Backmarker: AMA Flat Track Bombshell

Mark Gardiner | August 6, 2015

A few weeks ago, AMA Pro Racing sent out a press release with a new proposed rules structure. The dry language belied the sweeping nature of changes which, if ratified, will change the the premiere GNC1 (aka ‘Expert’) class beginning next year.

The proposed rules in question are:
• All GNC1 class events will be contested on multi-cylinder engine motorcycles.
• Engine size limits by configuration type to be determined.
• Minimum weight limits will be applied and linked to engine size.
• Riders will be required to wear leathers at all events.

AMA Pro’s press release made it clear that the final rules would not be officially announced until the GNC banquet in ‘Vegas in November. That left me wondering whether this release was really a sort of trial balloon, or if it was an old-school AMA Pro top-down, this-is-the-way-it’s-gonna-be-get-used-to-it statement of fact.

Chris Carr 2011

Chris Carr with his longtime wrench Kenny Tolbert, at the Springfield TT in 2011. When AMA Pro Racing introduced the rule mandating stock-frame 450cc motocross-based short track and TT bikes, it told racers and teams that those bikes would encourage the participation of more sponsors. Now, AMA Pro seems to be saying these bikes discourage sponsors.

If it was a trial balloon, quite a few current GNC1 riders would’a shot it down, because few of them want to race short track or TT races on the twin-cylinder bikes they currently race on the bigger tracks. (And this is ignoring the fact that everyone would be under pressure to figure out how to make them work on short tracks, or more likely develop an all-new short track and TT machine in the few months between the official rules announcement in November, and the Daytona season-opener in March.)

Ronnie Jones, who is now at the helm for AMA Pro, explained the rules to Cycle News by making two key points. The first was that by running the same bike at all tracks, the sport avoided the confusion created when riders raced two different brands over the course of the season.

“If Brad Baker wins the championship, he rode a Harley 10 races and rode a Honda at four or five races, in the end who gets to claim the championship? The only person who gets to claim the championship or the only entity is Brad Baker. Honda can’t really claim it, neither can Harley.”

The second point was that we always expect the top Expert class to ride the gnarliest machinery.

“If you go to the rodeo do you like to watch the calf roping or the bull riders? I like the bull riders. The X Games – X is actually short for extreme – what’s more extreme: our big Twins or our Singles? So I think that the fans will respond. I think that they do respond more to Twins.”

What Ronnie left unsaid is that old-school fans have always hated the motocross-based 450 Singles currently raced by GNC1 (aka “Grand National Experts”) racers on short tracks and TTs. They still fondly remember the ‘80s heyday of the Wood-Rotax and other ‘framers’, or look back even further to stylish short track bikes like the Bultaco Astro.

And, by the early ‘90s, this TV coverage of the Peoria TT shows that all the top guys were using Rotax single-cylinder power. Among them, is Ronnie Jones, who is now tasked with selling the idea of going back to Twins on the TT.

The thing is, when AMA Pro brought in the current rules specifying OEM (i.e. motocross) frames for ST and TT bikes, they sold it to the paddock by saying that it would increase manufacturer interest and support, and open up a huge new pool of potential sponsors — all the dealers for any of the brands with a 450 MX model in their lineup. Now, AMA Pro’s saying that getting rid of those bikes will make the sport more attractive to sponsors.

Maybe times have changed that much; maybe it was a good idea in 2009 and it’s a bad idea now. That’s possible, but in the absence of an explanation I am not inclined to believe it.

And this much is definitely true: You can love or hate the MX-based 450s, but that formula makes for a relatively affordable and level playing field. Using those bikes in four of five Grand National races per year didn’t bring much if anything in the way of manufacturer support, But today’s GNC riders do get some support from dealer-sponsors. More to the point, building a competitive machine is not that expensive, and the MX bikes have proven pretty durable; so once you’ve got it, the cost of keeping it running is lower than most Twins.

When I first read the proposed rule, it occurred to me that maybe what AMA Pro was saying was, the GNC1 class won’t race the short tracks and TTs any more. But the idea of dropping the storied Peoria TT is anathema, and I doubt the current AMA Pro leadership would consider dropping the Daytona short track races.

The implication of the AMA Pro statement is that they anticipate GNC Experts to just gear their current Twins for the short tracks or TTs, and race ‘em. But that’s not realistic. To be even relatively competitive, Experts will have to develop and build at least one and probably two all-new framers specifically for short tracks and TTs. That’s a cost no one can absorb right now.

I say “relatively competitive” because one unintended consequence of racing anything resembling a current Twin on a short track or TT course is that they’ll be slower than the current Singles (and slower than the GNC2 support class,) at least for a while. Most of today’s top guys came up in the DTX era, the ‘crossers are what the devil they know on short tracks and over TT jumps.

I’m sure it’s possible to build a framer that — from a chassis perspective — is inherently capable of faster laps, but it’s going to take some time for riders to adapt to a type of machine that (most of them) have never ridden. And, even after today’s riders have adapted to new chassis, the Twins are not going to hook up. There’s a reason that short track bikes evolved towards single-cylinder power even before Singles were mandated in the rules: Singles are the ultimate ‘big bang’ motor, with widely spaced power pulses that help racers find traction on loose surfaces.

So, if AMA Pro Racing really wants the current crop of Experts to ride their Twins on short tracks and TTs, they’d better get ready to explain why they’re lapping slower than the support class at Daytona. And they’d better bring extra ambulances to Peoria and Castle Rock.

This cool footage of the Ascot TT track from 1963 proves that, yes, they did race full size Twins in TT races back in the day. But that jump’s small by modern standards.

Don’t get me wrong on this: Conceptually I like the idea of GNC1 equipment that’s visibly different from the bikes raced in GNC2. But why not just free up the GNC1 rules? (There have been a lot of rule changes, over the last 50 years or so, when it comes to ST and TT equipment used by GNC Experts. If you want to geek out on it, here’s a good information source).

When old-timers get together and bemoan the state of short track and TT in the current GNC, they usually mention the electric atmosphere and large crowds drawn to the Houston Astrodome, when those races — not Daytona — kicked off the Grand National Championship. Until the late ‘70s, short track racing was limited by displacement — depending on the year, bikes had to be under 360 or 250cc — but there were both two-stroke and four-stroke Twins mixing it up with two-stroke and four-stroke Singles.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Eddie Mulder for a different project, and he told me that in the early-to-mid-‘60s, he raced all the Ascot TTs, on a nearly-stock Triumph Bonneville. And, reviewing sketchy home movie footage of early Houston Astrodome races shows that — even in those tight confines — lots of guys raced Twins with sprockets the size of serving platters.

But year by year, TT bikes evolved towards a smaller, lighter ideal. In 1978, for example, Steve Eklund won both the short track and the TT season-opener in Houston on a Yamaha TT500-engined framer. The next year, Mickey Fay won on a Wasco-framed Honda XR500 four-stroke that weighed 240 pounds.

I’d love to see a return to freer rules for ST and TT machinery, which created diverse fields and encouraged some very creative engineering. But it would be a mistake to force teams and riders whose budgets are already strained to make all-new bikes, or run the current Twins which are totally unsuited to short tracks and which will be unsafe on TTs.

So, here’s my suggestion to AMA Pro: Don’t specify that riders race the same basic motorcycle on all tracks. (There have been some riders, lately, who race totally different Half-mile and Mile bikes anyway.)

Instead, try this rule:
• Beginning in 2016, the use of an OEM frame is optional in ST and TT races (as it is on Half-mile and Mile tracks)
• For ST and TT races, motors can be Singles or multis with the same upper displacement limits used on Half-mile and Mile tracks. No lower limit for displacement.

This would allow riders and teams to continue using the proven equipment they’re used to as long as they want, while experimenting with other solutions.

Classic-America_Astro-second-row

When old-timers lament the days of short-track “framers” they’re usually talking about light, stylish bikes like these ‘70s-vintage Bultaco Astros.

If AMA Pro is right, and a ‘one-bike’ formula will attract factory sponsors, then the factories can fund the development of a new generation of short track and TT framers. Using Kawasaki as an example, if the factory wanted to develop a 650-based bike for the big tracks and a short track and TT bike powered by their 300cc twin, they could do so. Over the next few years, I think we’d see fields with some radically different bikes and creative engineering. While AMA Pro is at it, why not specifically allow electric motors and really throw the field wide open?

I can pretty much guarantee you that most teams and riders will prefer my rule to the one recently proposed. But there’s one last caveat: it won’t work if AMA Pro wants to turn homologation fees from manufacturers into a major revenue stream. I admire those creative ST and TT bikes from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, but for most of that period, it was really easy to homologate new equipment.

Finally, while most of the buzz around the new rules has been focused on the implied death of the 450 ‘crossers, I’m not the only one who also noticed that the proposed rule refers to ‘multi-cylinder’ bikes and not ‘Twins’.

In 1975, Kenny Roberts won the Indy Mile on a TZ750-powered bike, then famously said, “Yamaha doesn’t pay me enough to ride that…” The next season, the AMA limited flat track equipment a maximum of two cylinders, which ended a period of great experimentation.

In the last few years, we’ve seen some new compact, narrow Triples like the Triumph 675 to the Yamaha FZ09. Some knowledgable insiders suggest those Triples would make great flat track motors.

Is AMA Pro also planning to encourage more creative solutions on the big tracks, too? If so, I’ve got safety concerns, but that’s material for another column.

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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