Ryan Nolan Hits The Track At The Famous Sonoma Raceway
A few months ago, I was discussing the 2020 CCS (Championship Cup Series) season with friend and fellow racer Pat Coleman. Pat was telling me about his plans to race select MotoAmerica rounds in the Supersport class including his home round of Laguna Seca. Seeing as I had been there in 2019, I told him to count me in if he ended up going. Honesty, I did not need much convincing to justify a visit to the historic track and beautiful Monterey area. In this case it was made even sweeter by a few elements: I get to go help a friend, attend the final MotoAmerica round of the season, and see the debut of the Bagger class first-hand. It was going to be a heck of a trip!
Fast forward to September and the wheels were in motion with planning the logistics of travel and lodging. Pat and I were discussing the finer points of the trip and he was planning to drive out a week ahead of time with his now fiancée, Erica. They would stop along the way visiting friends and relatives so they could take their time. My plan was to fly out to San Francisco and land the Sunday before the race week.
Why so early you wonder? Well, Pat is a native of the Sonoma area with Sonoma Raceway being his original home track. His plan was to arrive the Sunday before the race weekend and ride a track day on Sonoma the next day. Upon hearing this, the wheels began to turn in my head and when Pat explained a race bike rental program was available, I knew I had to go.
“Feel Like A Pro” is run by Ryan and Michelle, passionate and dedicated professionals.
I immediately went online and booked my track day with the organization “Carters at the Track” and reserved a rental bike with rental company “Feel Like A Pro.” As I was reviewing their site, I could tell they were a very experienced organization with a fleet of well-maintained Kawasaki Ninja 400s at the ready. Feel Like A Pro even offers the opportunity to rent if you want to compete in the local rounds. Furthermore, they always offer a complete hospitality area as well as rental gear if needed. It looked as if they had the full set up and I was eager to see what it was all about. Years ago, I remembered reading about the company when they started off renting Ninja 250s which then progressed to Ninja 300s and now the 400. Needless to say I was pumped to ride the fabled Sonoma track and really “feel like a pro.”
I am a firm believer in not needing horsepower to have fun. Having ridden a friend’s Ninja 400 earlier in the race season, I knew this would be the right choice. Not having to worry about riding a larger displacement bike would allow me to focus on learning the track and making the most of my day.
With everything booked, I packed my gear and headed to Cali. I met up with Pat and Erica at our lodging which was the home of one of Pat’s sponsors deep in the heart of Sonoma. It felt surreal to have left Wisconsin’s snowy temperatures and be standing in shorts and a t-shirt in wine country.
The next morning, we drove the 15 minutes to Sonoma and I walked over to the registration area and got signed in. Then I rolled my gear bag over to the Feel Like A Pro area. It was hard to miss as it looked like the full pro set up. Something that would look at home within the MotoAmerica paddock with the matching liveried race bikes under a similarly decorated tent with a hospitality area.
Nothing like a fleet of track-prepped Ninja 400s, and my trusty steed, “Panda.”
I shook hands with Ryan, the owner, and met his wife, Michelle. They were both extremely friendly and welcoming. I had spoken with Ryan before my trip to make sure I had everything. It felt odd simply showing up with my gear and not going through the normal registration and tech process, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. I am not one who wants people to wait on me, so I knew having someone take care of the warmers, tire pressures, stands, etc. would feel weird. Ryan showed me around the pit area as I looked at the row of identical looking Ninja 400s and he pointed out which one I would be riding. “Panda”, aptly named due to the large sticker on the side, would be my steed for the day. My bike was fitted with all the track bike goodies: slick tires, track bodywork, aftermarket rearsets, tank grip, Motion Pro throttle, aftermarket clip-ons and a slipper clutch. All their bikes are similarly equipped and can be adjusted per request. Ryan and Michelle do whatever they can to make sure you are comfortable. For example, I requested to have racier spec tires and GP shift on my bike. When I arrived, the Ninja was all ready for me. Not having much to do until the riders meeting, I unpacked my gear, went to help Pat and his brother Matt set up and walked around the pits to see how this track day compared with the ones I’m used to.
Carters at the Track breaks their groups up as B- (Slower intermediate), B+ (Faster Intermediate) and A (Advanced). Having never ridden Sonoma Raceway and riding someone else’s motorcycle, I opted for the B- group. Once the riders meeting ended, I walked back over to the pit area and met the other renters for the day. We were mainly mixed up between the B+ and B- group with varying levels of experience. Even though I’ve participated in countless track days, practice sessions and races, I still felt that usual nervous/excited feeling of being at a new track and was doing my best to recall all the pointers Pat gave me for various lines around the track.
Once B- was on deck, I got myself suited, booted and ready to go. Then I walked up and threw a leg over Panda. Immediately, Michelle and Ryan pulled off my warmers, dropped my stands, gave me a quick pat on the back and off I went rolling out into the pit lane. The first lap for the B- group was track familiarization, which shows you how to exit and enter the track. Once that was completed, we rolled back out and I got my first taste of Sonoma Raceway.
Here’s an on-board hot lap riding the Ninja 400 around the famous track. If you ever have an opportunity to do this, don’t pass it up.
As with most tracks, pictures and video do not do justice, especially when it comes to the elevation changes. One area I was looking most forward to experiencing was the downhill left-hand carousel. I have to say, my first time coming over the crest felt like a roller coaster. Overall, the track has a little bit of everything- blind decreasing radius turns, uphill, downhill, fast esses and slow chicanes. It is safe to say Sonoma is unlike any track I have ridden to date. Once the session was over, I rolled back into the pits, hopped off the Ninja as Ryan put the bike on the stands and took care of the warmers. This was all part of my “feeling like a pro” experience. I could not help but picture those moments watching MotoGP when the riders come into the pits, hop off and someone grabs their bike. Honestly, it was a nice feeling to be doing something similar where I could simply hop off and walk over to the hospitality area and chill.
After I sat down, I kept replaying the first session over in my head, trying to soak it all in. I had a chat with Ryan on some of the nuances of the track as well as some of the other renters in my group then walked over to Pat as he wanted to know my first impressions of the track. I was also curious how Pat was getting on, as it had been around 5 years since he had been on track at Sonoma and his riding skills have advanced dramatically since then.
During the next couple of sessions, I got into a groove and soon found myself catching people I had passed on the first lap by the end of the session. I figured it was time to see if I could move up into a more spirited paced group. I checked in with the staff and they said they would do a recount of the group sizes after lunch and then I should be able to bump up. One of the staff said if I wanted to run the first B- group after lunch then go back out in the next faster group, I was welcome to do so. Seeing as I wanted to get the most time I could on track, I jumped at the chance.
Riding the Ninja 400 was exactly as I’d hoped, as I was able to focus on my corner speed and line selection each session and I could feel myself getting faster and faster with a bigger grin on my face each lap. My favorite section of the track has to be the esses on the back side at the end of the drag strip. Being on a lighter bike, this was where I would reel in some of the higher displacement bikes and I really felt a good flow through this area. It is one of those sections that when you get right, you can feel it all click.
Michelle and Ryan are a dedicated pair, taking care of everything so you can just ride. Definitely make you “feel like a pro.”
Towards the end of the day I stopped over at the track photographers, named “Got Blue Milk”, a reference to Star Wars. Not exactly motorsports related but a very memorable name. Walking into the air-conditioned trailer there were several computers set up where you can select your bike number and review your photos. I have to say it was one of the most professional setups I have seen for a trackside photographer. Side note: I received my photos that evening via digital download (and I thought I was fast!). Chatting with the owner, he asked me my bike number and told me he thought I was in the wrong group which made me feel nice and I explained to him I did bump up. Truth be told I think I would’ve been fine in the A Group but it all depends on the day and who’s in the group.
Overall, I cannot express enough of how fantastic the day was. The weather was perfect, I learned a lot and of course I had endless amounts of fun. This is due in large part to the amazing program Ryan and Michelle run. After chatting with them both I found out this is not even their full-time gig, but you can tell they put the utmost passion and dedication into what they do. They take a lot of pride in their work and make sure to do whatever they can to ensure riders have a great time. I would highly recommend you check them out if you are ever on the West Coast and need a two-wheeled track fix. Even if you have a bike, they can help you out. There was a walk-up renter they helped because he had a mechanical problem on his bike.
I’ll close by simply saying thank you to Ryan and Michelle, you made this Midwest rider’s experience an unforgettable one and it was the perfect way to start things off leading up to part two of our adventure, the MotoAmerica weekend.
Ryan “Ryhno” Nolan
*For more on Carters At The Track, click HERE
*For more on Feel Like A Pro, click HERE