AMA Flat Track is Depraved, And That’s Just How It Should Be
By Johnny Killmore
I have never understood oval racing. I get that fans want to be able to see the race and an oval layout allows for that, but I don’t get why a fan would want to watch people race on an oval in the first place. The one exception is when the oval isn’t paved. Suddenly, the traction available changes with a change in humidity, or the passing of a water truck. Even the racers themselves can change the course as they push loose dirt to different spots of the track, allowing new lines to form as a race progresses. Add to it that people are racing on two wheels, eyes and throttles wide-open, and you definitely have my attention. AMA Pro Flat Track has that all in spades, and it’s as American as apple pie and fighting wars for oil.
I got the chance to report on the season finale in Pomona, California on short notice. Not owning a camera capable of more than taking pictures of my dinner, I immediately put the call in to my trusty photographer Robert. He promptly turned me down (so much for trusty) but I understood; a chance at some company of the feminine persuasion would be the only thing to dissuade me from seeing these thundering machines pound the earth into submission. Fortunately my old friend Edwin came to the rescue saying, “I have an SLR camera, no problem. I got you covered.” This would be the pivotal moment that turned the night from a chance to cover some racing, into a Hunter S. Thompson tribute.
I picked Edwin up a half hour early to find him reading the manual that came with the SLR camera, an early 80’s-era 35mm film camera. The ME Super was a highly successful camera decades ago, and it was nowhere near as old as the XR750 Harley Davidson engines taking racers to flat track glory. What could go wrong? Well, firstly it would be the fact the Edwin had no film and no batteries. In case you haven’t looked (because I doubt any of us have), the corner store does not carry the high-speed film required to shoot motorcycles racing at night, screaming past you at 100mph. It’s also as expensive as race gas these days. Grabbing up what 400-speed film there was- along with the appropriate batteries- we scurried down the freeway in Edwin’s truck. I drove while he continued to read the instructions and fumble with the batteries. Edwin’s truck had obviously not been driven by a professional racer before, and it was reluctant to exceed 80mph. Fortunately Edwin’s cries for mercy drown out the shuddering steering as I launched us down the 15 freeway to the track at Pomona.
This is where Edwin’s true talent came through. He could do a perfect imitation of Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I could also do an imitation of a demolition derby driver going for gold as we circled the Pomona Fairplex looking for gate 7. Edwin went from “it began to feel like a wild goose chase, highlighted by the fact that we didn’t have a convertible Cadillac or a suitcase full of drugs,” to “our goose was royally cooked,” when gate 7 was manned by nothing more than a giant “DO NOT ENTER” sign. Eventually we figured out gate 17 was where we needed to be, but not after leaving judicious amounts of brake pad material and rubber around the circumference of the fairgrounds. Once inside and possessing our credentials, we sauntered in with all the confidence once can have as we lined up next to camera lenses the size of ballistic missiles on the inside of turn 1.
Now, I have been to many a flat track race, but I have never been on the infield. My appraisal of flat track motorcycle racing has always been that it’s wild and unique, but after being within arm’s length of the Goodyear tires as they skewed sideways at 90mph, I must say: these people should be wearing straight jackets. The early heat races were for the Pro Singles class. These are lightweight 450cc motocross bikes on flat track tires and lowered suspension. What happens when you put teenage kids on machines like this and unleash them on a horse racing track? Well, what kind of perverted human being are you to ask that? It’s insane.
With total disregard for even the concept of self-preservation, the fastest riders didn’t even seem to lift off the throttle entering turn 1. Of course they did lift, but only enough to make the back end step out, then back to full throttle. More throttle means more wheelspin, to slow down. Less throttle would give more traction, to go fast. What the hell?!! It was easy enough to understand the concept, but watching it close up left me at a loss for words. If that wasn’t enough to make you question if “human sanity” was an oxymoronic statement, then came the twins class.
While the singles seemed like fire-breathing monsters, they became tame to my eyes after watching the first twins heat. These bikes absolutely buried themselves into the cushion on the high line, plowing through the earth like an airplane crash landing into a compost bin. Some riders went for the inside line, but the only fast way to do it was to hug the rail so close that their handlebars appeared to pass under the railing. This also gave me a quick lesson in trying to photograph with a cell phone camera: you are not safe just because you are inside the fencing. After a face-full of 90mph dirt I retreated to higher ground.
At this point I could see Edwin searching fruitlessly for a lens that would allow him to capture these maniacal beasts at speed. The sun was down and the stadium lighting was behind us, casting strange shadows as the bikes passed. Edwin also only had two rolls of color and one of black and white. He had already shot through one just trying to figure out how to read the light meter. Things were looking bad for the home team. All we had really ascertained at this point was that shooting with a film camera was no job for amateurs, and that Kenny Coolbeth was attacking the track with a vengeance. Coolbeth may have been out of the hunt for the championship mathematically, but math has little to do with the judicious application of throttle while burying your left footpeg into the earth.
NO MERCY FOR HOT METAL
Coolbeth stood out in another way… the glowing brake rotor. I have seen many a picture of brake rotors glowing bright red and orange on cars, motorcycles, and airplanes. I’ve even turned a few cherry red myself; hot enough to light a cigarette off of. Still, I have never seen a brake rotor that bright in my life. It glowed so bright I’m surprised the nearby airport didn’t call over with complaints that pilots were trying to follow it as a landing beacon; it should have been visible from space. It was obvious that Kenny was simply holding the brake on with the throttle opened wide, scrubbing speed without letting the RPM drop and slack build up in the drive chain. Logical explanations were meaningless however, as I noted only one other bike who’s rotor was alight, and only slightly so. Kenny was from another planet tonight. His racing line was different as well. While his exit from Turn 2 looked no different than other fast riders on the high line, Kenny was coming in with way more speed, bashing his machine into the cushion of loose soil to scrub speed, then firing off into the distance with a vicious roar.
There was a points championship happening somewhere out there but it was rather meaningless to me. I knew it was a big deal to others though. It all culminated tonight. Those out of the hunt had their own goals to set. Win the race. Make the main. Finish top 10. Just finish at all. Everyone was looking to surpass some kind of internal limit, to exceed what may not seem possible. For me, I was transfixed on the lap-by-lap action.
THE MAIN EVENT
The main event went off with a roar. The bikes thundered in to Turn 1 impossibly close to each other. Handlebars and dirt flew past, but everyone made it through. Kenny Coolbeth was off to an early lead and began to pull away, until the red lights flashed. It happened out of view, and the delay for the restart was much shorter than I expected. I never heard which rider it was that fell, but 18 started and 18 finished, so damage was light enough to make the restart. I knew the feeling of having to sit on the starting line, waiting to do it all over again, so what seemed a short wait to me was an eternity of butterflies in the stomach for those on the grid.
The bikes fired, but something was amiss with the lights. The engines revved to their impossible, quaking roar. Elbows up and heads down, but nothing happened. The officials ran out and waved to abort the start. Now the air-cooled engines were really unhappy. Sitting still is bad enough for a race engine, but then being revved to the moon only adds to the mechanical stress. The delay was only a few seconds and the restart sequence went off without a hitch.
It was a repeat as Coolbeth shot to the lead and began to pull away. The championship battle was impossible to figure. It was essentially between points leader Jared Mees and “Slammin’” Sammy Halbert. Tonight however, they both ran deep in the order and I had no idea how the points system worked. At the moment it was the battle for second on the track that mattered. Brad Baker and Bryan Smith were hammering on each other lap after lap. They were both using the same line, and it was going to take something special to make a pass. Every time Baker used his Kawasaki-powered machine in a different manner though, the gap increased. I could feel the frustration from track side just watching how close- but seemingly impossible- it was to make a pass. While they battled, Coolbeth kept walking away, that glowing red brake rotor finally turning orange and then white-orange. Edwin had already run out of color film and was shooting black and white. I knew from experience that we needed to get to the start/finish line to get a good shooting spot for the finish and aftermath, so we beat feet to the podium.
Coolbeth was out to over a nine-second lead in a sport that is often won by less than a wheel length. He slowed down a bit for the last few laps and still had an 8.5 second lead at the checkers. Smith never got the pass made and brought the Kawasaki home 3rd to Brad Baker’s Harley. Mees was 8th and his main rival for the championship- Sammy Halbert- was 13th. You don’t need to be a mathematician to figure out that if you have the points lead and finish ahead of the guy in second, you will win the championship.
I picked a little too good a spot to photo from, as the winning bikes almost trampled me as they came in to the winner’s circle. After watching them hurtling past all night, it strikes you how utterly simplistic a machine flat track bikes are. Motorcycles in general are pretty simple looking compared to four-wheeled racers, but flat track is a step further. The cottage industry of builders means machines are minimalistic, and their archaic V-twin Harley engines call back to an era when it was all about the riders. And really it still is I reckon. It’s the riders that make this a show. It was in this moment that Edwin hit his shining moment.
I would soon find out that every action photo Edwin shot was totally useless. The 400 film was never going to work, and shooting in tricky lighting as bikes went past at 90mph was no job for a rookie; not any more than piloting those machines would be. But with the machines radiating their heat in silence, it was now a matter of seeing the shot and having an eye for where the action was that would pay off. As everyone crowded the podium, Jared Mees had pulled over to the side, and was just beginning to be mobbed with people congratulating him on the 2012 Championship. I saw it myself and tried to grab some shots with my point-and-shoot camera as well as my cell phone, but they would not come out. Edwin’s black-and-white shots of Jared taking his helmet off summed it all for me though. I knew the feeling exactly.
Never having won a national championship myself of course, I still identified totally with his expression. It reminded me of making it to the summit of Pikes Peak after setting the overall sidecar record. It was a feeling of being too overwhelmed to have a reaction. All the effort, all the stress, all the successes and failures, then suddenly the job was done. After jumping so many hurdles, you simply don’t know how to react when there isn’t another hurdle in front of you. I’m reminded of the film The World’s Fastest Indian when Sir Anthony Hopkins (as Burt Munro) lays on the salt after breaking a speed record, quietly laughing to himself, “I did it.”
The post-race interviews were the usual thanking of sponsors and other such corporate whoring that is required to keep hundred dollar bills exploding out the exhausts of fast machines on the brink of catastrophe. I looked around at all the smiling faces and understood what non-race fans don’t understand; racing at the top level is about human beings pushing past what anyone thinks them capable of. Anyone that knows that feeling can identify. The speed and the danger are just a side note, something to make sure you’re paying attention. The reason that the highlight reel will never be as good as spectating in the flesh is because- over the roaring engines and the smell of race fuel- you can feel the focus and you can smell the intensity. It crackles through the air like static electricity. Eighteen fast machines fighting their way into turn 1 cracks open the night like the shot that burst open the Hindenburg. That is motorsport.
The drive home was a chance to reflect on the evening, but the only thing I could really think about was how to get a flat track bike and actually compete without my sidecar racing suffering. I already don’t have the budget to pull that off and if I came upon a few thousand dollars, I would upgrade the suspension and brakes before buying another race bike. Alas, I will have to settle for being so close to the action, but not close enough for my tastes. It was still a nice treat to get home though and, kicking off my shoes, have dirt fall out of them. You can’t get any closer than that! I suppose life in general is about enjoying the road in front of you.
The journey of life. You don’t know when the journey started for sure. Only a paper trail and stories from your parents can attest. You don’t know when the journey will end. Only a series of statistics and predictions exist to even give you a faint estimate. You don’t know what you will encounter on the journey. Stories of those who have travelled ahead of you produce ideas, but you will only see the part of the journey that lies between each bend in the road. The only thing you can be sure of is that you are on the journey… everything else is just a story. When you come to the realization that you and you alone are the one writing the story, all fear and sense of hopelessness becomes what it is… a story. When you see past that, the next bend in the journey is no longer a thing to fear, but a thing to look forward to. You sight your line through it, unsure what you will find as you enter, and you lean in. You can do it timid, but those with the knack for it go in full throttle, a rooster tail of excitement flying in their wake. It’s all a matter of perspective. Take the controls.