Flat Track Racing

16 May 2018
by Sophie Joiris

Track racing concerns different categories, mainly Speedway, Grasstrack, Long Track, Ice Racing and, of course, Flat Track Racing. All these forms of motorcycle racing revolve around the same principle: a race where several competitors ride around a short and unpaved oval track in a counter-clockwise direction. Competitors can race in teams or individually. The administration in charge of these sports in the Fédération Internationale de Motocylisme (FIM), founded in Paris in 1904 under the name of Fédération Internationale des Clubs Motocyclistes (FICM).

 

History 

Flat Track Racing, also called Dirt Track racing, is the only motorcycle racing of its kind that was born in the United States of America. Its roots date back to the early 1900s and shaped the landscape of the American motorcycle scene for the years to come. The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) took care of organising the races in the early 1900s. The association was founded in 1924 and created the AMA Pro Flat Track race series in 1932. However, in 2016, it was rebranded American Flat Track (AFT).

In the beginning, the sport was extremely dangerous and took place on oval tracks covered in oiled wooden planks. While this offered a wonderful show to the spectators, it also resulted in a lot of crashes and injuries. For this reason, the sport’s organisers decided to make the sport safer after World War II. The races then started taking place on flat dirt tracks, hence the name of the sports.

The AMA Championship continued to take place in the early years of World War II. However, when the USA joined effort with the Allies in 1942, the races ended. The riders used to push their limits on the tracks were now giving their all on the battlefield. Once the War was over, the ones who came back jumped back on the tracks, but it was not before several years following the war that the events started taking place again.

In the 1960s, the sport was slowly winning the heart of the American people. Movies on the sports were even released to meet the popularity of the sport. During that decade, motorcycles became a ludicrous business which drew foreign manufacturers into the race. The late 1960s and early 1970s are considered the Golden Age of Flat Track Racing. Running for the titles were companies such as Harley Davidson, Indian, Yamaha, but also BSA and Triumph. However, the competition and the investment quickly proved to be too much for British manufacturers.

The engines grew more powerful from the 1970s on, which led to road racing. More and more riders switched from dirt tracks to the pavement and rose to the top. Moreover, Motocross began to attract more and more of the motorcycle audience in the 1980s, overshadowing Flat Track Racing in the process. These two decades marked the decline of the sport.

 

Back on Tracks: The Comeback

After its fall in oblivion, Flat Track Racing is now experiencing a comeback. Many manufacturers around the world started creating models as a tribute to their motorcycles’ heritage. This caused the public’s attention to shift to dirt track racing. However, the rise of Custom, Bobber and Café Racer motorcycles played an important part in the resurgence of the sport. The market trend shifted from performance to nostalgia, which led people to rediscover the almost-forgotten Flat Track Racing.

Nowadays, new technologies and engines are available, giving the sport infinite possibilities for its future. Track racing is now evolving, and many manufacturers have started designing Flat Tracker motorcycles. Only time will tell which engines will be first on the finish line and which will bite the dust. In the meantime, spectators will be able to enjoy a show that gives them a full view on the track. One thing is for sure: this sport is one of a kind.

 

Rivals Since the Very Beginning

Flat Track Racing has been the showcase of a never-ending rivalry between Harley Davidson and Indian manufacturers. When the Great Depression took place during the 1930s, these two American manufacturers were the only ones able to finance the sport and keep the engines running. Even when the nation started to recover from this event, the two brands remained favourites and their rivalry acted as cement for the sport and its audience.

Around the mid-1950s marked the demise of the Indian motorcycles, which made Harley Davidson number one on the Flat Track Racing scene. Even when other companies such as BSA, Triumph and Yamaha joined the race, the American manufacturer remained on top. Harley Davidson shaped the landscape of the sport, but Indian was not going to give up this easily.

Now that the sport is back on tracks, Indian Motorcycles is determined to fight for the top once again. The 2016 season marked the comeback of the manufacturer in American Flat Track after more than 50 years of absence. Indian manufacturers worked hard and snatched the first spot in AFT both in 2017 and 2018 with the rider Jared Mees.

 

Indian FTR1200 and FTR1200S

In 2017, Indian Motorcycle has announced a street-legal custom with a flat track chassis: the FTR1200. This model is based on the FTR750, winner of the 2017 American Flat Track Series. This motorcycle is track ready and looks like a real winner, thanks to the FTR chassis and the Scout motor. With the regained interest given to Flat Track Racing, this is a smart addition to the manufacturer’s line. The market is looking at the model with excitement and anticipation.

The FTR1200 has a similar rear swingarm and gas tank design to the FTR750. The resemblance does not stop there as the Dunlop tires also have a dirt track style. However, they are street legal. Its other features, a retro round LED headlight, an analogue speedometer and a USB port give the motorcycles a breath of modernity.

When it comes to the FTR1200S, a customizable LCD touch screen with Bluetooth replaces the speedometer. This allows the motorcycle to benefit from wheelie mitigation control, traction control and lean-angle stability control. You can choose from three different ride modes: standard, sport and rain. Moreover, this model’s suspension has a rear piggyback with an adjustable preload, compression and rebound.

 

Flat Track Motorcycles

Flat Trackers are different from other Trackers like motorcycles used for Speedway. They are bigger, heavier but also more powerful than their Speedway counterparts. Another major difference is the presence of rear brakes, which allows for a different cornering technique. On a lighter note, they are also more aesthetically pleasing.

Flat Trackers are divided into two main classes, also called divisions. First, there is the Singles category, which contains smaller and lighter 450 cc bikes. They usually look like custom motorcycles. The Twin category includes bigger and larger four-stroke 750 cc bikes. They are specifically designed for Flat Track Racing. In general, Flat Trackers can reach speed up to 140 mph (225 km/h). The winner is determined by photo-finishes because the opponents are usually really close to one another. Victory is usually a matter of milliseconds.

 

Technique

Riding a Flat Tracker is a dangerous and difficult task. “Going left on dirt” is not for the faint of heart. It consists of taking a left turn after speeding up in the straight line of the oval track. There are three important moments when reaching a corner. 

First, the rider slows down by turning the tires sideways so that they are sliding against the direction of the bike. The front tire “scrub” is usually reserved for pro-drivers as it is consequently harder than using only the rear wheel side. Once the rear starts sliding, the driver turns the front wheel towards the turn and squeeze the rear brake. They then free their left leg so that it hangs off the bike and prepare to slide.

The mid-corner is considered a major turning point – quite literally. You can easily get ahead of your opponents at the moment. Pro-riders are capable of getting the bike turned in the right direction right away, but mastery only comes with experience. Finding the right balance goes through throttle control and body position. The driver uses their left leg to slide alongside the motorcycles, which helps them maintain their balance and turn the bike over. The rider has to make his motorcycle’s rear slide long enough to turn it into the right direction without going too far and crashing. The sooner the bike is turned, the sooner you can get out of the corner.

The final part is the corner exit. It is recommended to put your shoes back on the motorcycle as soon as possible and lean your weight off the side and towards the back. Of course, everyone has a different technique, but the focus remains the same: getting grip for your rear tire while staying in the right position. Throttle control is the key to exiting the corner and speeding up straight in the right direction.

 

Championships

USA

The most popular Flat Track championship is the American Flat Track. It has four different forms of competitions: short track, half-mile, mile and TT steeplechase dirt track races. TT stands for term tourist trophy. These races sometimes have both right and left-hand turns as well as steeplechase-like jumps. American Flat Track organises races since the 1920s and hosts the Grand National Championship every year since the 1950s. However, the Flat Track Racing scene is not limited to the AFT or the USA.

 

Canada

Seeing the rise of Flat Track Racing in the USA, Canada started hosting its own event, the FMA/CTA Dirt Track Championship in 1950. The competition was incorporated with the FIM in 1957 and hosts three main classes: expert, senior and junior. They are often divided is subcategories. The main personalities of the Canadian Flat Track scene are Don McHugh, Yvon Duhamel and Don Taylor.

 

Europe

Europe also has its share of the championship. The European Short Track Championship is hosted each year since the early 2000s. However, even with the participation of British bikers, the rostrum contains only Dutch drivers. 

A wider event based in Germany and supported by ADAC and Mefo Sport offer riders from and venues in Italy, Britain, Austria and the Czech Republic. In 2012, this event became the FIM Flat Track Cup, a worldwide championship. The top spots are, however, mostly taken by Italians.

 

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom hosts the “British Short-Track/Flat-Track Championships” every year since 2005. It has an open championship, which welcomes riders from all around the world. This event also has a Thunderbike class for big motorcycles (above 600 cc and twins), most of them being Harley Davidsons. The leading manufacturers of the PRO-class are Honda and Suzuki.

The championship offers different types of tracks: 6 to 8 laps Short Track (under 400 m), half-mile and TT Steeplechase dirt circuits. Note that the majority of the events are Short Track races. 

 

Interesting Facts About Flat Track Racing

  1.     Rear Brakes

Unlike other Track Racing sports, Flat Trackers are equipped with only rear brakes, which requires the rider to develop a technique specific to dirt track racing. 

  1.     Up to 140 mph (225 km/h)

Flat Trackers can go up to 140 mph (225 km/h) during a race. This is more than the usual 80 mph (130 km/h) seen the Speedway category.

  1.     Born in the USA

Flat Track Racing is the only category of Track Racing that was born in the United States of America.

  1.     Unbelievable Start

The first Flat Tracker races took place on oiled wooden planks, which resulted in a lot of crashes and injuries. The organisers had to change the concept to provide a safer environment for the riders.

  1.     No Gender Discrimination

Not only are the motorcycles fast, but the sport is also ahead when it comes to gender. In Flat Track Racing, men and women compete against each other. They wear the same gear and are judged on the same criteria. 

  1.     Air Fence

Created in 1991, this safety fence has been implemented in the last decade to protect the drivers from serious injuries – or worse. Its use is not limited to Flat Track Racing but can be a real lifesaver. Several funds were even raised to finance their implementation by motorcycle races.

  1.     Street Version

Flat Trackers have a street-legal version called Street Tracker. Some of them are track ready, but most importantly, you can keep your Tracker style legally everywhere!

  1.     A Dangerous Sport

Flat Track Racing is known for being dangerous and thrilling. From the technique to the heavy machines, you can expect more than a few scratches if you’re aiming for a top spot. The air fence can only do so much. A total of 196 deaths has been reported in this sport until 2018.

  1.     Back from The Ashes

The motorcycle sport was going downhill from the 1970s on until it was brought back to life by manufacturers’ tribute to their roots, more media coverage and the rise of DIY motorcycles.

  1.     Jared Mees

Jared Mees is one of the best current Flat Track racers. On top of bringing the manufacturer Indian back in the game, he won six national championships, two gold medals and is the 2018 American Flat Track Motorcycle Racing Champion.

 

Products

If you want some real Flat Tracker parts, then here are some of the products you need to have a head start.

  • Tyres

Flat Track Racing requires a specific kind of tyres. Each surface needs its own material to give you the best traction and ensure you can get ahead of your opponents. The official brand of the American Flat Track Association is Dunlop. Note that some of those tyres are not street-legal. However, they are perfect on the track! You might also want to take a look at the following brands: Mitas, Heidenau and Shinko.

 

  • Seat

Flat Tracker seats are similar to Café Racer seats, however, they have a lower bump because of their off-road use. It is important that you chose a good-quality and comfortable seat in order to give your best during the race. On top of that, they are easy to slide on and often have number shields on the side.

 

  • Suspension

Most motorcycles’ stock suspensions are meant for a generic driver. They are therefore not well suited for track use. The components inside the shocks and the fork tubes might be sufficient for a Street Tracker, but if you want a real Flat Tracker, you will have to up your game. Once you get your hands on high-performance shocks, you should adjust the preload, rebound and damping according to your weight and riding style.

 

  • Grips & Bars

For good handling and control of the bike, a good pair of grips on a sturdy handlebar is a must, especially if you are riding and sliding on the oval track. Since everything is about timing and control, you might want to invest in these parts as soon as possible. The classic flat trackers had a “U” shaped bar, but nowadays an MX bar is used pretty often.

 

  • Exhaust

A performance exhaust is really worth the investment if you aim to win the race. A high-performance exhaust will give you that little plus you need to be the best. It will also give your motorcycle a nice upgrade of its sound and aesthetics while saving weight.

 

  • Engine/Motorcycle

You might not know where to start on this one. The best is to fit a performance carburettor on your motorcycle alongside a corresponding performance air filter. Keihin FCR carburettors are often used in combination with a DNA, Twinair or K&N air filter.


There are also a lot of internal performance parts like a stronger clutch, stronger rods, high-compression pistons, faster gear ratios and many more that you can modify. The sky is the limit, however, do mind that most races have their limits on bore size and other performance upgrades in order to keep the race fair.

 

References

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