In Flat Track, athletes straddle the fine line between control and chaos hitting corners at speeds approaching 100 mph on motorcycles with no front brakes.
They barrel around turns riding the fine line between control and reckless abandon, thin rubber tires grasping for traction on loose dirt, the rear end slid out almost 45-degrees at speeds approaching 100 mph. The machines wail in top gear, the front end bucking as riders counter-steer to gain control, the steel shoe on their left foot rudders on the malleable track surface. The unmistakable thumping of a big Twin at full-tilt pounds in their heads as they muscle to control 300-lb bikes, their mastery of angles, velocity and mass defy physics while they paint smooth arcs in the dirt…
Before the bike is even upright they’re on the throttle again, wide-open down the straightaway with speeds creeping close to 140 mph on motorcycles with no front brakes, much to the delight of the screaming crowds. In a blink of an eye they’re pitched out again with the bike tilted over and the rear end steering as they ride the continuous cycle of adrenaline that is flat track racing.
The straightaways are no less frantic. At the vaunted Springfield mile, riders draft back and forth just inches apart with tactics you’d expect to see in a 125 GP race. With no aerodynamics and no fairings, they tuck in behind the big, fat front number plate, one hand off the handlebar, grabbing the fork leg to use the vacuum created by the bike in front of them before peeling off to slingshot around. Then it’s single-file through the corners as they pick a groove and go, the inside guys hugging the rail and the outside riding the cushion out by the hay bales. Exiting a turn it’s the mad scramble back into the draft again as 18 riders jockey for position, looking for the next slim window of opportunity to open as the process repeats itself lap after lap.
On straightaways riders tuck in behind the big number plate in an attempt to cut down on wind blast and for drafting.
Flat track is considered the oldest, longest-running and most traditional motorcycle racing series in America. It’s also commonly referred to as “dirt track” racing, with roots dating back almost a hundred years. Its history is intertwined with board track races near the turn of the 20th century. Originally, early motorcycles were used to pull bicycles onto 45-degree banked wooden tracks for races. Soon they replaced bicycles altogether. Dirt track racing was taking place, yet didn’t enjoy the same crowds and exposure as board track races. But the motorcycles just kept getting faster and more powerful and soon speeds were cresting triple digits. This was spurred in part by racing engineer Bill Ottaway’s development of the eight-valve racebike for Harley-Davidson. But the board track races were becoming too dangerous for both riders and spectators alike, and the job of filling seats at what the press labeled “murderdromes” became more challenging for promoters. As a result, they started building oval tracks with earthen banks by hand, sometimes working weeks in advance, and as board tracking waned, dirt track racing waxed with the American public.
It was during this period in the early ‘20s that Harley-Davidson began to establish its dominance on the dirt and board tracks. Riders like Red Parkhurst, Otto Walker and Fred Ludlow were powering to wins, and in that timeframe H-D’s race team came to be known as “The Wrecking Crew.” This era also spawned one rider of immense talent, “Smokin’” Joe Petrali, who won every single National Dirt Track Championship race in 1935, a total of 13 rounds, as he etched his name in the record books as the first man in the history of dirt track to win all the races in a series on one motorcycle brand. He also captured five consecutive national championship titles from 1932 to 1936 racing on Harley-Davidson and Excelsior motorcycles.
Just as dirt track racing was reaching new heights in popularity, along came the Great Depression. Soon after, World War II erupted, causing companies like Harley-Davidson to shift their production efforts. It wasn’t until post-World War II that the sport evolved to its current modern structure. Flat track as we know it started around the mid- 1950s when the AMA came in, helping to shape it by establishing the organization’s first championship. For the next 30 years, flat track racing was the only thing on two wheels that really mattered as it became the most popular form of racing in the US.
The sport really took off when the movie “On Any Sunday” came out in 1971 and brought flat track to millions of people on the big screen. Bruce Brown’s motorcycle racing documentary spawned thousands of new enthusiasts. Flat tracking exploded even more when R.J. Reynolds, with its immense media power, took flat track to the next level just like it did with NASCAR. The company poured tons of money into it. Other big name sponsors like Honda also got on board. The sport reached its heyday with a big national TV contract that brought races to living rooms throughout American courtesy of the Wide World of Sports. Flat tracking’s run lasted until the mid 1980s when motorcycle road racing and motocross started to take over.
Scott Parker earned the title as the undisputed ‘King of the Mile’ by winning 55 AMA Grand National Championship Races on the flat track mile. Over the course of his career, Parker posted 94 overall victories and won nine Grand National Champion titles.
These other racing disciplines also have roots in flat track. For years, besides competing on the dirt oval, flat trackers also competed in road races and on TT courses that included at least one jump. Dirt trackers were bombing over berms on 300-lb bikes years before Supercross was in its infancy. Riders had to have skills in more than just dirt to become the overall champion. But the ability to slide a motorcycle and to steer it using the rear wheel was transferred to the street successfully by Americans like Wayne Rainey and Kenny Roberts who utilized what they learned on the flat track all the way to the international racing level.
For years, the fast, smooth Springfield Mile at the Illinois State Fairgrounds has been the nation’s focal point for flat track racing. Top speeds of 140 mph on the straightaways during the 25-mile race are not unheard of. This is due in part to its surface, a mixture of dark, organic soil and clay that maintenance crews are able to pack into a glass-smooth surface. But the racing surface of Springfield is more the exception than the norm, and it’s this variability in race surfaces that makes flat track racing so incredible.
There are a few blue-groove tracks that are so smooth it actually looks like they’re racing on asphalt. Riders lay down enough rubber that it turns the course black, and it is these layers of rubber on the dirt track that form the groove. Other tracks, like Lima, Ohio, are a mixture of limestone and pea gravel that never really groove up. These are known as cushion tracks where riders spend most of their time on the high line out near the hay bales. Where the groove tracks allow riders to glide through the turns, on cushion tracks you’ll see the bikes bucking around as riders use all their skill and muscle to keep from getting pitched over the highside. These are the kind of tracks that the undisputed “King of the Mile,” nine-time Grand National Champion Scott Parker, said that he likes to ride.
“I was more of a cushion guy. When I first came up, groove tracks were more of a struggle, but slowly but surely I started figuring out what I needed to do. I was more of a high line, handsome guy, get up there and get on the gas. The cushion tracks are for a more aggressive-type person,” Parker says.
Track surfaces in Flat Track can vary widely, from smooth as asphalt to limestone and pea gravel cushion tracks.
There are 20 races on the 2010 AMA Pro Racing Grand National Championship schedule. The venues range from the cushion tracks at Lima and Daytona Beach to the top-speed grooves of the Springfield Mile. Race lengths vary, from short track where riders are leaned over almost the entire race to Tourist Trophy competitions like Peoria that include at least one jump and one right hand turn per lap. According to AMA Pro Racing’s Director of Flat Track, Mike Kidd, speeds on the quarter-mile short track reach 70-80 mph while the TT races get in the 80-85 mph range. Then there’s the faster half-mile where riders begin to break into triple digits and the wide-open throttle of the 140-mph mile-long circuits. Riders compete on 450cc machines on the short track and TT races but move up to the powerful Twins for the half-mile and mile. The fact that flat trackers have to compete in four different types of races on two different style of motorcycles with no front brakes on surfaces that are constantly changing makes the artistry of their riding that much more amazing.
Flat track has an atmosphere all its own, as most events don’t occur in multi-million dollar arenas but are held more at grass-roots locales like fairgrounds and speedways. It’s a feeling of stepping back in time when fans walk into the Indiana State Fairgrounds, a venue that hasn’t changed in the last 60 years. When the lights turn on, it’s time to get it on in some old-school, bar-banging, leave-it-all-on-the-track style of racing. And unlike other competitions, the majority of flat track races go down to the wire. Often it’s who’s got the horsepower and has conserved their tires the best as they come out of the final turn that determines the race winner. It is this closeness of competition that appeals so much to the fans.
Kenny Coolbeth remains the only factory-sponsored rider in 2010, with the rest being backed by independent companies.
It’s the riders that make all the difference, though. In 2010 there’s only one factory rider, Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson’s Kenny Coolbeth. Everybody else is sponsored by independent companies and they race hard for their paycheck. Flat trackers are dedicated, risking their lives for purses that barely cover operating and travel expenses. Flat tracking often transcends bloodlines as the racing torch is handed down through generations. Look at Coolbeth, who is a third-generation racer. Most riders start when they are kids. Parker began riding at six years old on a Rupp mini-bike, and Kidd, who won the 1981 AMA Grand National Championship, was riding at five and competing in Quarter Midgets not long after.
Riders also enjoy longevity in the sport more so than other disciplines. You don’t see 40-year-old men winning races in Supercross, but they do in flat track. Kidd stated that many riders don’t even begin to peak until their thirties as they learn the racetracks, learn their bike’s setup, and work with the same mechanics for years. The fact that riders compete against each other year in and year out also fosters a high level of respect amongst competitors.
Flat tracking also differs from other races in its riders’ accessibility. They enjoy a healthy relationship with the fans. People can walk right up on a Sunday afternoon with their kids and get almost anything signed by the racers. Riders hang out in the pits after events and fans can approach them firsthand. You seldom find that rapport anymore in any type of sports. It’s no wonder why many flat trackers are hailed as heroes.
Of all the racing disciplines, flat track is the one that is the most distinctly American. Its roots were set in US soil at the start of the 20th century. Granted, Europe and Australia has Speedway racing on short tracks where riders are constantly sideways. But they don’t have the mile. And they haven’t had the influence of an American icon like Harley-Davidson as its dominant force. Flat tracking exists because of the love of a core group of American Midwesterners who have embraced this pure form of racing. It’s raw, it’s real, and it fills the stands of fairgrounds across the country on Saturday nights. Flat track racing is intoxicating, and once you get it in your blood, you’re hooked for life.
Kenny Roberts Returns to the Indy Mile on the Yamaha TZ750
It was 1975. Defending two-time AMA Grand National Champion Kenny Roberts was having a difficult year. Roberts’ Yamaha XS650 wasn’t performing up to snuff, from fried clutches to breaking chains to loose wires. Roberts kept asking for more horsepower. So that’s exactly what his bike builder, tuner and friend Kel Carruthers gave him – the Yamaha TZ750.
In 2009 Kenny Roberts returned with his Yamaha TZ750 to spin laps at the Indy Mile, the scene of one of the most memorable Flat Track races ever where Roberts defeated the “Wrecking Crew” of Korky Keener and Jay Springsteen back in 1975.
With a Doug Schwerma-designed Champion dirt track frame and the engine from a Yamaha TZ750 that Roberts had won Laguna with earlier that year, Carruthers put together a monster, a lightweight dirt tracker that put out well over 100 horsepower on the dyno. Throw on a set of Goodyear dirt track tires and a legendary motorcycle was born. Many deemed the bike too powerful for the dirt track, believing its tire spin wouldn’t give it any traction.
Until the Indy Mile, the TZ750 hadn’t been raced before. Early in the race, Roberts spent a couple laps at the back of the pack. Then he started working his way through the field going wide. Roberts stated that the bike didn’t like the groove, so he had to keep going wider. The last two laps, his back wheel was just touching the hay bales. “King” Kenny got a drive on the last lap that even he couldn’t believe and about two feet from the finish line he realized, “Man, I’m going to win this thing.” He beat Harley-Davidson’s Korky Keener and rookie Jay Springsteen by a couple feet at the finish. The crowd spilled out of the stands, screaming and flooding the straightaway, and history was made. The TZ750 was considered such an unbridled motorcycle that it was banned after only three races by the AMA.
Jump forward 34 years to August 29, 2009. Roberts would return to the scene of that historic race and once again turn laps at the Indy Mile on the Yamaha TZ750 in between the AMA Flat Track Grand National Pro and Expert Main races. He had his bone doctor on stand-by in case things didn’t turn out. He didn’t practice because, as Roberts would say, “There’s no practice that can gear me up to ride the TZ750 at that mile.”
With the crowd on its feet, Roberts drops the hammer and rips the 2-stroke’s throttle wide-open, the bike’s rear end bucking side-to-side as the TZ750 hooks up and rips down the straight. He hits the first turn full-lock, sliding the rear out with the grace and power of a true champion. He would rip off a series of hot laps, the TZ750 shrieking beneath him. The crowd roared its appreciation. After Roberts’ emotional return to the Indy Mile, he said with a smile, “It came back to me.”
Since breaking into the Flat Track scene in 2002, Jared Mees first won the ‘Rookie of the Year Award’ in 2004 and recently claimed the 2009 AMA Pro Grand National Expert Twins Championship.
Defending AMA Pro Grand National Twins Champion Jared Mees
Jared Mees broke into the flat tracking scene in 2002 at age 16 when he became the youngest rider ever to win five races on his way to “Rookie of the Year” honors in the AMA Harley-Davidson Sportster Performance championship series. Seven years later “Jammin” Jared etched his name into the flat track record books as the 2009 AMA Pro Grand National Expert Twins champion. He won the Twins Championship after earning ten top-5 finishes in the Singles and Twins main events competing for the Blue Springs Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson/ Rogers Lake Racing team aboard the XR 750.
Last year as a member of Harley-Davidson’s “Wrecking Crew,” the flat track racer out of Clio, Michigan, was the first champion in the history of the Grand National series to claim the title without winning a race. Mees was a model of consistency, however, with three second place finishes, two thirds, and no worse than eighth place in nine Twins events. His title helped him step out of the shadows of another “Wrecking Crew” member, Kenny Coolbeth, who beat Mees out for the Grand National Twins championships in 2006 and 2007. During his career, Mees has won six Grand National Twins races since being named AMA Flat Track’s “Ricky Graham Rookie of the Year” after the 2004 season.
The 2010 AMA Pro Grand National Twins Championship season is still young, but Mees will have to work hard to defend his Number 1 plate. The Blue Springs Harley-Davidson/Rogers Lake Racing rider has continued to post consistent results, finishing fourth in both the Yavapai Downs and the Springfield Mile.