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A History Nerd's Very Incomplete Timeline of American Flat Track Racing

Flat track racer at new smyrna speedway
Sons Of Speed at New Smyrna Speedway. Photo Ed Harriger

It’s a shitty, rainy Saturday afternoon, so no motorcycling going on. Not that the weather is making much of a difference anyway since both of my bikes are down. Feels like the kind of weather that would have prompted Raymond Chandler to write “Killer in the Rain”. I don’t have such lofty aspirations, but Sean decided to give me homework as I was leaving The Basin on Thursday evening. “Give me something on American Flat Track” he says to me, as I’m walking out the door. Fitting, since we’re going to the Sons of Speed Vintage Outlaw Motorcycle Racing event in 2 weeks (assuming I actually got off my lazy ass and wrote this whole thing on February 17th). Not fitting, since I know virtually nothing about flat track racing and this means I have to do research, which is work, which is something I don’t particularly enjoy doing. But if you’re reading this, then I did the research and we’re all a bit more knowledgeable… maybe.

Oscar Hedstrom historic motorcycle
Oscar Hedstrom with his prototype racer, what may have been the very first Indian factory racing motorcycle, in front of the Ormond Hotel in late March, 1903

        Now, you might not know it, but as Floridians, we walk on racing hallowed ground every day. Obviously, we all know about all the current yearly events that take place in our state. But what you might not know is that everything that IS now can trace its origins right back to the hard packed sands of Daytona Beach on March 26th, 1903. On that day, in front of the Ormond Hotel, 3000 of the Gilded Age gentry gathered to bear witness to the first ever officially sanctioned automotive race, between (weirdly) 3 automobiles and 1 motorcycle - built and piloted by one Swedish immigrant named Carl Oscar Hedstrom. On the side of his motorcycle, a marque destined to become iconic was painted - Indian. That fateful day changed people’s relationship with internal-combustion powered vehicles forever, as Hedstrom’s Indian motorcycle set a land speed record of 57 mph. 57 MPH IN 1903!!! With no suspension, no safety gear, running on bicycle tires. It took Hunter Stockton Thompson another century to put into words what people instinctively realized that day: “… fast is better […] . Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba…”. From that day on, speed became a means, a goal, a purpose, a reward, a drug, a cure, a GOD.

        As motorcycle manufacturing slowly found its footing in America, the first real wave of racing crashed against the shores of the New World in the early 1910s with the big (at the time) 3 - Harley Davidson, Indian and now long defunct Excelsior duking it out for supremacy on wooden velodromes, with high-tech, cutting edge, expensive prototypes. If you’ve ever laid your peepers on one of those old sepia-toned photos of racers from back in those days, you might have noticed that the machines were really no more than bicycles with engines strapped to them and the safety gear, if any at all was about as crude as it got.

Harley Davidson Wrecking Crew
Harley Davidson "Wrecking Crew"

This ensured that the racers typically had a life expectancy from about now until you reach the end of this post. And yet it didn’t matter. As long as life was fast, a fast ending wasn’t really a concern. January 2nd, 1920 marked the death of the first pro racer in America - Excelsior’s Bob Perry. So shocked was the president of Excelsior that he allegedly picked up a sledgehammer and single-handedly smashed all the racing prototypes, shuttering the company’s racing program and thus leaving Harley Davidson and Indian as the only big names in American motorcycle racing - a rivalry as old as time. Harley settled that rivalry pretty decisively in 1921, their “Wrecking Crew” (yes, the original name belonged to Harley) winning every event of the year’s racing season. As any good gambler would tell you - quitting while you’re ahead is a good idea and that’s what the Milwaukee Motor Company decided to do, especially since racing was starting to have diminishing returns on Harley’s showroom sales. Since racing against yourself is about as exciting as steamed broccoli, Indian had no choice but to call it quits too.

        Just because the money tap was tightened, doesn’t mean the people’s appetite for racing disappeared. Dirt track and hill climbs started gaining in popularity and by the mid 1920s, Indian introduced their single cylinder 350 cc Prince engine. One year later, HD came out with their Peashooter single and the race was back on, supposedly safer due to the smaller displacements and the AMA (founded in 1924 to regulate motorcycle racing) attempting to crack down on top speeds. Despite the small engines, this new generation of lightweight racers would still achieve speeds of over 90 mph and the illusion of safer racing was quickly shattered by a whirlwind of death in which racing superstars like Gene Walker, Ray Weishaar and Eddie Brinck got caught up. If their deaths proved anything it is that the quest for speed and victory continued undaunted, no matter the costs, no matter the risks.

        Around the same time, in 1925 , Excelsior gave motorcycle racing one of its last great gifts - the Super X 45 cubic inch engine (750 cc). Indian quickly followed suite, bumping their Scout engine up to 45 cubic inches. Harley showed up late to the 45 cubic inch party, in 1929 with the introduction of the Model D. Something else came in 1929, also starting with D - Depression. The Big One. And so it came, that 2 years later, despite dominating in Class A racing with their Super X machine piloted by racing prodigy Joe Petrali, Excelsior finally shut its doors for good, a victim of the economic turmoil that had engulfed the world. Left without a racing home, Petrali quickly found himself courted by Milwaukee and went on to dominate Class A racing to such an extent that the races were occasionally described as boring. And yet, with the financial troubles brought about by the Great Depression, Class A racing was quickly losing favor.

New Smyrna Speedway Flat Track
Flat Track Racer. Photo: Ed Harriger

        At this point of the story, we come to a trait of Americans I’ve come to love and admire quite a bit - the ability to take hard times and squeeze out every last drop of good and fun that can be had. Nowhere is this more apparent than the South, where flat track racing was born. Its roots can be traced to the unsanctioned, unofficial races that started popping up around the country, such as the Jack Pine Enduro and the so-called Gypsy Tours. In 1933, Class C racing was first introduced - a new type of race, cheaper, for factory production bikes with 45 cubic inch displacements, open to any card carrying member of the AMA who dared roll a wheel over the starting line. In 1934, the first AMA Class C championship takes place in Jacksonville, Florida on February 22nd and in the following years, the championship moves back and forth between Georgia and Florida, finally settling in Daytona in 1937, with the inaugural Daytona 200, a race series started 5 years prior by the Southern Motorcycle Dealers Association, in an attempt to boost motorcycle sales during the Great Depression.

        The war restrictions led to the race being suspended from 1942 until 1947 but when it was back, oh boy! was it back with a vengeance. Soldiers returning from the front lines, in search of adrenaline, riding on surplus war machines generated a never before seen wave of interest in motorcycle racing and motorcycle riding in general. As a result of this, we have one small byproduct - a tiny gathering of a few bikes every spring in Daytona. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The 40s and 50s gave rise to a new generation of racing legends, some notable names being Bobby Hill, Bill Tuman and Ernie Beckman racing for Indian - so successful were they that, in a twist of irony, they were bestowed with the nickname “The Wrecking Crew”, a moniker that had belonged in the past to rival manufacturer Harley Davidson. The Wrecking Crew now belonged to Indian and so it has been since.

        Throughout the years, American Flat Track racing was where some of the great names of Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing first cut their teeth: Dick Mann, Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Nicky Hayden to name a few. Today, American Flat Track is widely seen as one of the most prestigious forms of dirt track racing. Formally regulated and well financed, it has come a long way from the board tracks of the 20s and the Gypsy Tours and hill climbs of 30s. But some things haven't changed - the thirst for adrenaline, the rambunctious nature of American motorsports and its welcoming of riders with democratically open arms. From the days of Joe Petrali’s Class A racing dominance, to Ed “Iron Man” Kretz and Babe Tancrede in Class C and all the way to today’s Indian Wrecking Crew of Jared Mees, Briar Bauman and Shayna Texter - Bauman, it’s always been about one thing and one thing only - speed, baby!

Sons Of Speed

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Baldevl Lalli
Baldevl Lalli

Motorcycle history. Nostalgia, tradition and memories. Great presentation!!


Very interesting story and extremely well told mate . Looking forward to seeing it first hand on March 2 .


Sarah BlondeJovi
Sarah BlondeJovi

Love this! Super interesting! Thank you Calin!

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