A Flat Track Racer And Caretaker’s Guide To Track Prep

On the right track

flat track practice in the dirt
Johnny Lewis walks us through track prep that makes this easy.Aaron Ah Mu

We are a little over a month away from a new chapter for flat track racing in America.

There's new ownership and attitude, and new ways to watch the races.

There is a renewed rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian factory teams.

There is also a raft of safety adjustments for 2017.

One question from last season remains, though. “What about the track quality?”

Track preparation and quality was a major point of contention last season, playing a part in mechanical failures and two tragic accidents.

Making a track competition ready is no small feat. We turned to racer and school owner Johnny Lewis to discuss what makes a safe, fast track, and how to improve the situation for this year.

And Johnny would know. He's ridden in the AMA since 2004, and competed on a variety of bikes - Triumphs, Kawasakis, and Ducatis. Now he has a fresh partnership with Husqvarna for his school, 10 Training, and both attends to and consults on the track there.

When we paid a visit to his school last year, we got a crash course (literally) on how a track can evolve from lap-to-lap, and over a race weekend.

In our time there, it went from arid to rain-soaked to perfect in under 72 hours. In that period, Johnny was perpetually caring for the track and giving tips on how to adjust to the changing conditions.

So he knows a thing or two about track prep to say the least. I’ll let him take it from here.

using construction vehicle to smooth the dirt track
Hint: It takes a lot of this.Aaron Ah Mu

Cycle World: Let's start with perfect conditions. What's the ideal surface for flat track? Is there one?

Johnny Lewis: Track surfaces change all the time. You're always chasing the track, and chasing the set-up that's right for that time on the track. The size of the track, the soil, the time of year, what tires you have, and countless other variables play a role in track conditions.

These variables make flat track racing difficult, and a perfect situation nigh impossible.

For me, sometimes I love a groove so dark that your bike hardly breaks sideways. You don't want the bike to get sideways either, because off that darkness it’s slipperier than snot on a banana peel. This situation is most often found at Daytona.

dirt tracker kicking up dirt on the track
Track quality changes from lap to lap. That’s the nature of the game.Aaron Ah Mu

But then you have a track like the Lima half mile. Lima consists of pea gravel (kitty litter) and crushed rock. A track like this is best on the first lap. With too much water on it, it’s so muddy you end up pulling all your tear-offs within two laps from your own front tire spray.

You're WIDE OPEN 92% off the lap - inches from the hay bales, feet hardly off the pegs - as the bike writhes beneath you.

Then, when you make a pass or get passed, forget seeing anything for about two seconds until mid corner. Then you can pull a tear off or wipe off your shield with your mud-caked glove.

Not to mention that the roost (tire spray) feels like you're getting hit by a 12 gauge shotgun with double BBs. This leaves welts inside your leg and across your chest and neck. Sounds fun? Yeah, my heart rate is 170 right now. Love it!

flat track rear wheel close-up
Not just dirt.Aaron Ah Mu

CW: What does it take to prep a track for racing?

JL: LOTS of work, more than anyone that has never done it can imagine. And an instinct and intuition that you can't learn.

I thought I knew how to prep a track; I did my 1/10 of a mile short track at my parents’ house for years. It was pea gravel (kitty litter stuff). I would rake it with a York rake (a big rake on a tractor), water it, test it out, and it’d rip for hours. Now think of a 1/4-mile to a mile track, eight times wider, 50 times more riders.

My dad owned such a racetrack when I was a kid. The guy he and his partners bought it from built the track 40 - 50 years prior. When the original owner sold it, his blood had to be 50% clay from the track.

He was so intuitive he could pull out his three inch pocket knife, poke it in the ground, and say, "I'll water it again 43 minutes from now after I finish my newspaper."

He would water the track until the water truck would slide down the banking. 22 minutes later he would send out a few ragged-ass old cars with super wide tires on them to pack the track. 27 minutes later we would have one of the tackiest, fastest, bowl shaped ovals in Pennsylvania, maybe the country, it was that good…

But after my dad and the two others took it over, and the other guys would prep it, it was never the same. They would copy everything the old man did. Water it, grade it if needed it, water it, pack it with the old cars with wide tires, etc., but it wasn’t the same.

prepping the track with a construction vehicle
Track prep at 10 Training is constant and consistent.Aaron Ah Mu

Now I live at a racetrack where we run motorcycle and cars. I run my schools there as well, and luckily we have our track guy, Andy, that runs the grader and works on the track four days a week.

He starts by watering the track on Thursday (even if it’s rough) and drags a large steel beam to flatten the built up spots. Then he brings the grader to grade it down.

Sometimes, before the grader, he will plow up the track a good three inches, including the groove. Then it’s more water, grade from top to bottom, water, grade from bottom to top, water, wheel pack with a roller that has like 16 wheels, then water, then grade the water... Want to have his job yet?

By Friday evening, the track is ready to go. Throw on some water before first practice and its perfect.

Wait; it decided to downpour overnight.

Now we grade off the 3 inches of what is now mud from the top to the bottom of the track and wheel pack so we have a rideable track. But it's so soft underneath that it gets worse as the night goes on. Then we have to pull out the rakes/ steel beams, etc. to smooth it out between races... Man what a week... time to start over.

close-up of track preparation
A lot of time, a lot of instinct, and a little patience are truly needed for a fast, safe track.Aaron Ah Mu

CW: What are some common mistakes?

JL: Not enough water or too much water. For example, it's overcast and looking to rain. So you don't water and they send out the bikes. Then the track dries up and it never rains. Then they throw on water and it sits on top. Now there is no moisture in the ground for later when the sun goes down.

Now you got a dry, slick, and dusty track, aka a crash filled night of racing the next day.

Or when they try something new on race day, like a new dust control additive in the water, or letting farmer Joe try his hand at preparing the track tonight; he can get his field smoother than a baby’s butt...

Johnny Lewis dirt track practice action
Johnny working the corners after a fresh rainfall changed the track.Aaron Ah Mu

CW: Why have we been hearing more about poor track conditions?

JL: The last couple years I have been asking myself the same question. I try not to point fingers because I know it's a hard fought battle. You'll never make a dirt track that 100% of the riders/fans enjoy.

But what I see is lack of consistency in a few ways. One is experience. Most of the tracks we pros race on are used by horses or racecars 95% of the time. It's prepared completely different for a horse race or a car race than a bike race.

Horses don't hit 130 mph inches from the railings. Cars don't feel the tire marks left in the track from when they wheel-packed the track or a 3 in soft spot entering turn 3. Cars more or less float over that stuff with their large contact patches.

The lack of moisture has been 75% of the issues the last couple of seasons. I’d rather ride a moist, rough track then a dry slick track when you can't see 15ft in front of you. Next time it's raining, turn your wipers off and floor it to 90 mph. That's what it's like to ride flat track on a half mile or mile that's so dusty you can't tell where the fence is.

Joe and Johnny talking and taking notes
Taking notes on how to ride the track as conditions change.Aaron Ah Mu

CW: How do riders adapt to a poor track?

JL: Good riders adapt to a poor track with a plan. 99% of the time you can't just WING it. It may look like we are WINGING it but it's not the case for the top guys.

Mentally, they visualize the track, the rough spots, and the dry spots. They set up their bike knowing how they will have to ride the track. If it’s rough, you’ll see riders "squaring off the corners." They make a big direction change once, and get the bike straight up and down as fast as they can to go across the bumps.

When the track is slick, you’ll see the rider moving slower and smoother with their inputs.

Joe Gustafson dirt track practice action
Knowing the track conditions is a leg up to race at your limits.Aaron Ah Mu

CW: What are some steps that could improve track quality for this season?

JL: Working with the tracks more. I have felt for years, along with the teams I raced for, that we should have a 2-3 hour test day the day before at least, especially for new tracks. Not one or two riders on the track for five laps, but 50 - 60 riders running through a full practice program.

Then, four laps for three practice/qualifying sessions per race day. This is hardly enough time to figure out the bike; but it is enough to get a look at how the track will break apart or lay rubber. This allows the track management crew to make the improvements overnight, or have a plan for race day. Then you're not chasing problems on race day and missing rider safety issues.

Joe Gustafson dirt bike wheelie action
Wheelies also make racing better - editor’s note.Aaron Ah Mu