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A Mid-Ohio Track Day With Kawasaki

If you ask a typical motorcycle enthusiast/motorcycle magazine reader to describe the life of a motorcycle journalist, the response you’ll get will probably sound like an impossible fantasy: free bikes, free track days, free gear, ride all day and get paid to do it.

Of course, real life often intrudes into my fantasy job, in the form of things like deadlines, late nights in front of a computer battling writer’s block, and long hours sitting in airports and in the uncomfortable seats of a Southwest Airlines flight to, well, somewhere. Ever been standing at the airport check-in counter, and been so out of it that you forget entirely where you’re flying to, or what company’s bikes you’ll be riding when you get there? I have. Thirty days straight of traveling will do that to a person.

Altogether, though, I’m not complaining – I still think I have the greatest job in the world (at least until they come out with a “Hot Celebrity Chicks Tested – In Bed!” magazine). Sometimes (fairly often, actually) it even matches up with the fantasy ideas that many readers seem to hold on to like a preacher’s daughter clutching the Gospel to her chest.

My recent trip to Ohio was one of those times. You see, Kawasaki, in association with Sportbike Track Time, recently held a track day specifically for Kawasaki owners, giving riders of the classic green Ninjas (and their brethren) a chance to circulate what is reputed to be one of America’s best road courses.

Of course, when the call (or email, in this case) comes in asking “How would you like it if we flew you somewhere and had a whole stable of bikes set up for you to ride?”, you generally say yes – regardless of where ‘somewhere’ is, or what kind of bikes you’ll be riding. We’re motorcyclists, see, and riding motorcycles is what we do – if the location is spectacular and the bikes are brand-spanking new, well, so much the better.

I’ve ridden with Sportbike Track Time a few times before, and the experience is always spectacular. Owners Montie Lutz and Bonnie Strawser somehow always manage to rise to the challenge of letting a bunch of sportbike riders romp around a racetrack, while keeping things fun, safe, and organized all at the same time. The Kawasaki owner’s track day at Mid-Ohio was no exception; however, the quality of the track at Mid-Ohio made the track even better than usual.

I’ll leave out the description of the previous day’s nightmare series of airports and planes – that might ruin the fantasy. Let’s just say it took me 14 hours to get from Temecula, California to Marion, Ohio – and leave it at that. All you want to hear about is the riding part, anyway, and that’s really all I want to remember in any case!

The drive from Marion to the track was a preview of the (gently) rolling, verdant farmland that provides Mid-Ohio’s picturesque setting – the track itself being located right in the middle of Ohio farm country, surrounded by a barrier of beautiful green forest, which likely serves to keep the noise of 30+ sportbikes at full throttle from disturbing the neighboring farmers and their livestock. Before my visit to Mid-Ohio, Infineon Raceway (located in Northern California’s wine country) was at the top of my list for beautiful track settings – but Mid-Ohio is definitely in the fight for the top spot, although I hesitate to say it’s more beautiful than Infineon. Either way, both tracks are worlds away from anything in Southern California – where the closest track to my home (California Speedway in Fontana) is located in the infield of a NASCAR oval, and the next closest, Willow Springs Raceway, nestles up against the base of some hills in the midst of the barren California desert.

Sure, the track was beautiful, but the real question is, how is it to ride? If you’re looking for the Cliff’s Notes, here’s all you need to know: Mid-Ohio is amazing – find a way to ride there . Trust me.

For those of you who’ve stuck around for the longer version, I’ll start from the beginning. Being out on a circuit for the first time is always a little confusing, and Mid-Ohio was fairly difficult to learn when compared to most of the other tracks I’ve ridden – mostly due to an abundance of blind corners, which combined with the track’s 2.5 mile length sometimes made it difficult to remember which way to turn, let alone what point to turn in at.

Luckily, I was able to convince my friend, Kawasaki Media Relations Coordinator and former AMA Professional roadracer Jeff Herzog, to let me follow him around the track for a couple sessions. Following an expert rider who already knows the track can be an invaluable tool to help a rider at any level learn a new track – which is why Sportbike Track Time has instructors available in each session (riders are split into groups by skill level) to do just that. However, since I already know Jeff and have plenty of confidence in his riding talent, I decided to leave the instructors for the other riders to follow, while Jeff and I set off at a gradually increasing pace.

I wouldn’t say that I have Mid-Ohio ‘figured out’ – an accomplishment which I think would take much more than the approximately 2 hours of track time I had that day. However, after a full session of getting pulled around by Jeff, I was starting to feel more confident with my knowledge of the appropriate line, and with the turn-in points for the blind corners. Once I knew where the track went, I started to develop a strong rhythm, and by 11:00 I was feeling great. There’s nothing like tearing off lap after lap on an almost empty track (20 or so riders don’t take up much space on a 2.5 mile track), particularly after you relax, get into the zone, and just start riding.

So what’s so great about this track? Every track day is fun (except when you crash), but as long as you’re on a good bike, how good the track is reflects directly in how much fun you have. It’s hard to quantify exactly what it is about Mid-Ohio that makes it such a blast to ride, but I think it has something to do with the combination of a few tight right-handers with numerous fast right-left-right transition sections. Once you get a handle on the aforementioned blind corner entries, you can really start to get a rhythm going, and the fairly long laps appear to fly by in no time.

Let’s go back to the part about being on a good bike. Kawasaki had brought along quite an array of bikes for the attending journalists to employ, with at least one of nearly every sporty machine in their line-up – from the Ninja 500 to the mighty ZX-10R. However, I prefer not to try to learn a new track on an unfamiliar machine, so I spent most of the day on a bike I’m familiar with, having ridden one extensively at a previous Kawasaki track day at Infineon Raceway. The bike in question is the race-oriented ZX-6RR, and it performed flawlessly throughout the day. In something of an odd coincidence, the bike had already been dialed in for a lighter rider (I weigh a bit less than 140lbs), so I didn’t have to touch the suspension. As is typical of Kawasaki’s sportbikes, the off-on throttle transition was entirely seamless, and this combined with the smooth power delivery of the 599cc motor to allow me to forget about the bike and concentrate on figuring out the track.

The bottom line, as I already mentioned, is that I had a ton of fun at Mid-Ohio. In fact, I was having so much fun that I pushed myself a little too hard in the near-triple digit heat, and by 2:00 I was starting to feel lightheaded and a bit nauseous, despite having consumed approximately 10 bottled waters during the day. Rather than continue riding and risk a crash, I decided to call it a day, and head back to the hotel for a well-deserved rest (try waking up at 6:00AM Ohio time when your body is still on California time!).