Common Tread

The gritty lens report: Photogs' first time at the flat-track races

Jun 14, 2016

It was 95 degrees in the only shade we'd found in two hours of circling the race track. I lapped up the chocolate puddle swirling within its waffle cone confines, the remains of what was once my soft-serve ice cream treat, now quickly losing integrity in the arid heat.

Trackside, the only thing between us and the sun was some cheap, spray-on sunblock. Perfect weather for the all-out dirty bump and grind about to commence between several hard-edged, leather-clad competitors and their trusty trackers. Rain slows down the fun and temperate weather would tone down the intensity, but on this day — 30 years since the last event of its kind rip-roared down this particular mile-long oval — the riders, the audience and the world cooked inside the Turf Paradise horse track come AMA Pro Flat Track arena. Perfect.

Brad Baker's flat track racers
Brad Baker's mounts. Calm before the storm. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Our trigger fingers ready on the cameras, we listened for the roar of the first wave of flat trackers to slide into the turn, daring each other to lose (too much) control. Heat is a perfect title for those first rounds of eliminations. The GNC 2 class (the fast guys) race the first three heats and then GNC 1 (the really, really fast guys) likewise compete in the second half. Justin perched his Canon on a golden, straw-built barrier pointed "just so" while I pretended to also be a photographer... Shooting this two-wheeled, high-speed brawl with a 35 mm film camera, no less. Hey, it got me the photo vest.

flat track racing
Scenes from AMA Pro Flat Track. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

We all remember our firsts, and this was a first I’m not going to forget. Speeds soaring well past 120 mph with only a steel shoe, massive balls (yes, even the ladies), and a little craze in the eye to slow them down — as if they would. There aren’t a lot of brakes to ease the pain upon impact, just the thin cushion of guts and glory. You have to be a little nuts to take your dirt/street/shit-storm hybrid precisely to its limit just to kick that back tire lose and slide nearly a quarter mile shoulder-to-shoulder with riders who might just be a little crazier, or a lot dumber, than you.

AMA Pro Flat Track
Scenes from AMA Pro Flat Track. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

I think the only two people who out crazied and out stupid-ed the boys and girls on bikes were the two idiot photojournalists — one carrying a Pentax K1000 with a single roll of film — who were dumb enough to lean headfirst onto the track for the "ideal" photos just because, well, no one told them they couldn’t.

"You shouldn’t turn your back to the riders," one sun-worn race-track authority advised us.

Justin couldn’t help himself. He wanted to capture the race from every angle, and at this moment, it was as they broke loose into the first turn, sliding and skidding into a dust cloud floating behind the leaders.

AMA Pro Flat Track
Don't turn your back to the racers, they said. He did. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

"Don’t worry," he smirked. "She’s my eyes."

I nodded in agreement, but I’m sure that if a bike went haywire in our direction, I’d hardly gasp before we were pulverized by the very machines we were worshiping, for the very reason they deserved our praise: their velocity! I let the wind kicked up from their tires blow the sweat from my brow, and succumbed to the deafening sounds that forced themselves so far down the ear canal you could have them arrested for violating your personal space.

AMA Pro Flat Track
The pack thunders your way. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

The blatant risk. The fight. The sheer freedom of letting go of control just enough to push the limits to the edge then reel it back in with a burst of power achieved from years of training? If you haven’t done it — taken on challenges and ignored all reason to keep a keen eye focused on the finish — flat track, along with so many forms of racing, will make you feel like you haven’t done shit with your life.

Bryan Smith wins in Arizona
Bryan Smith, out front and building a lead.Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Bryan Smith
Mile specialist Bryan Smith put in a dominant performance for a runaway victory in Arizona. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
By the main event, I had already forgotten my sunburn, the grime mixed with sweat that frosted my skin or even that I’d run out of film over an hour ago. Forgotten that I was so close to the action that if I didn’t move quick, a rider might slap the carelessly suspended cell phone right out of my hand.

flat track racing
Do you dare dangle out there to get that just-right shot? Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

By that time, I was mesmerized. Daydreaming about building my very own tracker, taking it to an odd dirt oval here and there, maybe even finding myself some of that glory. And I wasn’t the only one. Look around. Stone-cold sober to swimming in local lagers, what was behind more than half the eyes I saw was hope. Proof of something else, or better. Or at least to look forward to. That’s the beauty of this oldest of motorcycle dreams. It’s simple. Raw. It brings out that once instinctual, animal desire to hunt, to fight, kill or be killed. To do something so far removed from the mundane realities that are 9-to-5s, screaming kids and social media. To believe that we, too, could be better than we are right at that moment.

race fans
Racers race. Fans imagine. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Maybe we can. Most of these men and women have regular jobs, too — kids and the whole gamut. Those things we have to do. But somehow, they reach down deep, put on their "big boy" pants, and find the drive, the time — the courage — to be more and do more than they and maybe anyone thought they could or ought to.

Or... they’ve just lost their minds. Either way, that’s flat track.