Flat Track is punk. It’s NASCAR but dirty. It’s Tokyo Drift, the best of the Fast and Furious franchise, except on two wheels. Or, that’s how I sold it to some friends, all of whom nevertheless bailed on the Go Flat Track School for reasons related to avoiding broken bones. I went anyway.
Let me preface this with the fact I’m bad at motorcycles. And yet even I – an unconfident and new-ish rider – was, by mid-afternoon, powersliding a 450-cc dirt bike around a gravel oval track. Two riders ahead of me slid into a turn and their bikes kicked up a cloud of dust leaving only their helmets visible through the haze. As I flew into the beige cloud, trusting the track was still where I left it, I leaned the bike over and stuck out my left foot to skim the ground as instructed. The sound of the steel boot clanking off rocks and the mad bark of a four-stroke thumper were the only noises in the world. Dust filled my nose and covered my face and my eyes bulged out of my goggles. Rolling onto the throttle sent the bike drifting sideways, leaving only more dust and noise in my wake. At least that’s how it felt.
In reality, anyone standing trackside would’ve likely reported that I was, in fact, barely riding at a slow jogging pace, had been lapped several times, was more wobbly than a person staggering out of a bar after last call, and that I had the control of a toddler still figuring out how his limbs work. Whatever, I loved it.
Aaron and Katalin Hesmer, the husband-and-wife duo who run the Go Flat Track School, have trained hundreds and hundreds of first-time flat trackers like me. They’re building the sport they love, one class at a time.
For $300, anyone – including people who’ve never swung a leg over a motorcycle – can sign up for a half-day lesson, which includes all the riding gear, the use of their bikes, and a steel overshoe that resembles a ballet slipper. The Hesmers’ travelling Go Flat Track School is a tour bus that visits tracks around the country. This summer, stops included Thetford Mines in Quebec, and Shannonville Motorsport Park and Walton Raceway in Ontario.
At Walton, a couple hours west of Toronto, on a perfect mid-summer Saturday, Aaron and Katalin unloaded their fleet of flat-track-prepped Honda CRF250R and 450R dirt bikes, opened a tent, and laid out a blanket for their three young children to play on.
Aaron explained the facts of flat track in between riding sessions. “Three simple lessons,” he said. (Yeah right!) The bikes don’t have a front brake, but do have lowered suspension and special flat-track specific tires. “Lean it over to turn, throttle, then stand it up to go straight… and that’s the beauty of flat track,” he says. “It’s simple in theory, but pretty hard to apply it.” Oh, and there’s a high chance of “falling down,” a polite word for crashing. If we do “fall down” he advised us to “make sure you’re out of the way of other people so they don’t run you over.”
Most students did fall down during the day, but there were no injuries beyond scrapes and bruises, even – miraculously – after one attendee lost control of the bike and speared straight off the track and through a wire fence.
The stakes are higher for seasoned riders who race on dirt ovals, which can be up to a mile long. On those big tracks, racers hit 160 km/h down the straights and 140 km/h in corners, drifting around the ovals in unison.
As a teenager, Aaron raced speedway, which is similar to flat track but probably even more dangerous. “I could ride four days a week in my teens, in the early 2000s, and I could make $300 to $500 a night,” he remembers. Prize money and some small sponsorships were more than enough to cover his costs. “It was good money for a 15-year-old,” he says.
In recent history, the sport’s popularity peaked around 2007, Aaron explained. (The cool-kid flat-track magazine Sideburn was founded in 2008 and is still going strong.) But, then the Great Recession hit. “After the recession, flat track really only existed at three different tracks in Ontario and Quebec. There was maybe only like 70 riders then,” he lamented. The sport almost went extinct in Canada.
He began running the occasional flat track school to build the sport back up in 2009, and founded an organizing body – Flat Track Canada – in 2013. By 2018, there was serious momentum behind the sport again. “We had flat tracks in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, the East Coast,” he says, “and there were over 350 riders competing.” Most did it for fun with only a half-dozen or so making any money, he adds.
Down south, the American Flat Track series claimed to be the fastest-growing motorsport in the U.S., with total viewership exceeding three million for the 2018 season.
The sport has endured, surviving booms and busts, Aaron thinks, because it’s such a spectacle. “For one thing, it’s affordable. Also, anybody can go in a circle, you don’t have to worry about coming up short on a 100 ft jump [as you do in motocross]. But when you see bikes just racing around at 100 miles-an-hour, it’s just absolutely unbelievable. It’s thrilling. And you can get so close you feel like you’re a part of it,” he said. It helps too that races are family-friendly grassroots events, often taking place at fairgrounds or small local tracks, and that riders range in age from 14 to 40, or even older.
“Literally all the skills that’ve helped me build my living, support my family – it’s all been from racing. If I didn’t do it, I’d probably just be skimming through life, not doing anything too exciting,” Aaron said.
He can’t imagine his life without it, and after trying it just once, even I can see why.
We flew around and around and around the track at Walton like cats chasing our tails. The longer I stayed out, the more confident I’d get, the faster I went and the more everything seemed to make sense. I was still bad at it, sure, but every corner and every lap and every session blurred together into one happy flow-state fever dream. I didn’t break any bones, and the only thing that eventually stopped me was the fact I could barely lift my steel-shoe’d foot by the end.
What flat track really is, is motorcycle concentrate, taking the best bits of motorcross and road racing and condensing it onto a dirt oval for anyone to try.