My disdain for the term “street tracker” is not well hidden.
My ire stems from the fact that term — as well as the concept — is contradictory. Fearless Editor Lance and I talked through what the heck it means, and whether a major bike manufacturer would or even could pump out a bike that could be called a “street tracker.” I think we came to a reasonable conclusion: It depends. Let's do a class project together and figure out what the hell a street tracker should be, because I need reader help on this. (And I bet the OEMs read the comments at the ends of these articles very closely!)
The street tracker conundrum
“Street tracker" is a dichotomous term. ("Race replica," by comparison, is not. The name itself acknowledges that it's not actually a racing bike.) In all but the lowest and least competitive forms of racing, motorcycles are modified for the task (and rider!) at hand. The issue stems from the fact that street bikes dictate items of safety and convenience, and race bikes require items of speed. A true race machine at the highest levels is hand-built, as custom as rules allow. Obviously that’s a pretty pure definition. Nowadays, to build a budget flat-tracker, the shortcut is to install 19-inch wheels and appropriate tires on a motocross bike and lower the suspension. But when we're talking about a street-tracker, that's not what people seem to want.
Most of the people I hear using the term "street tracker" seem to be stuck on a 1970s or '80s feel. Back then, an amateur racer would pick up a motorcycle and install 19-inch spoked wheels (style points for using high-shouldered alloy rims). Next up, the racer removed lighting, front brake, and fender. After that, he installed bodywork. The tank was small and low, and the tail and seat were often integrated right into it, also staying low. The idea here was to keep close to the frame rails. Obviously there were other less-visible modifications to be made: suspension work and modified cranks for big-bang firing order.
What elements of the flat-track bike need to be present?
In spite of whatever internet drivel you might read stating otherwise, there exists no evidence to suggest an appreciable amount of flat-track prepped machinery has ever hit the roadway. A flat-track bike on the street is a bad idea. Don’t take my word for it. Allan Girdler wrote an article years back saying the exact same thing. It seems to Girdler — and to me — that most people want a bike that pays homage to a tracker without actually being one. Lance pointed something out that I thought was exceptionally pertinent. “A lot riders who like the styling of dirt-track bikes have probably never been to a flat-track race in their lives and wouldn't notice some of the nuances.” With that in mind, which details are important to hit the mark and satiate desires?
Take the gas tank, for example. A real small tank on a roundy-round bike is no problem. Jerry cans of fuel are on the trailer. On the street, though, a tracker-size tank won’t be very useful. So if you make the tank bigger, the bodywork has to be enlarged to match. Harley did a pretty good job reconciling this on the old XR1200. It’s evocative of the flat-track style, but clearly not an actual race setup.
What about the front brake? Unlike speedway, ice racing, or boardtrack, flat-track bikes have a brake. It's on the back, but that brake is a big deal! The brake setup is one of the defining elements of the sport. Does adding a front brake make a street tracker reek of inauthenticity?
Let’s not forget wheels and tires. I suppose wheels could be either cast or spokes, as both are legitimately used in flat-track, though spokes are more in keeping with the vintage vibe. Tires would clearly be a compromise, as true trackin’ tires are not DOT-approved, but what about wheelsize? The reason for dual 19s is pretty cut and dry: them’s the rules. But on the street, why stick with that size? And what about fenders to cover those skins? I mean, if you’ve ever ridden a bike in the rain with no mudguards, a Super Hooligan Commuter sounds about as much fun as getting your hand caught in a moving blender.
There are some other trivialities to be considered, as well. You know, stuff like lights, emissions equipment, and a starter. Oh, and an engine. Unlike Girdler, most people don’t really want to wrench that often and having a fire-breathing big-bang engine makes it kind of hard to warranty, which doesn’t help bike sales. And I suppose if the engines aren’t limited to two cylinders of no more than 750 cc because of those pesky rules, some opportunities open up in that department as well — perhaps at the cost of “trackability,” though?
What we think
I'm a purist. I think if, say, you took an old Yamaha XS650 flat-tracker you bought on Craigslist and installed street tires, lights, and a front brake, you just have a street bike — but I'm willing to entertain other opinions. Other Common Tread contributors are a little more open-minded.
Lance had good insight again. “You know how people are. It's about the style. If the bike looks the way the customers want, they'll happily consider it a street tracker, regardless of actual tank capacity or whether it has a front brake. I think you hit on the main style elements with the tail section, dirt handlebar and low-profile tank. If the rear tire is an 18 and the front a 19, how many will notice or care?”
Spurg chimed in. “Keep the essence of the bike.” He went on to cite what I thought was a great example of a realistic compromise between street and race: frenching a small LED headlight into a number plate.
We three sort of agree on a minimalist tail section, dirt bars, and a small-ish tank being necessities on a factory attempt at such a bike. What do you, O Fellow Riders, deem necessary to feel a bike has been given the “street tracker” treatment?
Why you actually have an easier time doing this than a factory does
Unfortunately for the manufacturers, creating a realistic homage is made difficult by a few different things. The first is cost. A backyard builder who knows exactly what he wants might be willing to dump a lot of money into a street tracker project, but that’s not indicative of the market as a whole. Most people want a lot of bang for the buck. What a rider says he’ll spend when commenting on the Internet and what he'll actually spend are often very, very different numbers. I’m as guilty as the next person. I haven’t bought a new bike for four years, but I write an awful lot about what I think the manufacturers should make, change, and keep the same. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.
The second issue is usability. There are a hell of a lot more street joes than racin’ heroes looking to buy a bike. The ultimate arbiters of design and engineering efficacy are the paying customers, because when the rubber meets the road, the factory needs to move units and make money. A usable, friendly street bike probably will sell better right now than a wild (but pure) flat-track machine.
The factory is hamstrung by many legal requirements, too. For instance, in the EU, all new motorcycles must be equipped with ABS. If I want to make a flat-track bike up on Lemmy Mountain, I pull a brake caliper off in the garage and chuck it on the swap meet pile. But a major bike manufacturer is saddled with the prospect of making a bike look “tracky” with an ABS tone ring hidden somewhere. They’ve got emissions equipment that is mandatory and electrical and electronic devices that need to be present, but hidden. They've also got to service the bikes, provide warranties, and also make sure they make enough money to cover the occasional lawsuits and legal tangles that almost never occur to backyard builders like me.
Those compromises water down the styling (which, as we mentioned, has also been neutered a little bit for usability and palatability). They also add to the cost of a machine which is hitting a subset (riders wanting a factory street tracker) of an already very narrow subculture (motorcycling). For most riders, acceptance boils down to the balance of usability on the street and dirt-racer looks.
Good buddy and Cycle World author Joe Gustafson summed it up best for me. "It's a tracker tribute. There's no such thing as a street tracker, ya goober!” Fortunately for riders, that's actually what the factories would be most suited to producing.
There have been only a handful of bikes produced which I think get close to the street tracker ethos. In no particular order, we’ve been able to purchase the Honda Ascot, Harley-Davidson XR1200X/R, and the Zaeta 450 and 530DT. (The latter is a stretch, I know; it’s hardly large-scale production.) I could accept these as "street trackers," because at least when I talked to someone about the bike, we'd sort of be on the same page in terms of styling without spelling everything out. (Deep down, I'll always just consider a bike like this a standard that has slightly chunkier tires. I might say "Hmm, that tail section reminds me a little of a flat-track bike.")
The internet echo chamber says the time is ripe for a factory street tracker, and people swear up and down they are ready to buy. Do you agree with Girdler? Is there no such thing as a factory street tracker? Or can a factory produce one? What is essential? Can the factories produce what you want? Also, is the Scrambler Ducati Flat Track Pro nailing this style? Because it doesn't work for me.
I will issue ad hoc internets for pictorial comments created in Photoshop/Paint/ASCII text. Bring your A-game.