The Heyday of Flat Track Racing, 1950s - 1970s: Born in the USA
It would seem that from the time of the motorcycle’s invention, there have been motorcycle races. While many types trace their roots back to Europe, one exception to this is flat track racing. A motorsport that was born in the USA, it is currently the most popular motorsport in the nation.
Also known as dirt track racing, flat track can trace its beginnings back to the early 1900s, and it has been a source of excitement, adventure, and danger for both racers and spectators ever since. Though flat track racing has a rich history that continues to the present day, perhaps the most notable period of flat track racing was during what is considered its heyday in the 1950s through the 1970s.
Way, Way Back in the Day
When the sport originated, it was far more dangerous than it is today. While it still maintains some of the original thrills that it did back when it first began, that sense of peril pales in comparison.
Originally, oval dirt tracks were covered by wooden planks that had been oiled. This made watching the races exciting not only for spectators, but for riders, too! Perhaps exciting is an understatement — it was also extremely dangerous due to a lack of traction. A number of racers were injured or killed on these dangerous racetracks.
In an effort to make conditions safer for racers, these types of tracks were done away with by the AMA sometime after World War II and replaced by uncovered dirt tracks, most of which were previously used for horse racing.
Reaching its Heyday
Following World War II, the flat track craze indeed took over in America. Following the difficult years of the Great Depression and the Second World War, Americans were looking for diversion and entertainment, and flat track racing had all that to offer and more! This growing interest in flat track racing eventually led to officially sanctioned races, with the AMA hosting its first official flat track championship in 1954.
While previous AMA Grand National Championships had been determined by a single race — The Springfield Mile — the event in 1954 included several different events racers could participate in. They included Mile, Half-mile, TT, and Short Track.
Exploding on the Scene
While the popularity of flat track racing was already in full effect in the 60s, it reached a new height in 1971 with the release of the documentary on the sport, On Any Sunday Not only did the movie feature stars of flat track racing, but it also featured movie star Steve McQueen, who was considered by many to be a motorcycle racer in his own right.
This movie was a game-changer for the sport. It exposed Americans to not only the sport itself, including an up-close look at the different bikes that were used in competition, but it also showed the different personalities of the sport’s stars. From the free spirited to the non-nonsense attitudes, it showed that racers came in all types.
The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and remains a classic today.
It’s All About the Bikes
Flat track bikes were different than other racing bikes. They were bigger, bulker, and heavier than other racing bikes. They also have bigger engines that produce tremendous amounts of horsepower.
They come in two different categories that include:
- 450 cc. These are lighter bikes with 4-stroke engines.
- 750 cc. These bikes come with a powerful twin engine.
Throughout Flat Track’s history, the best-performing makes of bikes have changed, though a few major names stand out. In its early days, the rivalry was between Indian and Harley Davidson. After Indian Motorcycles closed down in 1953, however, it was Harley-Davidson bikes that dominated the sport for years. As time has gone on other makes have given the Harleys a run for their money, with Triumph, Honda, and Yamaha all taking home prizes, but Harley-Davidson have remained the undisputed champions in the flat track racing motorcycle category.
A new day
Flat track racing enjoyed great popularity throughout the 1970s. But as the 1980s saw flashier motocross and road racing events gain in popularity, interest in flat track began to wane. But, just like the flat track itself, what goes around comes around and the sport is currently enjoying a resurgence.
The Heyday of Flat Track Racing, the 1950s - 1970s: The Good Times Continue to Roll
This original, truly American sport has been delivering doses of adrenaline and thrills for decades.
Any sport that can hold the attention of fans for over a century is definitely here to stay, and the good times continue to roll on today. Every season adds to the rich history of flat track racing, but no other era will match the sports hay day that occurred between the 50s and the 70s.