In January, I received an intriguing email: “American Flat Track would love to invite you to an exclusive media program where you will be trained by a professional athlete on how to ride an actual flat track bike… This sport has been hailed as America’s original extreme sport and I thought it would be a great fit for Speedhunters.”
*Squinting intensifies* — I’ve only been on a motorcycle for a total of perhaps three hours in my life, so while my initial excitement resulted in a resounding “Yes, please,” I started to get a bit nervous as the day approached. How could I possibly head out on an actual bike on an actual dirt flat track, at Daytona International Speedway of all places, and expect to have any sort of success? Let alone come back in one piece?
Once I arrived, we were shown around the entire Daytona facility and treated to a peek inside NASCAR headquarters across the street. Next up would be my American Flat Track training training with Johnny Lewis — American Flat Track National #10 and former factory KTM Supermoto racer — and a few pro AFT riders; certainly not a bad way to spend the weekend.
The ride experience event was also a great opportunity to meet a few of the riders who compete in American Flat Track, including Briar Bauman, the series champion in the AFT Twins prototype class. He’ll be back again on his Indian Motorcycles FTR 750 for SuperTwins in 2020.
Shayna Texter was out as well; the only female rider still competing in the sport and also the first woman to win an AFT main event. In fact, Shayna is the winningest of all riders in AFT Singles history, with nearly twice the wins of the next competitor in that class. She’ll be with the Red Bull KTM factory team again for 2020 and comes from a family of racers that includes her father and her brother.
Then, there’s Jarod Vanderkooi (center), who rides a Harley-Davidson XG750R and was grandfathered into the top class at the ripe age of 16, even though the current ruleset requires competitors in the top class to be 18. Despite the Harley rider now being just 22 years old, he has competed in 12 seasons and says he feels like a series veteran in many ways.
The best part about these guys was their accessibility and their apparent lack of an ego. It’s really refreshing to see this spirit in a racing series, and in part it stems from each of these riders really earning the position they’re in. I saw a lot of parallels between the grassroots nature of drifting and the road to Formula D; each of these competitors were driving their own bikes and tools out to events not long ago, and still some play a part in wrenching, even at the top level.Time To Ride
Of course, what I was really looking forward to was getting some seat time in on this little — especially in comparison to the prototype twins on display — Kawasaki KLX140.
You’ll notice that the front disc brake assembly remains, although the controls on the handlebars have been removed. There’s just a rear brake for flat track racing, but since I didn’t really have any habits from riding developed I wouldn’t need to unlearn anything.
With my new friends Jon Langston from Men’s Journal (far right) and Jim Clash from Forbes (center), the three of us had a quick breakfast in the motorhome before slipping (squishing?) into our provided Dainese gear.
“I feel like a sausage,” Jim yelled from the back room, a sentiment I deeply felt myself as I thrashed around to get the fresh leathers to fit. Luckily they didn’t end up looking half as ridiculous as they felt, so hats off to Dainese for that.
Next, Johnny Lewis of Moto Anatomy spent a while with us explaining the theory of riding a flat track bike and how it differs from a street bike.
For the most part, the main difference is that you actually sit a bit crooked on the seam of the seat, and it’s really important to cinch up toward the front of the bike. But you can’t be too tense or locked-in to that position, because you need to stay fluid to help transfer the weight around depending whether you’re on the straight, braking, or accelerating.
The track itself was a quarter-mile oval with a packed limestone surface. In fact, the new other riders and I were amazed to learn — even after taking a few laps — that this was actually dirt, not asphalt. It certainly looked and felt like the latter, but once you learned how the surface behaved through the left-handers, riding the bike became a different experience altogether.
It was very slow-going getting up to speed but, again, with just a few hours of previous experience I didn’t exactly have any street-riding habits to break. Still, even compared to riding a bicycle, all of your instincts feel wrong as you push your weight forward and to the outside as you get ready to hit the brakes. With Johnny’s help, it all began to come together quite quickly.
Inside leg out; turn your torso into the corner as you get on the brakes and force your weight into the front wheel; look beyond the apex as you turn in and allow the engine to continue slowing the bike; shift your weight back as you balance the throttle out of the apex, and use your inside leg for stability; pin it down the straight; repeat.
It seems so simple, but there are so many little details to get right and improve on. Riding flat track was like a drug, but Johnny kept pulling me aside to remind me to lift my outside elbow and straighten my inside arm to allow the bike to rotate through the corner, not to mention to relax my grip on the handlebars. It really takes the lightest touch, but it’s so easy to tense up. There were dozens of other tips Johnny shared with me, and by the end of my two or so hours spent blasting around the track I was finally feeling the back end move around a bit through the corners.
It didn’t get long to get completely hooked. Just like any motorsport, I was obsessed with learning the lines and getting the braking points just right; neither of which I came even remotely close to nailing, let alone mastering. Dirt oval or paved road course, speed is speed. I was having an absolute blast, actually yelling myself on through the corners.
It must have been a comical sight for the aforementioned pro riders — who were watching from the sidelines and giving me tips, for example, ‘shift up!’ — to behold due to my utterly slow speed. Of course, I wasn’t flat-out power-sliding like the them on their substantially larger and more powerful bikes, but after just a few short hours I could totally see the why they’re obsessed with the sport.
If you’ve never spent time on two wheels, allow me to share a basic fact: It’s addicting, and the accessibility and simplicity of riding flat track makes it even more so. On that note, who has a dirt bike for sale in the Portland, Oregon area? Thanks in advance, and thanks to American Flat Track for having me out.
Trevor Yale Ryan