Flat Track Dirt Racing
In 1979, for the first time ever, an American rookie won the 500GP World Championship. They young Kenny Roberts’ unique style, steering by sliding the bike in a turn on excess power was so unique that everyone scrambled to uncover his approach – they found a background in American flat track dirt racing.
It’s 9am on a Saturday morning in the mountains North of Fresno, California and I’m sitting on the couch of seven times AMA National Champion, Rich Oliver’s house. Rich trained with King Kenny and attributes a lot of his success to techniques learned from flat track. What’s unique about flat track racing is that instead of leaning your body into a turn, you lean, pushing the bike down beneath you, and instead of using traction to hold your line, you crack open the throttle to get the tires to spin out as you slide sideways around the turn and hold the bike up with your inside leg.
Rich as now set up a school on his ten-acre far to pass on his knowledge. The two days ahead will be humbling experience for me. I have only had about one year’s riding experience and I’m surrounded by people who seem to live for bikes and regularly do track days.
Our class consists of Ryan, an ex-Air Force Radar Technician and current professional Super Moto racer: Greg, a contractor from San Francisco who spent the majority of his life racing street bikes: Yuki, a plastics factory manager from Indonesia: Ed and Deb, a couple from the Bay Area: and there’s Michael, an Aussie Customer Service man who’s arrived with a Tupper-ware container containing his inhaler and basic First Aid kit. Whilst Yuki, Deb, Michael, and I go through the mildly degrading experience of getting suited up with loaner motocross gear, I can already hear the competitive tearing of Velcro from the porch. Like three storm troopers, Ed, Greg and Ryan start the arduous process of suiting up in their personal Giger-esque body armor.
We walk down to one of the nine tracks on Rich’s property and spend the morning learning remedial basics. After a delicious home-cooked lunch by Karin (Rich’s wife and co-instructor), we do timed trials of the course. Expecting to be slow, I’m surprised to be a tenth of a second off the second-place man, Greg. Ryan, the pro, has made us all look like lady-boys and already competitiveness is taking root. Later in the afternoon we are unleashed together for the first time. After a crash by Ed and blamed on Ryan (I was behind them when contact was made) tensions grow between the two. Ed is shocked that he crashed and wants someone to take responsibility for this heinous crime. Ryan sits unapologetically silent as if watching a simmer complaining about getting wet. Ed’s in for a big surprise as crashing is about to become a major food group in all of our diets, especially Yuki’s who seemed to wind himself and soil his outfit at least once per 5 lap race.
“After the first time,” says Yuki, “I lost the fear of crashing and wanted to push the limit or at least find out where it lies. I would enter turns not knowing if I would be able to save it.” But this never removed the smile from his lips as it did Ed’s, who stayed in a funk for the rest of the weekend.
At the end of the day, when our instruction was complete, Rich let us take the bikes onto a motocross track that loops around the house. The sand and the jumps are excitingly new to me and though I’m not lacking in bravado I eventually run out of the necessary skills to keep me upright. Headed up straight for a massive drop off after a sweet little high speed passing maneuver on Yuki, I’m left no choice but to ditch, or leave the property in a Medivac helicopter. Yuki passes me with smiling eyes as I suck oxygen. “I remember you passing me,” he good-naturedly says, “entering that blind corner a little fast. As I passed through the could of dust I saw you kicking the bike off yourself almost disgusted by your mistake.”
As the sun sets over the beautiful landscape we leave the track with ice-skate feet, sore and exhausted. Back at the local Marriot I took a hot bath and realized that I am going to have to give myself medical attention with Save-On’s finest painkillers, tiger balm, ice, elasticized braces, and copious amounts of rum. Some Save-On bratwurst also catches my eye so I decide to cook in my kitchenette thus saving myself the excruciating hobble to a local Mexican restaurant.
Cut to 3am; drunk, feverish from an over application of tiger balm and depleted from the painkillers my forgotten sausages set the smoke detector off. In lightening defiance of gravity I manage to climb the wallpaper with my finger and toe nails to disarm the shrieking plastic box before the local fire brigade axe themselves into my much needed peace. “I should have gotten a burrito,” I think to myself as I fan the smoke to the kitchen ventilator with a sweatshirt.
I wake up and my right ankle’s not feeling too hot and the room smells of Germany. I decide that I’m not going to let a little pain get in the way of this amazing experience and stay quiet about my injury. The morning of day two is spent perfecting what was learned on day one. The group is divided into two. Greg, Ryan and I are chosen as ready for the coveted steel sole which straps onto the outside of your boot. Out on the track the presence of a slippery piece of metal on your left foot makes sliding sideways at speed a niravanical experience. I feel bad for the others. They remain unsheathed.
Five crashes in the morning, all on my right ankle have matters worse and I can no longer turn right or use the rear brake. After a second series of time trials where everyone but me has taken seconds off their previous day’s times, I have to admit defeat and retire before I do serious damage. I’m starting to crash as much as Yuki.
After spending the morning assuring Greg that I was going to embarrass him, I must limp into the shade to sip Cyto Max and watch as the class spends the other rest of the afternoon racing each other. At one point I can no longer stand it and I suit up for one last race. Greg and I are next to one another. I get the better start and make the first corner. The following five laps are quite possibly the most focused 3 minutes of my life as his 125cc Yamaha rattles very closely behind my every move. I know that if I make even the slightest mistake he will be there to slide by. I cross the finish line without his without his brown and white jersey in my peripherals. In hindsight I now attribute my absolute lack of experience as my possible upper hand. Greg, as with most of the class, had to unlearn habits he’s deeply ingrained where as I came to the dirt a fortunate virgin. Fearing he let me win, I question his loss. “Catching someone on the track is one thing but passing can be much more difficult – especially if they don’t make any mistakes.” Sensing I have made a true friend in Greg, I feel this won’t be the last time we duel. The final race is an all out war; I sit on a hay of bale and watch the fury of the collective cubic centimeters of class unleashed on the track. What started as a slaughter on day one had now become a ballet. I watch as the group sweeps their bikes through turn after turn in as much control as one can maintain whilst riding sideways. I question Ryan about how much a pro can take away from a class like this, “I tend to be very aggressive and riding with someone like Rich made me realize that I can accomplish the same thing by being smooth.
I understand now how King Kenny and then Rich Oliver benefited from flat track and converted it into GP wins on asphalt. I suppose it would be like a jockey training on wild horses. Once you feel comfortable in the most dangerous and extreme circumstances, then you can relax and push the bike to further limits. Flat track racing teaches you how to sense traction, how to blend all the bike’s controls together in symphony and how to correct anything that might happen on the road; all essential elements not only to the racer but also the casual rider.