If you’re looking to get your boots a bit dusty, or want to cruise the streets on a machine that boasts a raw, athletic style, its time to take a long hard look at the rich history of the Flat Tracker. It’s a style whose influence is far reaching, born in the golden years of motocross – one that appreciates speed and lightweight maneuverability. So stick around as we teach you all you need to know about the history of these dust kickers, as well as some guidelines for building your own.
Flat Track’s history stretches as far back as 1910 in the competitive sport of Board Track racing. Popular in the United states in the two decades preceding the Great Depression, Board Track was conducted on massive ovular race courses with surfaces composed of wooden planks. Originally motorcycles were only used to tow cyclists into the large, banked corners of the course, however as the machinery became more refined and the bikes grew faster, they eventually replaced the bicycles altogether.
Board Track courses were popular due to their relative lack of expense, though their lack of durability meant they were often abandoned in as little as a few years. Their replaceability meant their designs were constantly changed and refined, going on to encompass the many paradigms of track racing we see today across the spectrum of motor sport.
Eventually, the pace of the riders outgrew the circuits and for the safety of everyone involved timber planks were replaced with earthen banks. In the early 1920’s these courses were dominated by the likes of Harley Davidson and Triumph and the sport was popularised by the legendary Smokin’ Joe Petrali. With the introduction of dirt tracks, riders would slide through the turns to maintain high speeds, meaning lightweight parts and powerful engines were a must. At the peak of its popularity the world was shaken by the Great Depression and soon after, the Second World War.
Smokin’ Joe Petrali – winner of every race in the 1935 National Schedule and eight time consecutive winner of the National Hillclimb Championship – living up to his name on the Flat Track.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Harley Davidson shifted its focus from racing to the military.
By 1945 the war in Europe was over and Flat Tracking was resuming its meteoric rise to popularity. In the 1950’s it was a main attraction of motorsport, faster and more intense than ever. The mid 1950’s saw the American Motorcyclist Association introduce its first championship, which would help to solidify the future of the sport and indeed its popularity continued to grow for the next three decades. Bruce Brown’s 1971 documentary, On Any Sunday, introduced the sport to millions. An esteemed film not only in motorcycle history but in cinema, the Steve McQueen backed project followed the lives of motorcyclists in multiple racing formats and helped to change the perception of bike culture.
The 1980’s saw a shift in focus from flat tracking to motocross and road racing, and with it, a decline in the sport’s popularity. Although the oval fell out of the limelight over the years, Flat Track bikes remain iconic for their visual style and rich history. Throughout the years they have changed significantly, but always kept the soul of their purpose. So without further adieu, lets take a look at what makes a Tracker a Tracker.
To be effective on the circuit, a flat tracker has to be light, lighter than your competitors’, which means pulling off whatever you can get away with and using materials that will shave off those hefty milligrams. It also means a streamlined, minimalist bike is going to have the edge on the competition. Remember, a flat tracker is about speed and mobility. Typically flat trackers travelled counter-clockwise around a circuit, meaning certain features of the bike belong on the left, or right of the bike. If you want to stay authentic, heed the history.
What Bike do I Use?
These days anything can be a flat tracker. Admittedly there are some bikes not suited to a dash around the circuit, but that doesn’t mean they can’t lend themselves to the aesthetic principles of a tracker. However, if you’re trying to be authentic about it remember that flat track bikes were originally road bikes converted for the raceway, over time they began to share more characteristics with the burgeoning motocross style, so there’s already decades of inspiration to draw on. A rider from the 50’s to the 70’s would be searching for a road bike that was as lightweight, nimble, and as punchy as possible, so keep that in mind when deciding on a bike. Alternatively, use whatever you have and give it your best shot, chances are you’ll come up with something original and interesting.
- High and wide tracker handlebars. They’ll give you all the control you need when things start to get a bit hectic, and cornering leverage is a must when flying around the course.
- A long, thin seat. Not the most comfortable thing in the world, but on the circuit you’ll be spreading your weight across your pegs anyway. A long seat gives you room to reposition your bodyweight forward for braking and sliding, then rearward for corner exit traction and tucking down on the straights.
- The ducktail. Located behind the seat, this component helps the aerodynamic profile of the bike, protects the rider from dust and dirt kicked up, and generally looks badass. Essential for keeping that sleek profile of a tracker.
- A number board. An important aspect of the flat tracker image, the race number has direct ties to the flat track racing world. Always on the front and another generally located on the right side of the bike.
- Exhaust. Located on the right hand side to give the rider extra breathing room when hitting the standard counter clockwise circuit. Generally with a slightly angled muffler, though there is certainly not standard look. Some exhausts sit down low, some up high, it’s a matter of personal preference and bike design.
- Small Petrol Tanks. Less petrol, less weight. You don’t need much when you’re just going for a few laps.
- Certainly not recommended for road riders, but if you’re dreaming of making the most authentic track bike you can, get rid of that front brake – it just adds unnecessary weight and is against most dirt track competition rules.
- Flat track tires. It goes without saying, they’re made for the specific purpose of giving you the best traction possible on the flat track’s hard packed surface. It’s relatively standard to see most flat track bikes, especially modern, with 19 inch front and rear rims, but you’ll find a lot also running 18 front and rear.
Be creative. If you’re building a flat tracker that’s never going to see a spec of dirt, you have free reign to take inspiration from any number of bikes. As street trackers gain popularity, the number of alternative designs and influences increases. Play around with handlebar configurations, scrambler style comfortable seats, exhaust configurations and alternative fenders. The sky’s the limit and these days the variety of bikes out there provides ample opportunity to be inspired to create something truly original.