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How to start racing in the UK

Team MAG Sport's Roger Ford gives advice to would-be racers.

Racing is not only addictive - it's infectious! Since I started racing, several of my friends have got interested, and taken it up themselves, and in turn have interested their friends...

There's a lot to learn when you start racing, so I thought I'd put together some notes, in the hope that others could benefit from the knowledge I've gained. Much of this is subjective - other racers may disagree with me.

How to go Racing

  • Club racing in Britain
  • Before you start
  • Bike Preparation
  • Track Experience

    Club racing in Britain

    Britain is a great place to go racing. We probably have the strongest club racing scene of any country. From most places in England you can reach upwards of seven tracks within 3-4 hours drive. Almost all of the GP car racing teams are based here, because of - and adding to - the race support infrastructure of specialist racing manufacturers and dealers.

    Before you start

    You will need:
    1. An ACU licence
    2. A bike
    3. Transport for the bike
    4. Leathers and helmet
    ACU licence
    These cost #25 from the ACU, Wood St. Rugby CV21 2YX (0788 540519). Without one, you cannot race or practice. A road-race licence requires a medical. Your doctor will do this for a varying fee, which can be up to #50. If you have a friend who is a (medical) doctor, they may do it for you for free. When you send in the application form, you should request an orange 'novice vest' at the same time, which costs #5.


    The Bike Feelings vary as to the best bike to start on. The cheapest is probably an MZ, but this does limit you to the rounds which happen to have an MZ class. A good racing MZ will set you back at least #750, or you can build your own from a #100 stocker, but it won't be competitive without serious tuning.

    LC 250's or 350's and Powervalves all have their own classes, but they will be at least 10 years old, and many are well knackered by now. Again, your races are limited to meetings where these classes run.

    As a novice in the UK you are limited to:

    600s are quite popular. Many people race their road bikes, and 600s have an advantage over 400s in the novice races (only Bemsee runs a separate 400 Novice class). But the class has a reputation as the "nutters" class, and the bikes are more powerful than they need to be for a novice. Smaller bikes are easier to handle.

    The most common place to start is probably Supersport 400. This allows 250 two-strokes and 400 four-strokes. SS400 is a competitive class at the front, but there are plenty of slower riders at the back of the pack. SS400 has now taken over from the old production 250, which was basically scrapped because it was impossible to police all the regulations, and cheating was endemic.

    So do we go for a ZXR-400? I don't think so. Four-strokes have a reputation for lasting longer than two-strokes, but this does not take into account rebuild costs. Rebuilding a piston seizure on a two-stroke will cost from #50 to #350, depending on damage. A similar problem on a four stroke could cost you #2000 in rebuild and retuning costs. The cost of buying a 400 four-stroke is much higher than a two-stroke, and so are tuning costs.

    Given a two-stroke 250, I would recommend the KR-1S for a novice. Although considered out-classed by the RGV-250, it only really loses out to RGV's which have had the expensive race kit added. It is also substantially cheaper to buy, easier to work on, and less dependent on careful jetting than the RGV.

    The downside is reliability. KR-1S's are getting on now, and the build quality is sadly rather low. But spares are plentiful.

    Another option is a TZR250. It relies on your club having a class for them - Bemsee and New Era both do. TZR's are all closely matched, so it's not easy for anyone to get ahead just by spending money.

    I will discuss race preparation later, but I suggest it is better to buy a bike that has already been raced than one which is currently on the road. It will generally be much cheaper, will already be fitted with race fibreglass, and will be used to running at race speeds. This can be important, as road use tends to gum up engine internals, and then under race stress the oil is unable to reach those parts, causing seizures. I have three dead cranks to prove this.

    A good ex-race KR-1S will cost from #1000 to #1500. It may actually ne best to get one that has not been tuned. It is more likely to be reliable, gives you more scope for future tuning, and perhaps most importantly - won't be too fast! In your first season, you are out to learn how to ride, not to win. If you have a fast bike, there will be less pressure on you to ride well through the bends, which is where the improvements come.

    Transport
    It is possible to ride your bike to the track, remove the number plate and race it. I have a friend who did this for his first few meetings. There are a number of problems:

    In the end, you will find that you need either a car and trailer, or better, a van. Old Transits seem to be the most popular choice. You can pick up a Transit for less than #500, but beware of the cost of insurance. It may be possible to share space in someone else's van. If you have no car licence, this may be your only option.

    Leathers and Helmet
    The advice is simple and obvious. Buy the very best you can afford. If you have to scrimp somewhere, don't do it here. Leathers from British manufacturers, such as Crowtree, M&W, BKS or Hideout are very much better than imported 'style' leathers from Fieldsheer, Kett, etc, and are stronger than the more expensive Dainese, IXS, etc. The expensive Japanese suits worn by international racers will protect you fine - once. Can you afford new leathers after an 80mph get-off?

    Be most wary of the bargain suits that you find at shows for #150 - #250. These can have seams that rip open, and panels that wear through. A secondhand Crowtree or M&W suit is the best value - check the small ads in MCN or Loot. A full Crowtree suit, in one colour with full body armour and back protector costs around #600. Leathers must be one-piece - zip together types are not allowed. Helmets must have an ACU Gold sticker. Gloves should be lightweight, for feel, and a good tight fit so they cannot pull off in a crash. Decent length wrist sections are needed so there will never be any skin exposed in a fall.

    Bike Preparation

    There are two things to consider here:
    1. Will my bike pass scrutineering, and
    2. Will it be safe and competitive (and cheap to crash)

    Scrutineering

    Scrutineering (known as "Tech Inspection" in the US) is the point before the races start where your bike is inspected. In theory, the check is for safety and for conformance with the rules of your class. In practice, only the first of these is important at club level. For Supersport 400, so long as your bike is clearly based on a road (not race) bike, and does not have anything blatent like a turbo or fuel injection, then nobody is going to start checking whether your head has been skimmed or your ports enlarged.

    What the scrutineer WILL check is that there are no obviously loose nuts or bolts, that all of the controls move freely, that bearings are in good condition, and that your sump plug is wired.

    To take a standard road bike, and get it through scrutineering, you would need to do the following:

    The last two points deserve more explanation. The rules say that any plug that holds oil in should be lock-wired so it cannot vibrate undone. In practice, this usually only applies to the drain plug for the sump or gearbox oil, though some scrutineers will expect to see the oil filler cap wired as well. Lock wiring requires the bolt to have a hole drilled through it (hence the well-known test for ex-race bikes). A pair of special lock wire pliers make the job much easier. Some racers have developed methods of wiring sump plugs such that the plug can be removed without disturbing the wiring!

    Drain hoses are not allowed to drain direct to the track. They should be routed into a collecting bottle - like a 500ml oil bottle fixed to the frame with cable ties.

    That covers issues the scrutineer will be interested in - now what you should be interested in.

    Maintenance
    Firstly, everything on the bike must be in excellent condition. Racing puts far more stress on parts than road riding. You might ride on the road on tyres which are getting worn out, or a chain with some tight spots, but you don't want to risk it for the track. Check chain, tyres, brake pads, oil levels, wheel bearings & swing arm bearings.

    Bodywork
    You might choose to stay with the standard road bodywork. Problems with this are (1) weight, and (2) cost. You can save several pounds in weight by using light-weight aftermarket stuff. Don't go for very light stuff to start with, or you'll spend a fortune on new fairings every time you crash. If you replace the standard bodywork, you can either sell it (for a lot more than the aftermarket stuff), or keep it for when you put the bike back on the road (one careful owner, etc, etc).

    Lights and instruments
    Unless you're running in a Production class, or need the bike to get home, you should remove the lights. This saves weight and possible damage. For instruments, you need a tacho, and a temperature gauge (if liquid cooled). All other instruments are a distraction and should be removed or covered. You don't WANT to know that you're doing 110mph out of a bend - the fact that you're doing 9,500 rpm in fourth gear is far more important. Removing the speedo saves maybe a pound in weight as well.

    Weight Saving
    Weight is critical in the smaller capacity classes. Save seven pounds in weight and you have the equivalent of one horse-power in acceleration. Take a careful look over the bike, and remove anything that does not (1) help you go faster, or (2) help you stop. Pillion footpegs and their mounts come to mind.

    Tyres
    Open racing classes (Powerbikes, GP250, GP125, MZ and singles/twins/triples) May use slicks. Supersport classes cannot use slicks. They must use road-type tyres. Racing wets are allowed in most classes, but not TZR/LC races, to keep the costs down. In the SS400 class, almost everyone runs Avon AM22/23 'Club Compound' tyres (also known as 'Blue-Spots'), or Dunlop D364's. The Dunlops are the stickier, but will not fit on the 18 inch rear of a KR-1S. With the Avons, make sure you are getting club compound, and not the mmisnamed track compound - which is actually a road tyre.

    The bigger bikes generally favour Dunlop 207 GPs, or Michelin Pilot Race. If your bike is already fitted with reasonable rubber, for the first few races you may want to stick with the tyres that are already on the bike. These will slide earlier than ultra-sticky tyres, getting you used to the concept of sliding without doing it at such high speeds as you would with the sticky hoops.

    Wet (rain) tyres
    If you choose to run wets, you will need a spare set of wheels. Wets must only be used when the track is soaking wet, otherwise they'll overheat and melt. You cannot therefore fit wets to your wheels and expect to use them all day (except perhaps in Scotland). If it isn't raining, other bikes will dry the track surface out quickly and you'll be in trouble. More recently, manufacturers have started to come out with "road legal" wets such as the Pirelli MT60. These have two advantages - they can be used in clubs that don't allow full wets, and they won't melt so easily on a drying track. For this, you have to sacrifice ultimate grip in really wet conditions compared to true wets.

    Tyre Pressures
    Tyre pressures are worth playing with. Lower pressures will cause the tyres to slide earlier, but do so more predictably and hook up more gently. Higher pressures give more ultimate grip, but when the tyre does let go it will do so in a much bigger way, with more chance of a highside when the tyre grips again.

    Suspension
    This will vary with the bike. KR-1S's are set up to allow a pillion to be carried on the standard settings without making the bike dangerously unstable. This means that the rear end needs to be softened right up before it starts to work optimally for a solo rider. Best bet is to wander round the paddock and talk to people with the same bike as you, and see how they run it. People are normally quite happy to discuss this sort of thing, especially with a novice. Ask the same questions in a national race paddock, though, and you'll get some very funny looks.

    Track Experience - Practice sessions, track days and race schools

    It is currently quite possible to go into your first race without ever having set wheels on a track before - in fact without even having ridden a bike before. The ACU have been talking about requiring attendance at an approved race school before issuing a licence, but it has not happened as of mid 1996.

    However, it is obviously a good idea to get some racetrack practice. Riding on a track is very different from riding on the road, and getting some experience in is well worth while.

    There are three ways of getting track experience

    Race schools have the advantage that you are riding someone else's bike - much less expensive if you drop it! They also provide leathers, helmets and boots - and some helpful advice. Disadvantages are cost- between 75 and 160 pounds, and very limited track time - typically 20 laps. But for someone who's not yet sure that they want to race, a school is probably the best bet, as it gives you some experience - on a race prepared bike - without too much outlay.

    Track days seem to be becoming more and more popular. These are organised by various groups, and allow you to ride your own bike at a track. They are generally rather cheaper than a race school at 40-70 pounds, and you generally get much more track time - should be around 2 hours in total. You have to provide your own leathers (two piece generally acceptable), and of course your own bike. Anything goes, but obviously a 350LC is more suitable - and will teach you more - than a Gold Wing or Harley Davidson.

    The final option is an official practice session. Most tracks run these at various dates through the year, and Mallory Park runs them every Wednesday afternoon. For a practice session you must have an ACU licence - your DVLC licence will not do! If you have a Novice licence, you will be expected to wear your orange bib - so don't forget to take it along. You don't *have* to ride a racebike - journalists are frequently seen at Mallory riding road bikes on test - but you will be expected to keep up a decent pace. There are no fast and slow groups here - if you bimble around you can expect to get seriously cut up by ZXR750s and RC30s.

    Dos and don'ts for the track

    How to avoid crashing

    By far the most common beginners crash goes as follows: Trying to get around the track faster, the rider goes into the bend faster. The extra sensation of speed leads him to falsly conclude that he must turn earlier to make the bend. He starts turning too early, which means gives him the wrong angle towards the apex, and causes him to run out of track towards the end of the bend. The temptation then is to sit the bike up, ride off the track onto the run-off area, and try to stop there. This does not allow for the lack of control and stopping power on grass or gravel, and usually ends up with the rider in a heap - or if he's unlucky, smacking hard into a tyre wall. Been there, done that.

    This scenario can be avoided by following a few simple rules:

    Finally - when you first go to a track day or practice session, try to get an experienced racer to come along with you. He (or she) will be able to impart lots of useful little snippets about the track, race bikes, and racing in general.


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    These pages are maintained by Roger Ford (email: raford@uk.oracle.com)