• Sarah Merrell

New Track, Renewed Confidence at NCM

The smell of gas and fresh-cut grass in the air. The buzz of thrill and excitement. The sound of bike engines. Track days all have this in common but arriving at a new, never-before-seen track is even more exhilarating since there's anticipation: Will it be what I expect? Will it be how people described? Is it anything like the videos I watched? Will I struggle or I will I do amazingly well? These thoughts floated in my head as I anticipated NCM.

Up until recently, I'll be honest, I had never even heard of NCM Motorsports Park. This is surprising considering this track, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is only about 4 hours from me making it one of the closer tracks. It's also located at the National Corvette Museum. So when my friends decided about a month ago to sign up for NCM with Track Day Winner, I decided to join them and encouraged my husband to register too. When I registered, I still didn't know anything about the track, but I knew I would have a great group of friends there, and let's be real: that's the primary reason I do track days--the camaraderie. Plus, although learning a new track isn't easy, it's fun to discover the different technical aspects that make each one different. As I told people I would be attending NCM, the response I received over and over was that "it's a fast track." I have to admit that this did make me anxious. As someone who is accustomed to riding very tight, twisty roads, I typically struggle with faster tracks. I tried my best not to worry about it, but it left me with a lingering sense of trepidation.

Knowing I may struggle with the track motivated me to do my homework and prepare for NCM. I studied and memorized the track map, I watched countless videos and talked to people who have ridden there. Despite all the videos though, when my husband and I arrived, it all felt brand new. My first impression was that, overall, NCM is a nice track. The facilities are in good shape and well maintained. There are gas pumps on-site, a food truck, tire service, garages, clean bathrooms and ample spots to pit. The one downside is that NCM doesn't have power so you have to run a generator and that made it noisy. But despite that, they have a great facility. We set up on Friday night and headed to our "night before the track day tradition": Mexican food and margaritas.

The next day, we geared up and headed out for the first session and I quickly realized all my preparation in studying the track didn't necessarily translate to truly knowing the track. Two turns in and I had no idea where I was or what was up ahead. I was completely discombobulated. I tried my best to keep up with the group but people started flying by me to the right and left. The thing about NCM is it's a long track with a LOT of corners. 19 corners to be exact--and that's a lot to learn. After the first session, I was feeling freaked out but pulled a coach aside and requested to follow him in the second session. That session was marginally better but I let doubt sneak in and was starting to worry I wasn't going to get the hang of the track. The third session was only slightly better so I knew I needed a game plan. Merely following the coaches around wasn't working. I sat down with my husband and a track map and we figured out a plan of attack.

Here's what we did:

I pinpointed the areas of the track where a corner surprised me or snuck up on me or where I was shaving off too much speed and committed the changes I needed to make to memory. For example, after the tight left-hander (turn 10) I was getting on the throttle and then the little right-hander, turn 12, would surprise me and I'd chop the throttle in fear of blowing the turn and this was messing with my confidence. So in my head, I mentally repeated to myself that after turn 10 I need to be ready for that right-hander. I also repeated to myself not to let off in the two big sweeping right-handers and hold the throttle and to brake lighter and longer after the long front straight into turn 1 so I could carry speed. I studied the track map again, after knowing first-hand what the track was like in-person and went out for session four with determination. I could do this. And you know what? It worked. It freaking worked.

In session four it was like a light bulb went off. I was prepared for every corner and knew what was ahead. I had the track down. This allowed me to work on those corners that were my nemesis and pick up some speed and experiment with more throttle and braking later. It wasn't great or perfect, but it was a night-and-day difference from the sessions before lunch. I was finally passing some people and I didn't have as many bikes whizzing by me.

I realized after session four that I still needed to work on my lines though and truly utilize the entire track. In session five, I took everything I learned to heart but focused hard on hitting my apexes and lines. Each lap, I kept working on problem areas and gaining a tenth of a second here or there. By the end of the day, I felt fantastic and was having a great time. Most importantly, I realized that it provided a huge confidence boost.

In addition to finding confidence the first day at NCM, I also learned you have to be careful about what information you listen to from people. For instance, people kept saying how it's a fast track which made me think I wouldn't like NCM or do well there. The truth is, yes, it has some fast sections, but it also has some tighter turns, sweeping turns, a decreasing radius turn and is very technical. It's a lot more than just a fast track. What I like about NCM is that it has a little of everything--it even has some nice elevation, a tabletop, and a blind area in addition to the variety of corners. There are sections that remind me of Barber or Little Tally or VIR or even Pitt Race. But what I enjoy the most about it is that it teaches you a lot because of the variety it offers while still providing a nice, pleasant rhythm.

I'm glad that I also signed up for Sunday at NCM because after spending a full day learning it on Saturday, Sunday was truly my day to shine. Jud bumped down to intermediate and filmed my riding each session. When we got back to the pit, he pulled it up and showed me the areas where I was losing speed or not on top of my apex. This video was extremely helpful. It's one thing for someone to tell you the problem areas, but it's eye-opening to see it on video. So if you have the ability, I highly recommend either having a camera on your bike or having someone else film you. I picked up speed on Sunday and it enabled me to do more passing--which is a great feeling. Although I was tired towards the end of the day, I was having so much fun on the track that I didn't want to skip any sessions. It's amazing how much confidence equates to having fun.

I learned some important lessons at NCM:

  1. A positive attitude is everything. I started to feel down about my riding the first day at NCM and my husband pulled me aside and gave me a pep talk about staying positive. Beating yourself up about your riding gets you nowhere. But believing in your capabilities and skills and staying positive can make a huge difference.

  2. Hard work pays off. I worked my ass off at NCM between studying the track and video, talking through corners, working with coaches and dissecting where I could improve and gain speed. I also rode every session to make the most of my time out there. If I hadn't worked that hard, I don't know if I would have improved as much as I did.

  3. Be careful about the information you listen to. I shouldn't have let people saying it's a fast track get into my head. Also, one of the coaches had me taking a line into a corner that just didn't feel right and was messing me up and leading to me losing speed. A different coach told me to take a different line and it worked very well and helped me get on the throttle sooner and save precious fractions of a second. Just because someone is a coach it doesn't necessarily mean they're 100% correct 100% of the time in every instance with every rider. So if something doesn't feel right, it's ok to experiment and try a different line or speak with a different coach.

I highly recommend NCM and hope to go back. I can safely it's one of my favorite tracks. After having struggled at Road Atlanta a couple weeks before, NCM gave me a confidence boost I desperately needed.

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