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.