It’s Sunday, January 11, and I’m killing time browsing through my social media feeds. For as much grief as social media gets for destroying a person’s ability to be productive, sometimes there are occasions where scrolling through your feed is actually beneficial. This is one of those times.
While scrolling past pictures of my friend’s dinners and Sean Alexander’s video of a dancing cow, a poster on Roland Sand’s feed appeared. It was a drawing of two flat trackers, sideways, with their feet sticking out, and at the top of the poster it read, “Return To Del Mar, Jan 17 and 18.” Lately I’ve been wanting to give flat track a try, and the opportunity to ride at a famous venue like Del Mar seemed like a good place to pop my flat track cherry, but I’d never done this before. Surely I’d want to get some sort of practice or training in first, right?
The website on the poster, www.ivlft.com, led me to a registration page with a list of classes for both pros and amateurs. One in particular stood out. “Open Knob,” it read. Any bike goes, the only rules are: The bike has to have knobby tires, and the rider must have zero flat track experience. Screw learning the ropes. Let’s jump into the fire.
Of course, a few hurdles stood in the way. First, despite having the venue and motivation in place, I was missing one crucial element: a bike. And with the event less than a week away, several emails were spread asking if a sucker kind soul would be willing to let me attempt to flat track on their motorcycle. As the return emails were understandably coming back negative, I reminded myself flat track is one discipline I’d never done before. What was I thinking entering a race?!
Just as I was having second thoughts about the whole thing, Harlan Flagg, proprietor of Hollywood Electrics, the largest Zero dealer in the country, and all-around awesome guy, reminded me why I liked him so much. “I think I’ve got something, how long is the track?” he asked. After my reply that it would be an ⅛-mile track, on Friday, January 16, a day before Del Mar weekend was to begin, he handed me the key to a stock 2014 Zero FX. There was no backing down now.
That’s how I ended up at the Del Mar Fairgrounds for the return of flat track racing at the famed course. It’s been a decade since motorcycles were getting sideways here, and Brian Bell, the mastermind behind IV League Flat Track, and the one responsible for organizing the event, knew there would be a decent turn out. He had expected anywhere between 150-200. Instead, a total of 306 competitors, including yours truly, took part in the event.
The field was as diverse as the motorcycles, as Del Mar had it all. One minute, little tikes on 50s were running in circles, the next, guys on road-legal Harleys were banging bars and getting sideways. Then of course you had your Speedway bikes and converted dirtbikes, followed by grown men riding pull-start minibikes dressed in lucha libre masks and capes. As much as the return to Del Mar was about the racing, the loose nature of the event provided comedic interludes throughout the day.
Back in my pit, which consisted of a camping chair and the bed of my little pickup truck, I waited for my friend, Sean Aron. He arrived with his 2007 KTM 250 XC-F in tow but claimed he just came to watch. After seeing the track, the people, and the Open Knob class, I prodded him into forking over the $45 entry fee and joining in on the fun. “This sounds like a terrible idea,” he said. “Let’s do it!” Sean caves in to peer pressure easily. That’s why I like him.
Neither Sean nor I had any idea what we were doing, but I did what any respectable racer would do in this situation: I watched Youtube videos from my phone on how to flat track. In short, the technique would be to tap the rear brake to start a slide, tip-toe through the corner, then pile on the electrons on exit.
Seemed easy, especially as I wouldn’t have to worry about shifting on the FX. However, when the Knob class was finally called for its practice session, we were told we’d only have two sessions of three laps. So much for easing into things…
With such a limited number of laps, I put the FX in Sport mode and charged head first into turn one. Immediately, the rear was spinning the chewed knobbies that had seen quite a few street miles. While this was concerning, the high placement of the rear brake lever meant I’d lock the rear as soon as I touched the it with my big, clunky MX boot. I did, however, tip-toe through the corner, but getting on the e-throttle again would deliver more power than the rear could handle and instead of driving forward, I was spinning sideways. Rinse and repeat for two more laps and it was about this time I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Considering the steep learning curve, Sean and I sought the advice of others in the pits. One look at us and the advice we got was simple: Get a steel shoe. Putting the metal plate at the bottom of our left boot would allow us to slide our bikes while using our left foot to glide across the ground as an outrigger if needed. Without it, our boots could catch in the dirt and yank us off.
Great advice, but we didn’t have access to a steel shoe. Instead, for the next practice session I switched the FX’s power into Eco mode in an attempt to gain more traction on exits. As for the brake, I’d just have to manage. Fortunately, the softened power delivery was exactly what I needed. I was still locking the rear on entry, but at least I could be more liberal with the power and still get drive. But with only three laps, there wasn’t much else to work on. On the bright side, at least Sean was riding at a similar pace to me (read: we were both similar levels of slow).
Because of the huge turnout, the schedule needed a few adjustments to fit all the races without spilling into Sunday morning. One of those changes was making the first six-lap Open Knob heat a qualifying session for the second six-lap heat that would also serve as our main. Once the flag dropped for our first heat, the pace at which Sean and I found ourselves slipping towards the back had us wondering about the “zero flat track experience” some of the folks on the grid with us claimed. No matter, as at least Sean and I were at the same pace.
For the first three laps I could keep Sean in my sights and even pull even with him at times, but he didn’t leave me an opening to pass. On the fourth lap Sean ran wide into the first turn, allowing me to duck underneath. From there it was an even drag race to turn 3. I had the inside line, only this time it was my turn to run wide. But as Sean regained the point, he struggled to find traction on exit, at which point I squared off the corner and powered back in front of him. We played this cat-and-mouse game for the remaining laps with me edging him to the line. After bumping fists coming off the track we knew we were hooked!
It was a few hours before our last heat/main would be up, and with that downtime there was opportunity to reflect on the bike. Really, ⅛-mile flat track is a great venue for an electric bike. With better tires and a properly setup machine, I believe a skilled rider could take advantage of full power in Sport mode and compete with 450cc Singles. And because of the short race distances, thermal cutback from the air-cooled motor isn’t an issue.
Another advantage of flat tracking electric is the silence. During our final heat/main, I got a decent launch and held second place for a few laps. However, a yellow flag and maneuvering around a fallen rider messed with my head and put me out of the zone, allowing two riders, including Sean, to get around me by the third lap. I could hear them coming, too, their gas engines telling me whether they were on my left or right. Meanwhile, in my attempt to re-pass Sean, he was clueless where I was as he couldn’t hear me. Sean eventually beat me to the line, grabbing third place (and me fourth) out of six riders. However, he later told me not knowing where I was made him paranoid. If I were a better rider I likely could have taken advantage and forced him into a mistake.
Still, our first experience flat tracking was nothing short of memorable. The turnout was huge, the atmosphere was laid back and casual, and of course the racing was action packed from start to finish. All told, at the end of the day the FX still had 85% battery left. In fact, I suspect I used more electrons tooling around the pits than I actually used up on track. Best of all, I didn’t drop the bike once – something Harlan wasn’t so confident I would accomplish.
I see now why Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, and many of the world’s best road racers use flat track as a training ground. Managing slides and compromised traction are vital skills on any bike, and let’s face it, it downright looks cool too. Now, where can I get a steel shoe?