There’s something wildly entertaining about watching riders barrel vintage-looking motorcycles around a dirt track in a fierce battle to be the first one to cross the finish line.
Sure, for the casual observer, it might be easy to write it all off as the adventures of some crazy adrenaline junkies who now get to live out their childhood passions under the bright lights. But as Playboy learned when attending the recent season opener for American Flat Track at Daytona International Speedway, there’s something much more intriguing at play. The racing series, which dates back to the two-wheel speed demons of the 1920s, is driven by a unique connection between rider, matter and machine that’s unlike any other sport in the world.
“Part of the unique appeal of Flat Track racing is that the racing action is very heavily controlled by the rider,” says Michael Lock, CEO of American Flat Track. “You’ve got these motorcycles that are capable of 140 mph on dirt. And they are coming to the end of the mile straight, and they have to turn left with no brakes [on oval tracks]. How do you do that? Well, you have to throw the bike sideways, transfer the weight, and back the bike in. You’re sliding it into the corner. There really is a battle of the athlete against the dirt.”
It’s a skill that requires mastering a subtle, yet intricate combination of shifting, braking, throttle control, steering and “body English,” the process used to describe how a rider moves their body forward and backward on a bike to best manage the weight on the rear wheel and tire when cornering. It’s quite different from other motorsports, where highly advanced technologies now tend to play a major role in helping drivers control the performance dynamics of a vehicle.
“In automotive sports, 100 years ago it was all about the driver. Today, it’s all about how the driver can use the technology. What we’ve done is gone the opposite direction. We’ve kept all the electronics out and said, ‘Nope, the rider needs to be the one who wins the championship,’” explains Lock.
Jared Mees, the 2017 American Flat Track champion, says it’s that strong rider skill-centered approach to racing that makes the series so thrilling as a competitor. “It makes everything come down to the rider and the mechanics of the bike,” Mees tells Playboy. “It keeps the sport more even and forces you to stay on top of your game.”
Today, the American Flat Track series is comprised of two competitive classes: AFT Twins and AFT Singles. The racers in the AFT Twins class ride larger, twin-cylinder bikes, including primarily Harley-Davidson, Indian and Kawasaki motorcycles. Riders in the AFT Singles class compete on smaller, single-cylinder bikes, which primarily includes Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki production-based dirt bikes. But all the riders have to adhere to strict guidelines when it comes to how technology and innovation is applied or not applied to the bikes.
“We speak to the manufacturers all the time about the features they put on sport bikes – ride, and traction control, wheelie control. None of it is in our sport, because it will make the race much more predictable, much more controllable, but ultimately less exciting,” says Lock.
“It’s not that the technology is any less important, but the application of it, and the kind of intuitive thing you expect of technology is completely the other way around in Flat Track racing.”
The intensely competitive world of American Flat Track is driven by what many in the sport describe as “human tech.”
“Instead of, like many forms of motorsport, where the human’s job is to…serve the technology, in Flat Track racing, it’s the other way around. Whatever technology there is, serves the rider,” explains Lock. “The person who wins week in and week out is the person who…conquered the dirt, not conquered the technology.”
Even the tires used in American Flat Track are strictly governed to keep the emphasis on the skill of the rider. “The tires involved in the sport are a spec tire, which means everyone has to use the same tire. It’s a great leveler, whether you’re Jared Mees on your million-dollar factory Indian bike, or whether you’re [an unknown] who has come with your dad in a camper van—you both have to use the same tire.”
Further fueling that idea of “human tech” is the fact that the bikes, in large part, are built by the riders’ teams themselves. “The bikes are largely created not in a factory, not in show room. They are created by taking this engine and putting it in that frame, and marrying it to this suspension, fine tuning and testing,” explains Lock. “The performance solutions tend to be relatively low-tech compared to what you would expect from some multi-billion-dollar company, but it’s much more about giving the rider exactly what fits them, or their aggression or their strategic skills. So, the tech is there, but it tends to be more ingenious and more grass roots.”
With that said, some of the ground-breaking innovations being used in vehicle development have still played an important role in the evolution of American Flat Track, especially over the past couple of years. “On the surface, if you look at a Flat Track bike from 1970 and 2018, you’d say, ‘they kind of look the same,’” says Lock. “They do kind of look the same, which is what makes people love them, that nostalgia. And the principles are the same. But, in fact, the 1970 bike and the 2018 bike are not similar at all. The materials are much more modern.”
As Gary Gray, VP, Racing Service and Technology for Indian Motorcycle tells Playboy, the goal is to use every degree of innovation available to craft the most cutting-edge stock bike, staying within the guidelines of American Flat Track.
For example, Indian, which relaunched in 2011 after nearly a 60-year hiatus, uses rapid prototyping or 3-D computer printing, which enables the company to design bikes in a fraction of the time it would take using more traditional means.
“It makes us faster. We were able to go from not having bikes to winning races in over year. It added speed to developing the bike,” says Gray, speaking of Indian’s return to the sport in 2017, winning the championship their first year back in the series.
Arai, the official helmet sponsor of American Flat Track, relies on a number of technologies to protect today’s racers, spanning from proprietary shield engineering to the most advanced innovations in fiberglass construction used in the handmade helmets.
Scott Beck, Director of Global Brand Marketing for Harley-Davidson, even envisions a future where the company’s electric vehicle technology, dubbed Project Livewire, could make its way into the American Flat Track series. “When you think about EVs, you don’t have a clutch. Everything is instantaneous. So, when you realize you can get on and twist and go, and realize the power you have, it’s pretty magical,” explains Beck.
The Harley exec and avid rider is quick to note, however, that a critical piece of the puzzle would be ensuring that the EV-powered bikes still evoke the same feel and sound as the more traditionally powered two-wheelers. “If it doesn’t have that, then it really is nothing but an electric scooter with no personality and no connection to the rider.”
For Lock, it all boils down to making sure that any future technology used doesn’t take away from the authenticity of the series.
“I’m a realist. I know those discussions are coming, and I know that compromises will have to be made,” concedes Lock. “I don’t mind that, but what I don’t want to do is abandon that ‘holy thing’ of Flat Track racing, the relationship between the rider and the dirt, which has made this so fascinating for 100 years.”