I have always gravitated toward the simpler things in life. Give me a whiskey on the rocks and skip the mixology. Take a complicated philosophy and distill it to a few main points. Let a songwriter pour their heart into a song with only one instrument accompanying them, instead of a full orchestra.
The gearhead part of my brain runs the same way. A well-tuned sportscar is more interesting than all the techno-wizzardry in Formula 1. A wooden sailboat is more visceral than a powerboat. Jet fighters are amazing, but an old biplane’s graceful arc as it sweeps through the sky captures both the adrenal gland and the imagination simultaneously. Naturally, I hold flat track racing as the ultimate expression of competitive motorcycling. Forget the Americana, the state fair, the family-friendly vibe.
It’s icing on the apple pie. Boiled down to the root, flat track is just wild, gnarly speed. With so many forms of motorsport (rightly) dedicated to increased safety, often I feel like I’ve been left with a watered down version of something I once loved. Flat track somehow manages to feel unaffected despite it moving into the 21st century like everyone else.
Sure, airfence sits in front of straw bales now, and it is rare to see an engine barfing smoke all over the track at 130mph. A radiator hangs from the front of more bikes than usual. Aside from that, it feels like I could find cave drawings of an XR750 kicked sideways, chasing a frightened herd of woolly mammoths; such is the timelessness of flat track.
Yet the times they are a changin’… and in surprising ways.
The machines are still ultra simple by racing standards, but CNC machined parts and carbon fiber are increasingly common, along with– gasp– radiators. Harley Davidson is still the banner-carrier on dirt circle racing, but Kawasaki has been around long enough now to seem fairly normal. At mile-long ovals like Sacramento, the Kawasaki is now expected to win, as evidenced by Bryan Smith making it five wins in a row at the Sac Mile. Yamaha is just getting its toe in the hot-shoe with the FZ-07, and perhaps the Ducati Scrambler will develop into something more than a good looker. That would at least show air-cooled machines have nothing to be ashamed of in the face of new technology.
In the meantime we can still see Harley’s winning on the half-mile tracks, which reward the slow and rhythmic power delivery from the Milwaukee machines. And of course there is also the Triumph which made a real surprise appearance at the front of the field. The Triumph is a modern-era design, but it still boasts cooling fins and the smallest of oil-coolers. High tech is great, but it’s still great to see a rider walk the track scuffing his boot on the clay to gauge its condition, as opposed to a mechanic with a laser temperature gauge and a massive aluminum clipboard.
As great as Sacramento is, the track does not corner the market on cool. When I first went to Daytona Bike Week in 1999 the best racing was not on the high banks of the Speedway, but in the dusty confines of the short track. As Superbike racing pushes the gravel traps further out while simultaneously reducing the visibility of number plates, I can easily track a freight train of riders from the bleachers of a clay oval.
The sound of them passing en masse hits you in the chest like a rocket-artillery attack. The dust, the exhaust and the electricity in the air move into the bleachers as though there is a telegraph line broadcasting it straight into your brain. Whenever I read misinformed opinion pieces stating that motorsports are for low-brow people who are just there to watch the crashes, I know they’ve never been to a dirt oval race. When retired Superbike god, Troy Bayliss, stuffed his Ducati Scrambler into the air fence during heat races, no one in the bleachers was smiling or high-fiving each other. It was sickeningly quiet once the bikes returned to the staging line and cut their engines. It was all nervous glances to the jumbo-tron and to each other. His broken ankle required a flight home to Australia for surgery and I can tell you from experience, no one cheers when I rider is loaded into an ambulance. People don’t go to a flat track race for wrecks: they go to feel the crackle of energy in the air… and maybe an over-priced beer and hot dog.
Any real fan knows the deflating moments of motorsport are what give the highs their special quality. You take the good with the bad, as in much of life. And in Sacramento, we had to take the red flag with the highlights of some fantastic racing. The main event in both classes were the kind of race you are still talking about on the drive home. The single cylinder GNC2 class was all draft moves on the long straight sections combined with seemingly impossible corner speed. Standing just a few feet away on the infield I found it impossible to tell the differences in speed between these 450cc machines and the 750cc beasts in the GNC1 class. The straight line speed difference is obvious, but in the corners I can’t just eyeball the pack and tell who is faster. The big bikes look faster, but I don’t know how much of it is speed and how much is the extra noise increasing the sensation of speed. With the top 5 riders separated by 0.220 seconds after 14 laps, it really didn’t matter the difference in speed between the classes; the 450’s are good racing.
Nick Armstrong took the win and remains ahead in the points so far, but the season isn’t even half over. It is very hard as a casual fan to predict outcomes. Armstrong was fast qualifier, but with the entire field able to run a fastest lap withing 1.0 sec of each other that doesn’t mean a lot. So much has to do with hard-to-notice details, or things totally impossible to know off-hand. How can you know who is best at short tracks or if one rider favors a blue-grooved track to a loose track with a cushion? Even knowing that, you can still watch a rider dominate all night only to have the cushion be slowly replaced lap-by-lap, a blue groove shaping up instead. At mile tracks like Sacramento there is usually a single line through a corner but there are several lines on the exit. That means a draft move can come from any rider at any time as they pick a slightly better line on the exit and get a slingshot for the lead in the final yards of a race. A bookie must pull their hair out trying to calculate the odds on a flat track race.
And with the big bikes it is really the same. The different engine types make differences more predictable than a field almost entirely on the same bike, but it was still hard to guess on a winner at Sacramento this year. Shawn Baer came out of seemingly nowhere on a KTM 990 powered bike and seemed to be having no problems running in 2nd. He fell to 4th but the three riders in front of him were the eventual top-three finishers. I never would have predicted Baer fading to 14th.
For most of the race though, it was a four or five bike, three brand battle royale. Seeing Brandon Robinson leading on a Triumph was a big surprise, despite the fact he started on the front row. I have seen a Triumph on the front row at the start before, but I don’t remember seeing one finishing near the front. It has been all Harley or Kawasaki up front with the exception of a Ducati piloted by Jake Johnson, who grabbed several 4th place finishes last year. So when it was Brandon Robinson on the Latus Motors/Castrol Triumph I expected him to fade with the KTM. But in fact Robinson bracketed the lap-leader chart by leading across the stripe 8 of 25 laps, never really out of striking distance the entire race.
After the KTM fell out of the dogfight was between defending champ Jared Mees on the venerable Harley-Davidson and eventual winner Bryan Smith on the Crosley Kawasaki, with Robinson, Brad Baker, and Kenny Coolbeth Jr. That’s a lot of big names at the front.
The lead swapped too many times to remember and I forgot several times to look through the viewfinder of my camera as they came by in Turn 1. Smith did manage to lead the most laps but Mees lead the group across the stripe a few times as well. Coolbeth spent time swapping spots at the front as well, before finishing the race in a battle with Brad “the bullet” Baker. At the time I really felt like Coolbeth may have been saving his tire for a late-race charge. With so much rubber laid down on a hard packed clay, I expected the Harley-mounted rider to show his speed at the end, when the Kawasaki’s more sudden power delivery had laid waste to Smith’s rear tire.
I should have known better, as this has not happened the last four times I’ve watched the Sacramento Mile. Bryan Smith is currently the undisputed king of the Sac Mile. Actually, that is a simplification; Smith has fought like a hungry dog every time and had to tear victory from the hands of some really talented riders each time. This year, Robinson led at the stripe for the final laps, with a gap of about 0.2-0.3 seconds. Don’t laugh, that is the biggest gap there was the entire race with the exception of lap 1. However, on the run to the checkers, Smith found an extra dose of traction exiting the final corner. At the stripe Smith had the win by 0.020 over Robinson, with Mees and Baker about a second adrift, playing the same draft-move with each other. And it was Mees over Baker by 0.016sec for that final podium spot. After watching that I finally realized I had been holding my breath and I let it out in a big whoop of excitement. There just isn’t another type of racing that is this much fun to spectate, especially if you think about it as a year-long series. The current point standings illustrate this point perfectly.
Smith’s five-in-a-row at Sacramento only leaves him in 5th overall. Tough luck in the Daytona short track races put Smith well behind, and winning both the Springfield Mile and Sacramento Mile still leave him 15 points down on current leader Kenny Coolbeth Jr. Leaving Daytona with a win and a 3rd means that finishing off the podium on both Mile events so far don’t hurt him much. However, Jared Mees is only 5 points shy of Coolbeth after being on the podium 3 of 4 events so far.
The GNC1 class requires riders to handle short track–where they use single cylinder machines and have to balance finesse and aggression. They also have to take the heavier and more brutal twin-cylinder bikes to the half-mile and mile ovals as well. By adding these types of variations, flat track racing sheds the possibility of being boring. Put the Peoria TT in there– with a jump and turns in both directions– and there is no reason not to watch flat track. The biggest problem for a fan is not being able to DVR the races, bunt instead having to watch the live stream on www.fanschoice.tv, which to its credit has improved quite a bit in the last year. But flat track was just included in the X-Games for the first time and that massively increased its availability as well as its exposure.
Governor Jerry Brown can keep pledging billions toward a bullet train, but AMA Pro Flat Track already brought one to California. And I can tell you, my fellow petrolhead, the Sacramento bullet train I saw was impressive. It may not take you anywhere for the price of admission, but where the hell else would you want to be besides at the race track?