Two women riders participate in their first trackday
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Gill Hepple was so excited that she couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. She’d just come off the track at Barber Motorsports Park, where AHRMA was offering civilians the opportunity to take a couple of lazy parade laps around the track between races at their annual vintage festival. “I want to do a track day!” she chanted over and over. Gill finally got her chance five months later, when she and a friend signed up for a novice-only track day at JenningsGP in Florida. At this point, they’d each been riding for less than a year.
Hepple, 35, is a U.K. native, originally from York. She had been to plenty of track days as a spectator, learning to help with basic maintenance and even sitting in on classroom instruction. When one rider noticed how involved she was and asked why she could safety wire a bolt and change a tire but didn’t know how to ride, Gill decided to give that a try as well. “Having been pit wench and pillion passenger for over a year, it seemed about time that I learned to operate what I was fixing,” she said.
Christine Caney, 41, is a single mom with two kids, currently working on a Ph.D. and teaching history at Florida State University. She discovered motorcycling relatively late. “After getting divorced, I met up with a friend in Colorado who took me all over the state on his BMW R1200 GS,” she said. “I was hooked.” Christine, an ex professional jockey, looked to the track as a way to satisfy a long-standing need for speed. “My first experiences - and eventually first career - with things that go fast were on Thoroughbreds,” she said. “I competed as a jockey for several years, but was impeded due to injury. After I started riding motorcycles and watching motorcycle racing, I just had to give it a try!”
Both these ladies were graduates of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s New Riders Course and each had been riding for about 10 months. Gill started with a first-generation 250 Ninja and moved up to a 600cc Triumph Speed Four about six months later. A quick learner, she was getting too fast for the street. “After a ride down one of our local twisty roads, I was told that I needed to get on the track,” she said. “It’s a much safer place for high speed riding.”
Jennings GP’s special novice-only track day program caters to riders like Gill and Christine. While it’s more expensive than simply signing up for the novice group at a regular track day, participation is limited to 21 riders, so there’s plenty of space on the track and more importantly, plenty of individual instruction, along with video reviews of each student’s riding. The package also includes lunch and a t-shirt and is designed to make newcomers comfortable.
Both women found the format perfect for their first track outing. “It was a real benefit to have so few riders on the track,” Christine said. “I wasn’t intimidated by anyone, and felt that I could work on my own stuff without getting in anyone’s way. The instruction was personal, which you can’t get on a regular track day.”
For her first track machine, Christine found a used 2008 250 Ninja on Craigslist. She picked it up cheap. The seller had bought it for his wife, who rode it once, dropped the bike and said, “Get rid of it.” Caney, whose height and weight remain at jockey-sized proportions, comments, “It has turned out to be the perfect sportbike for me to learn on and I fit the frame well. Together, the bike and I weigh less than 500lbs. Its power is forgiving and I never feel as if the machine is going to take control.”
Gill had more choices, with a race-prepped EX500 Ninja and 600 Supersport Triumph at her disposal. In spite of this, she also chose to use the baby Ninja she’d started with. “I feel more in control of that bike than I do my 600,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to learn without feeling pressured to ‘go fast.’ You don’t have to feel inadequate because you didn’t to do 150mph down the back straight when the bike will only top out at 100mph!” Caney agreed, showing a lack of ego that would befit a lot of first-time track riders. “The Ninja 250 will never be the speediest bike on the track but is great for learning how to take turns, accelerate and brake,” she said. “It was important to me that I didn’t feel overpowered by the bike while learning these new skills and the 250 works well for that.”
Both ladies sought out advice and did their homework beforehand to get prepared for the big day. “I did more running; much to the delight of my German Shepherd!,” said Gill. “I also read the book Total Control and tried to work on my riding skills while on street trips.” Christine also worked to get in shape, telling us, “My preparation for that first track day included a lot of saddle time, treadmill time and some weightlifting,” she said. “I’m fairly petite, so I do need to keep my physical strength up.”
Their preparation paid off on Friday morning when the track PA issued the call for riders to report to the classroom. The 17 students who had signed up were divided into two groups; one for those who had never turned a wheel on the track, and the other for those who had either participated in a track day previously or simply felt comfortable going faster. Track owner Borg Larsen led the quicker group, while Gill and Christine fell in behind instructor Ed Lato, who took on the first-timers.
The day started with a classroom session covering the usual aspects of track etiquette; including passing rules, entering and exiting the track and the meaning of the various flags. The instructors also explained the signifigance of the track markers, which at Jennings include arrows at turn-in points and large red “meatballs” at the apexes of turns. “The atmosphere was relaxed and no one was pressuring me to do anything I felt uncomfortable with,” Christine said. “I enjoyed the race controller’s candor, (“If you pass on the inside…I’ll kill you”) as it also helped me relax. He and the rest of the staff were very nice and helpful.”
From the classroom, it was onto the track, single-file, following the instructors around at a school-bus pace to learn the race line. The pace increased in the second session with each student taking a turn following the instructor for a lap.
Just before lunch, both groups hopped on the crash trucks and trailers for an up-close tour of the track led by the man who built it. “We stopped at each turn and Borg explained how to do it ‘the right way.’” Gill said. “Even though I would not be riding on the track anywhere close to the speeds that he referred to, his information was what lead to my epiphany moment of the day!
That “epiphany” came on the first session after the lunch break, when she came back with a smile you could see through her tinted face shield. During the track tour, she got a good look at the turn 3-4 combination that leads into the technical section. On her next session out, she tried the line that Larsen had shown and learned what racers already know. “I changed my line through just one corner and it put everything else into place!” she said. “After that, the line seemed to flow.”
For Christine, the post-lunch ride was also a wake-up call, though not as pleasant. It was at this point where she learned just how physically demanding the track can be. “Riding out directly after lunch proved to be a mistake for me as I was more tired than I knew and lost my focus as a result.” she said. “I had to really slow down and eventually decided to pull in early, because I felt that I would make a mistake and crash if I didn’t. After sitting out a session, though, she got back in the saddle.
“Simple as it may seem, the highlight of my day was getting into my first turns and feeling that I was pushing my own limits and being able to do it! I didn’t crash my bike!” she said. “I was also surprised by how much I was talking to myself out loud while going into each turn…glad no one else could hear!”
While they weren’t the only women on the track — two more female riders had signed up — they were definitely in the minority. That didn’t dissuade them. “A couple of the other riders had a little bit too much testosterone running,” Gill said. “But the instructors were very good at emphasizing that everyone was going to ride at their own pace and their own speed and, when other riders were not willing to abide by those basic and safe rules, the instructors stepped in.”
Christine commented that compared to what she was used to in the horse racing paddock, Jennings was a treat. “I was used to being one of very few women, and sometimes the only woman, on a thoroughbred race card,” she said. “And trust me, there was plenty to overcome in that respect. In contrast, the environment at Jennings was not hostile at all, with everyone supportive and willing to give an encouraging word. My concern had been that the other riders and instructors would think of my being there as a bit of a joke, but they were all very supportive. As an instructor, Ed was fantastic. He was very encouraging both on and off the track. Ed gave me plenty of reassurance that going ‘slow’ was alright, that speed would come over time, and whenever he followed and then passed me on the track, he was sure to give the thumbs up”
At the end of the day, both women felt as though their riding had improved. “My own expectations were simply not to crash,” Christine noted. “That said, my main goal for the day was to be able to improve my cornering skills, which I certainly feel I did. On our first ride out in Southern Georgia after the track day, the corners didn’t feel like corners anymore!” Gill had the same experience. “Leaning over on the bike doesn’t seem so scary any more,” she said. “Now I can ride through curves and it’s like, ‘Oh, this isn’t any worse than turn eight.”
The track day gave them something far beyond the parking-lot exercises of a basic motorcycle course. “I was able to work on and improve exactly what I wanted to,” said Christine. “I now have more confidence in my own ability to control a bike going into and then through a turn. I truly appreciated being able to use the whole road surface, and having the chance to ride in an environment without red clay, gravel, tar snakes, real snakes, squirrels, dogs, tree roots, potholes, double yellow lines and oncoming vehicles that never stay in their own lane.” She also discovered something else. “I confirmed that I am going to be a track day junkie.”
Gill has already signed up for her next track weekend – two days at Barber Motorsports Park. Except this time it’s for real. “No meatballs and arrows to help me out with the race line, which will be much more of a challenge!” she said. “And I’ll be in a regular novice group with no special instruction like they provided at Jennings. Gotta put on my big girl panties and ride with the grown ups.”
With a little help from the friendly folks at JenningsGP, Gill and Christine have begun their trackday adventure. Across the country, more women are participating at every event. Some show up as rank beginners and others prove to be quite fast from the word “go.” Rather than the male chauvinism that ladies might expect when trying to break into a boy’s club, female riders are discovering that they are quite welcome as riders at the racetrack. Believe it or not, the men there actually enjoy sharing their passion for fast riding. At the track, you’ll find far less prejudice and posturing than what you get from the tee-shirt, back protector, Kevlar jeans and fingerless gloves-wearing rocket boys you might encounter at the average street gathering of sportbike enthusiasts. C’mon, ladies! Trackdays are where it’s at! What are you waiting for?