Speed yes, squids no

Pacific Track Time offers adrenaline junkies their fix

SMILES PER HOUR Riders line up for their turn around the track at Thunderhill Speedway in Willows, one of the four tracks Pacific Track Time rents out for events. The company also holds rider days at Laguna Seca in Monterey and at Willow Springs and Streets of Willows in Rosamond (Kern County).

SMILES PER HOUR Riders line up for their turn around the track at Thunderhill Speedway in Willows, one of the four tracks Pacific Track Time rents out for events. The company also holds rider days at Laguna Seca in Monterey and at Willow Springs and Streets of Willows in Rosamond (Kern County).

Photo By Tom Angel

Rule No. 1: No squids on the track.

It may seem pretty obvious at first—who wants to race a motorcycle through a slick mess of severed tentacles and chum?

Nobody, really. But the rule actually has nothing to do with slimy sea creatures. What it refers to is a subgroup of a subculture—a hotshot motorcycle racer who isn’t into the whole safety thing and thus has no business being out on a racetrack.

The rule helps keeps things safe for the participants in Pacific Track Time’s motorcycle racetrack riding events. But it is also a telling clue as to how Pacific Track Time has made its business such a success. It’s all based on the fact that there are between 540,000 and 1.5 million motorcycle riders in California, and among those riders are several different types, each with its own distinct market niche.

The niche Pacific Track Time—a company partly owned by Chico attorney Bob Marshall—caters to are the riders who crave the adrenaline rush of triple-digit speeds but would rather take their chances on a professionally built and well-maintained track than on the unpredictable and often unforgiving street.

“We keep it safe and secure,” said Marshall. “Wheelies aren’t allowed. There are certain corners where we won’t allow passing. We don’t want them swapping paint on the bikes like you would see in a race.”

The squid racers are another species entirely. They ride around in shorts and tank tops and cut you off when you lean into a curve. That kind of riding is strictly verboten at Pacific Track Time events, where the motorcycle lifestyle is still fast and furious but a lot safer and more controlled.

“On the track, you don’t have squirrels, you don’t have driveways, you don’t have cars coming at you. It’s a controlled environment,” Marshall said.

Controlled it may be, but track riding hardly screams out “safe.” To someone standing by the track at Willow’s Thunderhill race course, passing riders blur into the scenery as they roar by, jockeying for position on the straightaway before flicking their bikes over for the turn. On a fast corner, riders have to choose a “line” and commit to it, turning the front wheel in the opposite direction of the curve and wrestling the bike to an obscene angle relative to the ground, tires barely in contact, knees scraping the asphalt below.

For riders, the surrounding hills disappear at about 90 mph, and all that’s left to concentrate on is the road, a black ribbon of pavement three car lanes wide that writhes like a snake beneath the wheels. With 15 curves around 3 miles of track, there’s almost no time to think—riders become biomechanical extensions of their machines: shift, brake, throttle, clutch. The laws of physics might bend a little for lucky riders, but smart riders know better than to try to break them.

Racing bikes don’t have turn signals, lights or other amenities, partly so no one will have to wait for track time while workers clean glass and plastic off the track after a bike goes down. Riders of street bikes tape off their lights with electrical tape and generally tweak their bikes out for maximum performance. An experienced rider can tell who’s coming up behind by the pitch of the chaser’s engine; a high whine generally corresponds to a two-stroke racing engine (not as much power but quicker on curves), whereas a low rumble might be a 999 Ducati or a Honda CBR 1100, big muscle bikes that tear up the straight runs but are much heavier and harder to turn.

All of the riders wear helmets, boots, gloves and full leather body suits, which makes them look like they just stepped off the set of the movie Dune. And, while accidents do happen, serious injuries are apparently rare. There are, however, ambulances standing by at all times.

“There are world-class racers who typically go down at a buck-and-a-half, you know, triple-digit speeds, and walk away,” said Marshall, who took a spill himself a while back when a panicked rider lost control and “stuffed” him into a corner. It wasn’t long before he was back on the track, he said.

The idea for the business came from the sad experience of founding partner Briana Droege, who went out for a track ride at a place in Southern California. Because of the disorganized way the owner ran his track, Droege said, she was told by the man that she was driving too slow and would have to spend the rest of the day in the pits.

“Between that and the hot dog for lunch, that was it,” Droege said. “I was so mad.”

But instead of discouraging her, the experience inspired her to find a way that everybody could participate in her beloved hobby. What she envisioned then is what Pacific Track Time has now become: a service that rents out different tracks around the state and then provides all the amenities riders need to get their speed fix on. There is a catered breakfast and lunch (Guzzetti’s did the recent Thunderhill event in Willows), a squad of riding instructors who maintain civility on the track, and even a short racing school for novice riders.

Riders are segregated into different skill levels so that beginners don’t have to feel bad or freak out when an experienced racer roars by them at 140 miles per hour. And yes, they do go that fast—it’s the whole point.

Track riding enthusiasts like Droege and Marshall often talk about their hobby as an addiction, as if all they crave in life is to go breathtakingly fast and then find a way to go even faster. With companies like Yamaha, Ducati, Honda and Kawasaki offering bikes that are literally street-legal versions of racing bikes for as little as $6,000, track riding has the potential to addict a lot more people. Sport bikes are the most popular type of motorcycle bought by people in their early 20s to late 30s.

Already, Pacific Track Time is selling out some events weeks in advance, which means there are almost 90 riders per event willing to shell out more than $300 each for less than an hour of track time. With about 20 events per season, the company is doing pretty well for one that is only about two years old. Just into its first full season, the company is close to breaking even, and Marshall said he is confident that next year will bring a profit.

“At this point we’re still growing,” Marshall said. “We continue to get great feedback. After [customers] ride with us, they’re pretty well spoiled.”

But money was never the prime motivation for the company’s founders. All of them admit that, when it comes down to it, they are grateful for every lap they get. With the company renting out such world-class tracks as Laguna Seca in Monterey, the owners feel privileged just to be able to ride on the same asphalt as their speed-racer heroes.

As for the danger, well, everyone’s got to go down sometime.

“I haven’t gone down yet, knock on wood," Droege said. "Almost everyone else out here has."