Dirt Track Arises?

Hope for the last two-wheeled sport that is widely accessible

Honda CRF450F flat track bike
Dirt-track racing is a kind of racing many more people can afford, by going racing with lightly modified motocross bikes like the CRF450F Cycle World contributor Corey Texter built.Cycle World

Right now there is excitement at the prospect that dirt-track racing might be on the verge of expanding in both popularity and media interest. Why? It is the last two-wheeled sport remaining that is widely accessible.

Roadracing, formerly supported by extensive manufacturer contingency programs (former Superbike champion Doug Polen made his living from them on his way up), still provides possibilities, but costs are substantial and the technologies to be learned are complex. While it used to be assumed that this year’s hot privateer would be next year’s factory star, pursued everywhere he went by 45-foot transporters and vans full of suspension, chassis, engine, and data techs, the hard pinch of 2008 to ’09 put an end to that dream.

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Motocross, too, has become “industrialized,” for you have your choice of videos portraying the hard lives of professional riders, with training, controlled diet, personal managers, and complex medical responses to injury. In a way, it resembles the changes in higher education. In the 1960s, prestigious universities prided themselves on discovering top students at all economic levels—and providing scholarships to those who needed them. This was good, not only for the no-bucks students “discovered” in this way but also for the nation because it drew on the largest possible pool of candidates.

But today, with less money available at every level, a year at a top university costs $40,000 instead of the $2,400 of 50 years ago. This means that students now come from a much-shrunken pool of candidates—those whose families can afford such fees or those willing to undertake a heavy load of debt as they (hope to) begin their careers. That means many promising students are passed over entirely by “higher” education (higher in what respect, exactly?).

Up to the early '90s, the normal entry point into roadracing was the Yamaha TZ250 series of production roadracers. Its air-cooled ancestor, the TD1-B, was $1,147 in 1965, but by 1972 that had risen modestly to $1,800 for the air-cooled TA-250. When these low-tech devices took on the role of privateer GP bikes, their technology quickly rose, taking price with it. The Power Valve-equipped H-Model of 1981 was close to $8,000, and the '90s pushed the price over $20,000. Scratch one affordable entry-point into motorbike racing. By the time 250GP was dropped from the European program, two top bikes and parts for a year had risen to a million. ("Uh, is that dollars? Or euros?" If you have to ask, you can't afford it anyway.)

Meanwhile we watch a couple of years of Spain's "Superprestigio" indoor short-track (in which the big names from all branches of motorcycle sport, like Brad Baker and Marc Marquez, have competed) and learn that some riders have flown in without equipment, borrowed bikes, and done okay. What? No 45-footers needed? No software experts? What kind of racing is this?

It is a kind of racing many more people can afford, a kind in which it is mainly rider qualities, not titanium and lines of control code, that make the difference. As I like to put it, in dirt track the throttle cable is steel, not copper.

At present, people are expecting Indian/Polaris to go head to head with Harley-Davidson and all comers in AMA flat-track twins racing. As engineer-turned-aftermarketeer Tom Seymour put it at Sacramento just now, "Indian is coming in here big, and the others will have to follow."

Racing’s creative source is the number of people who wish to participate, for it is from among such eager beginners that future stars, builders, and tuners must come.

The usual result of heightened factory participation is greater use of levels of technology that only factories can afford. If team A is getting left by team B in early acceleration, creative minds at A will lightly turn to thoughts of traction control or even of adaptive throttle scheduling. All these control concepts are out there, originated by government contractors developing them for combat aircraft and space vehicles. Then they filtered down to the much smaller budgets of Formula 1 ($300 million) and to MotoGP ($50 million). In MotoGP, management has sought to deny the top teams unlimited electronic controls by rules that set such controls back to a level nearly a decade in the past.

It is my view that dirt-track racing, in order to preserve its greatest strength—that it can cultivate the largest possible number of riders—must not adopt electronic controls. To do otherwise would be equivalent to sitting on a tree branch, sawing through it between yourself and the trunk. Racing’s creative source is the number of people who wish to participate, for it is from among such eager beginners that future stars, builders, and tuners must come. Making dirt-track racing more expensive than it already is would nibble or chomp away at that essential population, just as the high cost of university education eliminates many promising students.

In more prosperous times there have been a few racers' families that have pulled up stakes and moved from the US to England or Spain to give a favored son or daughter a chance to develop skill in perhaps more vigorous or visible overseas racing series. We can admire such devotion to sport, but we cannot imagine it will put the next top Americans into MotoGP or World Superbike paddocks.

Effective non-electronic measures already exist by which to tailor the power of engines to the grip available on the varieties of dirt track. One such is to absorb excess power in the acceleration of flywheel mass. The venerable Harley XR750 has its two large crankshaft flywheels for this, and that company’s “Street”-based prototype, the XG750R, has provision for externally variable flywheel mass. In the past, racers have also sought to enhance traction by filling rear tires with water or other­wise turning their rear wheels into flywheels. As a result, AMA Pro Racing has set a maximum wheel weight!

Although the power-tailoring effect of changes to cam timings is being forgotten in roadrace (where people now expect to address every problem on the laptop), it is still understood and used in dirt track. Initial acceleration may be softened by ignition retard.

People in dirt track love the life. Will the coming of increased factory money and jobs change it for the better or for worse? What might be the effect of television? No one knows, but we all may be about to find out.