Flat track racing is a spectacle of carefully controlled chaos where riders push themselves and their motorcycles to the absolute limit.
Its roots lie in the tumultuous era where both British and American riders were beginning to understand just how much fun they could have on two wheels, and how hard they could push their hand-built machines.
Today, there are four unique event types that are professionally sanctioned and run by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA):
From amateurs to professionals who duke it out in the AFT SuperTwins Series; there's a flat track event for nearly every type of motorcycle enthusiast out there.
So, how did flat track racing get to be where it is today? Let's dig into this interesting and complicated history.
When the bicycle was introduced in the late 1890s, one of the first things intrepid riders did was begin to race on homebuilt tracks throughout the United States. These original tracks were inspired by European tracks and were made of steeply angled, wooden planks - leading to their nickname of "board track racing".
By the early 1910s, motorcycles began to see prominence throughout the United States, and these so-called board tracks began to host events with motorcycles instead of bicycles. As you can imagine, these types of tracks required a ton of maintenance to remain usable, but they were incredibly cheap to construct and they brought in plenty of business and hype. Many board tracks only lasted a couple of years, and some only lasted a couple of races.
The very first board track race was held at the Los Angeles Motordrome, a European-inspired track with 2x4-in boards that were banked at 45°. By 1915, track speeds were easily exceeding 100 mph, and tracks were only lasting one or two races before needing to be completely resurfaced. This insanity continued throughout the 1920s with tracks springing up in metropolitan areas in towns all over the United States.
To put an even more insane spin on this type of Motorsport, it was not only motorcycles that raced on these banked wooden tracks, four-wheel cars also shared the madness. Legendary tracks like the Tacoma Speedway would often see cars and motorcycles reach speeds that were higher than that of the Indianapolis 500!
After numerous safety incidents with the unfortunate loss of life by both spectators and riders, board track racing eventually came to an end around 1932.
The American Motorcycle Association sought to legitimize motorcycle racing by creating a racing class called “Class C Dirt Track”. The rules are relatively simple, get around a flat, non-banked track using only the throttle in tail out, riding madness.
Rather than race on dirt-covered board tracks that were built at a steep angle, this championship series would allow similar motorcycles from brands like Indian and Harley-Davidson to race on a flat, dirt track instead. Class C racing allowed manufacturers to run stock motorcycles in sanctioned, competitive championships that instantly grabbed the attention of motorsport hungry Americans, and didn’t require a major resurface every few races.
Due to the Great Depression, the AMA dirt track series saw limited growth because the budgets of brands like Indian and Harley-Davidson did not allow for much competitive racing. By 1935, the AMA crowned Indian riders Woodsie Castonguay as its first Class C National Champion. In the 1930s, an intense rivalry developed between Indian and Harley-Davidson that would continue to go on until the demise of Indian in 1953.
World War II brought an effective halt to the AMA championship series and no events were held between 1942 and 1945. From 1946 to 1953, the entire series was decided at one incredible event that was held at the Illinois State Fairgrounds Race Track. This race, dubbed the "Springfield Mile" was an epic event that Drew in tens of thousands of spectators every year.
To further legitimize the event and create a structured championship that allowed riders to earn points and not have an entire season depend on one single race, the AMA changed the racing structure in 1954. Five different types of races were held, including a mile, half-mile, TT Steeplechase, and Short Track. Each of these 4 events would take place on the dirt, while a fifth class would take place on asphalt and include tight corners and handlebar to handlebar racing.
This asphalt series would eventually go on to be the AMA Superbike Series.
Since the Indian Motorcycle Company folded in 1953, this left rival Harley-Davidson basically uncontested in the AMA flat track series. Famous racers like Joe Leonard and Caroll Resweber would ride to several titles and multiple Grand Championships throughout the 1950s.
In the early sixties, the intrepid British saw a gap in the American motorcycle market and began to enter the championship. By 1963, infamous racer Dick Mann had won the national title for BSA. This was a huge blow to Harley-Davidson, who had gotten comfortable and dominated the American flat track circuits for many years. Gary Nixon would take his Triumph and win three grand national championships, with back-to-back titles in 1967 and 1968.
1971 was the last time a British manufacturer would win in the dirt because the Japanese had arrived and began to quickly dominate the sport. Yamaha would win its first event in 1973, and by 1975 the entire series was gaining some serious legitimacy with major sponsorships by RJ Reynolds Tobacco. Yamaha exited the championship in 1977, leaving Harley-Davidson to again dominate until the mid-1980s when Honda came in and positively destroyed Harley-Davidson. Much like Yamaha, Honda came in and dominated Harley and then left after only 3 years.
Quite dramatically, Harley would then go on to win a staggering nine national championships in an 11-year period with legendary Rider Scott Parker. Unfortunately, dirt track racing prominence began to decline in this period with more focus being placed on Motocross and road racing motorcycles instead.
Motocross grew to prominence in the United States because normal folks could buy a Motocross-ready bike right off the showroom floor. In stark contrast, flat-track riders needed to hand-build their bikes due to strict regulations, leaving only the most hardcore enthusiasts to take up the reins. This led to the demise in the popularity of flat track racing.
In order to help grow the sport, the AMA did several key restructuring moves in the mid to late 1980s, as well as in the early 2000s. The most significant change was splitting the Grand National Championship into separate events: Grand National Championship Singles and Grand National championship Twins. By the early 2000s, several new classes had been created that allowed riders to purchase a motorcycle right off the showroom floor and race it in the Grand National Championship.
Harley-Davidson continued to enjoy the majority of dominance in the sport, although manufacturers like Ducati entered into the championship and challenged Harley. Today, the Grand National Championship has been rebranded as the American Flat Track Championship and is seeing a resurgence in popularity among motorcycle enthusiasts due to the relatively low cost of entry and maniacal fun that riders can have.
From motorcycle races on insane wooden tracks in the 1910s to legitimate racing series that test the metal of both manufacturer and rider; flat track racing deserves the designation as one of the all-time great forms of Motorsport.
We can't wait to see what the next hundred years will bring!