K3” Chris Onwiler is a twenty year veteran of roadracing and trackday coaching. He is the author of the motorcycle racing novel “Highside,” and was the creator and Senior Editor of the now-offline TrackdayMag.com
Original released 3-1-08
by Chris Onwiler
Which part of your brain is riding YOUR motorcycle today?
The R1 pilot was in trouble. Massive, ugly, forsaken-by-the-gods, literbike trouble. He just didn’t know it yet.
What exactly is a premonition? Is it a message from the supernatural, or does it have more to do with personal experience and an honest assessment of unfavorable conditions? Either way, I’d been feeling nervous and wary all morning as I prepared for my first session. Cold fog beneath a threatening sky made everything I touched feel slimy. Slime is not the best condition to face when riding the four miles of endless patchwork and crack sealer that comprise the pavement at Road America.
My first lap was tentative. I’d opted to go out at the rear of the advanced group, riding cautiously as I scanned for any new surface variances that might have sprouted since my last ride here the previous season.
On the second lap, I gradually added speed. The tires were coming up to temp, but my clenching gut refused to loosen. Banking into the long, downhill carousel, I steadily fed in lean angle and throttle, feeling for grip. My knee puck began to gently skim the asphalt. So far, so good.
Exiting the carousel, I toed in an upshift and accelerated toward The Bend, a chicane created to spare riders from the infamous, 160 mph “Kink” that had been the site of so much carnage over the years. Halfway to the chicane, an R1 shrieked under me at full afterburner. The moment he’d accomplished his pass, the Yamaha rider sat up and grabbed an early, excessive handful of brakes, thoroughly spoiling my run into the corner.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly you can forget about being cautious when some jerk on a literbike rapes you with horsepower, and then takes up residence at the following apex? No doubt, I was irked. In an instant, I’d rethought my plan for this chicane, and for that matter this whole session! The R1 rider may have spoiled my entrance speed, but I’d own him at the exit. Squaring off the corner, I tossed the bike onto my knee and carved my front tire sharply across his rear, diving to the inside as I rolled into the throttle for a strong, early drive out onto the upcoming straightaway.
The R1 was heeled over hard. As I lunged for the apex, I saw a haze of smoke begin to wreathe the inside edge of the Yamaha’s rear tire. Suddenly awash in horrified realization, I felt time slow to a crawl. Take two brandished egos, one hungry, slippery corner exit, add 1000cc of Japanese horsepower, and twist excessively on a cold tire. It was the perfect recipe for disaster. In another second, the R1 was going to turn itself into a spectacular cloud of colorful debris, and I would have a front row seat. Unfortunately, I’d left myself nowhere to go.
Every crash seems to be preceded by that one awful moment when the rider’s goose is irrevocably cooked, but the pain and destruction haven’t quite started yet. The R1 rider’s fate was already sealed. The only thing I had going for me at this point was that I’d recognized what was about to occur just an instant before the other guy got the message. I used that moment to simultaneously stand my bike up and roll out of the throttle.
The Yamaha snapped sideways, vengefully ejecting its ham-fisted rider heavenward and out of sight. Now the bike was barrel-rolling down the track directly in front of me, shedding parts at the rate of about a thousand dollars per second. I worked my front brakes hard, while at the same time trying to veer left, away from the mess. I knew that one odd bounce would be all it would take for that twirling ball of steaming junk to absorb me into its field of gravity. By now, pieces of debris were pelting my arms, chest, and helmet visor. I had to get out of there!
Balancing brakes against steering, I finally managed to get my bike pointed on a trajectory that would take me around the tumbling R1 instead of into it. We were almost home. Just release the brakes, a quick burst of power to get clear of the carnage, and….
Apparently rejected by the gods as unworthy, the R1 pilot crashed back to earth, directly into my path. I’d barely gotten my machine’s weight transferred to its rear tire, and here I was pouncing on the binders again. I could feel through the bars that the bike was not amused by all this indecision on my part. The rear tire lofted, quickly rising toward a world-class stoppie.
The Yamaha’s rider was now doing back flips down the track. His first bounce had peeled the visor from his helmet, allowing me a firsthand look down my windscreen into the face of fear. From this range, I could have spit into his bulging eyes. I was abreast of the disintegrating R1 at this point, and fully able to hear each lethal-sounding crunch as it tumbled along beside me. If only the guy would tuck in his arms! With a lucky bounce, he rotated sideways, allowing me just enough room to miss him. I released the brake, allowing my rear tire to crash back to the pavement. An instant later, I was away from the incident. Immediately, I raised my left arm. A yard sale like that would undoubtedly bring out the red flag.
Back in the pits, I replayed the scene in my mind. Clearly, I’d inserted myself into the breach for no good reason. Well-practiced skills and a boatload of luck had narrowly saved me from my own poor decision. It’s been said that pride goeth before the fall. I’d stared right over the grim edge of that old adage, but somehow hadn’t had to pay the price. Perhaps every fall starts with an ego trip? I decided that this was a lesson relearned, and at a bargain price.
Target Fixation and looking where you want to go.
by Chris Onwiler
Original print date 03/14/2007
One of the greatest assets we have is our ability to aim. Our aim is what lets us shoot a rifle, toss a basketball into a hoop, or steer a motorcycle down the road. Millions of years of evolution have taught our hands to steer whatever we’re holding in the direction we’re looking. This is a wonderful skill, but sometimes it can work against us. Ever notice that when you start gawking at the scenery alongside the road, the next thing you know your bike is trying to run into the ditch? That’s evolution at work, trying to kill you. The bike went exactly where you were looking.
Let’s talk about target fixation. Here’s how it works. You’re sailing down the road, and suddenly you see something you don’t want to hit. It could be a dead animal or a piece of some truck’s tire, doesn’t matter. You can try all day to beat evolution, but if you stare at that piece of debris, you’ll run the damn thing over! The way to avoid that object you don’t want to hit is to look at the clear piece of road next to it. If you look where it’s clear instead of at the thing you’re trying to avoid, the bike will carve right to where you want it to be.
Target fixation can kill you in a corner, too. Let’s say you’re flying along, and suddenly you see a tight corner ahead. Instantly, your brain tells you that you aren’t going to make it. You stare at the ditch, judging the spot where you’re going to crash. Guess what? You’re going to crash! If you’re staring off the outside of the corner at a tree, guardrail or ditch, evolution is going to steer your motorcycle EXACTLY where you’re looking, and your worst fears will come true.
So how do you avoid target fixating and running wide in a corner? Look THROUGH the corner. As you approach a corner, you need to be looking for the place where you intend to start turning the bike. We call this the turn-in point, or the corner entrance. Once you’ve spotted your turn-in point, your eyes need to be searching for the place where you’ll be closest to the inside of the road. This is called the apex. As your bike starts a trajectory that will take you to the apex, you need to be looking for your corner exit. By the time you make it to the exit, you should be looking down the straight to the next corner.
As street riders, we tend to look at the pavement directly in front of the bike as we weave around oil spills, dead animals gravel, manhole covers, etcetera. We do this at or near the speed limit. At the track we’re going much faster, so we need to look further down the road. It takes three seconds to change direction on a motorcycle. Second one is your brain making the decision, second two is your body reacting to your brain, and second three is the bike reacting to your body. 60 mph is 88 feet per second. Three seconds at 60 mph is 264 feet, or almost a football field. If you’re looking at anything closer than that, it’s already happened. At the track, we’ll be going much faster than 60mph at times. Look further down the road!