History of American Flat Track Racing
Speed happens to be one of the great traditions of America. Whether it’s the prestigious NASCAR races or the Automobile racing club of America, the United States has been the focal point for all sorts of racing. But while the US has been the birthplace of some of the most famous four-wheel sports, it is also home to one of the most prestigious two-wheel sports in the world, AMA Flat Track Racing.
With American Flat Track Racing being bigger than ever, let’s take a look back at one of the oldest and most traditional motorcycle racing series.
Board Track Racing and the Birth of Flat Tracks (the 1900s – 1920s)
The 1900s saw the rise in enthusiasm surrounding motorcycle racing in general. Board tracks dominated the circuits, and at the time, it was a real adrenaline-pumping sport. Board track racing continued to soar in popularity until the 1920s when accidents started getting out of hand.
Between the 1900s and the 1920s, an estimated 35 drivers died on these board tracks. In many ways, this is what made the sport at the time such an adrenaline rush for people. At any time, drivers could tip over and fall to no fault of their own. Various riders who had been racing for years died on these board tracks, and for one simple reason. All of these boards were made out of wood.
Although now it may not be a very big deal that people drive on wood, the primitive tire technology of the 1900s would chip off wood from the track. This would lead to the driver getting injured, or the motorcycle itself getting injured. And seeing how this was extremely dangerous for the spectators as well, racing enthusiasts had to look for a much safer, yet equally thrilling alternative.
Finding the Flat Tracks
With cheaper board tracks now out of the question, race promoters started building tracks from scratch. And instead of using boards as the track, they started building oval tracks with earthen banks. The banks would make solid enough track for the bikes to ride while giving a shaky terrain for them to navigate.
This was, of course, a win-win situation for the promoters, except that these oval tracks were much more difficult and expensive to build. Whereas the wooden board tracks would cost an average of $100,000 in 1915, the same area of flat track would cost $700,000 to make. But they were willing to pay that extra price, seeing how flat track racing really blew up in North America.
Harley Davidson: The King of the Hill (the 1920s – 1950s)
The only two major bikes that were capable of riding the dirt tracks at the time were the Harley Davidson excelsior series and a brand by the name of the Indian. But Harley Davidson’s technology and superior build of motorcycles left its rival in the dust.
One particular driver by the name of “Smokin” Joe Petrail was the undisputed champion of dirt racing till 1935. He only rode The Harley Davidson series throughout his championships, which only further cemented just how amazing the Harley Davidson motorcycles were, and just how effective they were.
But then, of course, the great depression came in 1929, and the only real competitor – Indian motorcycles – were no longer imported. And soon after the great depression, the Second World War started, which made Harley Davidson change its priorities. But Harley would return in the 1950s, with a surprise competitor.
The Introduction of the Grand National Championship
For several years, dirt track racing was mostly a single race championship. Here racers would only participate in a single race, and the winner from that race would be the champion. However, the AMA – shortly after being founded themselves – introduced the Grand National championship. The championship introduced multiple divisions like the short-track, half-mile dirt track, and mile-long dirt track being the stars of the championship.
And with the Indian Motorcycle company shutting down, Harley Davidson managed to bag most of the trophies in all divisions throughout the championship. But they soon faced competition from international companies, especially those from the UK.
The Golden Age of Dirt Track Racing
While the 50s saw Harley Davidson dominate the tracks, UK companies such as Triumph and BSA made their way to the scene and gave Harley Davidson a serious run for its money. A company that was initially dominating much of the sport for almost three decades finally met its match.
Triumph was a company that touted itself for having the fastest motorcycles in the world and set out to prove those claims. Throughout most of the 60s, Triumph was “triumphant” in scoring most of the trophies throughout the championships.
Many tout the late 60s and the 70s to be the golden age of dirt track racing, as even Japan was represented throughout this time. With their signature series Yamaha making its way to the United States, the three-way battle for the championships between Triumph, Yamaha, and Harley Davidson began.
The Fall of Triumph
The economic hardships during the mid-1970s, as well as the immense competition, got the best of the great British manufacturing company. They soon closed down their operations and left the scene entirely. What was once a track for the three of the biggest manufacturers in the world, it soon became a battling ground for Harley Davidson and Yamaha fighting for the title.
The fall of Triumph was a huge blow to the competition overall. However, that doesn't mean the championships or the sport, in general, suffered much. Quite the contrary, the sport expanded significantly throughout the 80s and 70s, leading to more spectators and even more sponsors.
The 70s and the 80s shaped the sport into the behemoth that it is today. While many may argue that other forms of racing often overshadow it, that is simply not the case. The American Flat Track racing is one of the most prestigious dirt bike racing competitions in the world and for a good reason.