It's Spring. You know it's going to rain, so be ready!
A funny thing happens when it rains at a racecourse. The track magically empties! Everybody goes and sits in their trailers, drinking Red Bull and pouting about
all the money that they spent for nothing. Meanwhile, an entire racetrack awaits; glistening, empty and ripe for any rider brave enough to use it. Hear that one madman revving his engine as he prepares to go out? That would be the guy who owns rain tires and knows how to use them. Oh yeah. On a rainy day, the guy who brought wet rubber is king. At most trackday events, so few people are willing to go out that the groups are usually combined for open lapping and you can ride until your butt cheeks shrivel up from the moisture.
If you want to be one of the fortunate few who take advantage of those wet weather trackdays instead of hiding under a canopy and feeling sorry for yourself, you need to buy a set of rain tires. No doubt, if you look around enough, you'll be able to find a set for sale used. Racers want fresh rain tires and if their set is a year or two old, they'll be looking to sell it and buy new. Why? Because fresh rubber is soft rubber. As rain tires age, they harden. A racer wants to win, so he's always looking to use the best stuff available.
Should you buy a used set of rain tires? The obvious answer is that with new tires, you know what you're getting. While we won't advise you to search for used wets, it would be inappropriate to ignore the fact that since they aren't often needed, most sets of rain tires eventually pass through several owners. If you've made the decision to go that route, inspect carefully before you buy. You'll want to see lots of tread depth, rubber that is still noticeably soft when you gouge at it with a finger nail and above all, there should be no cracking visible in the tread grooves or on the sidewalls. Of course as with any purchase of used high performance parts, this is a "Buyer Beware" situation. If you're not comfortable buying used, the solution is as simple as buying new! Be prepared though: Due to their limited production, rain tires are usually about a third more expensive than those meant for racetrack use in dry conditions.
Here are ten tips that will help you to enjoy a wet day at the track:
1) Start slow
If you brake fifty yards too soon, you won't crash, will you? Maybe in five laps you'll have gained the confidence to only be braking ten yards early. There's no pressure to go right to the limit, since the vast majority of trackday attendees have very little experience with wet weather racetrack riding. You've got all day and nobody else to share the track with, so take your time!
2) Hang off like an orangutan
The more you hang off, the more upright the bike is. In the rain, this translates into traction. If you feel like a cartoon racer, with every aspect of your riding position exaggerated to preposterous levels, you're probably doing it just about right.
3) Concentrate on separating each action
Think, "Braaaaaaake.... Now tuuuuuuuuuurn.... Now acceleraaaaaaaaaate ...." Because traction is limited, combining braking or acceleration with lean angle is a good way to overwhelm your tires and end up on your butt. It's not that you can't brake or accelerate while leaning, it's just tricky. As you become more comfortable with the performance of your rain tires, you will begin to combine your actions but even then, do so sparingly.
4) Smooth is key
Make every action as smooth as possible. No "hitting" the gas or "grabbing" the brakes. Use a surgeon's touch. (This always applies but is even more critical on a wet track.)
5) Trust your tires
By design, rain tires get VERY communicative near the limit. It's not as if one moment you have traction and then you're on the ground. (Which, unfortunately, is exactly what you can expect from street or race rubber in the wet.) Tire engineers spend long hours at the design table, making sure that rain rubber will begin to do all sorts of little slippy, sketchy, nerve wracking hops and wiggles before letting go. Unless there is oil or other slick debris on track, you will have fair warning before your rain tires give up traction. As long as you pay attention, work your way carefully up toward the limit and then back off a touch when things start to get iffy, you'll be fine.
6) Don't ride on an oily track!
As a street rider, you already know better than to ride at the start of a rainstorm, when the oil is still washing up out of the asphalt's texture. The same applies at a trackday. Give it 30 minutes or so of good, hard rain to clean things up before you ride.
7) Hydroplaning can still happen with rain tires!
Treat standing water as a threat. You can usually ride through it but use extra care until you've determined how deep the puddles are and have figured out how your rain tires will react to each section of the course.
8) Rain Tires are not mud tires
If it's raining hard enough or if the recent weather has been steadily wet for a few days, mud can find its way onto the pavement, especially at corner apexes and exits. Mud might as well be oil, considering how slick it is beneath your tires. Alter your line as needed to stay out of mud whenever and wherever you see it.
9) Hypothermia is a real risk
Rain riding can be thoroughly addictive when you get used to it. Once you're comfortable with your rain tires and the conditions that you're riding in, you may never want to stop! Meanwhile, your wet leathers and the wind chill effect of your high speed travel are sucking heat out of your core. It's possible to reach a point where your muscles start to become stiff and unresponsive. A drop in core temperature can affect your ability to concentrate as well. If you feel your physical or mental performance beginning to fade, get off the track. Staying out there past this point, however much fun you may be having, is just asking to crash. Want to prolong the good times? A motorcycle-specific rain suit, waterproof boots and a set of surgical gloves worn beneath your regular leather ones will go a long way towards protecting you from the effects of wind and water.
10) If the track starts to dry, stop riding!
Rain tires are 100% water cooled. Their compound is far softer than even the gooiest racing slick. As the track dries, your rain tires will begin to heat up and melt. Little balls of molten rubber start to peel off the tread. (See accompanying picture) At best, you'll quickly ruin an expensive set of tires. At worst, while riding on a drying track, you'll reach a point where suddenly it feels like the asphalt is covered with tiny ball bearings. Right about then, you'll probably crash. If you're having trouble determining how wet the pavement is, look at the tires of the bike ahead. If the tread is wet, so is the track.
Rain riding can be a great challenge. Once you get the hang of it, wet lapping can begin to seem like a rare treat! For those willing to brave the elements, a rain soaked racetrack can be an exceptional place to learn smoothness and grace under pressure. The skills you'll gain from riding in such conditions will put you a step ahead of your fellow participants. After all, if you can control a bike when the track is slippery and traction is scarce, you will have gained experience which will make you quicker when you ride in the dry. As a final incentive to stick it out when the thunderheads roll in, consider this: If the precipitation continues for any length of time, most folks pack up and go home. After several hours of rain riding, you may discover to your delight that the storm has passed. The day's final sessions may see you and the few others who have stayed sharing a dry, nearly empty racetrack. How's that for a silver lining?
(Action Photos courtesy of A Borrowed Image)