Ryan Nolan Kicks Off The Riding & Racing Season With a Weekend At Jennings GP.
For those that don’t know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ryan Nolan, and despite my name sake I do not have a wicked fastball. I have been riding motorcycles for half my life and have become immersed in the sweet sport that is motorcycle road racing for the past 5 years. I am based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, just a short hop from Road America, a circumstance for which I feel very blessed. As you might imagine here in the Midwest, the “cabin fever” of not being able to ride during the winter months weighs heavy and the wish for throttle therapy becomes very real, very fast.
Fortunately, this year I was able to find some relief in the form of a winter track weekend at JenningsGP in north Florida. Every year my good friend Anthony Lambert gathers a group through a shop he works at, Phoenix Motorsports, and sets up a nice 3-day track weekend at Jennings, and he has been on me to go year after year. So this year, I was finally able to make it work with my schedule and I was excited to get back on track. The unique thing about Jennings is that it’s a motorcycle-only track, so you’ll find some subtle differences compared to a typical race circuit. For instance, there are no “gator teeth” type rumble strips and you won’t find the surface affected from supercar tires clawing at the track trying to hold the chassis to the road. There are also no car sized pit garages, fancy lighting systems or grandstands. You’ll find all the amenities you need to have an enjoyable day at the track: concrete paddock parking spots for trailers, tire changing services, showers, first aid and a cozy little food truck for sustenance. Camping is free and the staff is welcoming and friendly. Jennings has the simple southern charm you’d expect, most everything you need and nothing you don’t.
Welcome to JenningsGP. A great little track.
JenningsGP is located just across the border from Georgia and to keep the locals happy no engines can be running until 9 am. A noise decibel ordinance is in effect which states no bikes can be louder than 104db. If you don’t have a db killer handy, have no fear the track has “custom” db inserts available for use. I was lucky enough to not need one throughout the weekend but I had plenty of friends who did, though they did not find them a hindrance to the riding.
The track layout is a basic opposite to the tracks we find up in the Midwest in that the track is made up of a majority of left-hand turns. Jennings is also what I’d call a rhythm track in that you do not brake very much (maybe only two spots require any real braking) going into corners, and the corners flow together so if you mess up one corner, you’ve just messed up the next two or three! On our track walk I also noticed just how abrasive the track was so grip was definitely not going to be an issue. Tire life, however, might be. Fortunately, I was told to pack an extra tire so I was fully prepared. As we continued our walk my buddy Chuck, who has experience with Jennings, also explained riders really need to ride quickly (but safely) at this track to get into a good rhythm and understand it. Going slowly will make it a lot harder. It sounds simple and basic, but there are tracks you can take at a slower pace to learn. This track is certainly full of unique items.
A bit of track familiarity was in order.
Before we got out on track in the morning, I walked around the paddock to see who was present. Part of this was to get more acclimated, as I’ve learned that Jennings is often used by professional teams for pre-season testing. In fact, Westby Racing and Mathew Scholtz were there the weekend prior doing a shakedown. One could still see the black lines Mathew left flowing into corners on the entrance to Turn 1, like claws left on trees by bears marking their territory. As I continued walking to the other end of the paddock, I was happily surprised to run into my friends Ben Smith (MotoAmerica 2018 KTM RC Cup Champion) and Max Flinders (MotoAmerica Superbike rider for Thrashed Bike Racing). We greeted each other and I chatted with each of them for a bit. Our discussion concluded with an agreement to be our Road Dirt featured riders for the upcoming 2020 season. With that we went to our morning riders meeting and I prepared for my first laps out.
Since I am not able to ride year-round, I knew a couple of laps would be needed to shake the rust off and get my mind back up to speed. Knowing that, coupled with learning a new track I planned to “get a tow” from Anthony and work my way up to pace. One additional item to my plan was to use this trip as an opportunity to work on my bike setup and make sure I was putting myself in the best position to exceed for 2020. In addition to my normal CCS Midwest racing and track day coaching, I am planning to check a big item off my bucket list and make my professional debut by running the MotoAmerica Twins cup round at Road America on my SV650 (more about that later). So, while this Jennings trip was a fun excursion with my friends, I also was doing some testing of my own.
After the first few sessions I realized my left side wasn’t used to being leaned over as much (I was getting a little sore) and I was beginning to see what Chuck was advising about riding quicker to get into a rhythm through some of the sections. Take for example turns 3, 4 & 5. If you try to approach each turn separately and at a slower pace, you’ll find yourself constantly rolling off and on the throttle in a choppy manner. If you simply downshift coming into 3 and let the bike flow through, you’ll find it much more enjoyable and get into a better rhythm for the next set of turns.
As the day wore on, I was fine tuning my setup and felt pretty accomplished at the end of the first day. We all gathered for dinner at one of the local dives up the road, feasting on local fare of alligator bites, fried okra and hush puppies before returning to the track to get ready for another day of riding. Ah, Southern fried cuisine!
Ryan on track, and a pair of paddock pics.
During the second day, I got to watch MotoAmerica’s Ben Smith and some of my friends on middleweight bikes lap the track together, and it was fascinating to observe where each person was faster or slower. Jennings is flat for the most part and while the back side is a bit obscured by trees, the track wraps itself around the paddock area somewhat so you get a good vantage of bikes coming through different sections depending on where you watch from. The start/finish straight is relatively short before bending into a double left-handed turn that flows into the fastest section of the track through Turn 2. I continued making some small tweaks and accumulated fun memories with everyone, talking about what we could do better here and there with those Jennings veterans and newbies. We finished the day rubber side down and I felt I had accomplished the majority of what I was aiming to do before the final day of riding.
At the end of the day I met up with Ben and we shot a quick video interview (check out my Road Dirt TV YouTube chat with him at the end of the article) before he had to roll back home. Then our group went out for a final night’s dinner and we had the pleasure of having Max and his girlfriend Courtney for company. One note I have to make is how both Ben and Max are such nice genuine guys. You don’t always get to see a rider’s personality from the TV screen and I’m looking forward to giving them both the opportunity to showcase their personalities more through our interviews this season. Even my buddy Wyatt who was playing cameraman for the interviews noticed how cool and laid back they both are. It was humbling to sit back and shoot the breeze with these two fast guys.
Ryan’s toasted rear tire, some db silencers, and Ryan (left) with his track mates.
When the Monday sun began to rise, I woke up before everyone and had a nice quiet walkabout, reflecting on the fun times and how thankful I am for the family atmosphere the motorcycle track community holds. Once 8:30 rolled around we had our final meeting with Barb, the entertainingly straight-shooting lady who runs the track and prepared for our final day of riding.
After the morning sessions I was feeling good on the bike, and after much heckling from my friends I bumped up to the Advanced group for the last part of the day. Originally, I was signed up to run Advanced but since this was a brand new track to me and I was going to be fine-tuning some skills, I didn’t want to be a “rolling chicane”, holding up others behind me, so waited until I was feeling more comfortable. In hindsight I would’ve been fine in Advanced group from the beginning, but that’s something to know for next time.
After the first Advanced session I was still feeling comfortable and had fun riding with my fast buddies. The day flew by and the last session rolled around. I touched base with Max and asked him to give me a “tow” around the track for fun, and get some good footage for our interview (check that out above). I was running my laps and leaned into the last turn during the middle of the session when a bright yellow Yamaha R6 zipped past on my outside: It was Max. He kindly held back with me for a couple of laps and I did my best to keep up and study what this pro racer was doing differently. After three days of riding and knowing we were leaving after the last session, I decided to pull in a little early and call it a day.
Some GoPro screenshots of MotoAmerica racer Max Flinders giving Ryan a “tow” around the track.
Overall, the trip was a resounding success for me. I kept it “shiny side up”, gained some valuable knowledge and most importantly had a great time making more two-wheeled memories. Part of the fun of these trips is hanging with your friends, and making new ones. I often tell people it’s like camping with riding as a bonus, and this trip was no exception. JenningsGP is a top track on my list now and even with the 19-hour drive, I have to say it was well worth the trip.
One of the greatest things I love about the motorcycle/track community is the sense of togetherness, and strangers often coming together to enjoy a common passion. Still being deep winter in the Great Lakes region, we found ourselves in a melting pot of riders from all over- across the South, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin and even Canada. This coupled with the fact that Jennings is a motorcycle-only track gave the whole experience a special feeling. Pros and amateurs, Americans and Canucks came together from all walks of life and united as simply riders.
The world needs more of what we have in the motorcycling community.
I surely will be journeying back to JenningsGP and can’t wait until the race season officially starts, when I can be a track rider again.