Written by John McKown
© Copyright 2018-2021 John McKown
Do not reproduce without permission.
I wrote this guide on my own to offer a more comprehensive how-to resource for you to improve your body position when riding/racing motorcycles on racetracks.
There are many guides on body position that exist today, but I feel that most of those guides do not cover all of the bases, and that is the goal of my article.
Ride at your own risk and skill level. Adjust your riding style at a safe, slow pace.
Every rider's physical ability, type of motorcycle, and skill level can affect body position strategy.
Please consider taking a track riding school.
The author, John McKown at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in California
What is correct motorcycle body position for riding on racetracks?
Developing a good body position involves developing techniques and repeatable habits for cornering that allow us to increase our speed, stability, and safety into, through, and out of turns. Good body position doesn’t just happen at the apex of the turn - it is part of a cornering strategy that involves setting up for the turn, entering the turn, at the apex of the turn, and exiting the turn. Good body position allows us to be faster and safer with more line choice through turns.
Why do we hang off motorcycles in the first place?
It looks cool to hang off a motorcycle, but that is not why we do it. Most new racers want to scrape their knee pucks, but they can’t articulate WHY hanging off the motorcycle is important.
The reasons we hang off are;
- Ground Clearance - Hanging off increases our ground clearance by keeping the bike more upright.
- Traction - Hanging off keeps the tires off of the edge and gives us a larger contact patch with the road. It IS possible to lean the motorcycle to the edge of grip when your inner arm is straight and your upper body is crossed up. This is much less safe and limits your ability to tighten up the turn. You have fewer line choices when you are riding at the edge of the tire and you have a smaller safety margin to work with in case you need to add braking or direction changes.
- More Speed - hanging off lowers your center of gravity, which increases stability and your ability to add corner speed.
Relationship of body position to your cornering strategy
In my experience body position is an element of a Cornering Strategy. And if you don't have a plan for the whole strategy, then your body position will suffer. It is a mistake to think of your body position as your sole cornering strategy. Here in Colorado, where I race motorcycles, we have 32 turns to worry about with the three racetracks that we race at. And each of those 32 turns has a different personality, approach, strategy, surface, radius, etc. Evaluating whether or not a turn is an “entrance turn”, an “exit turn”, or a “maintenance” turn is important when setting up your body position. Some turns require that you hang off more than others. Where you end up on the exit of the turns is a good indicator of how well you executed the turn. Getting your braking markers, turn-in markers, and entrance speed figured out first will give you the confidence to then get your body where it needs to be for each turn.
What does GOOD body position look like when we are at the apex or leaving the apex of a turn?
- Your head should be where inner mirror would be located, and not over center of the bike. When your head is over the center of the bike, we call that body position "crossed up” because your body is not in line with the bike.
- Head should be looking through the corner.
- Rider’s back is aligned with centerline of motorcycle or slightly pointed inside the line of the bike both at apex and after apex.
- Inner elbow is bent, and at max lean angle is pointed down at the ground.
- Outer arm resting over the tank.
- Elbows remain loose and not holding up rider’s weight.
- Outer knee is locked into the tank, holding up rider’s weight.
- Crotch is aligned with edge of the seat.
- Upper body low.
- Head, shoulder, knee and Inner foot are all pointed into the turn. "Triangle of light” with inner leg is visible.
- Use of screwdriver grip on inside hand.
Example of good body position
Another example of good body position
What does BAD body position look like?
- Inner arm is straight or stiff.
- Body forward all the way against the gas tank.
- Hanging butt off seat too far, causing hip rotation.
- Outer knee not locked into the gas tank due to rotation of hips.
- Head and shoulders are always kept over the center of the bike (should be down near the inner mirror location).
- Inner hand is not using a screwdriver grip.
- Inner foot not pointed. Foot soles locked onto inner foot peg.
- No triangle of light with inner leg.
- Bike leaned excessively for the speed and radius of the turn.
Example of crossed-up body position characteristics we are trying to avoid:
Recap of some of the benefits of good body position
- Increased ground clearance.
- Not riding on the edge of the tire (more grip area from tire)
- More line choices (including tighter lines).
- Not dragging hard parts or feet.
- Safer Traction - Much more traction available from not riding on the edge of the tires.
- Less weight on hands.
- Less fatigue
- Less head-shake through the handlebars due to looser grip
- More options for gripping the bars.
- Lower center of gravity
- Can take turns faster and more safely.
- Knee-down helps you to judge the lean angle (not super important but nice)
Why is it so difficult to build our habits for good body position and getting our knee down?
- The natural fear of falling into the turn prevents us from loosening the inner arm, so the inner arm is used to prop up the rider’s weight.
- Not locking the outer knee - Outer knee is rarely locked into the tank. This is a problem because you need your core to hold yourself up so that you can take weight off of your hands. Core should be used to grip tank and shift body weight smoothly.
- Rotating around the tank - With the inner arm holding up the rider’s weight, the rider rotates around the tank while trying to hang off. When you rotate around the tank, you close up your inner hip into the bike and your knee can’t come out. When you have difficulty getting your knee down, this is usually the reason why.
- Lack of good tank grips - Your gas tank needs quality tank grips for holding on.
Hand position - the "Screwdriver Grip"
When we ride motorcycles on the street, we typically just wrap our fingers around the hand grips in a fist shape. This works fine for cruising down the road. Once we move to the track, and we are adjusting to a more aggressive riding position, or “hanging off” the motorcycle, we need to adjust the way we hold the grips. This is especially true with the inner handlebar.
The screwdriver grip is something that all expert racers use. It allows our forearm to be more inline with the handlebar, and this allows us to drop our inner elbow and hang off the motorcycle more comfortably with more throttle control (for right turns). Without changing your grip from the standard grip, your natural limited wrist movement will prevent you from lowering your upper body.
Hold onto your inside handlebar with the screwdriver grip while working on your body position, and you may find a breakout change in how comfortable everything feels.
What about moving back in the seat?
- There are three steps to getting into position - moving back, moving to the side, and locking your outer knee. I call this “back, lock, and drop”.
- Moving back - You should move straight back a couple of inches in the seat from the tank before initiating your turn.
- Moving directly to the side - Move perpendicular to the side until your crotch is at the edge of the seat (that is as far as you need to go). Try to not rotate around the tank!
- Work on smooth movements from side to side. A 3-step movement is something that you can rehearse in your head - like "back, lock, and drop". Where “back” is moving back in the seat, “lock” is locking your outer knee into the tank, and the “drop” is dropping your shoulder and head smoothly as you approach the apex.
Why is MotoGP body position different?
MotoGP racers are famous for dragging their elbows with extreme body position and incredible lean angles. The 64 degrees of lean angle that a MotoGP bike can attain is due to; very special tires, bike geometry, suspension, cutting-edge electronics, and of course rider skill. Most motorcycles/racers at the club racing level are not capable of those lean angles, so you should not use MotoGP racer lean angles and body position as your reference point for your progress.
Marc Marquez dragging his elbow. Photo by MotoGP
When should you NOT commit to hanging off all the way?
- Following an unpredictable rider.
- Setting up for switchback turns where there isn’t time to fully commit to the turn.
- Unknown or changing road surfaces. Unsafe conditions.
- Building up slowly as you improve your skills.
Resting on the straights
Moving your body from side to side at every turn will fatigue even the most fit riders. Use the straightaways to rest. Move very far back into the seat to get your weight down on the tank and give your arms and legs a brief rest. Staying out of the wind can give you fractions of a second of speed over a long straightaway.
What about the position of the feet?
- Inner footpeg should be between the toes and ball of the foot or on the ball of the feet for more control.
- Your inner heel should be up and pointed into the bike.
- Toes should be pointed in the direction of the turn and not hanging off the peg too far.
- Inner leg should create a “triangle of light” (see photos).
- Knee should be pointed into the the direction of the turn.
- Outer foot can be multiple places on the footpeg, typically locked into the heel or middle of the foot.
Getting into position under braking
When setting up for the turn, it is important to not make too many large body movements while turning the bike into the turn under braking. Moving your body around too abruptly or too late removes traction and control.
- Move over onto the seat before corner entry and before braking if you can.
- Braking techniques for corner entry
- Arms (bench press) - some riders hold their body in place mainly using their arms.
- Knee Squeeze - some riders use their knees to squeeze the tank.
- Thigh on edge of tank - if you have scooted to the side of the seat, you can then use your thigh as a brace while braking. This in combination with arm strength is what I use.
- Some combination of the above - some of the options depend on personal style and your personal limitations.
- Do not hang way off on corner entry, stay more centered over the top of the bike for stability.
- Depending on the nature of the corner, have a plan for how you will brake and transition through the turn.
"I still can’t get my knee down, even though I am hanging off"
If you have fixed the rotational issue around your tank, and you are producing a “triangle of light” with your inner leg, then the final thing to work on is probably cornering speed. If you are hanging off the bike but going slowly through the turn with the bike very upright, then you aren’t generating enough centrifugal force to settle the suspension and allow that force to carry you through the turn at lean. As you build corner speed confidence, getting your knee down becomes MUCH easier.
Advanced Body Position Techniques
Corner Exit Drive
- Standing bike up on exits. After clearing the apex, begin pushing the bike away from you to get on the gas as you leave apex, then pull yourself up onto the bike.
- Benefit - using body position to get power to the ground and accelerate more quickly leaving turns.
- You almost can’t transition your bike from side to side too quickly if conditions (traction) are ideal.
- Power Steering - Use counter steering pressuring on inside hand as usual, but add pull force with the outside hand (power steering), and a small lunge force with the inner foot to change direction more quickly.
- Less unweighting of the front tire - Upper body movement over the tank should be as low and quick as possible - especially for switchbacks or corkscrews to keep the front tire planted.