Sliding, Slipping, Slinging
by Tony Marx
Slide \verb \ to move smoothly across a surface. No, that’s not the word I’m searching for.
Slip \verb \ to move with a smooth sliding motion: to pass quickly or easily away. Smooth easy pass? Nope, not me.
Sling \verb \ to hurl or cast with a sudden sweeping motion.
These are all words that immediately come to mind when someone mentions dirt track racing. Unfortunately I accomplished none of these things during my one-day crash course in dirt track riding. I consider myself an average rider. I’ve spent time in the cockpit of a good number of modern bikes, and thrown a few of them down the road on occasion. So when B&R Promotions invited MMM to come and test ride a couple of open pro dirt track machines I thought “Great! I’ll go out, crank the throttle open, and go nuts. Dirt flyin’, wheel spinnin’ action? No problem.” Well, not quite.
B&R sponsors dirt track racing in AMA district 23, which covers all of Minnesota and part of the Dakotas. On any given night of racing you will see 20 to 25 qualifiers followed by a short intermission and then roughly the same number of feature races. The bikes and riders are separated into a huge number of classes starting out with the younger riders on small displacement machines.
Have you ever seen a kindergartner hook one up in second gear and ride it all the way down the back straight? It’s a humbling experience no matter how good you think you are. Quads are raced in 250 and half-liter sizes. Then comes vintage machinery and the over 30, over 40, and then the “masters” age groups. These classes seem to be a “run what you brung” class with any combination of old Yamaha TT’s, modern two stroke motocrossers, and open pro bikes banging bars together in a 10-15 lap race. There is a 250 amateur class thrown in there somewhere, and finally the open pro class. This, my friends, seems to be the top of the dirt track heap. Open pro means just that. These guys are racing all out for guts, glory and a decent sized purse for the winners of the 20-25 lap feature race. Speeds reach 70 plus mph on tracks that are not much larger than that birdbath in your back yard and over 100 on the larger tracks. Like I said before, wheel spinnin’, clutch burnin’, carnage. Where contact between racers is sinful in road racing, it seems to be eagerly anticipated by both spectators and riders as seven of them aim for the same line into turn one.
Anything goes as far as machinery. New or vintage, singles or twins. Japanese motocrossers, home made Rotax powered and American iron all compete at this level. I thought out loud about racing my KZ550 around the dirt oval some time but only got laughed at.
As with most forms of racing certain equipment goes around the track faster than others do and people then gravitate towards what works. Tweaked 600cc four stroke Rotax singles in custom dirt track frames are a top choice, though I was told after asking “Which is faster? Which is faster?” all day, that in the open pro class, a late 70’s Yamaha will still lap as fast or faster than more modern race bikes. ATK makes a 600cc single that is ready to race out of the box. Two stroke motocrossers, lowered and stripped of their knobbies are also a competitive option.
First up for me to ride was machine #77k belonging to Mr. Eric Brouhard. Eric is a multi-time state dirt track champ and is also one half of B&R promotions. Needless to say, he is up to his ears in this dirt track business. His bike is a 600cc Rotax single tuned to a severely potent state and hanging in a double cradle, chrome-moly tube frame that also holds engine oil. It sucks air in through a foam filter to a 46mm Mikuni carb which then regurgitates the mix through the professionally flowed head, past the titanium valves, and into the boom chamber. Believe me, it does boom. While shooting some pictures in the pit area my hat was blown off by a gigantic wave of noise and exhaust. Turning to see what was attacking me from behind, I saw that the culprit was another Rotax idling over 20 feet away! In the suspension department there’s a White Power shock in the rear and a set of fully adjustable 43mm forks borrowed from a Honda CBR600 F4 held in place with a set of equally adjustable alloy triple clamps and a steering damper mounted to the frame to keep things from getting to squirrelly.
Eric was good enough to let me use his leathers, boots, and pads so that if I ended up face down in the weeds, I would remain intact. Last of all I had to strap on the hot shoe, a heavy steel plate that covers your toes and keeps the sole of your boot skimming across the hard packed dirt. “Go out without that,” he says, “or dig your foot in too hard and you’ll end up kicking yourself in the back of the head. Then we take you to the hospital.” This gives me something to think about for a few seconds as Eric and crew bump started the bike. As I jump on it he fills me in on some minor details. “No first gear. Its been replaced with a spacer.” He yells. Ok. “No front brakes. You won’t need them.” Hmmm, well ok. “Also, it wont idle on its own so you have to blip the throttle constantly.” Ok, I say as the engine sputters to a halt. This is done to keep the bikes from detonating when the throttle is closed while racing. A quick push and I’m off towards the track entrance.
The first thing I notice while tooling around is that the right footrest is in a normal, comfortable position while the left one has my foot tucked up and back about six inches for extra ground clearance. The shift lever is moved forward and out of easy reach to keep you from kicking it around while your foot is dancing between the ground and the peg.
My first time out on the track was solo so there was nothing to worry about except the Rotax and me. Starting in second gear I short shift into third and crack the throttle. To my surprise there’s traction. Way more traction than I was expecting. This presents a problem. First, I am already heading for turn one way faster than I wanted to, and second, since the bike was hooked up pretty well I was going to have to seriously commit to initiate any sort of a slide on the way in. I opted instead to wuss out and chop the throttle and go wide, through the rough, loamy dirt along the outside of the track. With my foot on the ground the bike would pitch back and forth between my legs, smacking the inside of each thigh. The steering damper paid in spades because while the bars would visibly jerk in the opposite direction as the frame, there was no significant or unwanted change in the bike’s course.
Heading down the back straight and safely back on the hard packed racing line, the 70 horsepower lump roared as the rear hoop hooked up again and launched me down the track. Eric told me that he had geared the bike extra high to soften up the power delivery for me, but to a rookie on an unfamiliar machine it still came on strong enough to keep me from ever using full throttle. Something he had told me earlier that day was still rattling around in my head. “Be gentle with the throttle coming out of the turns, otherwise you highside and then we take you to the hospital.” Why does he keep saying that?
The rest of my five-minute session went without alarm. I found that I was running wide while coming off the corners, and occasionally had to back off the gas and lean over a little more than I felt comfortable with. I also had this goofy habit of leaving my left foot dangling out at all times. The straights seemed to go by too fast and I was having trouble finding the offset footrests anyway.
For my next session Eric told me that the reason I was pushing around the corners was because I was going too slow. I should be spinning the rear and using it to get the front end pointed down the straight. This time out was with nine other riders and I hung toward the back as we were let onto the track. My attempts to spin it up out of the corners only resulted in me going wider and wider, whacking the wall once with my foot, and sending one of the corner workers running for safety while waving the yellow flag near a stalled rider. I was definitely the slowest rider out there, though in my defense, the entire group of riders only lapped me once.
For a different perspective a guy named Bob Boyd offered me a few laps on his CR250 open pro machine. Still wearing Eric’s leathers I jumped at the chance. Basically a stock Honda 250 with the suspension thoroughly worked over and 17 inch rim conversion, his bike (#26L) sitting noticeably higher than Eric’s benefited from the stock kick starter, and turned on like a light switch as you revved it up. On the track it felt both better and worse than the four stroke 600.
Better because it was lighter and the throttle had a larger range of movement so small adjustments at the right wrist produced equally small adjustments at the rear wheel. Worse because Bob’s bike was set up to grip on the hard blue grooved dirt on the inside of the track where Eric’s bike had more traction in the softer dirt near the outer edge. Bob had told me this, and was even motioning for me to take the inside line, but I was concentrating too hard on scrubbing off speed because the two stroke offered little engine braking. It was definitely a different bike than Eric’s and I love the contrast of the two dueling it out in the same series.
Check out the event calendar in the front of this issue for a listing of the upcoming District 23 dirt track races. The bulk of the racing seems to be done in Cambridge and Aitkin but there are a few going on in New Ulm and Shakopee. There are a few tar oval tracks that get raced on and even a TT course complete with jump and all. Bottom line is these guys (and girls) go out and put it on the line nearly every weekend. It’s hairy style, grass roots racing that I guarantee will keep you pinned in your seat all night. Admission is reasonable at five to ten dollars. It’s also a perfect destination for a good hooligan ride with your friends. Race like maniacs out to the country, grab a handful of concession stand hot dogs and settle in and watch ’em slide and sling the bikes around for three hours. At the risk of sounding like Peter Egan, I really can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday night.