This edition of “Chasing Racing Dreams” features the Penguin Racing School who’s home base is at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The school was the first motorcycle roadracing school in the country and provides a wide range of instruction and riding opportunities for every level of rider. Don’t have a bike? No worries, you can rent bikes at the school (Ducatis!), and you can also rent all the gear necessary for a day at the track. Head over to The Penguin RoadRacing School’s website to learn about all the details on how to make a track day happen.
“If you can learn to ride a bike smoothly in the rain and the wet, it will translate to smooth riding in the dry.” Head Instructor Eric Wood addresses the small crowd of riders who have come to The Penguin RoadRacing School’s final day of the season, as torrents of water rush off the steel roofs of the pit road garages at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The rain is intermittent and fickle, and restless gray-white clouds boil and surge overhead. More than one beginner student peers at the sky with a furrowed brow. I feel the same anxiety: riding on the track in the rain? Is that a good idea? Wood, who’s father started the school back in 1973, addressed those concerns after a timid comment about the weather by one of the students. He explained that typically, crashes are less frequent on rainy days because everyone is aware that grip levels are low and they need to be more cautious with their riding. A reassuring answer indeed.
I’m spending the day at the track to tag along with the Track Day Experience class. This class, run by champion racer and New Hampshire native Scott Greenwood, is designed for street riders looking to get a taste of track riding. While I unfortunately won’t be out tearing it up with the other students, I will be rubbing shoulders with some of the best riders in the state and sitting in on Greenwood’s classroom time. Greenwood was actually featured in the most recent edition of The Torque Tube. To read his story, click HERE.
After a short briefing in the garage, the students and I immediately head into our respective classrooms. There are three classes going on today: the Basic course, the Advanced course, and the Track Day Experience course, of which I am a part. The Basic course is for riders looking to develop their racing skills and techniques, the Advanced course builds off the Basic course’s skills, and the introductory Track Day Experience course. We gather in the Media Room in the track’s infield, which is normally occupied by journalists during a NASCAR race. There are a mix of students here today: some experienced racers, a few older riders, and some who admit to having no track riding time at all. As the rain throws one particularly nasty tantrum, one of the students asks, “Does anyone have rain tires?”
Greenwood begins by covering racing fundamentals and safety with wet track conditions. He is clear, thorough and confidence inspiring as he discusses the rules and techniques for staying safe in the rain. The amount of information involved in racing, as I learn throughout the day, is vast and more than a little intimidating, but all the instructors make the ominous track conditions and volume of information easy to manage. Soon after the class starts, the tension dissipates from the classroom like the rain clouds as the blue sky tries desperately to break through.
Greenwood made an excellent analogy that helped me understand what make this sport so challenging and exciting. “In normal sports like hockey, your body can only get ‘so good.’ In racing, it’s so mental that you can always improve and grow and get better. Technology changes, bikes change, and there is always room to work on improving lap times.” Because racing isn’t static and it doesn’t entirely rely on the physical dimension, there is always room for growth.
Eric Wood said it another way. “It’s very much a thinking persons sport… there’s absolutely a physical component, and then there’s a very mental aspect to it to… you’re constantly thinking it through and analyzing what is going on… then you mix in the element of courage that you need to take in order to get better.”
When classroom time is over, the students head to the garage and fire up their motorcycles. They line up on pit road and several students are assigned an instructor to follow on their first lap. This practice session lasts about 15 minutes, and is followed by another classroom session. They’ll alternate between riding and classroom time throughout the day. It’s literally painful to stand along pit road and watch the students hammer down the front straight; chills run down my spine as the heavy guttural exhaust note from Greenwood’s white Ducati Monster tears past me. The prospect of riding a motorcycle on a track as hard as prudence deems possible literally makes me salivate with excitement. As the day progresses, it’s fascinating to watch the students become more comfortable on the track. The mental demons have ceased their terrifying bombardment and are in full retreat: the students ride faster and faster, their bodies are more relaxed on the motorcycle, and their smiles continue to get wider.
“The biggest thing we like to see is smiling faces, and hearing ‘I can’t wait to come back in April,'” said Greenwood.
The Penguin RoadRacing School was born from a desire to provide a place where riders could learn to become racers. Back in the ’70’s, there was little in the way of track days or programs where a street rider could come and simply ride on the track for a day. As riders’ needs changed and track days became increasingly popular, the school adapted their curriculum to meet those new needs, hence the Track Day Experience program. I asked Wood what new evolutions students could expect to see in the future from the school. “I envision the opportunity to utilize technology that’s becoming more and more readily available to add to our arsenal of tools… We’ve been experimenting a bit with GPS this year, and I’d be willing to bet that as technology evolves over the next few years, we’ll be able to provide… more individual attention that will allow us to connect to more people on a totally new level.”
Halfway through the day I go with Wood and the Advanced students for a track walk. Wood, who has won at NHMS dozens and dozens of times, knows every racing line, every braking point, when to get on the throttle, how best to position his body on the bike for the next turn – walking with him is enlightening. I always knew there were a lot variables and things to remember about getting around a track, but Wood has this place so dialed that when he’s in turn five, he’s already setting himself up for turns six and seven. Our group’s responses to Wood’s teaching sounds like the time the repeat button got stuck on my iPod. “You do what in this turn? Oh. I never even thought of that. Wow…. You do what in this turn? Oh.”
I walked away from the day deeply impressed with the level of knowledge and experience the instructors have, how well the huge amount of information was imparted to the students, and just how desperately I want to ride a motorcycle on the track. It would be far too difficult to try and explain all the concepts and topics covered during the day. Instead, go take the class and find out for yourself. “It’s a lot more than just a track day. What we focus on is the education on top of the track time and helping our students learn as much as possible so they can walk away and be a better rider,” said Wood.
“Nobody walks into this sport and goes to the front right away. This is a process, it doesn’t happen instantly for anybody… That moment when the guy comes off the track and has the look in his eye that says, ‘Hey! I get it,’ that never gets old,” said Wood. “I remember doing that and I still do that… I enjoy trying to inspire someone to be better, to learn more. You teach someone something that makes a difference for them and that earns their trust and you can then move on to the next level. If you can inspire, they can become a life long addict of the sport.”
Look for another entry on the Penguin RoadRacing School coming sometime in the spring. Next time, I’ll be on the bike!
– Many thanks to the Penguin Racing School for allowing me to spend the day with them. Special thanks to Scott Greenwood for being such a gracious host, and to Eric Wood for his time and for allowing me to tag along. Be sure to visit their website HERE.