One of the coolest things about motorcycling is the many fun-filled flavors to experience the thrill of riding on two wheels. Having wished to expand our motorcycle palette, we assembled a DTX-style flat track racer so we could get our feet wet in the world of flat track racing. The 2011 Kawasaki KX450F Flat Track Project 1 article covered the build while the 2011 Kawasaki KX450F Flat Track Project 2 race test told the story from the point of view of our more experienced test rider, Frankie Garcia. Now, it was a novice’s turn (me) to pitch it sideways around a dirt oval.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Before we dive into this racing tale we should back-up and talk about what it’s like to ride a motorcycle with no front brake. Being able to count on one hand the number of times I’ve thrown a leg over a flat tracker, I learned the ropes over the course of two separate practice days with the Southern California Flat Track Association at Perris Raceway. In addition to its racing series, the folks at SCFTA host occasional open practice days which allow you to burn laps and get acclimated to the sport in a no-pressure environment. Another plus is that an afternoon of laps only costs $40 for non-members, (members save $5), which is a deal considering how much seat time you get on Perris’ well-prepped quarter-mile oval.
Recognizing how much I depend on the front brake when I ride on or off-road, I was actually surprised how little time it took me to get use to the absence of a brake lever on the handlebar. Maybe it’s the relatively high-level of momentum that flat track naturally demands; it’s remarkable how much speed is scrubbed by simply letting off the throttle. Add in some rear brake and lean angle, and you’ll quickly discover that there is almost too much anchoring force at your disposal. Even more challenging than acclimating to the missing brake lever is learning where you need to ply your body at various points on track (more on that later) to maximize speed and maintain control. So with two solid practice days under my belt it was time to race…
SIMPLE PLEASURES / NIGHT SHOW
(Above) The Southern California Flat Track Association has a variety of racing classes for all ages and bike types. (Below) One of the coolest things about flat track racing at Perris is the schedule, as the races don’t begin until 5:00 p.m.
One thing that immediately drew me into dirt track competition was the schedule. Contrary to a road or motocross race, which requires you to crawl out of bed earlier than if you were going to work Monday, SCFTA events typically start at 5:00 p.m. This gives you the greater part of your Saturday to sleep-in or however else you like to spend the first day of the weekend.
Regardless if you’re riding a Honda XR100 or a full-on custom framer there is a class for you to compete in: kids, seniors and vintage riders all get in on the action. Everyone gets two quick practice sessions then it’s on to the heats, which set grid positions for the mains with the checkered flag waving on the final pro main right around 9:30 p.m. Afterwards there is an awards ceremony where the top-three finishers in each class get trophies and other prizes. The pace of the show is rapid and, barring any accidents, the only down time is for track prep between the heats and mains.
Since I was going to race the ‘run whatcha’ brung’ Open Novice class, our friend, professional road racer and all-around motorcycle ace, Jeremy Toye, had a go in the Pro class. We were also lucky enough to have flat track racing guru Jim Wood Sr. lending a hand in the bike set-up department. Wood owns Southland Racing Products (telephone no. 909 936 1766), a local Southern California race shop specializing in all things flat track from suspension and chassis set-up to engine building and performance. His son, Jimmy, is also one of the country’s top pros.
Toye was the first one on the bike when practice commenced promptly at five. Considering how short each session is (less than five minutes) it’s important to be ready to go as soon as the track is green. If you don’t ride regularly the first practice of the day is basically a wash and nothing more than a chance to get re-acclimated with some of the oddities of dirt track (i.e. riding a bike with a low seat-height and no front brake, as well as the technique of pushing the bike away through corners in an effort to stay atop the bike while constantly sliding both tires, lap after lap).
(Above) Our friend and professional motorcycle road racer, Jeremy Toye, led a few laps of the pro main having only raced flat track a few times before. (Below) Jim Wood Sr. cut in additional tread sipes into the Dunlop rear tire to help it hook up even better on the dirt.
During the second practice it became quite clear that the rear tire didn’t offer a whole lot of grip. This made the bike difficult to control when entering the turns as it felt as if the back end was going to come around completely and spin out. So we tried playing around with the shock settings in search of traction. We slowed down rebound slightly and double checked the preload just to make sure we were where we needed to be. But with no noticeable difference, we decided it was best to throw a fresh tire at the problem. We forked over $180 for a fresh Goodyear and Mr. Wood helped us go through the arduous task of slanging tire irons followed by cutting additional tread sipes for improved traction.
Each class gets a quick six-lap heat race that sets the grid for the main. Riders are lined up on rows based on who signed-up first. Obviously, given that the track is all left turns, the best starting spot is – you guessed it, on the left.
Based off what I’ve learned racing motocross, I presumed that second gear would be ideal off the start considering the relatively slick surface paired with the copious engine torque available from a 450cc Single. And I was right, though in application a little more clutch work is required to escape cleanly as the final drive gearing is taller than a MX bike. It’s so easy to spin up the tire off the line so you have to kind of bog the engine at first then quickly start fanning the clutch to get the revs up as the tire starts hooking up.
Since you’ve only got six laps it’s basically an all-out sprint to the checkered flag. With so many things happening all at once your senses are on the brink of overload – bombarded by the sound of the steel shoe scraping against the earth and the assuring feel of the front tire gripping, then suddenly folding, which necessitates added pressure on your foot to prevent a crash. The tire regains traction just as the back one starts spinning; the shock pumps if you’re too aggressive on the gas (which kills your forward drive), while your body shifts in an effort to stand the bike up on the fat part of the tire to dial-in full gas. Seconds later the the next turn nears: let off the gas momentarily, feather the brake and enter the turn sideways. Then repeat this dance for another five laps. And if that’s not enough you’re trying to avoid bashing into the guy next to you who, at times, is spitting distance next to you. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to maintain complete ninja-like focus because all it takes is one mistake and you’re race is over.
As soon as the flag dropped and we tipped the bike into Turn 1 it was literally night and day in terms of the difference in grip. In fact, it’s astounding how much traction is available with fresh rubber considering your riding on damp dirt. I got off to bad start in my race but worked through some guys, finding it difficult to pass others as I had never done this before. I was tentative and didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ slamming into anyone. Toye also got off to a poor start. In fact, he was so anxious he jumped the start, so on the restart he had to launch from the back row. Since he is such an talented rider, however, it had virtually no effect and he ended up passing the entire field half-way through the first lap, meaning he got to start the 20-lap pro main from up front.
(Top) Former 500cc Grand Prix racer John Kocinski regularly races flat track at Perris on his Honda two-stroke powered framer. (Centers) Throttle control is an inherent requirement of flat track racing and a skill that can help you maintain bike control in other types of motorsports. (Below) Flat track is all about close racing. As both Cycle World’s Mark Cernicky (50E) and Jeremy Toye (379) dove into Turn 1, Cernicky crashed which forced the race to be restarted.
With the exception of the 20-lap pro main the rest of the races are all eight-lap affairs. The mains combine the results from two or more heat races so the grid, depending on turn out, is two or three rows deep. Even during the sun drenched summer months the mains run under the cloak of darkness, but Perris’ lighting system is first-rate and with it it’s relatively easy to spot inconsistences such as blue groove that occasionally forms.
Because there are so many motos between the heats and mains, the condition of the track changes throughout the evening. The dirt at Perris is fairly hard pack so not too many bumps form. But occasionally small holes and ledges will form on racing lines, which force you to adapt and modify your trajectory. Obviously the track doesn’t change anywhere near as much as a motocross course, but since flat track is so momentum based – even small bumps and surface irregularities have the ability to substantially interfere with grip levels, which require the rider to instantly respond via body english, throttle, or both. As Mr. Wood astutely commented, flat track racing is all about managing traction. And the skill that is learned from this two-wheeled ballet is one of the reasons why so many top American road racers have found success on the pavement.
There were 12 entries in my Novice class and ten guys in the Pro race. I started from the second row and didn’t get a very good jump since I spun up the rear tire too much off the line. Maybe it’s because I’m not use to not having immediate stopping force of a front brake, but I was tentative when I closed in on the guy in front of me. Rather than analyzing where I could make a pass I would tense up and focus on their rear tire in an effort not to run into the back of it.
I was faster than him but I couldn’t find a way to get past. Each time I’d close up, he’d peel out with a better drive. This continued for the next few laps. Finally, I figured out where I would get him but I was so excited I ran wide near the wall in the slicker dirt. By the time I regrouped he was already multiple bike lengths ahead of me. I’d like to say I kept hitting my marks and caught up to him, but instead I just lost it and started making mistakes all over the place and was happy just to finish rubber side down in sixth position.
At the start of the Pro main Toye took no prisoners and ended up coming together with speed freak and Cycle World Magazine editor, Mark Cernicky, as they both jockeyed for the lead into the first turn. Cernicky ended up crashing (uninjured) so a restart was declared. Toye got an even better launch the second time and led the next few laps. No one else looked like they had the speed to really catch him until he too started making some mistakes. He didn’t look too out of control but like me he compensated by trying to push harder, which snowballed into more errors that allowed two other guys to get by him in quick succession. He eventually finished third – disappointed but still smiling having had the speed to run up front early on.
“The thing I love about flat track is that you’re never fully in control,” says Toye. “You’re dancing that fine line between being in and out of control. A lot of times your purposely losing grip… and the world of motorcycling is based on grip and having your tires inline. Who’d think it would be so much fun going around in a circle.”
Probably the neatest thing about flat track racing is how different it is compared to any other form of motorsports. Sure, there are similarities between it and road racing or supermoto, and since you’re rolling on dirt there’s some degree of motocross cross-over. But the feeling of hacking it sideways than accelerating with the back of the bike spinning, bucking and sliding is a thrill unlike anything else I’ve experienced. The biggest reason I dig dirt track is that it naturally instills control. And it’s not ‘being in control’ per-se, but that gray area where you don’t really know what’s going to happen next – instead putting emphasis on skill, technique, and of course a little luck to avoid ending up on your head. As Cernicky put it, racing flat track is “cheap insurance,” that is the kind of insurance that you pay and hopefully never have to use.