DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Any list of all-time great motorcycle road racers is invariably stacked with converted dirt trackers.
In fact, during 500cc GP’s fondly remembered golden age — an era that stretched from the late ’70s to the late ’90s — riders lacking a significant flat track background were lucky to sniff the podium, let alone contend for championships.
Back in those days, no matter how refined a pure road racer’s technique, they’d eventually be forced to overcome the limits of traction in order to keep pace with the dual-threat legends. Superstars such as Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, and Wayne Rainey were most comfortable when the 500cc two-stroke monsters they rode smashed well past their designers’ intent and treated pavement as if it were dirt.
But following a two-decade run of American and Australian dominance at the pinnacle of the sport, technology finally did what no rivals could manage — it caught up.
Advancements across the board — tire, chassis, engine, and, most importantly of all, electronics — at last turned the tide back in the favor of the swooping European road racers. Sure, talented dirt trackers still rose through the ranks on occasion, but serious time spent honing chops around dirt ovals was no longer a prerequisite for Grand Prix excellence.
Old-school GP aficionados winced whenever they heard the new breed of MotoGP rider describe whacking the throttle open to let the computer decide how to best manage traction on corner exit. For a time it seemed the dirt tracker may be facing technological obsolescence, at least in a Grand Prix setting.
But in recent years, something wonderful has happened. The cycle is becoming complete. Continued technological progress has allowed for ever more nuanced electronics settings. And with that, the best of the best have once again turned to that elusive connection between wrist and rear tire in search of a decisive advantage in a digital age.
As a result, the connection between road racing and dirt track is enjoying a renaissance, and this time the relationship is more reciprocal. Beyond the traditional use of dirt track as a training ground for aspiring road racers, established megastars like Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez have renewed enthusiasm about taking their magical talents from the pavement to the dirt to further refine already inhuman skill sets.
Meanwhile, in the States, former dirt trackers are returning to their first love with increasing frequency, both to enhance their road racing skills and join the party as American Flat Track powers into a new golden age of its own.
The proof of this movement is rarely so obvious as it is at the series’ stops at TT venues, where road racers can exploit their advantages in negotiating left-and right-hand corners of varying radii. And never before has it been so obvious as it will be in this week’s 2018 AFT season opener — the Bigger, Better, and Faster Harley-Davidson TT presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys at Daytona — which boasts an entry list bursting with highly decorated road racers.
Perhaps chief among these big names is multi-time national champion J.D. Beach. Considered the odds-on favorite to secure another MotoAmerica Supersport title in 2018, Beach will also be looking to add to his AFT wins tally (currently at seven) this year.
A victory this week in Daytona would be his first in the premier AFT Twins presented by Vance & Hines class, although he demonstrated the potential to do exactly that when he turned up at last year’s AFT Twins season finale and promptly earned a place on the podium. Beach certainly comes into the DAYTONA TT in stellar form, having taken top honors in December’s Superprestigio Invitational Dirt Track in Spain.
Beach will be joined in Daytona by fellow Kentucky residents and MotoAmerica race winners Jake Lewis and Nick McFadden. Like Beach, MotoAmerica Superbike pilot Lewis is a multi-time MotoAmerica champion. And many expect up-and-comer McFadden to assemble a similar resume of his own in the years ahead after establishing himself a race winner and title contender in 2017. As for their flat track credentials, Lewis and McFadden boast nearly 30 dirt track amateur national titles between them. In other words, they aren’t coming to the tri-oval to merely make up the numbers.
Making a welcome return not only to dirt track but to Stateside competition of any kind is James Rispoli. Rispoli is yet another multi-time national champion road racer who currently ranks as a title favorite for the British Supersport crown. He was also a hotshot dirt tracker in his day. Rispoli racked up a bevy of AMA dirt track amateur national championships before working his way up the pro ranks. There he ultimately finished as runner-up to Brad Baker for the 2009 AFT Singles title with a Daytona Short Track win along the way. While the majority of his attention has since been spent on pavement, there should be no overlooking “The Rocket” on Thursday evening.
A number of other talented riders with impressive road racing resumes — former GP rider Steve Bonsey, AMA Harley-Davidson XR1200 race winner Shane Narbonne, and XR1200 and SuperSport podium finisher Eric Stump among them — will also be looking to cash in on their hybrid skills in the 2018 American Flat Track season opener.
There’s another AMA national champion road racer on the entry list, although he’s an unusual case. Unlike the aforementioned murderers row of combo riders, 2013 AMA SuperSport East Champ Corey Alexander comes into the Daytona TT lacking a dirt track background. Alexander’s story is more akin to those of the Spanish and Italian road racers who are now trying their hand on the dirt to expand their skill base.
While he lacks flat track competition experience, Alexander has sought out the expert tutelage of the versatile Johnny Lewis of 10Training to best prepare him for the challenge that awaits him under the lights.
While Daytona Int’l Speedway is indeed hallowed ground and hence a natural draw to America’s roadracers, the AFT opener is only one example of this building trend. Look for returning roadracers to make their presence felt in a major way throughout the year, with TT dominator Hayden Gillim and three-time Daytona 200 winner Danny Eslick (who’s busy this week hunting a fourth) to make multiple appearances as the season develops.