Sideways on the Edge: The American Flat Track Riding Experience

Motorsports are an exercise in pushing the limits of science so us gearheads can quench our thirst for speed. The more extreme the performance and higher the risk means the margin for error whilst chasing those limits becomes increasingly minute. This is ever-so apparent when racing motorcycles, particularly flat track motorcycles. Combine the twists and turns of Moto GP, with the chaos of motocross, and sprinkle in a bit of insanity and you get flat track. 

Flat Track motorcycle racing can trace its roots back over a century, starting before and surviving the Great Depression. Fast forward to 1954 and the first Grand National Championship was formed, thus beginning what is the modern age of flat track racing. By the 1960s, popularity spiked and bikes of all makes and models from BSAs, Triumphs, Indians, and of course, Harley Davidsons were in the mix. Today the sport is heavily dominated by Harley and Indian in the Super Twins class and KTM in the Singles class. This motorsport is the epitome of running on the edge of disaster. Using their expert balance, precise body positioning, laser-guided throttle hands and truckloads of nerves, riders slide their bikes around the simplest-seeming oval or technical TT course with the finesse of a ballet dancer. 

Flat track racing demands the highest amount of focus and lighting fast reflexes of the riders to manage the unruly nature of their machines. There are countless nuances to the sport that one couldn’t possibly absorb simply by watching a video or even seeing it live. The need for formal instruction even for those with motorcycle racing backgrounds let alone total novices is necessary. In light of American Flat Track (AFT) breathing new life into their brand and charging into 2020 with high hopes of distribution and growing their fanbase, they invited a bunch of journalists of different backgrounds to swing their legs over some flat track bikes and give it a shot for themselves. 

There were six of us in total, all with different riding abilities. I initially thought that going into this, there was no chance I would be anywhere close to the most experienced. My riding background was a couple of three-day desert rides on my 2008 Kawasaki KLX450R down in Baja California with a group of seasoned rally and SCORE desert racers. I’m mechanically inclined with a basic understanding of how physics around how a motorcycle functions and what its limits are, but I knew a guy from Cycle World would be there which already put me at a deficit. Turned out, I was smack in the middle of the experience scale.

I was flown into Orlando where I met Chris Putman who welcomed myself and two other journalists from the West Coast. He drove us to The Daytona, the race-themed hotel across the street from Daytona International Speedway. We were treated to a fantastic dinner where we got to rub elbows with some of the AFT staff and three top racers: Briar Bauman, Shayna Texter, and Jarod Vanderkooi. Over sweet tea and steaks, we learned about their starts in the sport. I tried to pick their brains about what to expect for the next day which would be our riding session because at this point I was a bit weary of how I would fair while sliding a motorcycle. I had tried sliding my own bike by applying prior knowledge of drifting to two wheels, which to say the least never panned out the way I had hoped. 

Going into this, what I did know about flat track was very little. I knew that it was nearly a century old motorsport that involved sliding motorcycles in much the same fashion as a dirt track race car, but the only exposure I had was at the Orange County Fair where a bunch of random guys would jump on their Harleys and wiggle and crash their way around the track. Upon getting invited to this experience, a quick Google search shocked me with what legit flat track racing involved. Chatting with these highly talented riders put my mind at ease a bit, and also learning that we’d be riding small CC bikes.

The next morning the group showed up to a fleet of Kawasaki KX140s parked at the track. With the option of jumping onto a KTM 450, I got excited because despite the huge gap in performance, there would be a chance at the end to get a little taste of how gnarly the big bikes are. We were treated to a tour around the magnificent Daytona International Speedway while reps from the track spoke to us about how the facility functions during events, particularly during the AFT racing. Briar Bauman was also present and gave us an education on the different types of racing surfaces and how they effect riders depending on their racing style. 

After lunch, it was time to ride but first, we all had to get suited up. Putting on fresh leathers that had been custom-tailored by Dainese takes more strength than it does finesse. Because the jacket and pants were so stiff it required effort and some muscle to resist the natural spring of the virgin material. Topped off with a brain bucket from Arai, I felt far more capable than the skill I possessed as I squeaked out to the infield of the Daytona Flat Track, itching to saddle up and turn some laps. Flat track and motocross racer Johnny Lewis, who runs the Moto Anatomy racing school, was our instructor for the day. Like my fellow riders, I provided Johnny with my riding background so on top of the fundamentals, he could tailor the education to my prior two-wheeled experience. 

When watching from afar it is tough to notice the offset body positioning of flat track riders but, in fact, they are constantly directing their bodies to the left. Considering they only turn left, unless running a TT course (road course), this directional riding position allows them to be constantly ready to make adjustments to their racing line with only minor inputs. Because they are functioning on such a razor-thin edge of disaster, any large shifts or movements will upset the motorcycle enough to cause a loss in momentum, traction, speed and even cause the rider to go down. Because the little 140s we were riding were slow and small, that margin for error was much greater, making them the perfect machines to learn on. If you push it too far, just let the bike go down and step off. I didn’t want to be that guy though, so I was cautious finding limits of the little green machine. 

The first instruction was focused on that left-heavy body positioning; inner right thigh resting on the gas tank, butt-crack on the right crack (seam) between the seat and plastics, and the universal “elbows up” dirt-riding position. Every three to five laps we’d come to the start-finish line and Johnny would critique our performance provide tips on how to correct things that I didn’t even know I was doing wrong. Because we only had a couple of hours on the bikes, he’d also tack on some new instruction for us to try before gave it another go. Every group of laps I turned it became more and more obvious that the mechanics behind this type of racing had nothing to do with forcing the bike to slide, but to find that sweet spot between having a grip and having zero.

There was a young rider present during our session on a 450 KTM who had predominantly a motocross background. Johnny had him go out on his own and as the laps went on, he pointed out the little inconsistencies in his riding that was to do with his brain and motocross muscle memory fighting over which techniques to apply. The most obvious mistake was the inner leg position. In motocross when riders dive into turns and kick their inner leg out, they are doing so in forward motion versus positioning their inner leg out to the side to use as a third point of contact with the racing surface. With that in mind, it was time to give the 450 a shot. I waited for veteran motorcycle journalist and Cycle World contributor John Stein to have at it before I tried my hand at it. 

My KLX450R, other than being older is far heavier than this bike, and with taller desert gearing has a more progressive throttle feel. This flat track machine had a hair-trigger throttle and felt like more like downhill mountain bike beneath me than a motorcycle. After a mere half lap, it was clear that everything I was taught throughout the session was infinitely more impactful on a bigger bike with more power. The sensitive throttle made it intimidating to really go for it. By the third lap, I had a handle on the throttle response and was quickly able to find the limits of the KTM without being too gun-shy before having to come in for the end of the session.

Looking back, this experience was incredible and my biggest takeaway was that flat track riders are some of the most badass motorsports athletes on the planet. Their lightning-fast reflexes that counteract the constant impending disaster should they loose focus is unfathomable. I challenge anyone that thinks it’s boring because they are just turning left (usually) to watch some YouTube videos, watch the NBC Sports Gold Track Pass livestream, or better yet go to a race, and still be unimpressed. This totally opened my eyes to a new-to-me type of motorsport and I left the American Flat Track crash course with so much more than just amazing riding gear. The knowledge I’ve gained will absolutely get applied every time I swing my leg over my bike. 

I can’t thank all of the folks at American Flat Track more for this amazing opportunity to learn about their sport and share it with the world. Much like other historic American racing series, AFT fully embodies a grassroots feel but on the big-time stage. If you are a motorcycle rider or not, go watch it or better yet, try it for yourself. It doesn’t matter how much or little experience you have, you’ll have a blast no matter what and take part in one of the country’s oldest forms of racing. 

The Daytona TT season opener is March 14, 2020 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida . You won’t want to miss Shayna Texter in the AFT Singles Main Event at 9:05PM and AFT Super Twins at 9:35PM where riders like Briar Bauman and Jarod Vanderkooi will battle it out.

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