Flat track racing is America’s oldest form of motorcycle racing, and over the years not much has changed. Many of the tracks are still the same, often on the same dirt, using the same grandstands and lights. The racers still arrive in vans with small teams like they did in the ’60s and ’70s. Fans freely walk through the pits and know the racers, and often the racers know the fans. The bikes have changed over the years, but you still don’t see many mechanics, because more often then not, the racers are the mechanics. The flat track spirit, all in all, has remained rugged and raw. There are no umbrella girls.
One weekend in mid-November, in Las Vegas, was no exception. The AMA Pro Flat Track finale (held on Friday) and the first-ever Superprestigio of the Americas (held on Saturday) featured the fastest flat trackers in the country. This event ran on a 1/10-of-a-mile course in the Orleans Arena, making the races something like a fistfight in a phone booth. The track at the Orleans is essentially a bullring, and for such a seemingly simple loop — a dirt oval — its unforgiving arcs can lead to pure anarchy.
The finale began with the 2015 AMA Grand National Championship title on the line. Bryan Smith had the chance to take his first-ever title, being only seven points behind the defending champion, Jared Mees. Mees won the championship in both 2012 and 2014, and he placed 2nd in the 2014 Spanish Superprestigio, only losing to MotoGP Champion Marc Marquez. Both Mees and Smith live in Flint, Michigan, and have known each other much of their lives (Smith was in the Mees’ wedding).
Smith was born into flat track. “The town where I am from — Flint, Michigan — is home to some of the best flat track racers ever,” Smith said. “It is the Charlotte to NASCAR, or the SoCal to MOTO.” Smith was mentored by legendary nine-time AMA Grand National Champion Scott Parker, who won his first title at the Sacramento Mile in ’88. Smith has charisma and style, and he might be one of the few flat track riders who will make it to the mainstream. He is the first-ever X-Games gold medalist in flat track racing and he has a drink sponsor — Kid Rock’s beer, Badass. But when it comes to winning a Grand National Championship, Smith has always been a bridesmaid, and this year the same story ran true.
In the semi, Smith crashed in turn four. “Stuff happens so fast on the short track. I got stuffed and then I stuffed someone and then bam, I was out,” Smith said after the race. “I think it was the road racer John Kocinski who described flat track as ‘catching a fish and holding on to that big slimy thing in your hands, and just when you think you have it, it slips out.'”
Brair Bauman went on to win the main event, and therefore Mees took his third National Championship.
The show started with hot laps by the grand Marshall Kevin Schwantz, followed by a pre-show of Vegas girls wearing sequins and feathers and surrounding an Elvis impersonator who serenaded the fans with fireworks.
The next day, the first-ever Superprestigio of the Americas commenced. The show started with hot laps by the grand Marshall Kevin Schwantz, followed by a pre-show of Vegas girls wearing sequins and feathers and surrounding an Elvis impersonator who serenaded the fans with fireworks. There was a sensational pre-race: the Super Hooligans, riding heavy custom street bikes, whose loose rules consist of having at least a 750cc twin engine on a bigger, stock frame (no dirt bikes or purpose-built vintage racers). It featured such misfits as Thor Drake of See See Motorcycles, FMX rider Drake McElroy and cult builder Roland Sands.
Drake, who dressed in all white denim, said he was first attracted to flat track racing for the “motorcycles, speed, and something to do on Saturday nights in the Pacific Northwest.” Roland Sands, dressed in jailbird stripes with gold accents, is a former pro road racer (he was named the 1998 AMA 250GP National Champion), and he took a more practical approach to why he loves flat track racing. “It was the most fun and challenging way to train, and it directly correlated to road racing,” Sands said. “It also got you super comfortable riding close with other riders. There’s no other way to get comfortable riding close than to do it.” Flat track is one of the favorite training disciplines of today’s Moto GP stars, including Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez.
Drake won the race and rode off on his prize, a brand-new Indian motorcycle that he said he would “take on a long road trip, maybe a jump, then make a full custom out of it. I can’t leave anything alone.” Mees went on to win the Superprestigio, and was presented his trophy by former flat track racer and jeweler Thom Duma, along with three feathered friends who handed out champagne.
Despite the history of the sport, the glitz of Vegas and the raucous competition, flat track still sits relatively in the shadows for most fans. Yet there is a movement into the light, and Steve McLaughlin, former racer and the “father of the World Superbike Championship,” is the man trying hardest to widen flat track racing’s appeal. McLaughlin’s company, SMI, has been promoting races for the AMA Flat Track, including the finale, along with the promotion of the American Superprestigio. He is the descendent of another successful racer, John McLaughlin, who was known for helping to foster the modern era of road racing in America. John’s father was another two-wheeled fanatic, a World War I motorcycle dispatch rider. McLaughlin’s blood comes premixed with racing fuel, and despite the lack of butts in seats, he’s persistent.
“I spent a half a million dollars on this event, and as you saw last night, I’m not making it back,” McLaughlin said after the finale at the riders’ meeting Saturday afternoon. Attendance was sparse on Friday, which could have been due to timing; the Los Angeles Auto Show and EICMA were happening simultaneously. But Saturday’s attendance wasn’t significantly better. And, outside of the arena, flat track also struggles for eyes. Every AMA Flat Track event is streamed on fanschoice.tv, but none of the races are on broadcast television, which makes it hard to grow new fans.
None of this brings McLaughlin down. He promises that this is just the beginning of a new phase for flat track, and he was able to get the Superprestigio broadcast on NBC Sports, which aired the event in late November. And if that isn’t the spark that ignites the series to grand success, America’s oldest sport still soldiers on, even if it means only a few seats are sold at a Midwestern state fair, carrying corndogs and ready for a show.
Flat track event schedules change depending on the track, but are most often held at night, and even more often at a state fair. There are short heat races followed by semi-finals which all work towards the “main event.” There are multiple ways a racer can advance to the main event — by winning their heat, for example, or earning points to make the main — but no more than 18 riders typically make it. (In Vegas, for the finale, the track was very short and tight, so instead of 18 racers in the main, they included only 12.)
There are two groups of racers, GNC1 and GNC2. GNC1 is the top class and they run two bikes. For longer tracks they ride twin-cylinder bikes (including Harleys), that have over 90 horsepower and can reach over 130 mph on the straights. For the small tracks and time trial they run single-cylinder 450cc production-based bikes. GNC2 racers ride 450cc singles as well for most tracks. Racers wear full leather suits or motocross kits, some wear motocross boots and others wear road racing boots. Everyone, as is required, wears steel “hot shoes” on their left foot so they can protect their boot and slide in the turns.
Tracks come in various lengths of ovals, from a mile, 1/2-mile track, 1/4-mile and an occasional time trail course with jumps. Although the tracks look similar — all are dirt ovals — they can differ depending on moisture, altitude, weather and type of dirt. Therefore, riders have to consider how best to take each turn, deciding whether to “square it off” or go “high, wide and handsome.” On the straights, a racer will get more aero by taking the left hand off the handle bar, grabbing onto the left fork and ducking behind the number plate. Also, front brakes aren’t allowed.