Book Review: The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles

Last year, I picked up “The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles” at Powell’s Books on a visit to Portland. If you’re ever in Portland, prioritize Powell’s over Voodoo Donut (which was honestly a little underwhelming). Long ago, when I had a motorcycle, I used to own “A Twist of the Wrist”, by Keith Code. I don’t recall that much about it, or why I no longer have it. The biggest impression it made on me was his “attention budget”. If you have $10 to spend on attention, where do you allocate your “money”? On traction? Braking? Speed sensing? Situational awareness? You get very different results depending on how you diversify your attention portfolio. To get a feel for that thinking, try this out.

Choose 2

  • Drive the traction limit
  • Drive the optimal line
  • Avoid trouble

“Soft Science” is Keith Code’s sequel to “Twist”. This translates very well to driving partly because there is very little motorcycle-specific content. “Soft Science” doesn’t concern itself very much with technique. It is almost entirely about the mental side of racing. Keith Code’s content is very similar to Ross Bentley’s. They use different words, but they say the same thing. That doesn’t mean you should only read one or the other. Most racing books overlap other racing books. Read them all.

Let’s talk about the main message of “Soft Science”. Each one of us carries around with us feelings, thoughts, and plans about how to get around a race track.

  • Feelings – our senses and actions at the moment of driving
  • Thoughts – our prior knowledge and experience
  • Plans – ideas about what we want to do

Feelings, thoughts, and plans conflict with each other. We may have a plan to drive around a corner a certain way, such as “don’t lift at the kink”. And then when we get there we have a feeling that we might die if we don’t lift. Alternatively, we may have a thought like “66 mph is the maximum speed around the corner” and the actual value is 71 mph. Optimal performance means getting our feelings, thoughts, and plans in sync.

“Soft Science” spends a lot of time describing one specific lesson. My brother Mario went to a Keith Code instructional day and they did that lesson there. It turns out, it’s also one of my favorite drills: no brakes, no shifting. Yep, drive around the track without using your brakes. This could be in 3rd or 4th gear depending on the track. One of the most important skills to develop is an accurate sense of speed, and this drill hones that skill more sharply than any other. Note that you wouldn’t want to hold up a lot of drivers by coasting through all your brake zones, but if you have some open track, please try this. You might even get a bunch of friends to sync up like they do at the Keith Code schools.

While I love reading old racing books, they all share one weakness: they’re old. While racing technique hasn’t changed that much since Piero Tarrufi’s 1958 classic, The Technique of Motor Racing, racing technology has. The ability to record and display what the car and driver are doing should fundamentally change the way we learn about and teach high performance driving. Where are the modern driving books that teach at the intersection of theory, practice, and data? Patience, we’re working on it…

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