I'm a Believer in Flat Track Racing... Here's Why

Ever experience the one-ring circus?

Jared Mees, flat track racing, Calistoga Half-Mile
Jared Mees leads a hard-charging Sammy Halbert, the recent X-Games gold medal winner, as he heads to victory during the Calistoga Half-Mile in northern California on July 29, 2017.Andrea Wilson/AFT

My kids have seen “On Any Sunday” at least 50 times, and still randomly hum the theme song. We’ve met Mert Lawwill, one of its three stars, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that I saw a flat track race in person, the Harley-Davidson Calistoga Half-Mile in Napa County, California.

I loaded up my R1150RT at 1 p.m. and headed north up CA 101, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Traffic was fairly heavy for a Saturday afternoon, and as I cruised through the Robin Williams Tunnel into Sausalito, I noticed plenty of motorcycles on the highway. The sun was beating down pretty hard, and the forecast of a nearly 100-degree day was a bit daunting. The cool breeze dissipated once I passed Petaluma, and thanks to California’s wonderful lane-splitting law, I was able to winnow my way to the River Road exit 494 toward Calistoga.

I chose to park my bike outside the fairgrounds. There was free moto parking inside, but I knew there would be close to a thousand riders, and I wanted a somewhat traffic-free departure later that evening. I found my friends Patrick and Marina, and met Alex, John and Nick, who all rode up from the peninsula. The grandstands were filling up with fans of all ages. The San Francisco moto posse of Sean, Erik, Matthew and AJ arrived, and cameras were quickly put into action as qualifying laps began. It’s amazing how grown men morph into little boys around motorcycle racing.

For just $25, one can buy a ticket to watch talented and gritty men and women deftly hurl machines around a dirt oval originally made for horse racing. The sound and spectacle of flat track hasn’t changed in decades: grandstands and infields full of spectators swiveling their heads to catch all the action from qualifying heats to the two main events.

Scheduling conflicts, family obligations and lame excuses have kept me from seeing flat track racing sooner. Transitioning from bicycles to motorcycles takes time; I started noticing flat track-inspired machines at The Quail Gathering, The One Show and other events, and despite my penchant for exquisite airheads, bobbers and custom bikes, flat trackers got under my skin and into my blood.

Indian Motorcycle Indian Scout FTR750 Flat Track Racing
The Indian Scout FTR750 was introduced to much fanfare in 2016, reawakening a 60-year drought for the brand as it re-entered the race arena.Indian Motorcycle

I've seen plenty of Harley-Davidson flat trackers in person and on video. Lawwill and Evel Knievel brought attention to The Motor Company's XR-750 machine in the 1970s, and its influence can be seen in the custom handiwork from Earle Motors, Roland Sands, El Solitario and others.

Lawwill himself built and sold 19 custom Lawwill Street Trackers, based on H-D’s Sportster XL 1200R model. Made with custom parts and a handmade 4130 chromoly frame, Lawwill shaved 100 pounds off the original. The spirit of Lawwill’s original XR-750 lives on, and H-D races its XG750R on the dirt.

Harley-Davidson XG750R

British daredevil and speed freak Guy Martin also piqued my interest in flat track. When he's not squeezing his body into a Triumph carbon rocket in his quest to set a land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats or reaching 78 mph on a massive Wall of Death to set a World Record for craziness, he participates in Gary Inman's popular Dirt Quake event, using different bikes. He's a man's man who wrenches on his machinery, often making custom parts.

Guy Martin at 2016 Dirt Quake
Guy Martin and his sidekick Nigel during the 2016 Dirt Quake in King’s Lynn, England.James Archibald

Watching flat track racing is like going back in time, to a place we all enjoyed as children. The tracks are located in county fairgrounds, dozens of old-timers are kibitzing about the good old days (and probably won their fair share of races with broken bones), vendors are selling kettle corn, hot dogs and lemonade, and the announcer keeps the masses entertained. The only noticeable changes are the colorful leathers and helmet quality; otherwise, the speeds and skill levels are on par with racers from a bygone era.

San Jose Race - 1971

One of the main differences from then and now is the presence of women racing alongside the men. Shayna Texter was the first woman to win a Pro Single event in 2012, and she currently leads the AFT Singles series by 29 points after finishing fifth in Calistoga. Sandriana Shipman bounced back from a crash to finish 16th in the Main Event.

The AFT Twins race was fast, loud and mind blowing. Indian Motorcycle Racing grabbed headlines a year ago when it announced its return to racing after a 60-year absence. It not only grabbed three stellar racers (Jared Mees, Brad Baker and Bryan Smith), it introduced its game-changing Scout FTR750. The Wrecking Crew took its 10th first-place finish of the 2017 American Flat Track season with Jared Mees' dominant performance at the Calistoga Half-Mile. It was his sixth win of the season, and was joined on the podium by Baker, who placed third. Indian Motorcycle Racing has grabbed 25 of 33 podiums on the season.

Jared Mees Wins Calistoga

Through 11 races this season Mees and Smith own ten first-place finishes. The Wrecking Crew also holds the top three positions in the season’s point standings with Mees at 227, Smith at 209 and Baker 166.

"Indian's return to flat track was contingent on our ability to develop a truly best-in-class race bike. It goes without saying that we're incredibly proud of what our team has accomplished with the Scout FTR750," said Gary Gray, Vice President – Product for Indian Motorcycle. "With seven more events, our Wrecking Crew will continue to prepare and work toward finishing the season as strong as they started."

Indian FTR750

The 2017 American Flat Track season continues through early October. If you've been on the fence about experiencing this one-ring circus, make it a point to attend one, and bring your friends. Who knows, maybe Mert Lawwill will be walking through the stands shaking hands with fans, just like he did in Calistoga last Saturday. I couldn't suppress the ear-to-ear grin in my helmet during my 132-mile ride back to Mountain View.

Calistoga Half-Mile Highlights