Sliding Stateside: AMA Flat Track

US Flat-tracking is changing its image and producing the next generation of future MotoGP and WSB racers. No longer looking like extras from the set of Deliverance, these new flat-trackers are cool kids with modern gear and a whole new attitude...

Holy cow it is hot. The air con in our clapped-out six-litre Dodge Shitbox is about as effective as an ice cube in an oven and all winding down the windows does is give us an 80mph blast of sticky air. So we sweat it out thankful for our chilly bin full of 18 different types of coke (decaff, recaff, diet, cherry, berry, or good 'ole original anyone?).

And as one freeway gives way to another we slide south from Cuyahoga Falls (middle Ohio, middle of nowhere) to Thornville (Southern Ohio, slap bang middle of nowhere) and our final destination of the Honda Hills flat track circuit where we're hooking up with Larry Pegram and Marc Williams, two of America's hottest flat track riders.

The track itself turns out to be an unspectacular looking half-mile dirt oval which thanks to the unrelenting heat has a consistency better suited to a tropical beach than a motorcycle racing circuit as far as I can tell, but what would I know? This is my first face-to-face encounter with the world of flat tracking.

Flat tracking comes straight out of the classic American motorsport mould. It's simple (think drag racing), you can see the whole circuit from one grandstand (think NASCAR), and the bikes used are perfect for the job but not always the most technically advanced on the planet (think tractor pulling).

But beneath the simple formula (hack anti-clockwise around a dirt oval, first one over the line at the end of x laps wins), lies the need for a shedload of skill and balls the size of spacehoppers. After all, riding a bike sideways at 70mph on dirt is hard enough, but when you're doing it with minimal run-off and millimetres from 15 other blokes all after the same apex, you'd best have your wits about you. Oh, and did I mention the track changes with every lap as it wears, packs down, picks up rubber on the racing line and, at times, breaks up altogether under the constant pounding of bucking, slewing bikes? Because it does, so you're never guaranteed grip in the same spot every lap.

And for any of you still thinking this is just another American oddball sport, check out the list of stateside riders who started out on the dirt before storming GPs and superbikes. It includes four-time 500GP champ Eddie Lawson, three times 500GP champ Wayne Rainey, GP demigod Randy Mamola, American superbike legend Bubba Shobert, both Ben and Eric Bostrom, and current AMA upstart, Nicky Hayden to name just a few.

The man who started this trend for making the leap onto the world stage was a certain Kenny Roberts Sr who cut his teeth sliding around the USA's countless ovals before graduating to GPs, where he used all he'd learned about sliding a flat tracker at speed on the dirt to bring rear-wheel steering to GPs and took the first of his three World Championships. Suddenly everyone who was anyone needed to be able to do the same to stand a chance of being anywhere near the podium and a new era of riding had begun.

Kenny Sr's then virgin trail is well blazed these days as freckle-faced American kids fall out of their prams onto dirt bikes at the local flat track before they can walk, graduate to winning at local, state and finally national level all the while learning every nuance of sliding a bike perfectly while racing inches from the rest of the pack. With this lot behind them they make the switch to tarmac and superbikes in the AMA, and from here - potentially - the world's their ostrich. Sounds simple, and it is. If you've got the drive, hunger and talent for it that is...

Having by now made it to a sweltering Honda Hills, photographer Joe and myself had rigged up a handy awning we had in the Shitbox and were splayed out on the grass like lizards on a rock, slowly baking and unable to do more than tackle the occasional slug of cold coke when we saw a van rumbling towards us in a gathering cloud of dust.

The van stops, the dust settles and out pop two lads who look just like they walked out of a Linkin Park video. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Larry Pegram and Marc Williams, flat trackers extraordinaires, and thoroughly decent chaps into the bargain.

The boys don't seem to fussed by the heat, and happily bounce into their leathers (actually, Marc's left his at home so borrows mine), and wheel out two of the neatest and most minimal race bikes I've seen in a long time. Part motocrosser, part road bike, total pared-down racer, these bikes sure are mighty purty indeed.

Then comes the bit I've been waiting for all day as we bump the bikes and the boys set off to do their thang. And bugger me sideways if it isn't the daftest thing I've seen in gawd knows how long. As photographer Joe hops about the track snapping away in a 'ho-hum-seen-it-all-before' blasé manner, all I can do is stare, slack-jawed and goggle-eyed at the madness in front of me.

The boys are blapping their way down the straights, then viciously throwing the bikes onto their sides that hard the front is losing all traction and heading as sideways as it is forwards while bouncing and diving across the track's rutted inconsistencies, yet somehow they still make their apexes perfectly lap after lap, steel shod left boot deftly skimming the earth - barely touching down apart from the occasional punt to catch the front end as it really does wash good and proper.

With the front thrown into the turn, the back starts to follow before a blast of throttle sends it way out sideways and the boys drift hard and fast around the turn, the bike bucking beneath them like a demented rodeo bull. From apex to exit they're wide on the gas, still fully sideways, but now feet up and giving a shit about no more than the hardest, fastest drive onto the straight.

And talk about close riding. Jaysus. You'd be hard pushed to get a fag paper between the two of them as they drift lap after lap pretty much riding each other's bikes at times. As a demonstration of impeccably controlled chaos this is good as it gets. I can't begin to imagine what a full pack going into the first turn on race day, fuelled by the big money payouts on offer, must look like...

"We'll be inches from each other the whole race," Marc drawls in thick Texan during a lull in proceedings. "Sometimes you'll reach over and tap another rider mid-corner just to let them know you're there. No-one's hanging back though, we all wanna see that chequered flag first, we just like keeping things safe as we can."

Er, okay, whatever you say. I'm sure the rest of us would have the presence of mind to gently tap another rider while mid-70mph broadside. Yeah right, course we would. It's at this point I decide these boys are a couple of stars short of a spangled banner.

It's also at this point the boys throw me a curve ball suggesting it's about time I have a crack. Fresh out of excuses I've got no option but to take up the challenge and prepare for the snapped collarbones that will inevitably accompany this foolhardy exercise. Still, at least I've got two of the best teachers in the business to set me off, eh? Oh, and Marc's bike to ride. Which he's racing in a couple of days and won't have time to repair if I mash it.

"No pressure," grins Joe from behind the safety of his camera. Inside my lid I vow to aim directly for him in the event of any crash.

"Get your weight forward," says Larry. "You want your nuts on the tank," adds Marc, "and push the bike down into the turns like a motocrosser - don't hang off like on a road bike". I decide this isn't the time to tell them I've only been on dirt three times and on each occasion have spent more time pulling myself out of it than riding across it.

"Sit into the slide, keep your elbows up, your left foot forwards right by the front wheel ready to catch it, and whatever you do don't touch the brake - you'll be face-planting before you know it," smiles Larry benignly as he push starts the bike for me while I struggle to walk the ten metres from our awning to the bike now I've got a steel boot that weighs a ton strapped to my left foot.

One lap in and I realise I've made a big mistake. The track has all the grip of an ice rink and the bike seems determined to fall over every time I turn into the ends of the oval.

But then it happens. I tip toe into the bottom turn, give it large with the gas and out she comes. Actually I've barely got the throttle a quarter open and the rear wheel's gone all of two inches sideways, but from where I'm sat it feels bloomin' marvelous.

Now full of misguided courage I try and get brave, slicing my lap times around the half-mile oval to within minutes (no really) of Larry and Marc's. Five laps in (it feels like five hundred), I pull in exhausted and with a left leg that's ready to drop off with the weight of the blasted steel shoe to get some more tuition. I find the boys doubled up and laughing like drains.

'Ha, obviously my display of natural skill has them knocked out' I think to myself.

"You only put your left foot out in the turns," manages Marc through a haze of tears. "That way you can rest it on the straights - your leg must be in agony by now". Ah. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Half an hour later, despite now resting my leg between turns, I'm beat and sweating like I've just been caught in the girls' showers after PE. Still, I reckon I've acquitted myself admirably and have the added bonus of still possessing two fully-functional collarbones.

Struggling out of my leathers which are now welded to my skin with a gluey mix of dirt and sweat, I ask the boys what it takes to make it as a flat track rider.

"You need to know how to finesse your bike into corners, how to get it drifting right and how to haul out as hard as you can," says Marc as if it were the most natural thing in the world and everyone should be able to ride a motorcycle sideways.

Larry ponders the question, then fires one word back at me.

"Wisdom," adding after a thoughtful pause, "it takes time to become a good flat tracker - you gotta learn it good. You need to be able to tell how the track will ride every lap so's you always know where the traction is, and the only way you'll learn that is through hard-earned experience. And you've got to have the ability to hang it right out on the edge and stay in control at the same time."

"So have I got it?" I ask, and I get another one word answer with a smile on the end of it.