Hooniverse, despite featuring motorcycle-related features we like on Tuesdays, is overwhelmingly a four-wheel site. So, chances are good that right now you consider yourself a “car guy,” not a “bike guy.” BUT WAIT—DON’T GO YET. You need to know that few forms of racing offer such consistently close racing, such fascinating machinery, and such spectacular entertainment as professional flat track racing. Furthermore, flat track is amazingly accessible to spectators, both in person and on video. Other forms of motorcycle sport, such as motocross, roadracing and even freestyle stunt jumping have have had periods of widespread popularity and thus worked their way into the public consciousness; flat track racing hasn’t been able to garner the same level of awareness with the non-riding public, or even among gearheads in general. Even if you never, ever intend get on a bike yourself, I am here to convince you that you need Pro Flat Track in your life like toddlers need naps. All the reasons why are waiting on the other side of the jump.
REASON #1: THE FORMAT
Motorcycles have been racing on dirt nearly as long as they’ve have been around, quite often on oval tracks. Thus, flat track bears a family resemblance to other, more European forms of oval dirt track motorcycle racing such as speedway and grass track racing (which are, indeed, held on tracks that are flat). However, the term “flat track” we know today refers to a very specific, traditionally American competition. The length of dirt track courses ranges from a quarter mile or less to a full mile long. Track surfaces vary from loose soil to hard clay that’s almost as smooth as concrete. Winning a championship means being able to go fast on a variety of surfaces at a wide range of speeds…without touching the brake!
There are two pro classes, GNC1 and GNC2. GNC1 bikes are large-displacement twins (650cc and up) that pump out in excess of 90 horsepower. Harley’s air-cooled, pushrod XR750 has long been the iconic big flat tracker, but Kawasaki’s liquid-cooled 650 vertical twin has become equally competitive and popular. GNC2 limits bikes to 450cc, single-cylinder engines. Most GNC2 bikes are based on Japanese or European production four-stroke motocross engines, carefully tweaked to crank out around 60-65 HP.
REASON #2: THE VARIETY OF TRACKS
Flat track races run on four types of venues: short track, TT, half-mile and the big mile ovals.
Short Track refers to tracks 3/8th mile or less in length. Despite the name “flat track,” short tracks may be banked. Track surfaces are often hard-packed. Short track races are all about smoothness, consistency and bike handling in a tight pack. Bobble one turn-in and you’re likely to be out of the hunt, if not under somebody’s wheel.
TT is sort of a flat-track/motocross hybrid. TT courses are configured similar other flat track courses, but must contain a jump and at least one right turn. The result is a medium-length, kidney-shaped track that has a long straightaway on one side and a jump followed by a slight right turn on the other side. The bikes are specially prepared, with stronger brakes (including one on the front wheel) and taller suspension. Since the emergence of motocross in the ’60s, the popularity of TT racing has declined, which is a real shame because it’s a true racing spectacle. Typically, there are only one or two TT races on the schedule each year, but the famous Peoria TT in central Illinois has been an annual tradition since 1947.
The half-mile is the most prolific flat track format. These are purpose-built tracks up to 5/8th mile. These can often be loamy or very powdery away from the racing line and very hard-packed in the “blue groove.” Being able to deal with constantly changing levels of available traction at high speeds in order to pass or hold position makes half-mile races truly exciting.
Mile races provide the highest speeds and most intense racing. These are mostly held at horse racing tracks, often at state fair grounds. As such, the track surface can vary widely from venue to venue, and even from year to year on the same track. Watching a chain of riders pull off controlled slides, in unison, within inches of each other, at triple-digit speeds? Awe-inspiring.
REASON #3: THE MACHINES
This ain’t no spec race.
One of the biggest criticism of many forms of racing is that the desire for close, competitive racing has resulted in overly-restrictive equipment rules: everybody ends up racing machines that are carbon copies of each other. If you’re interested in the gearhead/workbench/tuner side of things, that can really turn you off, no matter how dramatic the last lap might be. Well, flat track manages to have both close, exciting racing and interesting, innovative machines. Flat track is as close as you can get to run-what-ya-brung among professional racing. At a typical flat track race, you’re likely to see a liquid-cooled parallel twin line up on the starting line next to a DOHC V-twin, next to an air-cooled pushrod motor. There’s no chassis spec to stifle innovation, either. Most factories work with specialized third-party frame builders who know what works and what doesn’t, but handcraft frames however they like. Look at the two bikes shown above. Both are current pro rides based on the Kawasaki 650 twin engine. Both have 19-inch cast wheels and twin pipes on the right. Beyond that, there’s not much in common: the frames, radiators, bodywork, and rear suspension all differ radically.
REASON #4: THE RIDERS
The riders who race flat track are there because they love to race, not because they’re trying to hit the big time. Jared Mees races against his wife Nichole. Brother and sister Shayna and Cory Texter compete against one another (taking sibling rivalry to a whole ‘nutha level). Racers who shine brightest on the fast miles must compete all season with short-track specialists. Then there’s Chris Carr, known as “The Prince of Peoria” and nearly unbeatable on the TT course for decades. These are some of the most skilled and talented motorcycle pilots on the planet, but the vast majority remain down-to-earth guys (and gals). You can go in the pits before the race and look at the bikes up close, snap photos, take video. Even the legendary World Champions of yesteryear are normally glad to say hello and pose for a photo or two.
REASON #5: THE HISTORY
Flat track is steeped in tradition—perhaps more so than any other type of racing in America. Despite competition from much more advanced designs, the Harley-Davidson XR750—the model currently wearing the #1 plate—has been a dominant force on the big mile-long ovals since the 1970s. Though constantly upgraded and developed over the years, this bike is at its core the same bike that Evel Knievel used. And it’s still winning championships. Why? Not because the sport hasn’t improved over the years, but because flat track tuning is more dark magic than science. You certainly need power, but you also need to provide the rider with an illusive, nearly indescribable feel for traction. Carefully watch a really fast, talented racer carry a two-wheel slide through a turn and you’ll realize that he’s adjusting the throttle and steering many times a second in response to the bike’s rippling, bucking, slithering path beneath him. A bike’s ability to respond predictably to those subtle, minor corrective inputs is not something anybody can whip up overnight, no matter how many dynos and CAD programs they have available. Flat track bike building, like the racing itself, is all about nuance, sweating the details, and having just the right touch.
While the current AMA Pro Flat Track championship can trace its roots all the way back to the original AMA Grand National Championship that began in 1954, that lineage has gotten a bit murky. In 2008, the American Motorcyclist Association (the sport’s official, non-profit sanctioning body in the USA), sold the rights to most forms of professional motorcycle racing to Daytona Motorsports Group, headed by automotive-centric racing impresarios Roger Edmondson and Jim France. Yes, that Jim France. DMG initially botched things up a bit. After trying to “NASCAR-ize” professional motorcycle road racing with dismal results, they lost the rights to the pavement side of things last year. Fortunately, DMG (d/b/a AMA Pro Racing) didn’t jack around much with flat track’s proven formula, and they continue to promote AMA Pro Flat Track (along with AMA Pro outdoor motocross, ATV and hillclimb events). They’re working really, really hard to regain fans’ good will and genuinely want to improve the sport. They’re successfully wooing factories back. Kawasaki, Yamaha, Ducati, KTM, Triumph and of course Harley either have factory teams or provide quasi-works support to independent pro flat track teams. Motorcycle flat track was featured in the X-Games for the first time this year. New Superprestigio races, held on indoor short tracks in Spain and the USA, are bringing top riders from all motorcycle racing disciplines together in sort of a two-wheeled IROC format.
REASON #6: IT IS VIEWER FRIENDLY
Flat track is perhaps the ideal motorsport for spectators in several different ways:
- You can actually see the racers race. At a car race, you can’t see the drivers look around, heal and toe the pedals, fight with the steering wheel. You just see the outside of the cars. In motorcycle road racing, you often don’t get a good view of the riders on large sections of every lap. With flat track, you can see the racers’ every movement as they fight for traction and spectators usually have an unimpeded view all the way around the track.
- Flat track events are held at lots of track all over America. If you want to go see one in person, there’s most likely a track within driving distance. You can check out the AMA Pro Flat Track event schedule at www.amaproracing.com.
- All AMA Pro Flat Track events are now streamed live and in full, from the start of practice to the end of racing. The professionally-produced coverage includes profiles, interviews, and behind-the-scenes views. Furthermore, past events be replayed on demand at www.fanschoice.tv. You can follow the whole season, learn the racers and teams, and experience every race. That sort of coverage through any medium would have been unheard of only a few years ago.
All images provided courtesy of AMA Pro Racing.