Of all the forms of motorcycle competition, flat-track racing is one of the oldest, and to this day, one of the most dangerous. Motorcycles flying around horse tracks at triple-digit speeds leave little room for error. When things go wrong, they can go terribly wrong.
That was the case last September in the American Flat Track National at the Santa Rosa Mile in Northern California. There two talented up-and-coming young racers, Charlotte Kainz and Kyle McGrane, died in separate GNC2 class accidents. Then in April of this year, another leading young talent, Jamison Minor, was involved in a multi-bike accident on the first lap of the AFT Singles race during an event at The Dirt Track at Charlotte. He succumbed to his injuries the next day.
American Flat Track officials have been looking into ways to improve safety in flat-track racing. They are coming up with new ideas as well as expanding on safety measures that have already been in place for years.
It’s generally acknowledged that the biggest single safety improvement in recent decades has been the implementation of air barriers.
Defending American Flat Track champion Bryan Smith claims he’s seen it all during his days of racing, from times racing as an amateur where just a handful of hay bales were brought out to protect riders from the outer fences or guardrails. He sees a new attitude with the current management of American Flat Track.
“With what we have to work with right now, I think AFT is actually trying to make it better,” Smith said. “Jamison Minor’s crash could have happened to anyone, anywhere. I was happy to see when we went to Arizona and Sacramento that they put in a temporary fix for a problem we’ve always looked the other way with and that’s the white rail fence that goes around both tracks. We’re going past posts at 100 mph, so they brought in sheets of plywood to cover the posts. It’s not a safety barrier, but it’s better than hitting the pole. I was happy they did that because it shows they care. In the past we would complain, or talk about safety and it wouldn’t go anywhere.”
Former Grand National champ Brad Baker has been giving back to the sport by conducting training classes for young riders.
“Maybe some tragedies can be avoided by teaching young riders to be more patient,” Baker said. “You know, they might think things through clearly before making a move on another rider. So there are things we can help young riders understand. It’s OK to be aggressive, but not too aggressive.”
While on the surface it seems options for safety improvements in flat track are limited, American Flat Track’s CEO Michael Lock doesn’t see it that way.
“There’s a lot that can be done, in fact, almost a limitless number of things,” Lock said. “So, what we’ve done is we’ve tried to break it down into all the variables that we can see that affect track safety, which goes beyond the obvious things like preparation and maintenance of the track surface. Beyond that into our paddock community.
“So we made some changes between the 2016 and ’17 seasons. One was that we redefined the two classes of racing,” Lock said. “We separated the twins racing from the singles racing to have a clearly defined entry class and senior class. What that did is it took away the pressure from the very young and less experienced riders to be racing on some of these very challenging circuits on very powerful, heavy machinery, and let them have their entry into the sport in a more controlled way. That was one thing that was relatively easy to do.
“Second is we raised the minimum age to be able to compete on twins in the senior class to 18 from 16,” Lock added. “Again, to give a smoother path, less pressure on the riders.”