Supertrackers: Dirt Track Looks to the Future

Should dirty Superbikes join flat-track’s one-brand band?

Honda VTR1000 studio side view
This Honda VTR1000 is indicative of the effort builder Rick Canode and others have gone in preservation of stock-bike visual cues. Note side-mounted radiator, stock rear brake, chin spoiler and “Super Hawk 996” graphics.Jim Boyle

All was right with the world. Scott Parker, the 38-year-old icon of AMA Grand National Dirt Track racing, was facing his final regular-season challenge from 18-year-old upstart Nicky Hayden. In classic mile style, it was down to the last lap after a race full of draft passes and lead changes. Parker hung on to win, the crowd cheered and everybody thought it was wonderful racing.

Dirt-track is wonderful racing, and arguably the most tradition-rich series in the AMA deck. But that last race of the season at Del Mar had, as did the rest of the series rounds, a field positively dominated by a single motorcycle: the Harley-Davidson XR-750. Since the all-alloy XR's introduction in 1972, it has been the dominant engine on the GNC circuit. More recently, though, it has become nearly the only engine. Because Honda no longer manufactures parts for its RS750, only two of the once-mighty Japanese dirt-trackers appear regularly. And there ain't nobody else.

So, the top level of dirt-track racing in America has been nearly reduced to an XR-750 “spec” class.

Series bigwigs, including H-D itself, didn’t feel this was a healthy situation. Everyone likes the series, loves the close racing, but feels other brands somehow need to be included.

Honda VTR1000 studio engine close-up
Honda VTR1000 engine detailsJim Boyle

“It’s time to move on, without a doubt,” series long-timer Steve Morehead said. “This engine’s been around since 1972. I mean, it’s still a competitive horse, and don’t get me wrong, Harley-Davidson has done so much for the sport of motorcycling, but we need to do something.”

Enter the SuperTrapp SuperTrackers. Introduced as a 10-round development series in 1999 as part of a larger plan to revitalize dirt-track racing, this new class had a simple rules structure that allowed a wide variety of equipment to compete at select GNC events. The formula was made fairly wide open, with these basic guidelines: Twin-cylinder powerplants measuring 900-1000cc (overhead cam, liquid-cooled, whatever) or 1200cc provided they are two-valve, pushrod and air-cooled (the H-D Sportster 1200 clause).

"Take a (production) 1000cc engine– it makes competitive horsepower to begin with and they're widely available," said AMA Technical Manager Rob King. "You could even include Harley in that with the VR1000 motor, though they also have the XL1200. You also have Suzuki, Honda, Ducati, Yamaha, Aprilia, a French company called Voxan–there are a number of motors out there that are suitable currently, or forthcoming."

The original plan was to eventually have these SuperTracker machines compete with the XR-750s, although with only the first of three developmental years out of the way, just what the evolution will be naturally isn’t clear. There is some question about parity between old and new, as the best XRs are said to produce about 85 rear-wheel horsepower, while a stock Suzuki TL1000 puts out around 105. SuperTracker lap times were close to GNC bikes at most tracks, and even a little faster at some of the miles. Even with the extra power, though, most in the pits feel that handling and traction off corners will inherently limit usable power. So although the upside potential of a 1000cc engine is great, that may not be the key to success on the dirt.

Suzuki TL1000 studio side view
J.R. Schnabel’s TL1000-based SuperTracker illustrates the fairly standard C&J frame setup with single, angled rear shock.Jim Boyle

But get into a discussion with the people of dirt-track about whether XRs and SuperTrackers should race together and you might as well start talking politics or religion. Opinions are strong and there is little consensus.

What the XR faithful don’t want to see is the outright elimination of that fabled powerplant. “This was never intended as a class to get rid of the XR-750,” King assured. “This was an idea to bring other brands into dirt-track racing so that there would be more appeal for mass audiences.”

After a year of racing, SuperTrackers had the desired effect of bringing a variety of brands to the start line. Unfortunately, the variety at the finish line was a different story, at least at the front of the pack. The TL-based Suzukis were by far the dominant machines, winning every race and taking most podium spots, too. Joe Kopp won the inaugural championship after five victories on his TL sponsored by Dave Burks Motorsports and Dick’s Suzuki. Morehead was second and J.R. Schnabel third, both on TLs.

So, it is somewhat ironic that the solution to the one-brand problem has developed its own one-brand problem. Nicky Hayden summed up the feeling of many in the dirt-track community: “It’s all Suzuki, so what’s the difference?”

Suzuki TL1000 studio engine close-up
Alternate Circle F design, with tucked-away vertical shock working through a rising-rate linkage.Jim Boyle

“The only way that can change is if some of the other Japanese manufacturers get involved and give a little support to some of the guys,” added Morehead. “Give them an incentive to try their 1000cc motorcycles. Suzuki stepped up right out of the gate with a contingency program to show that there was some interest. They sent a representative from the company to each one of these SuperTracker races. They’ve showed interest–that’s basically what it needs. We’ve all got a Japanese dealership in our local town.”

Morehead’s boss, F&S team owner Gary Stolzenburg, has been a champion of the SuperTrackers formula from the beginning. It was F&S that began early development of the TL-based machine and now offers what is essentially a “kit” to facilitate the assembly of a Suzuki dirt-tracker. Hence one reason the Suzukis have proliferated.

But the class is still in its infancy and everyone involved is working furiously on improving the motorcycles they’ve got, Suzuki or otherwise, as well as trying to drum up support from the manufacturers.

The beauty of the format is that it doesn’t take much money to get started, and even less to keep going. Team Powell owner Bill Powell, who with Schnabel campaigned XR-750s and Suzukis, explained the attraction of racing his TL: “We found an engine in a salvage yard, bought two carbs and an ignition, changed the oil and filter, put water in the radiator and fired that little jewel up. Then, we went out and won the first race ever. I’ve got less than $10,000 in the motorcycle. If you want a new XR, you’re talking about $25,000, used maybe $17,000. That makes (SuperTrackers) very attractive to me.”

Yamaha TDM850 studio rear 3/4 view
The lone Yamaha features a TDM parallel-Twin and traditional bumble-bee paint scheme.Jim Boyle

And what about maintenance? “We changed the plugs midseason after using the ones that were in it when we got it from the salvage yard,” Powell said. “We’ve never even had the valve covers off!”

As with most of the Suzukis, Powell’s bike runs carbs and an alternate ignition, both to get away from the apparent complexity of the stock electronic engine-management system and to simplify tuning. Most teams are trying to reduce power and smooth delivery anyway, adding flywheel weight to help the bikes hook up better, one of the principal difficulties with all the new machines.

Suzuki engines are predominantly run in frames made by long-time dirt-track frame-maker C&J, although a new alternative made its debut at Del Mar. Circle F, builders of 600cc dirt-track frames, is run by Dennis Armstrong, who explained his desire to join the class: “We felt this was the future and it was a good way for us to get our foot in the door.”

His TL-powered machine is impeccably built, with trick, CNC-machined pieces littered about the bike. Tidy is a good word. He made his own ignition that required no machining to the engine, necessary with some of the other systems. His chassis-design guidelines? “We took what we knew made a 600 go fast and applied it to this.” Rider Kevin Varnes took the bike to fourth in its first race.

Yamaha TDM850 studio engine close-up
Downdraft carbs that hide under faux fuel tank. Gas is carried in an underseat aluminum cell.Jim Boyle

While nobody has sauntered up to the start line with a VR1000 hung in a dirt-track frame, XL-powered Harley-Davidsons did have a fairly successful year. Although the AMA bumped the displacement limit to 1250cc midseason, the most successful XL dirt-tracker, the Moroney’s bike ridden by Mike Hacker, never exceeded 1200cc, and the team had success on the half-miles with a 1000cc machine. On the podium several times, Hacker was fourth in the championship, even though he didn’t ride at Del Mar after the bike dropped a valve during a Sacramento Mile heat race and there was no time to rebuild. Pat Moroney says the 1200 is making about 100 bhp at the rear wheel and they’re really only looking for about 5 more ponies. New twin-carb heads are in the offing, and he says they’ll try a shorter-stroke, bigger-bore engine next year to help get the thing off corners. “We tailored the powerband to be just like an XR, just making more horsepower everywhere,” Moroney said. But he thinks the real advantage the XL has over the Japanese engines is its effect on handling. “We made all our time up in the corners. The way the Harley is designed with the flywheels in the middle of the motor, size of the flywheels, I think that’s why it handles so awesome.” Moroney’s Harley-Davidson also sells Hondas, Suzukis and Yamahas, but Moroney said that in the end, he really takes satisfaction in making a two-valve pushrod motor run with the latest and greatest Japanese stuff.

While Hacker’s engine was hung in a C&J, Howell’s H-D’s Robert Miller ran a stock frame, not unlike those found in the 883 Sportster Performance class. Miller’s former tuner, the late Tim Russell who was murdered last year, stuck with the approach of de-stroking an XL1200 to 1000cc and spinning the engine faster. Russell was determined to catch the other bikes using equal displacement. “He had that thing able to live at 9000 rpm,” Miller said about the engine’s unusually high rev limit. “Part of the battle sometimes is believing!”

I asked Scott Parker’s long-time tuner Bill Werner about maybe working on an XL for SuperTrackers. He was blunt: “I don’t have any interest in tuning an XL motor for racing. It’s not meant for that. If you’re going to race an XL against a TL, we might as well take an XL and go Superbike racing with it. And that’s not very practical, is it? It’s apples and oranges.”

One of the more interesting tents in the Del Mar pit area was that of RJ Racing. Man-in-charge Rick Canode, an accomplished dirt-track tuner with UNDO Racing for five years, had both a Honda VTR1000 and Ducati 916 set up for the mile. Neither bike figured in the championship, and Del Mar was a long way from his Ottumwa, Iowa, base. Why did he come all the way to San Diego? “We need these bikes to be here for the fans,” Canode said. “We’re just trying to bring the sport into the ’90s. I feel like we’re kind of in the ’70s. We still have a good show, but we need to move forward.”

Ducati 916 studio side view
Ducati 916 is another of Canode’s creations. Main frame is stock–like the engine–but with a double-sided swingarm attached. The Ducati frame proved inappropriate for dirt use; a proper dirt-track chassis is in the works for next season.Jim Boyle

The Ducati had a stock frame, though the single-sided swingarm was ditched in favor of a conventional twin-arm setup.

“We’ve tried to use as many stock parts as possible,” Canode said. “We tried the stock Honda frame, but it flexed too much. This is a C&J, but the Honda engine is taller than the Suzuki’s so we used a side-mounted shock. We’ve tried to make the Ducati frame work, but it acts like it has too much weight on the front wheel. We’ll work on a new chassis over the winter.”

Canode has done his best to preserve the stock appearance of both bikes, within the guidelines of turning them into dirt-trackers. While the Ducati’s lines echo those of the 916 streetbike, Canode admits disappointedly that the VTR bodywork is XR-750, though the Honda Wing graces the tank and a side-mounted radiator is employed.

In the race that day, the Ducati–engine almost bone-stock, EFI and all–got the holeshot, then faded to sixth, best non-Suzuki. The Honda, meanwhile, suffered from having that single side-mounted radiator. “It was borderline at keeping it cool so we rotated it more sideways, but that stressed the hose and it came off,” Canode said. Ah, the pains of development.

The only other Japanese brand represented in the series was Yamaha. Total Performance Racing campaigned a TDM850 bumped to 920cc. “We’re making high-80s horsepower, but are shooting for 95-100, so we’re 10-15 bhp down on the others right now,” bike-builder Johnny Isaacs said. “It’s not always bad. It depends on the track–sometimes power is a hindrance.”

Suzuki TL1000 studio rear 3/4 view
Joe Kopp’s championship-winning TL. While Kopp says he enjoys riding the bike, he doesn’t see SuperTrackers taking over as dirt-track’s premier class. After a season of racing, the debate about the sport’s future continues to rage.Jim Boyle

Like the rest, he’s been having trouble getting the bike to hook up, even with its lower power production. To combat this, Isaacs made the bike a “Twingle,” firing both cylinders at once. Isaacs has a long history with Yamaha dirt-trackers, but I wondered aloud why he would use an engine no longer for sale in the U.S. “We picked the Yamaha because of the compactness of the motor compared to a V-Twin,” he said. “We thought it would be better for handling since you have more options for positioning it in the frame. Another advantage is that there are two balance shafts. We can remove one or both to get more power, or put them in to soften the hit. We learned a lot, and I think next year we’ll be right there. The Suzukis have had a year headstart as it is.”

Corporately, Yamaha hasn’t shown any interest, though sympathetic sorts within the company did provide a complete spare engine so Isaacs could build another bike with a different chassis. He had originally started with a stock TDM frame and swingarm, but it was a “pogo stick.” Now, it’s a Che­ney frame with a revalved TDM fork and WP shock. Engine layout dictates fuel be carried below the seat, since the downdraft 41mm carbs reside under what appears to be the gas tank.

Rider Scott Deubler has taken the bike to consistent finishes over the season, and Isaacs said that as the bike has developed, so has his rider. He is optimistic about next year.

The question remains, however, whether SuperTrackers is the future of dirt-track. There is no definitive answer. It is certainly an interesting, coherent plan to bring dirt-track racing into modern times and expand its appeal. The future will reveal itself as we arrive in it.

Not long before nine-time GNC Champion Scott Parker lined up his factory Harley-Davidson for the final time, I asked Willie G. himself what he thought of SuperTrackers. “You can look at it from a lot of different angles,” he said. “But racing, like in NASCAR, should be close. They are very tight on what the rules are and how those cars run to keep it extremely close. I think that’s important. The XRs are that way, but it’s a single brand, which isn’t the best either. So what we’ve got to be careful of is that we still have tight racing and we still have the excitement that you’ll see today at this mile. To me, this is the best racing in the world. A dirt mile… there’s nothing more exciting.”

Amen to that.