How To Not Crash Your Motorcycle

Nick Ienatsch gives you tips on avoiding hitting the ground on the track and street

Avoiding crashes
Who would like to avoid this drama for the rest of their riding careers? Me too. And this week’s column is aimed at riders curious about getting on the track. I do not believe crashes are inevitable, but riders must step up in every facet of their mental and physical approach.Etech

For the past two weeks this column has been written by roadracers 65 years old and older. I asked this group for their opinions and experiences because I know many riders who are "racing curious" and I can't think of a better way to present a real-world picture of competition than to ask those who are in the fray. And part of a roadracer's real world is crashing. We can pretend it doesn't happen and hope it doesn't happen, but at the Yamaha Champions Riding School we go far beyond pretending and hoping. We discuss the exact reasons we fall down, and this week's column is about crashing, or, to be more exact, not crashing. I can't promote the wonderfulness of roadracing without including my approach to not hitting the ground.

Crashing is not inevitable if we are proactive in recognizing and responding to the signs of impending disaster.

We Crash Motorcycles When…

We are mentally unfocused. This reason is first on the list because a momentary loss of focus at the wrong time has bitten just about every roadracer I know. With this realization, we encourage our students to develop and use a mantra (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation). Mine is "Where am I, What am I doing?" You may borrow it until you get your own.

A mantra gets you focused, or gets you refocused. Write it on your tachometer. Say it out loud. We riders must do something to stay firmly in the moment and the faster you ride the more it counts. Valentino Rossi kneels by his footpeg pre-ride, for instance.

You can work on your “focus muscle” every moment of the day and pay attention to how much better everyday tasks go when your mind is on your body’s movements. Now apply that to riding where a loss of focus hurts.

Chris Peris has a mental trick he uses to stay focused, especially late in a race: At corner entry he says or thinks, “Front, front, front,” putting his focus on front-tire grip. As he transitions to throttle he says, “Rear, rear, rear,” as he monitors what the rear tire is doing. He has three consecutive WERA national heavyweight endurance championships so far, and he and teammate Ben Walters are leading the points again this year with only one crash in the last four seasons on the Army of Darkness BMW. Borrow Chris’s approach if you struggle to stay in the moment. “Front, front, front…rear, rear, rear.”

Chris Peris’ approach to success
The bikes are different but Chris Peris’ approach to success is the same. On the left his focus is on front-tire grip aboard the Army of Darkness BMW S1000RR at corner entry, while on the right his brain is transitioning off front grip and focusing on rear grip as he sneaks the throttle open to put weight backward, preparing to fire the Erion Racing Honda CBR600RR off the apex. He won on both bikes. Copy his approach to stay focused on what really counts: traction.BMW Owners News and Peris Collection

We rush corner entries. Don't we all want to know when things are going wrong and we're headed for a crash? As racers we try to get into the corners faster and faster—and that's okay until your corner entry hurts your apex and your ability to accelerate.

Consider a missed apex a tap on the shoulder and a whisper in your ear, “You’re going to crash if you insist on rushing your entry.” Take a little speed off your entry to get back in the safety zone, to get your bike pointed at the apex, and to allow you to accelerate off the corner as you take away lean angle.

Here’s how we think of corner entries: The corner entry serves to get the bike ready to exit. If you’re rushing entries and hurting exits, you’re on the way to pain.

Front end crash
Do you see the sticker on #16’s front tire (silver, near pavement)? A new front tire needs a bit more loading to work and this very common crash at NJMP’s 3B comes from a rider who wants to get a drive through the corner and adds throttle too early, unloading the new front tire and then losing traction when they add lean angle. The fix is to close the throttle to put weight forward for the direction change and load that new tire. The fastest riders don’t just close the throttle for 3B, they sneak a little front brake to guarantee the load.Etech

We get abrupt. You believe the television announcer when he says, "And he grabs a handful of throttle…" The reason the announcer is not racing is because his style led to too many crashes and he retreated to the microphone.

Aggressive terms like "grab," "flick," "stab," "huck," "throw," "toss," and "drop" are okay when there is plenty of traction because the weather is good, the tires are warm, and the bike is going slowly with little lean angle. Change any of those parameters and aggressive on-bike moves cause a sudden and often painful loss of grip. Please study my 100 Points of Grip video on the internet to get a full understanding of how we approach traction.

Back end crash
This rider got lucky—when rear grip was lost, the tire simply spun out and low-sided rather than regained grip and high-sided him. The tire could be cold or new, but it is up to the rider to sneak the throttle open to linearly add acceleration up to the tire’s limits, hot or cold. You can think of this crash in two ways: too much throttle for that tire’s lean angle, or too much lean angle for that much throttle. A cold, new, or worn-out rear tire needs less throttle or lean angle to retain grip, your choice.Etech

In a nutshell: Grip is finite. Riders who approach the edge of traction gently and carefully will feel the tire spin and slide and warn them of the impending edge; they slip and slide and almost crash but don’t. Riders who jump over the edge of traction with aggressive moves get no warning prior to a crash.

We repeat mistakes. You know your body position isn't good on the left side but you ignore it and try to go faster in left-hand corners. You're missing the apex in turn 3 yet keep sailing it in there. You've run off the track twice in turn 7 and don't change anything about your entry. Someone you trust coaches you on body position but you don't invest the time and effort to get it right. And usually poor body position means you must carry more lean angle, and lean angle is risk.

Get the idea? After every practice or race, you should look at your mistakes first. If you have an early turn-in for turn 5, that goes to the top of your priority list for your next warm-up lap. Fix it at less than race speed on your warm-up and cool-down laps, or you will get bitten by it as you try to go faster. This is a sport of constant improvement, and if you add more speed to a current mistake, you will crash.

Cold tires. Say it out loud right now, say it before you ride, say it before your friends ride: cold tires! My last crash was a cold tire and the majority of my instructors claim the same thing. Arg! Tires, racing tires especially, simply don't work as designed until they have heat.

Another front-end loss in NJMP’s turn 3B. This rider got into the turn a bit wide and that requires a more aggressive turn-in rate or more lean angle to get back on line. I must add one more thing: Your warm-up lap is hugely important to “scrub” and get heat in the tires; too often I see very relaxed warm-up laps, or riders going very slowly late in the warm-up lap. Perhaps this rider had a slow warm-up lap or was hindered by slow riders. Racers, we must change this habit.Etech

Your brain must be on tire temperature as you roll out of the pit. Factor in the amount of sunshine, air temperature, time of day, how long you sat in pit lane, and how many lefts and rights there are in the lap. Get focused on it or you will pay a price.

Overconfidence. This sixth reason comes out in stupid passes that put you in dangerous positions. Overzealous first laps. Dropping your mental focus when you have a big lead. Partying the night before you ride because you are so "naturally talented." Running into corners at speeds that Valentino himself could not handle. Thinking you can run with the class champion on the first lap of practice at his home track. Thinking you can make your stock bike do what the Superbike ahead of you is doing. Ignoring warning signs of missed apexes because you have great bike control after motocrossing all your life. Not working on your riding between sessions because you're "already good."

Confident? Okay. Overconfident? Ouch. I wrote a story about it.

We don't take the time to adapt to a change. Our sport, even vintage racing, has never-ending changes. New brake pads that don't grip like the old ones. Weather changes. Grid-spot changes. Brake-lever position changes. Tire swaps. Oil-dry on the track. Different competitors.

Many of us run more than one bike per meeting. Back in the AMA days I raced a Honda CBR900RR for Erion/Two Brothers (or the Dutchman Yamaha FZR1000) and a Yamaha TZ250 on the same weekend for three years. Talk about different animals. Different braking points, turn-in areas, different throttle applications—all had to be in my mind before rolling out. It wouldn’t have been okay to crash the big bike and say, “it didn’t slow down like my TZ.” The message here is to note the changes and make a plan to deal with them. Sometimes that plan is as simple as Eddie Lawson’s advice: Take your time during the first two laps of practice.

Although I may not be racing three different bikes in a day that often anymore, the rules and methods are still the same.Etech

In Closing

Kyle Wyman and I were joking about the inventive ways we find to crash motorcycles, but as we examined those inventive ways we agreed that they fell under the seven reasons listed above.

Next week will be another installment of our Seniors going racing. I planned to pause that series with this story on crashing because crashing does indeed suck. One way to never crash a motorcycle is to never ride a motorcycle and there are “industry experts” who feel that crashing is inevitable and the only way to reduce crashing is to reduce the number of motorcycle riders.

I do not agree. My experience shows me that crashes follow the items above. Master these items and you master your health. As racers, we will try to win but those attempts must fall within the parameters set above.

We must follow Eddie Lawson’s advice to me when I was a cub reporter invited to participate in the Willow Springs 24-Hour on Dennis Smith’s all-star CycleTune team. It was my first real race, and I confided in Eddie that I was nervous about crashing, going slow, losing the race for the team, looking stupid, and every other nightmare a 25-year-old rookie could think of. The world champion’s advice has guided my racing career and is part of YCRS: “Just think about your own riding, what you are doing on the bike. The competition will take care of itself.” That’s a four-time 500 Grand Prix world champion talking.

Street crash
We can always tie track habits back to the street, especially when discussing why riders crash. We street riders must be: 1) intensely focused and 2) never rush corner entries. On the wide racetrack with runoff room, a rushed entry can mean a missed apex or a ride through the gravel trap. The hard surroundings and narrow right lane of the street have no room for error so we must not rush corner entries. Please see my articles and videos on trail-braking for how to win on the track and thrive on the street.Nick Ienatsch

Be mentally all-in. Respect cold tires. Get those apexes. Be insanely smooth in throttle, brakes, steering, and body movements. Work on your weaknesses. Identify and adapt to changes. Don’t get big-headed and overconfident.

See you at the racetrack.

More Seniors racing next Tuesday!