'Hold Your Breath,' American Flat Track Racing Mounts A Comeback

Oct 6, 2018
Originally published on October 6, 2018 10:50 am

Flat track is the oldest form of motorcycle racing in the U.S., on dirt tracks, stretching back to the early 1900s. The sport, rooted in the country's heartland, is now showing signs of broader appeal, even in America's crowded sports landscape.

The sport's resurgence is due in large part to two unlikely characters.

Hours before American Flat Track's recent Minnesota Mile at Canterbury Park outside Minneapolis, AFT's CEO Michael Lock stood next to the converted horse racing track and issued a challenge to sports fans.

"Come to a flat track," Lock said, "where you can be within 10 feet of people whizzing [by] on dirt, at 130 miles per hour, with six abreast. If that doesn't make you stop and hold your breath for a second, I'm not going to be able to reach you at all."

For the past three years, it's been Lock's mission to spread the word: the sport, born on dirt tracks in rural America, is worth your attention and your money. Before he took over, Lock says the business of flat track had gone awry.

"For many, many years there was no business," he says, adding "This sport survived through the generosity of successful business people who'd sponsor a rider or a team. But it was on life support as a professional sport."

Lock, a motorcycle industry veteran from London whose English accent doesn't exactly evoke images of America's heartland, saw great potential for a revival.

"What I found was this true grit," Lock says. "It's a blue collar, all-American sport. And I felt the time was right. That flat track racing could be both heritage and contemporary."

Contemporary came in the form of a television deal with NBC SN in 2016. Also an increased social media presence. The network's flat track broadcasts, shown now on a one-week delay, led to a dramatic rise in total viewership – more than 3 million people this year watched flat track racing through a combination of TV online streaming and live events.

Lock says American Flat Track also is reaping the rewards of the advice he took from Dana White, president of the mixed martial arts organization UFC. White turned the fringe sport of MMA into a global moneymaker. Lock says he invited White to a flat track race a couple of years ago.

"He [White] said to me this is all very familiar," Lock says. "What you've got here is raw, it's real, it's unpolished. And in a world of over-produced sporting action, you've got an edge here. He said but don't make a mistake. He said the one thing you need to learn is introduce your sport to America through its athletes. Not through the format, not through how many ccs the engine's got or who won the championship in 1921. He said introduce it through the eyes of your athletes."

Autograph time at flat track events has become almost as important as race time. The meet and greet at Canterbury Park lasted about an hour, and as usual, the biggest line was for one of flat track's biggest stars.

Although "big" is a relative term.

At five feet tall and a little over 100 pounds, 27-year-old Shayna Texter has been one of the most popular and successful racers at least since 2011.

That was a breakthrough year. Texter won a race in Knoxville, Iowa — a singles main event. "Singles" race on single-cylinder motorcycles. It was the first time in flat track history that a woman won a professional race.

Since then, her celebrity, as "the girl who beats the boys," and her accomplishments, have grown. Texter won five races last year, two this season along with three second-place finishes.

Despite her success, Texter acknowledges this wasn't the sporting life she envisioned as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania.

"I enjoyed riding, but I was actually pretty intimidated by it," says Texter. "It wasn't really my thing. My thing was playing soccer. I wanted to be the next Mia Hamm and go to college and play soccer my entire life."

Injuries from motorcycle racing limited her soccer and finally led her away from the game and to the dirt tracks full time.

She decided to give full-time racing a shot when she was 12, after her brother got into it. "Being that my family owned a Harley [Davidson] shop, it wasn't that hard to get the [racing] bike ready. We went racing at a local track in Hanover, and I haven't stopped since."

Although it was a bit of a circuitous route, Texter realizes racing was an inevitable part of her life. There was the family-owned Harley shop, her dad was a pro-flat tracker, and her grandfather, Glenn Fitzcharles is in the sprint car hall-of-fame.

"No matter what," she laughs, "goin' left on dirt, it's in our blood. We didn't have a choice."

Texter goes "left on dirt" — a reference to the left turns flat trackers make after rocketing down straightaways — as well as anyone. Her small size helps on the longer tracks because she can tuck down on the bike with little wind resistance.

Ironically, Texter has become a Mia Hamm-like figure, paving the way for a next generation of female racers. Proof appeared in that autograph line, as two tiny girls, Ellie and Charlie, came face to face with their hero.

"I race a Honda," says Charlie, who nods at Ellie, "she races a Yamaha." "Sweet!" Texter says, adding, "one day I'll be getting your girls' autographs."

Texter isn't just a hit with young girls either. Her manager, Scott Taylor, recounts the scene this year in Sturgis, S.D. — a motorcycle hotbed.

"It was amazing to see these tough, hardcore biker guys," Taylor says. "Tattooed guys that rode in and stood in line wanting her autograph. Getting their picture with her. I don't see them doing it with anyone else here."

Being a gender pioneer of sorts usually comes with stories of hardship "back in the day." Texter doesn't have those stories.

"For me I've always been good," she says. "I won coming up through as an amateur. I won local championships. I've raced with a lot of these guys at amateur nationals throughout my career. So far as being respected, or harassed for being a woman, it hasn't been an issue for me."

"Our sport is one of the less political sports that you'll find in the country," Texter says.

It's certainly one of the more dangerous, as is the case in any high speed motor sport. In August, a flat tracker died from injuries after an on track accident. Texter crashed hard this season during a race. She flew over her bike's handle bars. Taylor says he could tell she was hurt, but she wasn't going to show it. "I think that's part of being a woman [in a male-dominated sport]," Taylor says. "She doesn't want to be treated differently. She's a racer. It was a very hard crash but she was not going to miss racing."

So Texter hopped on a back-up motorcycle and kept riding.

American Flat Track hopes she does that for a long time.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This weekend, baseball playoffs, college and pro football and American Flat Track's season-ending race tonight in New Jersey. Flat track is the oldest form of motorcycle racing in the country on dirt tracks. And NPR's Tom Goldman says it's staging a comeback.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Michael Lock has a challenge for you.

MICHAEL LOCK: Come to a flat track, where you can be within 10 feet of people on dirt, at 130 miles an hour with six abreast. If that doesn't make you stop and hold your breath for a second, I'm not going to be able to reach you at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLES REVVING)

GOLDMAN: Breath officially held. For the past three years, it's been Michael Lock's job - no, that's too tame - his mission as the CEO of American Flat Track to spread the word. The sport, born on dirt tracks in rural America, is worth your attention and your money. It was on life support at the pro level. But Lock, whose English accent is decidedly not heartland, saw the potential for revival.

LOCK: What I found was this true grit. It's a blue-collar, all-American sport. And I felt that the time was right that flat track racing could be both heritage and contemporary.

GOLDMAN: In 2016, Lock did a deal with NBCSN. The network broadcast, shown now on a one-week delay, helped total viewership from TV, streaming and ticket-buying rise dramatically this year to more than 3 million people. Lock also has embraced the idea of selling his sport through its athletes.

GARY: Hi, Shayna. Can you write, to Gary?

SHAYNA TEXTER: Sure.

GARY: Gary, G-A-R-Y. Thank you very much.

GOLDMAN: Autograph time is almost as important as race time. This meet and greet session lasted about an hour last weekend at Canterbury Park outside Minneapolis. As usual, the biggest line was for one of flat track's biggest stars, and big is a relative term.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. You're just a little thing, but you rock.

GOLDMAN: At 5 feet tall, 27-year-old Shayna Texter has been rocking American Flat Track since 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: We're looking at history, ladies and gentlemen. We could see it here tonight. One half-mile to go for Miss Shayna Texter. Come on, Shayna.

GOLDMAN: In that race seven years ago, fans did see history. Texter became the first woman to win a professional race in the sport. Since then, her celebrity, as the girl who beats the boys, and her accomplishments have grown. She won five races last year, two this season, along with three second-place finishes. This wasn't the sporting life she envisioned as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania.

TEXTER: My thing was playing soccer. I wanted to be the next Mia Hamm and go to college and play soccer my entire life.

GOLDMAN: But racing, she says now, was inevitable, considering her dad was a pro flat tracker and her family owned a Harley-Davidson shop.

TEXTER: No matter what, going left on dirt was - it's in our blood. We didn't have a choice.

GOLDMAN: Going left on dirt, a reference to the left turns flat trackers make after rocketing down straightaways - Texter does it as well as anyone. Ironically, she has become a Mia Hamm-like figure, paving the way for a next generation of female racers, like these two in that autograph line.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I race a Honda.

TEXTER: Sweet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She races a Yamaha.

TEXTER: One day I'll be getting your girls' autographs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yep.

GOLDMAN: Lest we forget, this is a dangerous sport. A flat tracker died in August. Texter crashed hard this season, flew over her bike's handlebars. Her manager says you could tell it hurt, but she wasn't going to show it - part of being a woman in a male-dominated sport. Texter went to a backup motorcycle and kept riding. American Flat Track hopes she does that for a long time. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.