Rich In Thrills
Flat track racing is America’s oldest organized motorsport on two wheels, yet Speedhunters has never delved into it before. That isn’t entirely surprising given our long-standing focus on four-wheeled machinery, as well as the fact that we’ve only been around for a decade and a bit. Sadly, we just weren’t there to cover the first events held as far back as the 1920s.
Going through the decades, from the ’50s to the ’70s, flat track was the number one motorcycle racing series in the United States, and American Flat Track Chief Marketing Officer Gene Crouch is quick to say that the sport did indeed experience its heyday some decades ago. But given the fact that during the 2019 AFT season the series reached 1,933-percent more fans than in 2016 — no, that’s not a typo — the sport is well on its way toward gaining traction in the States again.
But there’s good reason for all of this: not only does flat track racing have a rich history, it’s never been a better or more accessible spectator sport than it is today. And it’s always been an exciting spectacle to behold, so with online streams and three recently revamped and relatable classes, it only makes sense that the series is becoming more popular again.
This isn’t exclusive to the US, though. AFT’s biggest social media audience is India, with the US and Brazil in tow, which blows my mind. And for the first time ever, flat track riders visited the Goodwood Festival of Speed a couple years back.
The basic rules are simple: scream around a flat dirt track and finish first. There’s really nothing more exciting than scrunching up toward the handlebars as you hurtle through a corner sideways on a bike with no brakes, but since the ’00s the series has included a few TT tracks — which require at least one jump and a right-hand turn — each season for a nice blend of other disciplines. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…
In the spirit of full disclosure, American Flat Track flew me out to Daytona Beach — where there is a full-blown stock car at baggage claim in the airport — fed me a chicken sandwich, gave me a tour of Daytona International Speedway, hooked me up with gear from series sponsors, and let me have a rip on a 140cc dirt bike (that had been lightly modified for flat track use) under supervision of Moto Anatomy and some pro riders.
More on that later, though, because first I’d like to prime you with a bit of the backstory on flat track racing since this is the first article on the site dedicated to this insane motorsport.
When you’re first introduced to any motorsport, a simple and impulsive question is often focused on top speed. This was my first inquiry during our conversation with Gene Crouch at NASCAR headquarters with Daytona International Speedway silhouetted in the background.
“Riders will reach 140 miles-per-hour drafting on the straights, and around 100 or so through the corners on a mile track,” replied Gene.
Remember, this is a race that takes place on dirt, with slick-ish tires and no front brakes.
Rich In History
Gene went on to enlighten me about the progression of the sport since the first official race was held in Toledo, Ohio in 1924.
The first American Motorcycle Association-sanctioned championship — Class A Dirt Track — was formed in 1932 and featured prototype-style machinery, but already by the following year a road-legal-based Class C was formed to allow the average Joe to come out and have a nice thrashing with their pals. It should be no surprise that the series became extremely competitive.
Leading up to World War II, two heavyweights emerged in Class A: Indian Motorcycle and Harley-Davidson. This continued through the ’50s, until Indian ended manufacturing in 1953. The first championship year for the series that continues today was held in 1954, and it started with Harley-Davidson dominating the championship. But the British caught wind and began competing by the ’60s as a way to help sell their motorcycles in the American market and soon found success.
1963 marked the first time that a rider, Dick Mann, won the championship on a foreign motorcycle. It was built by Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA), and Triumph followed up to win three of four titles as the ’70s rolled around. Unfortunately for the British motorcycle industry, Japanese competition led to a near total collapse in the early ’70s, and it was at this time Japanese manufacturers became interested in the US-based flat track series and began competing.
Since that time a whole lot has happened, and I’ll let these awesome older images by Mitch Friedman in the ’80s above, on up to Dave Hoenig’s work in the ’90s and ’00s below speak for themselves.
In 2008, the series was rebranded as American Flat Track and AFT went on the hunt for new partners and new fans.
They’ve since found both and, perhaps best of all, the classic Harley-Indian rivalry has been reborn in the modern series. As such, I’ll be featuring both manufacturers’ top-spec 750cc motorcycles that compete in the AFT Twins prototype class next time.
After getting a close-up look at the prototype machinery, chatting with the pro riders, and getting coached on a (much smaller) dirt bike, I have to say I’m looking forward to the 2020 AFT season kick-off in March back in Daytona.
Hopefully, that bleeds over to you as well. Racing with two wheels and no front brakes has never looked so good…
Trevor Yale Ryan
Additional Photos Courtesy American Flat Track by Dave Hoenig, Mitch Friedman, and various series photographers.