If you’re into motorcycles, you’ve likely heard of MotoGP and AMA Supercross. But the truth is, the most badass form of motorcycle racing is something quite different. It’s called American Flat Track, and as I learned at a New York Short Track race last month, this grassroots style is hella fun not only to watch, but also to try yourself.
What makes it so cool? Well, it’s basically drifting on motorcycles, with a steel shoe strapped to your left boot to help you slide when you put that foot in the dirt while ripping through turns at up to 90 miles per hour (between hitting 140 on the straights).
“The amount of actual turning [of the handlebars] we do is no more than 15 degrees because we're sliding into the corners and counter-rotating the back of the motorcycle,” explains AFT Production Twins racer Johnny Lewis. “And we're side-by-side with 16 to 18 riders the whole time. That’s the uniqueness of it.”
I got to know Lewis the day after that race, when he coached me and some other media members through the Royal Enfield Slide School by Moto Anatomy, a regular clinic he hosts to show ordinary folks how to flat track. (That's him at the top of this page, casually demo-ing a sweet slide-turn.) Shaking off hangovers, donning helmets with Cardo Packtalk Bold JBL headsets and throwing legs over modified Royal Enfield Himalayans (no front brakes!), we spent that Sunday morning learning a whole new way of riding — one demanding major focus and coordination and, ultimately, sliding that back tire across dirt to make fast, efficient turns around an oval.
It was super challenging, and I can’t exactly say I aced it. But I took solace in something Lewis and the other racers on the scene confessed: while road riding proficiency is virtually useless when learning how to corner on dirt, the opposite isn't true; flat track racing skills are actually a huge help on the road. So I hit Lewis up for advice any road motorcyclist can use to ride better, faster — and, paradoxically, safer. Here are his top tips.
1. Get engaged
The first thing you learn in sliding school is, as Lewis says, “crack on crack.” In other words, sit forward on the saddle with the middle of your derriére on the right edge of the seat, with your knees tight on the gas tank and your finger on the clutch. It’s an active riding position that not only helps facilitate all those left turns, but also keeps you prepared for anything. And while it might be a bit intense for riding around town, it pays to engage with your bike. “If you’re just sitting on the motorcycle and have to react,” Lewis says, “it’s too late.”
2. Approach the braking point
“Usually when you’re road riding, when something happens, you stomp the rear brake or squeeze the front brake,” says Lewis. This sudden motion can cause a dangerous skid — or, if you grab that front brake too tight, even going over the bars. The easiest fix? “Keep your fingers and foot on the brakes so when you do need to use them, it’s a nice smooth pressure, not stabbing the brake.”
3. Look your way to safety
The term “target fixation” refers to the tendency to head straight for what you're looking at, even if it’s an obstacle. By the same logic, thankfully, looking away helps. “If I know I'm gonna slide into a fence or hay bales, if I look back toward the track, a lot of times the bike comes around,” Lewis says. “If you go off the road, if you’re in the grass, pick your head up and look where you want to go. The bike goes with you.” Toward the end of the class, I experienced this phenomenon firsthand — yes that's me in the Stormtrooper jacket above — when I came out of a turn too fast and started veering right off the course. Forcibly turning my head to the left, I got back on track.
4. Lose control…comfortably
“When we’re racing, the bike is always doing something crazy,” Lewis explains. “We’re trying to push the limits, but we’re always calming the bike down.” The same goes for road riders facing tricky conditions or evading unexpected obstacles. “Be smooth with the throttle, take that aggressiveness down a bit, and get used to sliding around [in the rain].”
Follow the first three tips and, if you do lose control, you won't overreact — which could save your life. “If your feet and fingers are on the levers, you start not even thinking about the person swerving in front of you,” Lewis says. “You have space. Your heart rate doesn’t spike. Your mind stays calm.” He doesn’t even have to voice the last part of that equation: You and your bike stay upright.
Interested in checking out AFT for yourself? The final race of the season, the Honda Charlotte Half Mile, is next Saturday (October 8th) — and it’s coming down to the wire in the SuperTwins division, where the top two riders are separated by just four points, setting up a potential winner-take-all scenario. So yeah, you just might wanna tune in. Get tickets here or stream the race via TrackPass here.