There’s a saying among road racers who’ve been around the block a few times: “you’ll go faster on a old bike than on a new one.” The reason being that you’ll push yourself harder on a bike you’re not worried about breaking.
If you’ve invested in riding school programs, or have dipped your toe into enough track days to decide that it’s time to buy a track specific bike the next step is to decide on whether to buy new or used. Unless you’re made of money (or maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer) you’ll want to buy a used bike for your first track racer. You’re going to be riding hard and the accident gremlins just waiting for their chance at fresh meat. Those aren’t scenarios you want to be facing with a shiny new bike you dropped10 large on, just to be the swaggest new kid on the block. Swag counts for nothing when it’s shattered into pieces.
When buying used, you have two options – convert a stock street bike to a track racer, or buy a bike someone else has already converted and raced. A bike already converted for track racing can be a useful choice for a first-timer ride since someone else has already paid the sunk costs of mods and the bike is already prepped to track standards. The downside its likely thrashed, bashed, crashed, and hanging-on to the last days of life by a very thin thread. Consider that many amateur track bikes begin their lives once their street worthiness ends – due to insurance write-off, theft recovery, or obscenely high-mileage. By the time that bike’s track-worthiness has been exhausted you’re looking at a seriously fatigued ride.
Converting a street bike may cost more initially, but you’ll be investing in the set-up you want, with a bike whose providence isn’t a blinking question mark.
Likewise, it’s a good idea to be turning Japanese (I really think so) and stay away from esoteric European brands for your first racing bike. Though truly sexy beasts, these bikes have reputations for quirky design features, high maintenance engines and parts that can be expensive to find.
Heard the term “horses for courses?” This is the horse for any course. If you know anything about road racing, you already know that the R6 is legend and that the rationale for buying one speaks for itself.
If you’re ready to buy a track-specific bike, we’re guessing you’re the kind of rider who already owns – or have owned – a Super Sport bike for the street and are looking to duplicate that experience on the track. If so, then jumping onto an R6 won’t take much getting used to. It’s friendly, snappy powerband and lightweight flickability will no doubt feel like second nature. If you’re coming off a sport-tourer, a large bore bike or a lightweight 300 as your everyday ride, expect that some acclimatization will be required. We recommend the R6 as a great first track bike choice because it’s the “no-brainer” (we already see the heads nodding from here). Members of the Motolicious team have owned and loved R6’s and can vouch for the bike’s approachable, fun, and confidence inspiring demeanour.
In addition to their smooth powerbands and sharp handling chassis’, R6’s are renowned for their reliability, longevity and bulletproof engines. One of our Motolicious writers put 75,000 miles (not a typo) on their R6 and then sold it to a rider who was turning the old dog into his first track racer. True story.
Given it’s 21-year production history, the R6 has proven itself in the field for so long that used bikes, parts and aftermarket race conversion kits are abundant. You’ll have no problem finding one to fit your price point. Like the BMW S1000RR, the Yamaha R6 is also a track school favourite across the nation. You simply cannot go wrong choosing one as a your race bike.
We would literally jump back on an R6 tomorrow, if doing so didn’t mean getting served divorce papers.
If the idea of starting out on a full Super Sport bike is a bit too daunting and you don’t want the hassle of upgrading from the lightweight class in a year, then look no further than Suzuki’s SV650. Often called the most popular beginner street bike on the planet, the SV650 has also found many fans as a first track bike. Although the SV650 tends to get sneered at as the 90-pound nerd of the bike world, it actually deserves a lot more respect than it receives and is the fleet choice of many internationally respected race schools.
In production since 1999 there are is a literal metric f*ckton of resale inventory in just about any North American market. Like the Ninja 300, don’t be surprised or deterred if you come across low mileage bikes with several owners in their past, as many riders buy the SV650 as a learner and then move into something “proper” once they get a season or two under their belt. Likewise, there’s usually an abundance of lady-driven SV650’s out there, as the bike’s light weight and friendly nature makes it very popular with female riders.
You can also be fairly confident that a used SV650 hasn’t been thrashed within an inch of its life the way many used Super Sports have been, as it’s just not the kind of bike that tends to appeal to mohawked and tatted squids who spend all their time doing burnouts and wheelies in front of the local high school.
That doesn’t mean this bike is tame (or lame), however. Making 73 horsepower at 8,880 RPM, the true gold of the SV is its powerband, which is very broad, usable and confidence inspiring, with enough power and getaway speed available for when you want to tap into it.
Lightweight, with a very stiff frame, the SV650 is a joy to handle for riders of all sizes. Aftermarket options and parts not only super abundant – new and used – they’re also cheap. All of these attributes make the SV650 the kind of bike people refer to as a “smart, practical choice.”
Even though it’s not going to give your ego that sexy Super Sport strut at the track, it is going to be a ton of fun and keep your skills developing progressively within your current limits. That R6 you just bought may redline at 17,000 rpm, but it’s a long journey (filled with ouchies) to harnessing that power correctly at the track.
Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS
If your local track has a Lightweight class, this is a cheap, fun way to get into the game and build your skills. Likewise, small displacement bikes offer low cost of entry into racing and provide the benefit of a large pool of resale bikes that are constantly turning over owners.
There are tons of lightweight, 300-class sport bikes available because they are such a popular choice among beginning riders. Virgin riders who want something sporty, but lack skills, or deep pockets for high insurance rates, flock to bikes like the 300 Ninja (as well as the CBR 300 and R3), and then sell them after a single season.
Don’t be surprised if you’re shopping second hand and come across low mileage bikes that have had several owners in a short lifetime. It’s not necessarily a red flag that you’re buying a lemon. Some new riders are so impatient that they trade-up mid-season.
The good news is that means it’s a buyers market, so you’re sure to find a bargain bike with lots of life still left in it. Kawasaki discontinued the Ninja 300 in 2017, but pay that no mind. You’re buying a bike you will likely destroy and the Ninja offers ABS brakes and renowned ridability in a very sexy package that looks the part. If you do decide to go with a 300-class bike, resist the temptation to spend a ton of money blinging-out your new mini-missle with every sparkle and farkle. this is likely a stepping-stone to larger displacement classes, so take the money you save on toys and put it towards your next ride.
If you’re considering upgrading to racing litre bikes then you likely have mad skills and money to burn. It takes confidence and ability to manage a litre bike around the track and as with most things in life, consequences compound and everything gets more expensive as they get bigger. Litre bike maintenance, replacement panels and will all be more costly than racing in Lightweight and Super Sport classes.
If you’re prepared for that kind of commitment, you might as well go with one of the fastest production bikes ever made – BMW’s S1000RR. Since its introduction in 2011 this bike has maintained its reputation for being face meltingly fast and BMW has stayed on top of their R&D game, making the S1000RR lighter and more agile every year.
If a 199hp motor that redlines at 14,000 RPM doesn’t blow your hair back, then may I suggest a T-65 X-Wing Starfighter, perhaps? We know where you can pick one up cheap on the desert planet Tatooine.
The real charm of the S1000RR, however is that it is also a genuinely fun bike to ride at all skill levels. . Renowned as much for its intuitive handling and safety features as much as for its mind-bending available power, the BMW S1000RR comes with multiple riding modes that drop horsepower and enhance ridability for different skill levels and track conditions. Their use as instructional bikes at a number of leading road racing schools is testament that these attributes are being proven on the track everyday and not just marketing spin. Consider also that 13-year old racers have piloted these to respectable competition finishes. If you’re going to go big, you might as well go all the way. If you can afford it, you won’t be disappointed with S1000RR.
Honda FT500 (VT500FT)
It’s no secret that vintage everything is all the rage in motorcycling right now and the same goes for road racing. Chalk it up to a perfect storm of nostalgia. Aging riders have time on their hands and money to spend on rekindling old passions and chase one last dream and young hipsters suddenly discover the next old school vibe.
Coolness aside, the practical fact is that vintage racing is a great, safe(r) way to enter racing. While there are serious participants (credit given), many vintage class competitors are in it for the passion, their “pride and joy” motorcycles, and a fun day out. Thus, being new to the class and to racing, you’re more likely to find friendly faces, assistance, and forgiveness than you will in other categories.
Focus your search on Japanese bikes from the 1980’s in the 500cc range. While anything before 1980 is becoming increasingly rare and overpriced as lumbersexuals looking to do a cafe racer mod before the next Distinguished Gentlemen’s ride snap them up, early 1980’s bikes are still plentiful and cheap. This was also a reliable period for motorcycles as Japanese manufacturers were early adopters of quality management systems and principles (hands -up if your remember the word ‘Kaizen”) and inputs were still domestically sourced.
Likewise, a 500cc bike allows you to ease into competition. since you’re not worrying about things like fairing and racing kits as in other modern classes, an investment in new suspension, new tires and maybe a different set of handlebars is pretty much all you need to be race ready.
One option that we consider an absolute steal as a beginner vintage track bike is Honda’s FT500, also known in later iterations as the VT500FT. Honda made this shaft drive bike as a track-inspired version of its CB450/550 which was also in production at the time.
“FT” actually stands for flat-track and you can see the racing inspiration in the narrow chassis, side plate, V-twin engine, exhaust and overall lines of the bike. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the FT500 stripped down, with low handlebars and a number plate and the internet is full of old VT/FT’s that have been converted for track use.
Considered a starter bike during its short production life, the FT has a friendly powerband and easy handling that will inspire confidence and build skills at the track. Unfortunately, this model wasn’t particularly popular when it was introduced to the US market, so finding one will be a chore. The good news is that unpopularity translates into lower resale. If you want an easier search, look for the FT’s cousins – the 1980’s 450 and 550 Nighthawks – which were similar iterations of the same concept and have the same bulletproof qualities that Honda’s CB series are renowned for.
Now go find a set of old neon racing leathers, put some Van Halen on your playlist, and get racing!