From Issue Four of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
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A high-revving V-twin engine of a Scout FTR750 barks to life. Amplified by straight pipes, unfiltered by a muffler, the exhaust note has a deep bellow hidden under sharp, cutting, top-end explosions. It’s a sound that tickles your eardrum and makes you wince but leaves you addicted, eager to hear more. It’s a sound no one’s heard for 64 years. It’s the sound of an Indian motorcycle taking to the starting line at a national flat track race.
Flat track racing has been a part of American culture since 1932. In the early ’30s, the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) officially sanctioned dirt track racing with Class A motorcycles, or purpose-built race bikes designed only for the track. They were highly specialized bikes, often custom built with unique and handmade parts. Fueled by competition and the pursuit of victory, costs to build, maintain and race these bikes quickly spiraled out of control and became unsustainable. This being during the Great Depression, a time when money saved was a lot more attractive than money spent, professional motorcycle racing in America was facing a deathblow only a few years after its inception. In an attempt to keep the sport alive, the AMA introduced a new class of racing, Class C. It was made up of street-legal production bikes — bikes manufacturers were already making and selling in the hundreds. Moreover, Class C was cost-effective and sustainable and helped to drive sales of participating manufacturers. Class C was the single most important championship because it helped facilitate healthy business while coexisting with the expenses of motorsport. Class C wasn’t just integral to the sport, but crucial to the manufacturers’ own economic survival.
From the outset, Indian Motorcycle Company and fellow American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson were bitter rivals. The two competed for sales on the street and for wins on the track; fortuitously, they accelerated the advancement of the motorcycle itself through pure determination to beat one another. The Grand National Championship was organized in 1946, where the Indian Motorcycle Company and Harley-Davidson rivalry grew as the two went wheel to wheel on the dirt tracks, ovals, street courses and Tourist Trophy (TT) steeplechase tracks (tracks that used part of an oval and incorporated multiple turns and a single small jump). In order to win on the track, the street-legal road bike Indian sold to its customers had to be an adept motorcycle to begin with. Class C motorcycles were all production bikes, which meant they needed to be race-capable, right from the factory. By virtue of necessity and by virtue of victory on the track, what worked in racing was built into subsequent road bikes.
From the outset, Indian Motorcycle Company and fellow American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson were bitter rivals.
Indian won three Grand National Championships in a row from 1951 to 1953 but after the 1953 season, the company folded under financial strain, suddenly ending one of the greatest American rivalries of all time. Flat track racing was left to be utterly dominated by Harley-Davidson for the next 64 years, during which time the company racked up 54 championships. (Though some of those championships were won while Harley-Davidson competed as the sole major manufacturer.) Despite that excitement, the Grand National Championships have not been consistently popular. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Grand National Championship saw its heyday as the most attended type of dirt track racing in America, but enthusiasm for the sport rose slowly to that point and sharply declined soon thereafter, due largely to the motorcycles themselves. After the Great Depression, flat track bikes became increasingly expensive, custom built machines. The genre of motorcycles turned highly specialized, more akin to the Class A bikes they originally replaced, whereas road racing and motocross bikes were more affordable and better yet, available directly from the manufacturer, ready to race, similar to the spirit of the original Class C bikes. There were echoes of the 1930s, but this time around flat track racing was on the wrong side of history.
Fast forward to 2017. The Grand National Championship has been renamed the AMA American Flat Track series, and the refreshed classes are populated with multiple manufacturers offering factory-built motorcycles ready for competition. After multiple ownership changes and relaunches since 1953, Indian Motorcycle Company is in the midst of a revival of its own. Now with a firm grasp on the market, Indian Motorcycle Company has reentered the sport with the Scout FTR750 to take on Harley-Davidson in a bid to reignite the long-dormant compatriotic feud.
The new era of the American Flat Track Championship is underway, most recently at the opening round of the 2017 season at Daytona International Speedway. Under the floodlights, like so many other legendary races at the track, the inaugural Daytona TT wasn’t short of wheel-to-wheel, shoulder-to-shoulder racing. Dirt flew, riders fell, bikes failed. It was only the first race of the season, but every rider was racing like it was their last, ever. By the time the checkered flag fell, a pair of Indian Motorcycle Company backed Scout FTR750s had crossed the line to earn a historic 1-2 victory. Some might say that’s a beautiful beginning to a great American comeback.
A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazaine: the America Issue Gear Patrol Magazine, which is now available: 320 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography. Subscribe Now: $39