The History of American Flat Track Racing

The History of American Flat Track Racing

Racing is one of the great American traditions. Whether it’s NASCAR or drag racing, the United States has been the leader and birthplace of several types of racing. Not only has the U.S. been the birthplace of some of the most well-known four-wheel sports, it has also given rise to one of the most action packed two-wheel sports in the world — 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 (1900s – 1920s)

The 1900s saw a rise in enthusiasm around motorcycle racing in general, and it was board tracks that dominated the circuits. Board track racing was a real adrenaline-pumping sport fraught with danger for both riders and fans alike and continued to soar in popularity until the 1920s when accidents started getting out of hand.

In the 1920s alone an estimated 35 drivers died on board tracks. In many ways, this is what made the sport such an adrenaline rush for people — riders who had been racing for years died on these board tracks. As the tracks aged and fell into disrepair, both fans and riders began to lose interest. And seeing how this was extremely dangerous for the spectators, the sport eventually faded in popularity. It would be a few decades before racing enthusiasts began to seek out an equally thrilling — yet slightly safer — alternative.

Flat Track Racing is Born

With expensive and dangerous board tracks now out of the question, racers and small promoters started building oval dirt tracks from scratch. At first, they built oval tracks with dirt banks which would make the track solid enough for the bikes while also giving them shaky terrain to navigate. This was just as exciting as the board tracks and the sport continued at a grass roots level for years.

Flat track racing as we currently know it really only started around the mid- 1950s when the AMA (American Motorcycle Association) established their first championship. Over the next thirty years, flat track racing continued to be the most popular form of racing in America. In its early years, Harley Davidson motorcycles were best suited to this type of racing and the field continues to be dominate by Harleys

The Introduction of the Grand National Championship

For many years, dirt track racing was mostly a single race championship. 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 — eventually introduced the Grand National championship. This championship introduced multiple divisions with the short-track, half-mile dirt track, and mile-long dirt track being the stars of the championship.

Following the shuttering of the Indian Motorcycle Company, Harley Davidson managed to bag most of the trophies in all divisions throughout the championship. However, they soon faced competition from international companies, especially those from the U.K.

The Golden Age of Dirt Track Racing

While the 50s saw Harley Davidson dominate the tracks, U.K 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 had dominated the sport for almost three decades finally met its match.

Triumph was a company that touted itself as having the fastest motorcycles in the world and set out to prove those claims. Throughout most of the 60s, Triumph was “triumphant” in capturing most of the championship trophies.

Many people consider the late 60s and early 70s to be the golden age of dirt track racing. Japan even entered the fray around this time and with Yamaha building a reputation on 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 immense competition, got the best of the great British manufacturing company. They eventually closed down their operations and left the scene entirely. What was once a track for many of the biggest manufacturers in the world, soon became a battle ground for Harley Davidson and Yamaha to fight for championship titles.

Final Thoughts

While the fall of Triumph was a huge blow to the competition overall, that doesn't mean that the championships — or the sport in general — suffered much. Quite the contrary! The sport saw significant expansion throughout the 70s and 80s, leading to more spectators and even more sponsors and remains an important American tradition to this day.

Much like the early years of flat track, modern Hooligan racing is a grassroots form of racing which features smaller races, new venues, and is drawing in a younger audience. While many may argue that other forms of racing often overshadow it, that is simply not the case. American Flat Track is one of the most prestigious racing competitions in the world and for a good reason!

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