Flat Track at Daytona


I doubt that any form of motor racing, if done with an earnest intent to win, is for the faint of heart. But I’m sure that American Flat Track racing is only for the bold, the brave, the courageous, if the intent be merely to arrive at the first corner in some position other than dead last. I qualify this remark with “American” because my native brand is the only one I’ve finally seen with my own eyes. Though I don’t know, I suspect that anywhere else in the world this type of racing is the same; the first corner of a flat track race is flat out insane.


Part of Bike Week at Daytona is the short track event held over two days at the local municipal football stadium. I imagine this is a slightly different animal from the larger, dedicated mile and half mile tracks, where bikes up to 750ccs race. This short track was ridden on 450cc bikes, the style of which most closely resembles MotoX except for the unusual tires.


Participants are divided up into two main categories, those with red number plates and those with black. Those with red plates are trying to earn national black numbers with results in their lower-class races, and might have a letter that represents their geographic region to distinguish them from another rider with the same number from a different city. The Grand National Champion earns the prestigious Number 1 plate, harkening back to the days of American bike racing when, to win that Grand National Championship, a rider had to perform in several formats. I suggest you watch On Any Sunday for the full story on the heritage of American bike racing if this topic interests you.



Flat track remains the most accessible type of motorbike racing for many young Americans who aspire to more widely-regarded forms of the sport. You can get started with a modest machine, bringing it and everything else you need in a single van, as did many in an ad hoc paddock set up in the stadium’s parking lot.



While the more experienced riders wear the grizzled faces of those accustomed to bruises and broken bones, the early heats were run by kids, teenagers of both genders, already limping here, massaging scars on hands and elbows there, but itching to get past the waiting and to the racing.



And racing is what flat track is all about. Not sponsors or corporate suites. Not TV breaks or advertising. Not big salaries or luxurious motor homes. In fact, if any single word is least applicable to what I saw of flat track racing, it’s ‘luxury.’ 20-30 riders line up fifty meters from the first turn, wait for the green light, and go. They ride their hearts out, sliding, bouncing, bumping elbows, breathing dirt and fumes, in frantic heat races that last 5 or 6 minutes as riders qualify for the longer races later in the evening.



A bad start or a mistake in the first corner means the race is effectively over because there are only five or six laps and thus no time to recover. Knowing this, the riders charge toward the crucial first corner like the bulls of Pamplona. Except that when the riders get there, they all have to turn left.



When the entire field manages this, it seems like divine intervention must be involved. When there’s a crash, you can’t help thinking, ‘That was bound to happen, these people are all out of their minds.’



And as the race progresses, you understand that if a rider can get a motorcycle around a flat, dirt track fast enough to beat 25 others, he or she can probably race a motorcycle effectively on just about any other surface. This must be why the best American road racers have usually come from a dirt track background.



And it suggests why tomorrow’s most promising riders are developing their flat track racing. J.D. Beach, an American teenager from the state of Washington and winner of the 2008 Red Bull Rookies Cup, showed up at Daytona. I would not have recognized him if Andrew Northcott hadn’t pointed Beach out to me (Thanks, Andrew!).



Over all the evening of flat track was somehow like going back in time. Compared to the politics and fiscal insanity of MotoGP, and the disarray of AMA road racing, this short track event was like going to a place where everything made sense again. Riders brought whatever they could afford to ride and raced the hell out of it.



For the most part, the gear was old and being nursed along to make it from race to race, instead of broken down and rebuilt by factory mechanics with Snap-On tools and expensive software.



No one got in a jet to fly home to Monaco afterward; most climbed into vans or trucks pulling trailers. No one on the podium looked bored or annoyed at the organizers; every one of them looked thrilled and excited. And perhaps best of all, if no bikes were approaching, a marshal would let a photographer cross the track instead of making him walk an extra mile around the perimeter just to flex his ego. That evening of flat track was just about racing, and as I left I figured that when riders go to heaven, they ride flat tracks.



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Great words and pictures, capturing the atmosphere superbly. Well done. My lads all race MX with the local club, and even that seems more 'up itself' than the flat track scene you describe. Flat track is growing in the UK, and from what I have read seems to be bringing this laid back but very commited attitude with it.

Cheers - Paul.

Watching from the stands was very exciting. Being on the track was clearly even more so. I definitely hope to see more Flat track action in the future.

Thanks, guys, glad you enjoyed the post.

Tim, I was really hoping for nice sunset backgrounds and backlights like you had in your excellent shots of the Indy Mile last summer. Had to make due with concrete. :-P But I enjoyed the flat track so much, I'm even more looking foward to the Mile in August. I'm even looking into a flat track about an hour from my house. I definitely have the FT bug.

I have to say that over the whole three day weekend I went in wondering what to expect from the Flats and MX racing, as I only follow WSBK, AMA and MotoGP road racing.

However, I came out of the other side with a totally different perspective and now put Flats and MX racing waaay up there. They both impressed me so much. Now I'm looking forward to that new AMA show on SpeedTV and finding these series races on my DVR.

Oh yeah, the Flats flag guy was a riot. The way he flagged things down during the night. Excellent stuff, and excellent pics that captured it all.

It's not about the bike in flattrack. It's the rider.

I used to do ice racing (american style). It's very similar to this. 1/4 mile oval on the ice, converted MX bike and 500 sheetmetal screws (head out, point inside the tire) per tire. I found I got better traction then with knobbies on dirt.

Riding into the corner, you just lean to the left and push a bit with the right peg. The slide happens naturally. If you have it setup well, you can push on the right peg for traction and push the bars down to the left. Too sharp a turn & you scrub off too much speed. It's all about being smooth and finding where the traction is.

While you're racing, there's not lots of mayhem. It might look tight to the crowd, but it doesn't feel dicey. It always felt safer to me then the 1st corner in motocross. The surface & corner are much more consistant then in MX.

If you fall on the ice, you just slide to the outside. You have gear on that protects you. The screws are not that sharp. Short track on dirt might hurt a bit more. I can't imagine the speeds in the corners are much above 30 mph. The straights on ice were 60 mph or so.

If I had the time I'd love to do it again.