Featured: A Brief Oral History Of American Flat Track Racing

A Brief Oral History Of American Flat Track Racing

By Ted Gushue
November 30, 2016

It’s hard to conjure up images of the early days of motorcycling without visualizing some mad man in a suit screaming down a dirt path at 60 with nothing but spectacles on to protect him from certain doom. I’ve always been enamored with this era of motorcycle history, and more specifically the sports that emerged from the time. Flat Track racing is, in my mind, the premiere form of American motorcycle racing.

Sure we host Moto GP at COTA and sure we’ve got Nicky Hayden out there on the track somewhere, but when I think of die hard American motorcycle racing, I think of Flat Track. I think of Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday. I think of steel boots and no brakes.

Recently I had the chance to chat with the CEO of American Flat Track, Michael Lock about where the sport’s been, and most importantly where it’s headed.

Ted Gushue: Start at the beginning and when you get to the end, stop.

Michael Lock: There really is quite an interesting back story to where we are. I think it’s one of the reasons why we’re enjoying so much momentum now is that we’ve actually got a real American story to tell which I think is capturing everybody’s imagination. Flat track racing goes all the way back to the 1920’s. It is the original American motorcycle racing.

TG: Who were the guys that were participating back then? This had to be one of the most dangerous forms of motorsport at the time.

ML: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. First, the machines themselves were fairly rudimentary. Second, somebody had come up with this amazingly whiz-bang idea to race the bikes with no brakes.

TG: These were tank shifters, many of them. Dangerous machines.

ML: Oh yeah. I think the first sanctioned race by the AMA, which really would be the birth of the professional sport, was way back in 1924. Harley-Davidson dominated then as they have done up until quite recently. Harley won that race. That’s really where it kicked off.

TG: Walk me through the decision to take the brakes off. What were they thinking?

ML: I think the sporting argument would be this: This is dirt track racing, i.e. you are on a semi-loose surface. Brakes, which are designed to scrub speed also require fairly good traction control. Dirt will not provide you that. I think that if anything, the use of brakes on these original dirt ovals would have been counterproductive and would have caused quite a considerable risk in terms of losing control of the machine.

The sport involved the skill of the rider and the construction of the machine. When you would ordinarily need to apply brakes, i.e. to slow yourself down and prep for a corner, you would lose traction. Instead the riders manipulated the throttle and shifted their body weight to shift the trajectory of the bike to scrub the speed off and stop them from going into the corners.

What really  makes dirt track racing so fascinating is that the relationship between the machine and the rider is very critical. You can’t win dirt track races by applying technology. The rider really wins the race. The rider is the one who is controlling the balance and the speed and also the momentum of the bike through the corners. If you watch dirt track racing you will see some very interesting things.

I come from a street bike and a road racing background, so it’s fascinating for me to really get into the sport and see that the guy who goes into the corner hottest and will pass two or three guys going in, will usually be the guy who gets passed coming out. It’s very, very difficult to go in hot to a corner and come out hot. You see all these different styles, and you see all these different lines that they take. You don’t know until they come out the corner who’s really got the momentum for the next straight.

The lack of brakes might sound like a kind of daredevil move, but I don’t think as the sport evolved that the addition of brakes would have been any great advantage. It conjures up this quite dramatic and quite dangerous image which I think has captured people’s imagination.

TG: Who are some of the historically iconic figures of Flat Track?

ML: Dick Mann and Gary Nixon were huge stars in the 60’s. Not only did they win in that period but they went on to become very famous road racers. But both those guys won on British motorcycles which was the theme of the 60’s. The Brit bikes came to the fore much as they did in street bikes as well. Triumph and BSA and Norton in particular became huge brands in the US through the 60’s into the 70’s. That was reflected in dirt track racing.

Gary Nixon won back-to-back plates for Triumph in ’67 and ’68 when the sport was huge. Dick Mann had won the first national championship for a British brand, which was BSA, back in ’63.

The 60’s really propelled the sport. Then the Japanese brands all came into the sport in the early 70’s. That’s when you had the most crossover between road racing and dirt track racing.

The catalyst for all this was Kenny Roberts. Kenny Roberts went on to become America’s first Grand Prix champion. He ended up winning three motorcycle Grand Prix championships. He also competed for Yamaha prior to that in dirt track racing and rode this extraordinary machine, a TZ750, a two-stroke 750, that’s gone down into the annals of history as the most fearsome motorcycle ever put on a dirt track.

Kenny Roberts won a championship in ’73, then went on. There was a golden era of American road racers in world championship Grand Prix. Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz. These guys all went on to become world champions during a period when the Europeans and the Japanese really couldn’t get a look in in Grand Prix.

They all came from dirt track. I think it wasn’t a coincidence that there was a certain set of skills you learn in controlling a motorcycle on dirt and pushing that bike sideways. Effectively, as the racers would call it “backing it in” really transferring your body weight to push the rear of the motorcycle to effect a slide. Not just a rear wheel slide, but also a front wheel slide, in order to change direction and keep maximum corner speed. They took that skillset and took it to road racing bikes. The Europeans really didn’t know what hit them.

I remember as a kid growing up in London watching Freddie Spencer in about 1982 or ’83. I was watching Freddie Spencer race in England with smoke coming off not only the rear tire which was already quite dramatic, but smoke coming off the front tire. I had never seen this on a road race bike before. I was standing there at Coppice Corner at Donington Park thinking to myself the first time I saw it that I hadn’t quite seen it right. Then watching him do it lap after lap after lap while simultaneously spanking all the Europeans he was racing against.

This was the era when dirt track gave these skills and these stars to the world. The unfortunate irony is that they all ended up leaving dirt track and going to road racing because it was a) international and b) tremendously more lucrative because all of the Japanese factories were involved.

Dirt track provided all these world champions but then lost them. The sport really didn’t recover for nearly three decades. The Moto Grand Prix has become now a global entity. It sucked up all the talent from the 80’s and 90’s and more recently to the point where dirt track really had become a bit more of a backwater sport. It was still loved by the people who did it and followed it, but it had shrunk in its popularity.

TG: You never saw someone like Barry Sheene jumping onto a dirt track, did you?

ML: No. There’s no heritage of it in Europe. There’s a related sport, Speedway, but it’s really only semi-related. There’s no heritage of dirt oval racing in Europe. In the big countries like England, Spain and Germany that produce a lot of stars, it’s all road racing. It’s all done on asphalt rather than on dirt.

It’s a uniquely American sport which I think until quite recently the skill-set that all of these stars, the Robert’s and Spencer’s, the skills they learned as kids when they were coming up were remarkably useful and transferable until quite recently when all of the electronic controls now on road racing bikes are such to the point where those skills are not unique and can be recreated by the motorcycles themselves.

The advantage for anyone who grew up learning on dirt has been diminished. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that once the electronics on Grand Prix bikes has become so good Americans rarely win a race now in MotoGP. In fact, there’s a huge move now to try and find the next generation of US stars in Grand Prix because, short of Nicky Hayden winning in 2006 Americans barely get a look in. I think the skill-set that they had, the advantage that they had, has changed as these things do. Everything tends to go in cycles in our industry.

TG: The brand sat roughly dormant for 30 years. Were there still races being held?

ML: There was a grand national championship run every year. This has been unbroken. It’s just that the attention from the outside world (and by that I mean primarily motorcycle manufacturers because manufacturer participation is essential in professional sport) meant that one by one all the manufacturers withdrew from pro flat track except Harley-Davidson who have supported the sport, year-in-year-out for five decades.

TG: Outside of Harley, did you have people that were wrenching their own bikes or putting their own kind of monstrosities together to race on track?

ML: Yeah. In the early 70’s Harley produced a purpose built dirt track race bike called the XR-750. I think it’s the most iconic race bike ever made in any discipline. There is no other motorcycle in any sport that won for 40 years. I think it is interesting if you look at the XR’s of the early 70’s and you look at an XR now, there is no doubt that the bike evolved over those decades and became refined to the point where even in 2016, XR-750’s won some rounds of our national championship. Even in 2016, with carburetors, would you believe that it could still win? The bike has become so refined and so useful and so purposeful to dirt that even the modern machines being put out there by other manufacturers in 2016 are not beating the XR every time.

For me it’s the most iconic motorcycle in motorcycle racing history. Harley’s support of the sport really stopped it slipping from being a pro sport into a pro-am or even an am sport. Harley really kept the wheels turning all that time until quite recently. Changes in the motorcycle business worldwide and changes in the fashion of machines in the last couple of years have coincided to make the kind of sport that we have today. It’s attracted the interest of other manufacturers. Kawasaki has gotten quite involved in the last few years and also Triumph and to an extent Ducati and in the last year Indian has come along.

It changes the dynamic of the sport dramatically because now we haven’t got a one-dimensional sport with one manufacturer dominating. We now have Harley-Davidson versus Indian which is the story in motorcycling at the moment.

TG: You have Ducati coming in with the Scrambler, no?

ML: Ducati as well. Although that’s not factory supported. Ducati produces the bike, and there are private teams who ride with them. The big news is that Harley-Davidson are corporate level and Polaris through their Indian brand are corporate level too. $6 billion companies who are in adjoining states in the Midwest and don’t like each other very much are going to be competing head to head in our sport in 2017 for the first time with factory built bikes and factory supported riders.
There will be more factory supported riders in our sport in 2017 than at any time in the whole history of the sport. It’s come back with a bang.

TG:Who are the big names now?

ML: On the Indian side they have recruited Jared Mees who is a three-time champion, most recently in 2015. They’ve recruited Brad Baker who was the lead Harley-Davidson factory rider, and Bryan Smith who just won his first championship in 2016. These are arguably three of the most senior, if not the three most senior riders. And they’ve all been signed by Indian for 2017.

Harley-Davidson is responding and I think are soon to make an announcement about their team for 2017. I think you’ll find it goes toe to toe with Indian. We’ve got this enormous story bubbling under in preparation for the next season.

TG: When did you get involved?

ML: I was asked by Jim France, who’s the majority shareholder in all this. I was asked by him about 18 months ago to come and help his team and consult with him to develop the strategy to grow the sport. I think Jim had seen the raw ingredients for growth and success and he wanted it carefully managed. He asked me to come and have a look at how the business is evolving and to give him a recommendation on how to go.

I did that for about six months last year. I’ve known Mr. France for 20 years. At the end of the period where I consulted for him, I gave him a series of recommendations on what we should be doing to boost the sport. He liked it, the board of directors liked it and they offered me the chance to come in and lead the team. I came on board about this time last year, officially in-house.

2016 was my first season, and we’ve been working towards a five year plan to take us up to the end of 2020 to develop the sport, make it sustainable, and with a goal of making it the number one motorcycle sport in the US again like it was decades ago, which I have every confidence that we can do.

Join the Conversation
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

Why did the Harley XR-750 dominate all of those years? Because AMA continually re-wrote the rules around their success! It’s also why the other manufacturers like Honda quit contributing to the sport. Ron Wood even built a single-cylinder Rotax that was written out of the rulebook after beating the XR-750.

Jabez House
Jabez House
7 years ago

Actually, Steve Baker was out first World Champion. He also dirt tracked.

Nicolas Moss
Nicolas Moss
7 years ago

Having piqued my interest, I was surprised to see that in the final race of 2016 two racers died and this wasn’t mentioned in the article. From http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/6130289-181/racing-motorcyclist-identified-after-sonoma?artslide=0:

“I don’t know of this happening in the living memory of our sport,” said Michael Lock of AMA, referencing the two deaths. “We’re all in complete shock.”

Given that the article talks about the anticipation for increased competition in 2017, some mention of this event and how safety will be improved in an attempt to prevent a recurrence would have been have been nice.

Nicolas Moss
Nicolas Moss
7 years ago

Its been a while since I’ve look at this stuff, but I remember also seeing ice racing and thinking, holy crap, its like crazy dirt track racers with spikes… Yikes!

7 years ago

“ML: No. There’s no heritage of it in Europe. There’s a related sport, Speedway, but it’s really only semi-related. There’s no heritage of dirt oval racing in Europe.”

Speedway is raced on a shale oval, on bikes with no brakes! (Sound familiar?)

Google some images of speedway riders in action and you will see photos that are very similar to the ones featured above.

The USA has produced many speedway stars throughout the sport’s history, including; Sam Ermolenko, Billy Hamill and Bruce Penhall – all former world champions.

In fact, it may interest to you to know that the current world champion is Greg Hancock…of the USA.

As a keen speedway fan I am amazed by the above statement.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
7 years ago

Sadly despite all the rhetoric coming from the AMA …. the increased factory involvement [ all of one ] etc this great American M/C sport of ours is and has been for many years on a steep path of decline to the point of all but being ignored even by the M/C press .. never mind the majors . And the all important TV coverage ? None to be seen . With sponsors staying away or leaving in droves . And to be honest some if not all of the blame falls firmly on the shoulders of the Bill France addled and hobbled AMA . So from the very pinnacle of US M/C sport popularity … not to mention the stepping stone of many a great champion .. Flat Track racing has reduced itself to all but irrelevancy . One hopes by some miracle this trend can be reversed . But unfortunately I for one do not think it will. Which is beyond sad … verging on the tragic . And sorry for the bluntness .. but don’t think for a minute Polaris/Victory / Indian’s participation will make one iota of difference . What can you ask ? Try a complete from the ground up overhaul of the AMA .. Suffice it to say like the SCCA it is an insular organization more bent on self destruction than survival due to xenophobia and the internal and external conflicts overwhelming any aspect of common/business/ sporting sense that might still remain . But regardless .. I’ll still hope [ against all logic ] for the best … albeit expecting the worst .. unfortunately

Petrolicious Newsletter