A lazy Sunday ride down an open road, the big V-twin rumbling gently as deep and powerful beats blast from the massive chrome exhausts that glisten in the sun… Think Harley-Davidson and it’s almost certain this is the picture that’ll come to mind. And why not? No other brand has built a more iconic image around laid-back motorcycling, after all. But Harley-Davidson also has another chapter in its history – a much louder, faster and more sporting one, and one that really isn’t known in these parts. Yes, that’s right, the bike maker has been a part of motorcycle racing, and, mind you, for over 100 years now. But there’s one form of motorsport that has been particularly successful for Harley – oval track racing.
Oval track racing comes in many flavours, including speedway, flat-track, grass-track, ice racing and more, and it’s been around almost as long as motorcycles have existed themselves. With its roots set all the way back to about a century ago, this sport is among the first versions of organised motorcycle racing. It’s also highly regarded as the training ground for some of the greatest talent the world has ever seen. More famously, ‘King’ Kenny Roberts – the first-ever American to become the 500cc world champion – forged his skills in the fire of flat-track racing. Many of today’s top riders, including Rossi and Marquez, spend a vast amount of time training on the flat track as well. Rossi even has a ranch dedicated to it.
THE FIRST TASTE
Clearly then, the world of motorcycle racing owes a lot to the flat track and Harley-Davidson India wants to pay tribute by getting the word out. We got our first taste of the sport from the American brand during the 2017 India Bike Week (IBW), where a custom Street 750 was thrown around an oval track by gifted rider and bike builder Vijay Singh (of the famous Rajputana Customs). A few months later, Harley commissioned four more flat trackers to be built by Rajputana Customs (this time using the Street Rod). With four flat trackers in its arsenal, the manufacturer invited us to come try the sport out at the new John Singh Speedway (also built by Vijay), just outside Jaipur.
Now, since some of us (I speak for myself here) have absolutely no clue what to do on a dirt track, Harley also organised an instructor for us. Well, rather it organised the instructor for us – multiple European flat track champion and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, Marco Belli. This is the very same Marco Belli who helped Rossi set up his ranch in 2011 and the one who frequents as a trainer at the VR46 rider training academy. Marco runs his own training school in Italy called Di Traverso and this was the first time the school was teaching in India. We couldn’t be in better hands.
On the face of it, flat tracking seems simple enough. You’re on an oval dirt track that, as its name suggests, is flat. All you have to do is turn left a couple of times and go straight an equal number of times. Sounds simple, right? It isn’t! Let’s start with the bike. The modifications required aren’t extensive and featured a higher, flat handlebar, a new subframe that allows for a long and flat seat, and special speedway tyres. Oh, and before I forget, there’s no front brake; all your deceleration is done via the rear brake and the engine braking effect. As a tarmac rider, whose first two fingers of the right hand have been conditioned to shedding massive speed with minimal effort, this certainly caused some brain pain! And, of course, there’s the fact that almost every rule that applies to tarmac riding in terms of body position is completely wrong on the dirt.
BITE THE DUST
Thankfully, we weren’t thrown straight into the deep end and Marco started us off in the baby pool instead. First, we had a classroom session where Marco explained the basics and reassured us that this 250m-long circuit was friendly and approachable; nothing like the mile-long ovals where he and his rivals would enter corners side by side at an insane 160kph. Now you understand why flat track riders wear leather suits!
Post the classroom session, we had a couple of slalom drills between cones to help focus on the right body position, looking where we wanted to go and the all-important throttle control. The last two, as I’ve discovered over time, are factors that remain consistent across all forms of going fast on a motorcycle. After some drills – and with Marco convinced that we’d got a decent feel of the surface and the throttle – we were let loose for a few full laps of the track.
Slow-speed drills between the cones are essential to get accustomed to the body position and fine-tuning throttle control.
By now we were fairly familiar with the bikes and I’d grown quite fond of the Harley. It felt quite heavy at first and I’d imagine the seat height was rather intimidating for some. But once you come to terms with the loose feeling at the front wheel, you soon realise that the Shinko tyres have a serious amount of grip. All that weight also helps keep the bike planted and the massive torque from the V-twin means instant slides arrive on demand of the super-responsive quick throttle.
The flat track riding position is similar to that of riding in the dirt – butt half sticking out of the bike around a corner, elbows up and upper body held loose and relaxed, while you hold onto the bike with your legs and core. As for the inner leg, unlike the motocross style of sticking it forward, here you hold it such that the sole of the boot skims across the surface. This acts as a guide and also helps the rider kick the bike back up if it feels like it’s about to wash out from underneath. Suffice to say, a very sore left thigh is inevitable after two days of flat tracking. Marco’s left TCX boot has a special external metal sole that prevents it from finding excess grip at the crazy speeds he rides at, and potentially causing what he promises is a very nasty twist of the knee.
My road-riding tendencies are painfully apparent in the body position.
After two joyous days of eating endless amounts of dust, there are a few discoveries I’d like to share with you. First, flat tracking is enormously fun, but it’s not easy, especially if you’re a motorcyclist like me who was born and raised around the sweet sensation of tarmac traction. While I loved the feeling of sliding the rear (‘expressing yourself’, as Marco calls it), I never understood the levels of grip from the front end. But then again, I’m a slow and cautious learner, so I’ll need to spend a lot more time doing this to get any good at it.
Thankfully, the chances of that happening aren’t too bleak. Harley-Davidson plans to do more with flat tracking in India. The next we should see of this sport will be at this year’s IBW, where the brand plans to organise a time- trial competition. Based on the feedback and enthusiasm at IBW, the project will be taken further. Either way, Harley-Davidson is certain that it wants to spread awareness of its motorsport heritage, and it’s an important part of its urgent need to get more young people interested in the iconic brand.
When you go flat tracking, be prepared for dust. Lots and lots of dust!
The good news is that this isn’t the only way for you to experience this sport. There is a flat track circuit in Bengaluru called Slideways Motoranch and more people have expressed interest in starting similar setups. Flat tracks don’t require a lot of space and the investment cost is far lower than building a proper race track. The bikes, too, demand a lower investment than a purpose-built race-track machine; you could find a reasonably priced used Harley or even a KTM 390 Duke to turn into a decent flat tracker without breaking the bank.
Ultimately, flat tracking is just what India needs – it’s addictive, it’s good fun, not prohibitively expensive and will definitely make a better rider of you. Fingers crossed, folks like Harley-Davidson, Rajputana Customs and more will help the concept take off properly!