Flat Track Motorcycle Racing History

May 19, 2017

Accelerating down the straightaway, you know you’ve got less than a half mile to get to top speed. You know you will have to let go of the handlebar and reach to the tank to shift. But you won’t have to let go of the brakes. Because you don’t have any brakes. You know that guy a foot to your left on the bored out 1920 Indian Scout will still be there, giving your Excelsior a run for the money. And he’ll still be there with you sliding through the turn, handlebars turned to counter-steer in a taught and graceful tango, inches apart.  Plus there is the guy on the right….

So you get to about 70 mph as fast as you can, back off and start your slide early scrubbing a little speed. You are hoping for a hole shot coming out of the corner. Last in, first out. The roar of a thousand fans is miraculously audible over the roar of the un-muffled engines as you begin your slide and the dust starts to fly. Welcome to flat track motorcycle racing history.

vintage motorcycle flat track racing history

Flat Track Racing Starting Line

Flat Track Motorcycle Racing History: The First National AMA Sanctioned Race

The American Motorcyclist Association sanctioned the first “AMA National Championship” Flat Track Motorcycle Race in 1924. Racers battled for 25 laps on a one mile oval track. Former Indian Factory rider and board track racer Jim Davis prevailed over the field. Having recently switched over to Harley, he took the trophy for his new sponsor. Jim’s early win was not a fluke: he went on to stack up 21 national championships!

The AMA produced their first national dirt track championship the year they were formed. Prior to 1924, The Federation of American Motorcyclists and the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association supported dirt track racing. But they gave more attention to distance events and board track racing.

While we have been unable to turn up specific records of earlier flat track races, we are sure that somewhere, enterprising motorcycle enthusiasts were able to come up with the fundamental ingredients for a great flat track racing event. These are: Item 1. Level ground with dirt on it large enough to ride around in a 1/2 mile long oval. Item 2. Mates with motorcycles that they can ride on dirt and a sense of fun. (Sound like fun? Check out our nascent vintage motorcycle racing club!) But while flat track may have been around longer in an informal fashion, it was not the first form of motorcycle racing to attract an audience and take the shape of a modern sports/entertainment business.

Flat Track motorcycle racing history close up of rider

From Board Track to Flat Track Racing

Prior to 1924, Board Track Racing was getting all the investment and all the attention. Mounting maintenance costs and spectacular fatalities including seven audience members in a single explosive crash added up to a speedy end to board track racing (read the bloody history of the murder-dromes) . The sport began abruptly in 1910, shortly after the invention of the motorcycle and vanished within 20 years. As board track racing was winding down in the 20s, Flat Track Motorcycle Racing took off. Riders and motorcycles left the bloody splinter strewn mess of the board tracks behind and headed for the pastoral pleasures of the dirt.

Flat Track – Accessibility and Longevity

At its core, the sport of flat track racing is very accessible from a economic standpoint. Now, if you wanted to add some grand stands and concession booths and host a couple thousand fans, you would need more infrastructure. But anybody with a friend with a farm can practice flat track racing, or even host a race. America discovered flat track racing in the 1920s and fell in love. The widespread availability of one mile oval horse tracks around the country helped the sport spread quickly.

The bikes required a lot of skill and finesse to complete the circuit at maximum speed without sliding out. Early flat track racing motorcycles were built without brakes; riders reckoned they would do little good in loose dirt with the traction vintage motorcycle tires offered.  Manufacturers mounted shift levers on tanks so riders had to take one hand off  the bars to shift.

flat track motorcycle racer on his motorcycle

Flat track racing continued through the depression and, after a brief hiatus in WW II, took something like its current official form in 1954 with the  AMA Grand National Championship (GNC). Flat track racing events have more of a casual, folksy, “state fair,” or you might even say “country fair” type local, do it yourself vibe. Indeed, county fairgrounds often host flat track regional events. The super stars of racing rub elbows with the fans in the pits after events and there is a general festive atmosphere. Picture heavy drinking, heavy guys, who might grab you in a bear hug and slur, urgently and emphatically: “No, man, you don’t understand – I really love you, man!” (See also AMA Vintage Days.)

In the 1930s, AMA Flat Track racing included a class for prototype machinery, but this was soon eclipsed by “Class C” the stock class. Ordinary motorcyclists with no backing could afford to buy and compete on the same motorcycles as sponsored champions. Bruce Brown’s documentary “On Any Sunday” brought further attention to the sport in the 1970s and showed a generation how easy it was to get into flat track racing.

Flat Track Racing Makes A Comeback

Flat track racing lost the spotlight to the wheelies of motorcross and the big airs of supercross alongside the slick glamour and speed of Grand Prix in the 1980s. But don’t count flat track out. The sport’s accessibility guarantees flat track will never die. It’s been there at the fair ground all along, and now it’s making a comeback. The Daytona Sports Group and AMA Pro Racing are producing a new flat track racing series that will air on NBC sports in 2017. We predict spectators will enjoy the visceral thrill of watching riders hitting 140 mph before beginning their slide into the turn.

That’s not for everyone though. A critical slide at 55 is plenty fast for some, on any given Sunday. How about you? Do you want to race vintage motorcycles, or come to a race and watch and check out the bikes? We are in the beginning stages of forming a vintage motorcycle racing club. Join us!