It seems inordinately difficult to explain what draws me to flat track racing. I generally don’t spectate at many races because I’d rather save my money for actual racing. But then again, I suppose the main reason is obvious: people sliding motorcycles sideways at high speed. Somehow though, AMA Pro Flat Track is more than that.
The combination of rider finesse and raw power is obvious to even the casual observer, but the simplicity of it all just seems “right.” Traction control is in a rider’s wrist, not a wheel speed sensor. Getting the set up wrong can be overcome by rider determination. In fact, the traction level is so changeable that your set up might not stay “right” over the course of a race. In a 140mph game of inches, there is much to be admired about the skill shown by that train of riders. The Sacramento Mile recently featured all of this — along with packed grandstands — and the electricity in the air was impossible to miss.
With this being late-July, I arrived after qualifying to beat the heat, then met up with photog Kenneth Stouffer who was in the middle of a marathon, also shooting NHRA drag racing in (sort of) nearby Sonoma. As we roamed about the course looking for better shooting positions, I must admit I really fell in love with the place. I had been to this track for last year’s race but never really took it all in. The lack of an inside fence (like the half-mile at Pomona, CA) makes for better spectator viewing, and the horse stables along the back-straight remind you of the track’s main purpose. Add in the ducks and geese lounging around the infield pond and you are undeniably in an environment that feels relaxed. That is, until you hear a dozen bikes being released in a fury of spinning tires and screaming engines.
The single-cylinder class happened to be a dogfight the entire night. I was expecting them to be a little less interesting because of the lower power and speeds compared to the twins, but the difference was only noticeable at the end of the straights. The 450cc machines are extremely fast and very close to each other in terms of power, meaning it’s hard for anyone to sneak away. The fastest riders do not perceptibly lift entering the corners; it’s as if they are full-throttle the entire lap. Of course there is a lot of throttle work in the corners, but without the raised elbow or backfiring engine, to signify the throttle is being closed. I was left dumbfounded lap after lap. As a racer myself, most motorsports are watched with an “I could probably do that with enough saddle time,” attitude. Motocross, Flat Track, and WRC rally cars are the only thing I watch thinking, “How the hell do they do that?!!”
The Grand National Twins class is even more stunning. The mid-corner speed looks identical, but we watched the heat races from the entrance of turn 3…on the outside. I wish every fan could get that sort of view, but it was honestly a hairball place to view. However, getting low to the ground and close, affords a chance to really see what the chassis of the bike is doing. You can actually see the slight weave from the front tire as the rider begins to bend into the corner; and you can watch the forks (and even the tire) flex over the bumps. It looks almost as if it is one machine; a freight train gone off the rails hauling a massive cargo of adrenalized rage. Of course, right after that you are hit squarely in the face by a blast of angry air-and-dirt-and-rocks-and-squirrels-and-who-knows-what-else. Then you are given away to the deafening roar, as the train of machines streaks by. It’s as if you were sucked into the engine and spit out the exhaust. It leaves you wondering if what you just saw was real, but you look behind you and watch the train weaving and see-sawing; the individual riders now identifiable as they try to make a pass on a single-line track. It’s no wonder flat track racers make good asphalt racers. Anyone who can lose the front that many times in one turn without going pale-white with fear, will find it easy with the increased traction on tarmac.
The main event races need to be watched from near the start/finish line, so Ken and I sauntered on down and crossed the track; setting up on the outside, just past the finish. The Pro Singles class was promising to be a serious fight, and the finish line was likely where the action would be. The talk was of course, all about Shayna Texter, the young phenom with the impenetrable smile who has shown the fighting spirit and speed necessary to win convincingly, on mile courses (and half-miles as well). She was last year’s winner in Sacramento, but so far tonight she had been shuffling around in 5th. Her times were almost a full second down from Stephen Vanderkuur, one of the other big names in the class.
The 12-lap race saw Nate Wait and Stephen Vanderkuur battling intensely, but honestly it was about a five-bike train, with Texter in that lead group. As the halfway mark approached, Texter started to work her way up and was officially in the lead on lap 8, after a hairball inside move. With the race line so narrow, the only real way to pass seemed to be: either going inside on corner entry with a lot of speed, or driving out onto the front straight and trying to draft by, before the line. With Texter in the lead and 4 laps to go, the show was not over. Nate Wait made his bid for the lead but could only hold the spot for a lap before Vanderkuur moved back in. After that it really became imperceptible as Texter, Wait, and Vanderkuur put on the show of the night. On the final turn Texter showed she had more than raw talent, calculating a perfect exit from turn 4; and making the draft move, right at the line over Wait by only .016 seconds, with Vanderkuur only .224 from the winner. Yes, that’s about a wheel-length separating the podium, after seven official lead changes, in a 12 lap race. Did I say “dogfight” already? It was so close I had to find the posted results, to figure out the entire top five. It was like a motorcycle mosh pit.
The Grand National Twins were going to have a hard time beating that show, but with this being a mile track, it was going to be great to watch the Kawasaki/Harley-Davidson battle. The Kawasaki EX650 engine still seems to have trouble in the shorter tracks, with traction out of the corners being scarce. At the big miles though, they remain tough to beat, though Harley is certainly not put out on the back porch by any means. (They won several mile races last year) The top Kawasaki rider right now is Bryan Smith on the Crosley Radio EX650, but Sacramento is the first mile race of the season. What would the race look like? Qualifying times were quite mixed up and hard to gather any intel on; but Kawasakis had won two of three heat races so far. With 25 laps to decide it all, there was really no way to calculate the odds.
From the start though, it looked like Smith and the Kawasaki were on form. Smith led almost the entire race, but he spent that time with a line of bikes behind him…or beside him. Although there was action in the corners, the Kawasaki seemed able to get pointed straight sooner on the exits, leaving the Harley mob to work the draft each lap. It wasn’t until Jared Mees finally got into the second spot that things really heated up. I didn’t think it could get much hotter to be honest, as the 5-bike train was off the rails already. Mees’ pass on the inside looked so close I thought contact was inevitable, but Smith barely showed a wiggle. The train of bikes then began to look like a pack of teens fighting for an internet hot-spot, as they tried to push Smith further back. After four laps, Smith would return to the top spot but all five machines would stay in touch. In fact, on the final run to the checkers, they would fan out in a last ditch effort for position, with all five bikes covered by 0.223 seconds. Smith just held on to the win over Mees, with Brandon Robinson (on another Kawasaki) taking third.
And that was the show. Flat Track definitely has an all-American feel to it. Racing at the fairgrounds in the dirt with fast machines that shun most modern technology; it’s rider skill that seems to win. As a spectator I noticed something else. AMA Flat Track presented by J&P Cycles seems to remember something the rest of racing has forgotten: number plates. As fairings shrink on motorcycles, so do their racing numbers. The problem has gotten so bad that I no longer spectate Superbike races. Flat Track still runs giant number plates, to the point you can figure out a 5-bike freight train’s running order, as they go by at 140mph. How can Superbike Racing put you behind 2 catch fences and a gravel trap; and then send bikes screaming past at 170mph, with no number plate on the side of the bike at all? I will never understand that. I can’t even read them when watching on TV half the time.
Well the racing may be over in Sacramento, but the season is really just getting up to speed. Kawasaki may have had an edge here, but there is really no way to predict them moving ahead of the long-standing Harley domination. I spoke with the Smith’s crew a bit about the engine development. They’d been through a lot of parts, trying to make them gain traction coming off the corners: cams, gearing, flywheels, swing arms… the gamut. Fortunately the mile tracks don’t see as much wheel spin, so things even up. With Harley engines costing $10,000 in the crate and needing rebuilds every weekend; racers will beat a path to the door of anyone who can make a competitive alternative work… especially an engine that can be found in stock form on ebay for $700.