Flat track is an unusual form of motorcycle racing that involves a short dirt track, lots of sliding, and lots of crashing. But many world-class road racers have gotten their start here, and even superstars like Rossi and Marquez are now adding flat track into their training. So why is this little-known kind of racing the birthplace of so many racing champions?
Flat track racing is not very well known today, but it is actually the oldest form of motorcycle racing in the U.S., tracing it’s roots all the way back to the 1920s. Flat track, which involves short sprints around oval dirt tracks, is no walk in the park – racers powerslide through every corner, dragging steel-soled boots along the ground, pitching their bikes almost completely sideways, and bumping elbows and bars with other racers at every turn, and they spend more time with the rear end sliding than getting traction in a race.
It’s an exciting, fast-paced, and especially spectator-friendly sport – but it’s been almost completely forgotten about in the last several decades as road racing and motocross/supercross have stolen the spotlight, and the sponsorships, factory teams, advertising dollars, and fans that go with it. However, what has not been forgotten are the actual skills flat track racers develop on the track while spending entire races at the limits of traction, inches from their competition at triple-digit speeds – because it is those skills that has led many of them to become champions after making the jump over to road racing.
So what exactly is it that makes flat track racing so unique, and why is it such a breeding ground for great road racers?
Flat Track: The Roots of American Motorcycle Racing
These days few people have ever even heard of flat track, but in the early 20th century it was the only kind of motorcycle racing that mattered – and it was that way for decades. It had the appeal of Supercross before Supercross ever existed, with closely fought battles on arena-sized tracks where spectators could see all the action up-close and personal, and fast cornering and aggressive powersliding that made every turn exciting to watch.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, flat track WAS motorcycle racing; but during the 1960s, motocross and road racing diverged into their own disciplines, and eventually stole the show.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, flat track racing was where every manufacturer needed to shine to be relevant; American manufacturers Harley-Davidson and Indian were building fantastically performing, highly competitive race bikes to compete against the “imports,” which, back then, were British Triumphs, Nortons, BSAs, and Matchless motorcycles. In the 1960s, motocross and road racing were coming into their own, but flat track was still a hot bed of racing innovation and talent; however, by the 1970s, motocross, with it’s challenging jumps, and road racing, with it’s high speeds, became the kinds of motorcycle racing sports enthusiasts really wanted to see, and flat track racing began it’s decline into relative obscurity.
These days, we get by riders sliding the rear tire during stunting or “gymkhana” – but flattrackers have been pitching it sideways for almost a century!
But even as that shift took place, once thing that didn’t change was that flat track seemed to be a breeding ground for great racers. Nobody demonstrated that better than racing legend Kenny Roberts, a dominant flat track racer who, in the late 1970s, found that the only way he could move up and out of flat track into higher-profile circuits was to cross the Atlantic and take up road racing in Europe. In 1978, under contract with Yamaha, he did just that – but in doing so, he also ended up completely changing the way road racing was done.
“I’d beat everybody over here, but there weren’t many races in America for Grand Prix bikes and Yamaha didn’t have a competitive dirt bike so there I was sitting home in Modesto with nothing to do. I had a contract with Yamaha USA so they decided I ought to try riding on the world championship circuit. So I did.”
In flat track, he was used to breaking traction, leaning deep into corners and powersliding through them; for Roberts, that’s just the way motorcycle racing was done. In road racing, he used similar techniques on the pavement to carry higher corner speeds – something that had never been seen before by the more conservatively-riding Europeans. Roberts was adored by fans for his seemingly wild, barely controlled riding style, but it didn’t take long before his European competition figured out where he learned to ride past the limits of traction like that; soon after, European teams began sending their best riders the other way across the Atlantic, to learn the secrets of breaking traction that had been honed over decades on dusty arenas across the American heartland.
Why Flat Track Makes Great Road Racers
It may not be immediately apparent how racing around a dusty oval on a low bike with wide bars, no front brakes, and hard, slippery tires would prepare someone to race a superbike on racing slicks through a road course. But the proof is in the pudding, and right from the mouths of the racers themselves, these are the fundamental skills flat track teaches that create the foundation for success in other riding disciplines:
It gets you comfortable breaking traction. In Kenny Roberts’ day, GP motorcycles were more powerful than tire technology could handle, and being able to slide the rear through a corner instead of slowing down to take it created a huge advantage. In today’s electronic age, it’s less of an advantage – but a racer can always go faster when he is comfortable riding at the limit of traction, and isnt’ fazed by the rear breaking loose.
It gets you comfortable getting close to other racers. Motorcycle racing is generally not a place you want to be bumping into other riders; but in flat track, banging elbows, knees, and bars with other riders while sliding through corners is actually the norm. When battling over the best line through a corner, road racing sometimes becomes a contact sport – and flat track racers are perfectly accustomed to it.
It forces you to build your racing strategy around the corners. In flat track, the entire race is like taking one big corner; if you’re not actively sliding through one corner, you’re setting yourself up for the next one. Superbikes are fast in the straights, but it’s in the corners that races are won and lost, and flat track racers are used to constantly setting themselves up to take the next corner at the highest speed possible.
It forces you to perfect your throttle control! Throttle control is important in every kind of racing, but the massive, powerful brakes on superbikes allow racers to rely more on braking to control their speed. In flat track however, there are no front brakes at all, and the rear brake is only used to break traction to start a slide. All control of the bike’s speed is done through the throttle, beyond the limits of traction, which demands excellent control through every corner.
The Future of Flat Track
Roberts may have been the first to apply skills honed in flat track to road racing on the pavement, but he was certainly not the last. These days, MotoGP greats like Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner (both known for sliding the rear) got their racing starts as kids doing flat track racing on local circuits, and even world champions like Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez race flat track off-season to expand and hone their riding skills.
Casey Stoner was known for his aggressive sliding of the rear tire during his MotoGP racing days, but backing i in was a skill he honed in flat track; Stoner was a flat track champion in Australia as a child, later moving over to road racing as a teenager.
With world-class racers like these not only crediting flat track with making them great racers, but still actively participating in races, America’s oldest form of motorcycle racing is finally making a comeback – nearly a century later!
Flat track is making a comeback! Indian Motorcycles is the new sponsor of flat track racing; a Scout Sixty build by Roland Sands is seen here ripping up the track in 2016.