Valentino Rossi pulls into his pits and confidently brings the Yamaha M1 to a stop. He loosens his grip from the bars and swings a leg over the front of the bike as a member of his crew grabs the front fairing in preparation to whisk the bike away for fine tuning. Vale saunters toward his hospitality suite, eager to recharge his energy and refine his focus for the next session.
As a motorcycle enthusiast and long-time race fan there are various aspects of the Grade-A racer’s life I envy, not the least of which is the never-ending support and diminished personal responsibility they need to demonstrate toward the care and maintenance of their equipment. Not only does it make one feel like a big shot, but it allows for a pure focus on the task at hand: riding fast.
Feel Like a Pro is a racebike-rental service that provides a whole lot more than a bike. The company provides track day and race day support, and I have to admit, that was the biggest surprise I had during my day of sampling the service. For $250 a day you begin to feel the freedom and luxury before you even leave your house—no bike to load, no tools to bring, no trailer to drag. You, your riding gear and some good tunes for the car’s sound system is all you need in preparation for a pleasant drive to the track. The service includes the bike, fresh tires, gas, mechanical support throughout the day, and a luxurious pit area equipped with snacks, bottled water and comfortable seating. Leathers and other gear are also available for rental. It’s understandable that founder and principal Brian Bartlow’s primary customer is a racer looking to simplify the complexities of a race weekend. However, Feel Like a Pro is also a great alternative for a trackday enthusiast who can’t transport his own bike, doesn’t have a suitable bike or simply wants to sample a surprisingly good racetrack tool—Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R
Upon our arrival at a regularly scheduled ZoomZoom trackday (following a quick rider’s meeting) we were greeted by a row of inviting race-prepped 2010 Ninja 250s. Brian, the founder and owner of Feel Like a Pro, showed us the facilities, explained the general ways they do things, and most importantly, introduced us to the thoroughbred steed with which we would be paired for the day.
The bikes are the real deal. Brian leverages his vast experience racing and supporting racers in Northern California’s AFM racing club. His fleet is designed, tuned and prepped to be race-ready for the 250 Production race series. Each numbered example sports race bodywork (complete with an array of cool sponsor stickers), a Leo Vince SBK full exhaust system, stainless brake lines, Pirelli DOT race rubber and a carefully tuned suspension. The bikes just look good too. All are traditional Kawasaki green with thoughtful extras like upgraded windscreens and grips. The net result is a modest, albeit effective package that puts out 31 horsepower. That’s enough to accomplish the primary objective of seeing how effectively one can maintain corner speed throughout the 14 turns of Thunderhill Raceway. Whether you are experienced on a Ninja 250 or not (like me), you will immediately appreciate the balance and overall good behavior demonstrated by the Feel Like a Pro bikes.
The cold morning brought with it cold track temperatures and lessened promised grip for my still-chilly Pirellis. As well, this was my first experience on a 250 and it initially felt as though I was mounting an entirely different class of vehicle from the 1100cc Ducati I’m used to. I cautiously proceeded onto the track and slowly sliced my way through the first couple of laps. Little Number 5 gave accurate and immediate feedback that quickly led to increased confidence and increased speed. The Ninjette and I were becoming fast friends and it was clearly communicating to me that my modest requests were well within its range of capability, even on a cold day. By the second session my pace significantly quickened and soon I found myself doing what I previously thought impossible (okay, highly unlikely); I was passing bigger bikes. Not just 600s, no, I was passing liter bikes (typically at the entrance of corners and around the outside of long sweepers). I received quick glances of surprise as my confidence built and I began to keep the throttle twisted throughout most of the track. The more capability I discovered the more I realized was left to be found. Who needs 100-plus horsepower (or even 40…)? I’m riding a rail! A very fast bicycle of sorts. As I counted down the turns and collected laps I wondered to myself whether a stock Ninja would be anywhere near as sorted as this example of Feel Like a Pro equipment. I had to think not.
I continued to gain speed and worked on perfecting my 250 tuck. I was dragging knees around every corner. Heck, I was close to dragging elbow, almost feeling like a pro. Then, Brian passed me on his personal mount (an almost-identical Ninja 250) at what seemed like twice my speed. He slowed a bit coming into the next corner and patted his tail section—“come play with me.” I picked up the pace and followed.
Now, as a side note, for those of you who have never had the chance to joust with a friend at a track day both fitted with identical equipment, you’re missing out. There’s simply nothing more fun. Brian quickly demonstrated that while our equipment may have been plucked from the same green tree in Japan, our 250 riding skills were in vastly different stages of growth. He dove into the next corner with the back elegantly sliding, his foot hanging out in a way that made me immediately miss watching MotoGP, and carried the speed straight toward the apex and out the other side. I simply couldn’t hang. He was trying to make a point. And he did; these bikes are capable of much more than you’d think.
As I rolled into the pits I loosened my grip on the bars and confidently swung my leg over the bike. Brian’s mechanic quickly snapped it onto a rear stand and I began to peel off equipment and head toward one of the immaculate director’s chairs there to make the riders comfortable. Brian came over to me and we began to talk about the last session. He gave me tips on how I could improve my lap times and how I could safely begin to ask more of the small Ninja. I sipped water and listened, learned and felt my skills grow. My focus was not on the bike, but the riding. I wasn’t worried about gas, tire pressure, chain tension or any of the other concerns we need to keep within our focus when we babysit our own equipment. My job was to be the best rider I could be that day. I had the support, I had the bike and I had the pure focus needed for significant improvement. I am a better rider than I was before this day. And while I will never ride like Vale, I begin to understand what it may feel like to live in his world. For the first time in my 15-year riding career, I felt like a pro.
Nico Van Praag rides and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can get more information about Feel Like a Pro at its websiteor by calling (559) 273-4429. FLAP provides its service at all AFM races, as well as 33 trackdays in the upcoming season at Infineon, Thunderhill and Buttonwillow raceways.