Track time is invaluable for riders looking to improve their skills, regardless of riding style. Track days provide predictable, well-maintained track surfaces, a controlled environment with minimized road hazards, and the opportunity to attack the same corners over and over again, all of which allow riders to improve their skills on two wheels. Add in classroom instruction from well-experienced riders (some former championship racers), and the opportunity to grow is enhanced further. This is the scenario I walked into attending the Z2 Track Days Novice School at Thunderhill.
Z2 Track Days stages events at a number of West Coast locations in addition to Thunderhill including Laguna Seca, Infineon, Reno-Fernley and Buttonwillow. Novice, Intermediate and Advanced classes are available at each stop while a number of events also include a RoadRider 2.0 course, which is designed for riders that want to improve their skill but don’t feel ready for the pace of a track day. I enrolled in the single day Novice School, a course aimed at more experienced street riders looking to take their skill to the next level. Prices range from as low as $170 for the Novice School up to $250, depending on date and location. Z2 offers suspension and tire services to purchase at each of its events along with generator rentals and photography from GotBlueMilk.
I arrived in Willows, California the night before the school to be fresh and ready when the gates opened at 7 a.m. The evening was spent taking care of some of the few bike prep items I’d not yet completed; removing the rearview mirrors and taping up the taillight. There aren’t all that many hoops to jump through to have the bike ready to pass tech inspection, as long as you have DOT street or roadracing tires in good condition, fully operational brakes, functional kill switch, self-retaining kickstand (if any), and capped valve stems on your tires, you’re pretty much good to go. Glass headlights need to be taped, and water or Water Wetter is recommended in place of green anti-freeze, but is not required. Z2 welcomes riders to contact their tech inspectors before an on-track session with any bike prep questions or concerns. There’s also a detailed list available on the Z2 website (z2trackdays.com) with all the requirements.
My bike for the day was a 2015 Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS with relatively fresh Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport S20 EVO tires. I’d just completed a weekend tour with the bike so had some miles on the rubber, but nowhere near enough to make them unusable on track.
After getting in the gates, I set up under one of the roofed sections of the parking lot and went to registration. Participants must carry personal medical insurance in order to participate in a Z2 Track Day, and a general liability waiver must be signed before moving on to tech inspection.
The rider meeting started at 8:15 a.m. and included all classes. Z2’s Shawn Reilly and David Ben-Jamin outlined the basic rules of the track and demonstrated what the different flags meant, described how the day would go in terms of scheduling and informed us of the different services available. The A-group riders headed out to the track at 9 a.m. for their first 20-minute session, followed by the B-group and then the C. In all, each group would get seven 20-minute sessions on track before the 5 p.m. end to the day.
For the Novice School, class sessions were held while the A and B groups were on track. Our primary instructor for the in-class portion was former AFM champion Eric Kondo who kicked things off with a detailed description of the 15-turn, 3-mile track. He gave some pointers on the best lines to take through some of the trickier corners and markers to watch out for to help with braking, turn-in and exit points. The Novice School’s first session on track followed, and the class was broken into groups of about five riders, each group trailing a Z2 instructor for the full 20 minutes to get a feel for the course and learn the proper track entry and exit procedures. This was the only mandatory follow-the-leader portion of the class.
The cycle continued throughout the day, with classroom sessions aimed at improving braking points, choosing the best line, improving body positioning and answering the particular questions of riders as they progressed.
A really great piece of the Z2 Novice School experience is the number of instructors available to provide one-on-one training the entire day. You can seek advice and tips, or ask that an instructor lead or follow you through a session to evaluate your riding. The instructors were extremely helpful and friendly, willing to address issues both big and small. It is a fairly laid-back environment though, so riders need to muster the courage to go up and ask if you’re having an issue.
I went through the first three sessions trying to improve my performance alone, focusing on a few corners to really dial-in braking points and line selection, but I was still pitifully slow. I finally asked Reilly for some assistance and the next time out he trailed me on track for a bit before taking the lead and having me follow him. He kept inching further and further away, forcing me to bring my vision up and out and getting me moving through the turns faster and with better lines.
I hadn’t realized how short-sighted my vision of the track ahead had been before his help, and when we rolled back in he suggested I hop on the back of his FZ during the next B-group session to get a feel for more aggressive laps.
The two-up experience lasted for three laps but was eye opening. I’d been timid before, inching faster and faster by degrees but coming nowhere near the potential of the Ninja 300. I was able to feel how late he’d brake into the corners and got a better sensation of the machine at lean through the corners.
The next class session was focused solely on proper body position and after that I felt I was ready to push much harder.
During the final three sessions of the day I was more assured of my line selection and confident to push harder and brake later, testing the waters with trail braking through some of the tighter corners and getting on the throttle hard for every straight. I was still one of the slowest guys out there, but had made some great personal strides in becoming more aware of my riding technique and having some idea of where I could improve.
I resolved to really push it during my final 20 minutes on track, staying focused on dialing in my body position and perfecting my trail braking technique as best I could. Just before the checkered flag I came in hot to Turn 14, a tight decreasing-radius corner before the last right-hander, and leaned hard. I didn’t expect anything to happen, but mid-corner there was the slightest kiss of asphalt on my right knee-puck. It was only an instant and looks like I could have just as well scuffed it on a wall, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get a knee down.
I started the day riding like an interstate commuter, stock straight and loath to get off the center patch of the tires. By the end I was pushing hard and exploring limits I’d never have imagined at the beginning of the day. The Z2 program was fantastic for me, the instructors extremely helpful, the curriculum perfectly suited for a novice rider and the atmosphere easy-going and fun. I would absolutely recommend the Novice School to anyone that’s become comfortable on the street and wants to extend their motorcycling skill set. I still have a long way to go before considering a move up the classes, but have come to a much better understanding of the flow of inputs that are needed for more spirited, fluid riding.
And as for the Ninja 300 ABS, it was an ideal machine at Thunderhill for a novice rider like me for a number of reasons. It’s light, flickable character requires the slightest input at the bars and turn-in is immediate. I appreciated this a lot in the instances where I had blown the corner as I worked to sort out entry markers, allowing me to keep the bike on the asphalt rather than run off into the grass. Handling was enhanced further once I got my body into better position.
The brakes are more than enough for the power available and having ABS was a comfort, knowing that in the moments when I was trying to brake later and harder I wouldn’t run the risk of locking the front. There were no suspension issues at all throughout the day, the bike always feeling well planted and responsive in the corners. The Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport S20 EVO tires were phenomenal, getting a bit shagged by the end of the day but offering smooth turn-in and ample grip quickly and consistently through each session.
In terms of power, the Ninja 300 rewards the rider that can keep it in the higher rpm. The bottom end drags a bit on acceleration when you’re a gear too high, and it was particularly noticeable coming out of Turn 9 on the way up a slight hill to 10 if I remained in top gear. This fact required me to pay closer attention to which gear I was in and to map out throughout the day which gears I needed to be in at different points in order to maintain stronger drive.
Outright speed was never a big concern for me, so I never felt I was lacking not being able to keep up with the bigger-bore motorcycles that would easily pass me by. I came to Z2 with the intent of improving my flow and inputs on the motorcycle and the Ninja 300 delivered well in this respect.
Whatever bike you bring though, Z2’s Novice School can be tailored to your particular needs. The classroom information is general enough to apply to riders of any type of motorcycle and the one-on-one instruction enriches the concepts taught by helping to apply them in practice.
Check out Z2’s website for complete information on upcoming track days and events.