Viewership of and attendance at American Flat Track events saw huge increases in the 2017 season, according to statistics released this week. With the 2018 season less than two weeks away, organizers and participants are hoping for another year of growth. US success of flat track appears to be mirrored in the UK, where Dirt Quake has become so popular that it’s planning to leave its old stomping grounds for greener pastures.
READ MORE: Will Big Money Ruin Dirt Quake?
I’ll admit I’m not a big a fan of motorcycle racing in general. Moto GP, for example, strikes me as extraordinarily tedious. I mean, I’m sure Rossi’s a lovely fella – most of the racers I’ve met in person are – but I just don’t care about watching him or the sport he loves. For reasons that I can’t quite figure out, however, I tend to make an exception when it comes to flat track. I will watch flat track.
It seems others will, too. Attendance at American Flat Track events was up 76 percent last year over 2016 (when the premier US flat track racing series was known as AMA Pro Flat Track). FansChoice.tv, the website that airs flat track, saw viewership jump some 59 percent over the same time period.
Certainly those are numbers that will vindicate the big changes that American Flat Track saw last year. In addition to getting a new name, the series saw a number of rule changes, it extended its season to 18 races, and it signed a big-money deal with NBC Sports Network – a move that delivered some 1.6 million viewers to the sport.
Ask the riders that participate in flat track racing and most of them will downplay its importance. After all, flat track is a hell of a lot more than Harley and Indian – there are Kawasakis and Yamahas and Hondas and even one or two Triumphs out there. And the guys riding those bikes are competitive as hell. But ask the fans – especially the new ones – and I bet you’ll get a different answer.
Factory teams – like Indian’s Wrecking Crew – are good for racing because they give casual observers a point of reference. I was at the first race of the 2017 AFT season in Daytona Beach, Florida, last year and I remember the announcer working the crowd by shouting: “How many of y’all are here to see a Harley win?! How many of y’all are here to see Indian win?!”
He didn’t say diddly about Kawasaki, even though that manufacturer’s engine had been dominant in years past (ridden by privateers).
Last year, of course, the dominant bike was the Indian Scout FTR750 – a purpose-built machine that Indian put into the hands of three of the very best riders it could find: Jared Mees, Bryan Smith, and Brad Baker. I imagine the brief in Switzerland, back when Indian was first working with its partners to develop the FTR750 engine, was pretty simple: beat Harley.
And that they did. Harley’s team was caught on the back foot, rapidly trying to transform from running its ancient XR750 air-cooled platform the year before to the new liquid-cooled XG750R platform in 2017. The latter’s powerplant is effectively the same as that found in the Street 750 and Street Rod – a fact that may be good for sales pitches but not for winning races.
I anticipate things will be different this year; Harley (and everyone else) will have spent last year learning and tweaking, and will come back stronger and more competitive. And that will be a good thing. A more competitive field will help to retain and build upon the new audiences found as a result of last year’s successes. And in a time when the industry is struggling, seeing flat track grow is a very good thing. I tend to think the whole “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” thing is hooey but I do feel it’s certainly true that watching people ride bikes will inspire a person to want to ride bikes.
If nothing else, it will convince Indian that releasing a production version of the FTR1200 Custom is a good idea. In a perfect world, Harley would also tweak its Street Rod to make it even more rideable (in other words, fix the issue of having the rider’s right foot rest on the exhaust). That way, even the people who don’t give a damn about racing can reap its benefits.
If you do happen to give a damn, or are at least interested, the 2018 American Flat Track season kicks of at Daytona International Speedway on 15 March.