Honda Heads Back to Flat Track

Big Red joins the modern flat track renaissance.

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Anders Carlson

In the 90’s, flat track motorcycle racing’s growth was flat. Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, and Gary Nixon had all marched through flat track and past European riders on their way to MotoGP glory, but the future was uncertain. Crowds dwindled along with sponsor and factory involvement.

But flat track racing was still among the most compelling things you could see on two wheels. Men barely off work from their day jobs flew 140 mph around tracks mere inches apart, stuffing your heart in your throat with every pass. They hurtled around clay ovals for little pay and little recognition. Change was overdue, beginning with the name.

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Texas Motor Speedway
Anders Carlson

AMA Pro Racing was sold off by the Ohio-based American Motorcycle Association in 2008, becoming Daytona Motorsports Group, now based in Daytona Beach, Florida. But they kept the “AMA” moniker. Confused? In 2017, they mercifully renamed it “American Flat Track”.

Though built on dirt, danger and raw ambition, American Flat Track Racing is on a charm offensive. Over steak, AFT President Michael Lock spent two hours explaining his rebranding of flat track. He spoke of reclaiming the sport from people who’d turned it into a byzantine network of rules and classes. The fanbase (and their disposable income) is the only metric of success. His vision is a single run-on sentence that’s been delivered to hundreds of skeptical rooms. Deep breath.

“Remove the barriers to participation for both fans and participants by modernizing and demystifying the sport, broadening entertainment options, widening access via internet streaming and TV broadcast and making stars of the top tier of athletes via ‘under the helmet’ features and development of social media communications.”

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Honda Flat Track
Anders Carlson

A veteran leader at Triumph, Ducati, Honda, and Lamborghini, Lock has earned his turn at the mic. He sums up old classes, “They were structured around rider experience and track type, rather than machinery definitions – unlike most motorsports.”

Before, top riders competed on multiple makes, in multiple classes. A rider could claim a crown, but manufacturers, not being directly involved, were loath to share spotlights with dual-allegiance riders. In 2017, AFT switched to just two main classes: Twins and Singles. Twins featured the best riders on 650cc to 900cc bikes, with Singles representing close-to-stock 450cc machines with up and coming riders. Everything got simpler. And more marketable.

The changes are paying off. Indian factory riders are on Indian Twins, Harley-Davidson factory riders use HD Twins, recreating a hallowed rivalry from the 1940’s. Viewership is twice last year’s. Races are on NBCSN, and sponsors are returning.

In 2012, only HD had any sort of “factory” involvement. Then Indian Twins blew the doors open in 2017. KTM joined this year in Singles. Yamaha’s MT-07 Twin, based on the beloved FZ-07, debuted in 2019. Now, Honda is coming back.

The last time Honda joined Flat Track, it began with a CX500 motor turned sideways. Then the company built the legendary RS750, winning four championships, one in 1993, five years after the manufacturer left the series. Honda’s dominance led to restrictor plates being added in 1987, and the company left flat track entirely in 1988.

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Honda Flat Track Team
Anders Carlson

Now, Honda’s going all in on Singles. The factory involvement goes through the Richie Morris Racing team. An ex-racer, his perfectly coiffed hair and designer shades make him both rogue and rake. His youthful demeanor serves him well herding the teens and 20-somethings that make up his race team. Three riders carry Soichiro Honda’s racing legacy – Mikey Rush, 31, Cameron Smith, 19 and Cole Zabala, 21. In three years on Hondas, they’ve netted six victories and 13 podiums.

“But nobody remembers the podiums” says Richie Morris.

Morris believes Singles are more than just the entry-level class. Rush was an HD factory Twins rider last year, with Dan Bromley joining from Twins as well. Superstar Shayna Texter came down two years ago. Singles are happening. The bikes are what you see in the showroom. No wonder Honda wants in.

Morris is bullish on AFT’s future. “Road racing is still fun and exciting, but I’m not sure people are willing to watch a corner all day anymore.”

He’s got a point. For a sport birthed nearly a century ago, flat track seems made for 2019. You see the entire course from anywhere. Heats and races are mere minutes long, making it short-attention-span theater, writ large and loud. Riders are forever 18 to 30 years old. They turn pro as young as 15, and reaching 50 is a distant concern. They’re hungry, recover fast, and put helmets over Camaro mustaches to race wherever they can.

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Anders Carlson

Does Smith have any good war stories? “Last year at Dixie, Ryan Wells went down in front of me. I went over the handlebars. I had a broken wrist and broken shoulder. Was out 4-5 weeks.”

Rush chimes in. “I broke my back a couple times, my pelvis, shoulder, collar bone, knees, whole bunch of stuff, I guess. With the back and pelvis I was out about a year.”

How was the first race back? “Won Daytona that year.”

So what do they ride for fun? Zabala again, “A little Z125, it’s great for around town, going to the chiropractor, whatever.”

Five hours later, he’s hauled off the track in an ambulance, but he won’t be riding to a chiropractor. A mild concussion is the verdict.

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agnetalouise

The third event of the season is The Al Lamb’s Honda Half Mile presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys Race. The biggest jumbotron in Texas (surpassing the one the Cowboys play under) looms over the main track.

“Tony Stewart presents Sprint Car Racing” is painted on the wall. Stewart’s push for grassroots racing mirrors AFT’s own. It’s no coincidence. Left of the track, a giant lattice of abandoned concrete and grass extends over multiple acres.

“That’s where they used to park for NASCAR events.” says an AFT official.

Fortunes wane, but AFT’s star is waxing.

From 2 pm until 10 pm, the track is just visible noise, dayglow blur and leather. Practice leads to qualifying rounds, followed by semi’s and the main race. Then everything changes. Bright sun is replaced by stadium lights and inky darkness. Space between riders gets slim to none. Handlebars clang against handlebars. Singles and Production Twins get 15 laps, Twins get 25.

Watching passes is a physical sensation. Jaws clench and eyes squint. Clay comes loose in turn 3, making tires instantly bite dirt with riders lucky to hang on. The reward for doing so is planting your ass on the seat and putting power to clay a half second sooner than the rider next to you. Their front tires hover over the clay powering out of turns 2 & 4. You want that pass to happen, but the chance of a miracle lessens with each lap. Then the checkered says it’s over.

We’re hardwired to believe our desired sports outcome is the least likely. Flat track’s no exception. We cheer the result, not often the win. In yearning for the unlikely, the rare triumph gets seared into our brain. All the same, we watch. Men and women throwing bikes sideways into turns at 100 mph is its own reward.

AL LAMB'S HONDA TEXAS HM pres by RUSS BROWN MOTORCYCLE ATTORNEYS
SCOTT HUNTER

Mikey Rush nets 2nd place in Singles, .129 seconds behind winner Shayna Texter. He bumps up to 2nd in overall standings. Zabala’s still going through concussion protocol as Smith gets 15th. There’s work left in the Honda program, but things are trending upward. Richie Morris’ words about nobody remembering podiums are still terribly true, but Honda wouldn’t have it any other way.

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