RIDE WITH USINTO THE DIRT
Join our four-part series on the flat track frenzy that has hit the US racing scene. We follow #revitriders, PJ Jacobsen and Corey Alexander, to the dirt track to explore the history, the legends, and the bikes of the scene. We also zoom in on the heavy dose of madness required to slide these machines around atop an unstable surface at speeds of 190km/h (120 mph).
Turn back the pages of history one hundred years, and you’ll find the makings of modern-day flat track. In the first episode of SLIDE, we look at the evolution of the sport and what gives flat track its cool.
We dive into the mechanics and engineering of a flat track machine, and what exactly sets it apart from other race bikes - and what their riders must do to keep their own bodies in peak performance condition.
Flat track training has become the gold standard for some of the world’s fastest road racers. Discover why this particular racing style pushes the best of the best to new, record-setting heights.
MEET OURSERIES NARRATORS
PJ Jacobsen is a world-renowned road racer who had won over 30 National Championships in the US before making the leap across the pond to the British Championships, and then ultimately to World Superbikes. That said, PJ is no stranger to the dirt. His father was a professional flat track racer, and in 2019, PJ returned to his family’s two-wheeled origins; piloting his Indian Scout FTR750 in select races during the 2019 American Flat Track series.
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In 2018, Corey Alexander caught the eye of the motorcycle world when he made the leap from professional road racing to American Flat Track - in the span of a month, and without any prior flat track experience. Raised in New York with his family’s motorcycle dealership as a childhood backdrop, Corey has deep roots in the racing community and joins as a guest writer, contributor and narrator of SLIDE.
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Though beautiful, racers willingly dance on the edge of disaster each and every time they secure their helmets.
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IMAGINING THE DREAM
Close your eyes. Imagine the smell of race-grade fuel. The growling sound of v-twins & 450cc motorcycles gliding across the dirt searching for traction as they pass. It’s truly two-wheeled art in motion.
Though beautiful, racers willingly dance on the edge of disaster each and every time they secure their helmets. Weekend after weekend, and coast to coast, these modern-day daredevils pursue their lifelong dream of becoming Grand National champion at each of the 18 American Flat Track rounds.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Flat track brings the racing to you, up close and personal. Aside from Supercross, there is no other motorsport where spectators can sit in one spot and enjoy the adrenaline rush - a mere few feet away from the action. Without moving an inch, you can witness 16 racers banging bars and exchanging rubber during the quick-paced 20-lap races. If you’re lucky, you might find a seat where the dirt spray won’t hit you as riders take the high line around the edge of the track.
During the intermission, you can make your way into the pits to meet some of the most accessible and humble athletes in the world. Where else can you do that? Let me tell you. Nowhere. It’s the fastest-growing motorsport today for a reason.
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THE ROOTS OF A CRAZE
It’s also a little known fact that the adrenaline-charged sport of flat track motorcycle racing is one of America’s first extreme sports. Racing around and around in circles may sound simple, but tricks of the trade have been passed down and tweaked through generations, starting all the way back in the early 1900s, when motorcycles were used to pull bicycles onto the banked turns of pedal races. Early race classes ranged from polished OEM contests to down-and-dirty amateur classes where the real heart of flat track was born.
THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT
Over the decades, flat track racing has produced some of the world’s greatest motorcycle talents. Guys like original Indian Wrecking Crew members, Bill Tuman, Bobby Hill and Ernie Beckman, during the 1950s. Or Gary Nixon and Dick Mann in the 1960s. Or Kenny Roberts and Eddie Lawson during the ’70s and ’80s. Or Nicky Hayden in the ’90s and 2000s. All were superb flat track racers, and many applied their dirt skills toward National, Grand Prix, and MotoGP success. It has been proven, if you can go fast and turn left, surely you can go fast anywhere.
It’s less about factory engineering tricks, and more about the perfect synthesis between man and machine.
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MAN AND MACHINE
In order to be a successful racer, you have to have three very crucial ingredients - talent, unwavering nerve, and good machinery. Flat Track racing is so unique because the bikes are still simple (and accessible) in comparison to the technologies being used in other modern-day motorsports racing, especially in the smaller American Flat Track Singles Championship.
As AFT says themselves, the singles races “contain less lengthy straightaways and demand a high level of creativity in order to get to the front of the pack and maintain a competitive position.” [link] It’s less about factory engineering tricks, and more about the perfect synthesis between man and machine.
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SETTING UP A SINGLE
Think you’ve got what it takes to make it to the front of the pack? Here’s a basic rundown on setting up a stock motorcycle for AFT Singles:
- Step 1: Purchase a 450cc single cylinder motocross bike from your local dealership.
- Step 2: Change the knobby tires and skinny MX wheels for wider, 17-inch flat track-specific spoked wheels (their quick-change DTX hubs allow for easy changing of the rear sprocket). Follow that by mounting one of the Dunlop DT3 flat track tires as specified in AFT race rules.
- Step 3: Swap out the tall and soft front and rear suspensions to be lower and with firmer valving.
- Step 4: Remove the front brake, as flat track racing only allows for use of the rear.
- Step 5: (Optional) Burn a hole in your pocket by adding power modifications to the motor in addition to a racing exhaust.
- Step 6: Go for a rip!
POWERING UP THE TWINS
So, maybe it’s not quite that simple - but it’s pretty close! Until, that is, you’re battling at the top of your class, or in AFT Twins, which is another story altogether. Twins class bikes are fire-breathing, two-cylinder motorcycles with gobs and gobs of horsepower. They share the same style wheels and tires and have similar suspension setups, but are defined by having a purpose-built frame specific to Flat Track use.
The class prohibits factory race-only engines (like the Harley-Davidson XR750 or the Indian Scout FTR750), but there is room for upgrades to plenty of other parts like pistons, con-rods and cranks. That means room for improved performance - and plenty of opportunity to empty out your pockets! Rider aids like traction control, wheelie control and ABS (as you would find in modern road racing) aren’t allowed, but the hours of development and modification put into the Twin class chassis are staggering.
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THE REST IS UP TO THE RIDER
Once you have the proper ride beneath you, it’s up to the rider to get the best out of his machinery (easier said than done, I promise!). Ever-changing track conditions and cut-throat competitors looking for any inch of daylight to make a pass leave you with little time to rest on their laurels.
Flat Track racing is its own style of motorcycle riding. Having no front brake leaves you to rely on scrubbing speed by setting the bike sideways, approaching each turn lightly dragging the rear brake. By the middle of the turn, you have to gather the bike up and roll back on the throttle. Towards the turn’s exit, the bike goes sideways again searching for any bit of traction it can find. It’s a constant battle of knowing just how far you can push your personal limits and, at times, your luck.
Repeat 18-25 times, depending on the length of the track. Lap after lap, gallon after gallon, a racer’s work is never done. Whether training in the gym or testing at the track, it’s a culmination of mental and physical strength that raises the best racers to the top. Some riders prefer to spend their days cross-training at the motocross track.
Others spend their time in the gym, running mile after mile, or pedaling their road and mountain bikes. Everyone has their own “program” if you will - the key is finding your own regimen to make sure that when you show up on Sunday to race, most of the work has already been done.
All that’s left? Just focus on getting yourself and your machine around the track as fast as humanly possible.
Race starts are key to your success and your instinct to attack is crucial. The nice guys are quickly left in the dust!
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DEEP ROOTS IN FLAT TRACK
It’s no secret that most of America’s greatest road-racing talents all have a strong background in flat track racing. The American racer, Nicky Hayden, famously came up to the MotoGP level through flat-track racing (and went on to win the championship in 2006).
And in recent years, MotoGP superheroes like Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez have generated increased attention to flat track as a training mechanism for high-level road racing.
THE DOWN AND DIRTY
But why is flat track ability such a strong asset to road racers? It all boils down to raw skill - the ability to feel and communicate the slightest movements coming from a race motorcycle is something that flat track delivers, and road racing demands. You’ve got to learn to deal with ever-changing track conditions (every lap is different!).
Riders work with various types of dirt and are in for a good amount of bumping and banging bars with fellow racers. It’s a down-and-dirty style that makes MotoGP feel like a high-speed garden party. Plus, the bare-bones nature of flat track is inexpensive compared to the cost of road-racing, even when just practicing!
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IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ATTITUDE
It’s not all about skill. Flat track also teaches a sense of aggression you don’t get from road racing. Road racing calls for calculated risks and planned attacks on your opponents, with the luxury of time on your side. Flat track racing, on the other hand, is a more high-paced sprint style. If you’re not up in the mix of the front runners within the first lap or two, your chances of reaching them are pretty slim.
Race starts are key to your success and your instinct to attack is crucial. The nice guys are quickly left in the dust! In short, flat track teaches you to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and that’s what makes it the perfect training tool for the world’s fastest road racing.
From this moment the noise dies out, and your mind focuses on precision, grit, and most of all, going fast.
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IN YOUR HEAD
Race day always begins the night prior with the pre-race jitters. Your head overflows with mental checklists and tasks you hope to accomplish the following day.
You make race laps in your mind, visualizing each inch of the track. Eventually, you fall asleep. It’s sort of the racer’s version of counting sheep.
For the lucky few, race day begins by waking up in a hotel bed - and for others, it means waking up in the backseat of the hauler. Regardless of the level of luxury you’re afforded, everyone comes together in the pit area to set up tents and begin race day prep.
The prior night’s mental checklists are run through, every last detail is attended to, making sure the machine is ready for battle. After tech inspection and the riders’ meeting, there is only one thing left to do...
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Most people may think race day begins when a racer opens his or her eyes. For most, it truly begins when the moment you’ve zipped up your leathers and fastened your steel shoe to your boot.
From this moment the noise dies out, and your mind focuses on precision, grit, and most of all, going fast. Until the moment the suit comes off, you are 100% pure racer.
UNDER THE LIGHTS
First things first! Before the big race, you’ve got practice and qualifying. If everything goes according to plan, you’ll land among the top 16 racers, and you’ll move on to the main event - that’s the shining moment when everything goes quiet inside you - and you line up under the lights.
You fasten your helmet and steady your heartbeat, and the only thing that matters now is how quickly you can make it to turn one. The starting light to the left illuminates as you line up bar to bar with tonight's enemies. No one is your friend on the race track.
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YELLOW, YELLOW, GREEN!
The starting light flashes yellow, then yellow again, and finally, GREEN! The race has begun within the blink of an eye and you’re hoping you’re in a good position as you slide into turn one.
You are within inches of a competitor (or four) searching for grip with your front tire, relying on nothing but a bit of rear brake and some engine braking to help you decelerate. Now you’ve got that feeling in the bottom of your stomach and that thought in the back of your head: “Did I come in a little too hot? Am I going to punt the guy in front of me?”
THAT’S FLAT TRACK
Suddenly the front tire hooks the groove and you’re able to slow down enough to get the bike to turn. Crisis averted. Quickly (but never abruptly) you grab some throttle and keep turning. The back tire breaks loose spinning the bike sideways - all the while you’re getting blasted with dirt and dust.
You raise your left foot back onto the peg and squeeze the bike while searching, hoping for traction to propel you forward. But wait, now you can’t see a thing! You reach your left hand off the grip, pull a tear-off and stay full throttle before the guy behind drafts past.
Repeat twenty times. Give it all you’ve got. Fight for position until the moment you cross the finish line.
That is flat track racing.
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