For the better part of a century, people have been getting together at small town fairgrounds and on the outskirts of cities across Canada to race motorcycles around dirt tracks. When you see flat-track racing action up close, with bikes ripping around a tight 1/8 mile track, it doesn't take long to understand the frenetic, cowboy nature of these racers. They pin the throttle on the straightaway and then skid into the corner, elbow to elbow with each other, the special steel shoe they wear on their left foot slides across the gravel, the weight on their inside leg helping support the bikes as they lean so far over that the handlebar nearly touches the track. Though it seems at first blush like total chaos, the amount of finesse and control the riders have is impressive.
In an effort to make the sport more accessible, since 2014 Flat Track Canada has been running their Go Flat Track school at Paris Speedway in Paris, Ontario, to teach the fundamentals of racing to anyone with an itch to give 'er and turn left. We caught up with a few Expert Class riders during a practice at the Paris Speedway to learn more—and eventually get in on the racing action.
Aaron Hesmer, the President of Flat Track Canada and the lead instructor for Go Flat Track explained that dirt flat track racing grew out of early board track motorcycle racing in the 1920s but really took off in the mid-1950s with the creation of the Grand National Championship in the United States. Thanks to Steve McQueen and director Bruce Brown's iconic 1971 film, On Any Sunday, flat track racing and riders like Grand National Champion Mert Lawwill and his Harley-Davidson XR-750 race bike—which was designed specifically for this type of racing and has won the most races in American Motorcycle Association history—were introduced to a much wider audience. Nearly 50 years on, the pioneering race footage they captured in that film is still exciting—even alongside the campy 70s narration.
In Canada, the heyday of flat track racing was during the 1970s and 80s, before it was eclipsed in popularity by motocross and superbike racing and then nearly disappeared altogether in the late 2000s. "Around 2007 there were maybe 50 or 60 riders in Canada, and three active tracks before we formed Flat Track Canada," Hesmer explained. "Fast forward to today, though, there are 27 tracks across six provinces and roughly 600 racers."
The renewed interest in flat track racing in Canada, from Quebec's Le Fooligan Derby to the Vancouver Flat Track Club, seems to stem from the sport's elemental nature. Unlike the wild jumps and pyrotechnics of Supercross or the seemingly unattainable, highly technological nature of MotoGP, flat track racing is accessible—both for racers and spectators. "You don't have to spend $50,000 to go racing," explained veteran rider Chris Evans, "I mean, you can, but you don't have to!"
For spectators, Hesmer added, the ability to see the whole track means people who are new to flat track racing can start to figure out the nuances of the sport in a single afternoon. "That, and the fact that the riders go sliding into the corners at 110 miles per hour," he said, laughing.
The school day was wicked, but riding laps with a bunch of other noobies is a very different experience than getting run down by real racers.
But it's the grassroots, familial feel of this group of racers that's really striking. They're certainly competitive with each other and driven to win but they're also incredibly quick to help out a fellow racer and each one repeatedly emphasizes the importance of community among flat track riders. Perhaps the absence of outrageous sponsorship contracts has kept the sport unspoiled—as Evans explained, the best you can realistically hope for is to break even. While all four of the riders at the practice I attended grew up riding motorcycles and started racing flat track as kids, the prototypical racer is changing as flat track racing's profile grows. Seven-time Canadian champion Don Taylor told me that "the biggest thing that helps flat track racing grow is the ability for people to try it. Having the Go Flat Track School giving people the opportunity to try out the sport, it makes it so much more accessible."
It's so accessible, in fact that when word got out I had done the training day last spring, everyone encouraged me to suit up and join them on the track.
My first concern was staying out of everyone's way. These guys all have day jobs and busy lives and they didn't need some half-speed tourist creating a traffic jam at their weekend practice session. The walled track feels very tight, almost claustrophobic. I'm used to navigating around streetcars and Toronto traffic, but giving the punchy race bike some hard throttle on the short racetrack means the corners come quick and I'm not quite "expert class" when it comes to sliding aggressively through turns just yet. The riders, although seriously competitive, were equally encouraging and welcoming even if I only thought I was going super fast. Hesmer rode up in front of me and motioned to follow his line and pace and we took things up a couple notches.
Taking a break after a few dozen laps, Taylor explained that finesse is key in a sport that lives on the precarious edge between control and catastrophe. "You're either winning or crashing," he said, "and going along great is only a millimeter from crashing out."
The veteran and Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Famer, Chris Evans, is no stranger to winning or crashing either, telling me his best experience in the sport was in 2002 in Lima, Ohio, on an XR 750, when he became the oldest rider to ever win his first American Pro National race. His worst day, however, started with a bad crash in New York that left him paralyzed for weeks. With his doctors unsure of his recovery prognosis, he pulled an Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and willed his big toe to wiggle. "I stared at the big toe on my right foot, just thinking 'you're gonna move, ya bastard.' After about an hour, wham! I yelled to the doctor, 'get in here, check this shit!' And within about two days it was all starting to come around."
With the rider's crash stories fresh in my mind, we headed back out onto the track. I was still tentative with other riders close by in the turns, although Hesmer reassured me that everyone else was experienced enough that they could anticipate my sketchiness and avoid any major collisions. The racers all see themselves as ambassadors for their sport—they've spent their whole lives on motorbikes and are eager to share their passion so they try to encourage newer riders to get comfortable with the bumping and elbowing that is part of flat track racing. To demonstrate, Hesmer snuck up to my outside as I slid through a turn. My first hint that he was there came with him squeezing my right butt cheek as he passed me. A couple seconds later, I felt another quick squeeze as Brandon Seguin made his presence known in what is apparently the usual way. After a few more laps I started to get more comfortable taking tight corners with other bikes nearby—it seemed their lesson in bumping and bum grabbing did the trick—and I somehow manage to avoid crashing out so, I guess, by Don Taylor's flat track math, I must be winning!
Presented by Harley-Davidson
I've never had my bum grabbed while riding a motorcycle before but I'm learning that dirt flat track racing is an up close and personal kind of sport.