By Victor Wanchena
Flat track racing fascinates me. There is something elemental about it that appeals to me, from the first time I saw On Any Sunday, to watching pros race on the big mile tracks. My fascination has always included a desire to try it, but wasn’t sure how to start, what I should ride, and a dozen other excuses. That all changed when a couple flat tracker friends began working me over. “It’s easy”, “You’ll love it”, “Your bike is fine”, “Just go ride”, their cajoling had no end. So, I relented.
Step one was little bike prep. I poured over the rulebook and got the basics. I made a couple phones calls to my drifter friends and I was ready to dive in. My bike of choice was 2001 KTM 520 EXC. It had been my do everything bike. Dual sport, trail riding, and commuting so I figured why not race it?
The first big job was to get it prepped for the first race. I actually didn’t do much. I pulled the lights, lowered the forks in the triple clamps, pulled the front brake off, made electrical tape numbers, and threw on a set of dual sport tires (dual sport take off’s traded for a couple packs of smokes). My metal artist sister-in-law welded up a steel shoe for me.
I wanted to spend time getting comfortable on the bike, but really had no idea what I was doing. There isn’t a good way to practice without a track. I was apprehensive as race approached, but MX and trials has taught me to be comfortable with last place.
The first race was in mid-April at the Cedar Lake Arena. The day of the race I arrived and settled into the pits getting geared-up. I took note of a lot well-prepped machines and riders. There was brief rider meeting then practice, which was a bit chaotic as riders were supposed to practice with similar skill level. I had no idea what my skill level was so I just looked for other riders that seemed as sketchy as me and lined up with them. And with that, I was out on the track.
The track was short, it was around 1/8 mile with mild banking (just a few degrees). I was instantly amazed at the amount of traction. The clay in the track was well packed and had the grip of pavement most places. I chugged around a few laps and pulled in. I felt pretty good, had no idea if I was fast or slow, but couldn’t wait to go out again.
Second practice session went as well as the first. I tried to push a little harder into the corners and run a different line. I had noticed I was staying pretty far outside around most of the track, too far outside compared to other riders I had watched.
The race order had me in the 18th race of the night. It was about 8:30 when I lined up for the first heat. The heat race is six laps and your finish determines your starting line choice for the main. I got staged and lined up. There were 6 in my class. Two kids on screaming little 2-strokes and three other guys on big bikes, but they where all fully prepped flat track bikes with proper tires and lowered suspension.
The green flag dropped and most everyone got off the line faster than me. I was in fifth as I battled for last with another guy. On the third lap I finally pulled away from him and then dove under one kid in the next corner. The next lap I went around the outside of another rider. Crap, I was in third. I tried to stay smooth and just finish. When the checkered flag dropped I had held on to third and was closing on second.
Wow, that was incredibly fun and felt way smoother than expected, but now the long wait for the main. The conditions on the track got slower as the surface dried over the evening. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was nervous, only because it had gone so well thus far.
I finally got lined up for the main. Based on what I learned thus far I lined up right next to the fastest guy in my class figuring I could just follow him as much as possible. The race started and I was third off the line. On the back straight I out-drove the guy ahead of me. He followed me for a half lap and then ran wide and crashed in the 1st corner. The 4th place rider went down somewhere as well, and the caution was out. The leader and I pretty much just rolled the last couple laps under caution. So by attrition I had finished 2nd. I was frankly amazed how much fun a short race on a small track could be. The riding was a weird combo of road riding lines with offroad-riding looseness.
After the first race I wanted to race more than a single class so I looked around the garage and spotted my wife’s Yamaha TTR 125, which qualifies for the Mad Dog class (under 200cc air cooled 4-strokes). So I dropped the forks an inch, cranked up the preload, and electrical taped up some numbers on it. It felt cramped and was pitifully slow with me on it, but what could go wrong? I also built a set of 19” wheels for the KTM and spooned on some for-real flat track tires.
The second race was at the same indoor track at Cedar Lake Arena. The beginner class was pretty small, just three of us. One was a girl on nicely prepped XR200 and the other was a guy my age on a fully prepped RMZ 450. My KTM looked cartoonishly tall next to them.
The first heat for Beginner C went well. The RMZ guy got the hole shot and I followed him for a couple laps. I finally closed the gap and was right on him and was able to out drive him into a corner and get by. He chased hard the rest of the heat, but I held on to first. The XR trailed by a good amount.
The Mad Dog class was packed with 10 bikes so they split the heats up. I was in the first heat. Another lackluster heat had me in last place for most of the race, until after flogging the poor TTR like a rented mule I got around another big guy on a TTR.
The Beginner C main went great. The RMZ guy got the hole shot again, but I had him by the second corner and he didn’t put much pressure on me. My first win in a main! The new wheels and tires made the bike corner way harder. The grip difference was noticeable even to a novice like me.
The Mad Dog was another story. It was a big mass start of ten bikes. I sucked off the line again, but was making up a little ground when I got over ambitious in a corner and slid out. The race was red flagged and we had to restart. Now I’m back at the naughty line on the start (if you crash you restart behind everyone else), already in last place except for a pro kid that always starts behind the last rider just to test himself. We start again and the pro guy slides past me like I was bolted down to the track. We get a couple more laps in until someone else goes down. Another restart, pro guy passes me on the outside again like a man possessed. Race ends with me comfortably in last place.
So the damage report was KTM in great shape, TTR was too small, and my steel shoe needed a lot of repair. I was amazed how fast it was wearing. I spent an hour with the torch reinforcing it and filling some holes, but found it was strangely satisfying.
My desire to race two classes wasn’t gone, but I knew the TTR wasn’t the right bike. My friends (known vintage hooligans) suggested I look for a vintage single. The Vintage Single A class is for twin shock, 600cc or less bikes made before 1981. The hot rides for this are Yamaha TT500’s and Honda XR500’s. A casual conversation with some other vintage guys churned up TT500 that needed a new home.
I call the TT500’s owner on a Tuesday morning. Yup, he’s got one he’ll sell cheap. It’s a big unknown, it’s been sitting in his shed for some time, and he remembers it smoking a lot. I head over and pretty much say yeah I’ll take it before I’ve even seen it. The addiction is starting to pull harder. I load the bike and head home to take stock in my new acquisition.
The motor is free and seems to have good compression. The frame has been de-raked with a new head tube welded in. It’s got a decent set of K&N flat track bend bars. It has a big carb on it, a 19” mag on the back with a disk brake conversion, and a cool sprocket adapter. The front is the stock 21”, but the guy threw in a matching 19’’ mag for the front. The triple clamps are beefy homemade aluminum things, very stout. It also had a homemade low pipe.
It seemed in pretty good shape all the way around. I drained tank, made sure the float bowl was clean and checked the plug. All good. I threw in some gas and tried kicking it to life. And then I remember how horrendously hard they are to kick. 25 kicks later I pull the flooded plug and dry it off. I try again and it actually lights up and runs.
Holy crap! The pipe is loud and the motor has very big lope. I suspect it has been built with a big cam and high compression piston. The motor tune might be higher than expected as the spark plug is two heat ranges colder than stock and the front wheel bounces like a big twin HD at idle. I ride it around the block a little. It moves under it’s own power and all the gears seem to work.
The next three nights I tear into actually getting it ready. I get the front mag fitted and throw on flat track tires I change all the fluids, cleaned up some sketchy wiring, and added some more electrical tape numbers. Ready or not I head for New Ulm for the Flying Dutchmen’s two-day event.
I also made the decision to move up a class on the KTM. I sign up for Open B. Having won in Beginner C it was the gentlemen thing to do, and Open B is the next logical step. The track is way bigger than Cedar Lake. It’s a full 1/3 of mile with much higher speeds.
The Open B race was split into two divisions, and I was in the first heat with three other riders. I actually get a good start and never got much pressure. The track feels good and I get the win. The bike handled well and I start to get an idea about the correct line. Line choice is not as intuitive as I thought. I learn it’s better to enter wide and apex when you can start to drive to the next straight. I also start trusting the bike more and pick my foot up sooner each lap.
The Vintage 600 heat was another two-division class with me in the first heat again. I line up in a nice starting point (I somehow was given first choice). The light turns green and the TT leaps forward in a big wheelie. I grab the clutch and bang 2nd gear into another big wheelie. Apparently built TT500’s have some torque, but wheelies don’t help my start. The rest of the pack pulls away pretty quickly and I do what I can to catch up. I also realize how bad the shocks are. They are essentially bottomed and don’t seem to have any damping. I finish last in the heat, but was thrilled the TT held together for the heat and noted the motor wasn’t smoking as the previous owner reported.
The Open B Main was next. There were 7 riders and all on serious machines. I hadn’t got to see the 2nd Open B heat so wasn’t sure who my competition was. Since I won one of the heats I got second choice on starting position. We got lined up and like that the race was on. I started poorly, but made up some ground on the first lap settling into the 5th place. The lead group was way faster than me, and I watched them pull away each lap. I stayed on the 4th place guy and was closing in by the last lap, but I didn’t have enough to make a run at him. Still I was happy to actually finish above last place in an actual B Class race.
The Vintage 600 was a bit more dramatic. I lined up with all ten riders on the line. My starting spot was fine, and I was instructed by a wise racer to start in 2nd gear to reduce the wheelies. I launched much better, but all but one guy was around me by the 2nd lap. I was giving the TT hell when a realized that something is wrong with my steel shoe. It had come off and was dragging behind my foot. I figured I’d get black flagged so I try to keep my foot up and out of the way. It’s tough dragging a foot without the steel shoe and even harder when the steel shoe is clanging around behind you. I try, but the guy behind me makes the best of my problems and is around me. The shocks actually seem worse this race and I fight a bit of headshake along with the stupid shoe. I finish 10th, but don’t crash or get black-flagged. Post mortem on the shoe is the front strap cracked at the weld. Crap.
That night I ply one of Dutchmen with beer for repair of my steel shoe (thanks Charlie), and ponder about the shocks on the TT. The following morning another Dutchmen (thanks Ryan) comes through with a set of Red Wing Hammer Head shocks that were off a TT500. We try them and they fit like a glove. Seem to work fine and actually are period correct shocks. The old shocks were toast. The left one was actually broken inside so that when I took it off it literally feel apart in my hands.
The Open B race was only one division on Sunday with only 4 riders, me and the three fastest guys from yesterday. The heat was no easy cruise. They all pulled away early and it was all I could do to keep them within sight. I was trying to use this as practice and enter the corners faster or at least hang closer to the leaders. I was starting to feel more comfortable, but over drove a couple corners, ran wide and lost ground on the lead pack.
The Vintage 600 class was different Sunday. The heat was split into two divisions again. I was in the first heat and right from the start I feel the tremendous difference the shocks made. I finished last out of 4 guys, but felt very comfortable on the bike. No wallow or headshake and it stayed planted. On returning to the pits, my wife even commented that it looked like a whole new bike today.
The Open B main was pretty much a carbon copy of the heat. The other guys were much faster than me, but more importantly I had my first true corner drift. I came down the back straight, sat up and did jab a little rear brake as I was leaning in and the bike did a nice little slide and scrubbing some speed. It felt really good, like narcotic drug good. The lead pack was well ahead of me, but I pulled in feeling very happy with my progress.
The Vintage race was very interesting. I got an okay start, but lost track of the other riders and I wasn’t sure if there was anyone behind me. I thought I could hear another bike, but the megaphone of the TT is robust in the sound department. I didn’t dare look behind. If I did I was sure if someone were there they’d pass me.
So I rode for the next 6 laps like the devil was on my ass. I held the inside line, stayed on the grove, and made myself hard to pass. As the laps ticked off I still was not sure if I was actually racing someone or just was turning laps in vain. The checker final drops and as I exit the 2nd corner on the cool down lap I sneak a peek behind me and there is another TT! He was there the whole time. I take 6th out of 8 (one guy dropped out after a couple laps).
I return to the pits and my wife tells me it was the closest race she’d seen all day. The guy behind was on my butt the whole time, but I never gave him an opening. He would catch me going into the corners but my line allowed me to pull away on the exit. I saw him later and he commented that he tried his best to get around me, but I protected the inside line too well.
It’s official. I’m hooked. This type of racing is seriously a lot of fun. It combines the right aspects of both dirt riding and road riding into a one package. I don’t have a ton invested in the hardware and am enjoying the build process. I’m actually starting to get the “why” of it. I get the attraction, the passion, and the desire. It’s really a test of riders on ill handling machines with poor brakes on a sketchy riding surface. I shouldn’t like it so much, but I do.
Next up is part two where I learn what a TT race is. Is that a jump?….