writing a check their talent can’t cash, and I might be shoved off the track as my bike is used as a secondary braking system.
When I first started attending these as a representative of Ride West BMW, we learned that it was important to have one person not ride at all. There was a lot to do in our pit area with providing shade and hydration and a chance to sit and chat for our customers. If we took a staff member who rode, the concentration and physical exertion levels were such that attending to customers was going to be done poorly or not at all, or at the other extreme, endanger a rider who was not 100% focused on the task at hand.
This did not bother me, for the reason above, and I enjoyed “running” our area and attending to customer needs. Probably sounds boring to most, but I always had a good time, which is one of the reasons I was good at my job.
I also attended several Advanced Street Skills classes put on by Puget Sound Safety. These differed from pure track days in a few key areas. Additional corners were created at various locales on the straights so that top speeds were held down, and so customers could have more corners to work on, which was the intent of the day. Also, you could leave the mirrors on. Last, you were allowed to pass, but only at a couple of locations on the remaining straights, removing the worry of someone carving you up in a corner. I LOVED these. I took the “basic” level class every time, as it left me time to be with customers, and the higher levels dealt with higher speed techniques than I am likely to use. I spend each day on my company provided BMW, essentially going as fast as I wanted for the whole day.
On one occasion I was on a BMW R 800R – a naked sport bike of middlin’ size. For whatever reason, everyone else in my group was either a beginning rider or riding a ginormous tourer or a cruiser with limited ground clearance. In one of the 20 minute sessions I lapped my entire group, which was a giggle. On the same day one of the instructors passed me on a Triumph Street Triple and gave me the pat on his butt signal that meant “follow me.” This was usually so the instructor could pull both of you over at a safe area and give you advice or point out what you were doing wrong. I thought I was going to be lectured for going too fast for my group but no. Apparently he was bored and just wanted to ride fast for a few laps. Away we went! Occasionally he would sit up for a few seconds so I could catch up, as a Street Triple is faster than an 800R, and he was a faster rider than me. Eventually he pulled off and waved and I continued. Great fun, and very educational.
I highly recommend both of these programs to anyone on any motorcycle. Probably several times for each.
However, there was always something missing, and it itched at the back of my mind. Until today. I think I have an idea to combine the two – the “Lead Cow.” I shall explain!
At 2Fast Track days a pink flag is displayed for the first two laps to remind people to take it easy and let the tires warm up. Usually this works, but sometimes it does not and there are a rash of crashes. Crashes are a pain for everyone, for the rider perhaps literally and for sure in the wallet, and in lost track time for everyone else while the detritus is scooped up.
Ta Da! The “Lead Cow.”
For those of you not filled to satiation with knowledge of the dairy industry, my research tells me (Research? Of course. You thought writing these was easy?) that a dairy farmer gets to know which cow in the herd is the leader. All he or she needs to do is train that one cow. Once training is complete, the farmer finds the herd and yells out something like “Hey Bossy – food!” and the lead cow, as she is termed, will begin to amble toward the barn repository of said food. The other cows will follow obediently, not being blessed with the ability for lateral thought. i.e. the lead cow.
For track day use, The Lead Cow will be riding a motorcycle while wearing a vest emblazoned with the cheery signage of “Lead Cow.” This person will be on any sport or naked bike of 600cc or more, and will be an experienced rider who likes to ride at 70% or 80% of the bike’s capability, at most, and does not feel an urge to go faster.
Let’s say your track day group is divided into three groups, as most are, that we can refer to as slow, middle, and fast.
For all three groups, on the first lap, nobody passes the Lead Cow. Failure to follow this will result in a warning. A 2nd offense and your day is done.
For the fast group, the Lead Cow will pull in at the end of the first lap. For the other two groups, the Lead Cow will pull over to the right on the straight at the end of the 1st lap and those who wish can pass. From my experience leading street rides, I know there will be people who will choose to pull over to the right as well and stay behind the Lead Cow for two or more laps, or for the as long as the Lead Cow stay out. If you are new to track days or riding at some speed, it is a tremendous advantage to have an experienced rider at the front who is not going to do something stupid, as you can use his brake lights and cornering lines as guides. I had countless experiences with riders on my street rides who thanked me at the end of the day. They had ridden at a more rapid pace than ever before without feeling at risk. They found the pace I set to be perfect for them. I think the same would be true for many track day customers, who want to enjoy the freedom to go as fast as they want, without ever going so fast as to imperil their bike or person.
Obviously, I am thinking of me as a person who could be the Lead Cow. I get the most enjoyment from riding at a “sport touring enhanced” pace. My leathers are nine years old and the knee pucks have not been scraped in a corner, nor do I need them to. The only wheelies are pull are about 2 inches high and unintentional. My bike has a rev limiter that is rarely if ever triggered. I prefer to ride at a “sensible pace” that I can maintain for hours rather than seek the last micron of available traction or speed.
Instead of using the phrase Lead Cow, I dabbled with the concept of using a cape with the words “Captain Slow” emblazoned on it. I created one of these years ago for a Halloween Ride in a year where October 31st fell on a Saturday. It was a bit of homage to James May of the Top Gear (and now Man Lab) TV shows. Mr. May is someone I admire greatly. The problem was that most people did not think it was all that funny. In fact, few people thought the idea of a Halloween Ride in costume was all that great either. As the stand-up comic Ross Shafer explained to me years ago, sometimes you write a joke that you think is quite funny, and the audience does not like it. He would tweak it and try again. If it failed three times he dropped it, even though he still thought it was funny.
On a side note, I had the same experience when I chose to lead a group ride on a BMW 650 scooter. I had no trouble at all running at my usual pace, but the customers clearly did not see the joy. Testosterone poisoning infects us all a times, no matter our age.
So yes, I could function as the Lead Cow, given sufficient monetary inducement, but it is a role that could be filled by any experienced rider on a fast bike who is willing to ride a fair bit off the maximum pace.
That’s my idea for today.
David Preston Copyright 2013