My left leg is dragging the ground. I am sitting as high and as upright as possible on the tank. The motorcycle leaning on my inside thigh with the handlebar pushed down. Every basic riding school teaches you not to ride like this. Despite that, there is a wide smile spread across my face. I come out of the final corner with the tail out. This is no ordinary riding school. Harley-Davidson India brought the Di Traverso School to India to teach us how to go flat tracking. And we were not messing about on some tricked out small two-strokes for training. We trained and raced (for fun) flat track prepped Street Rods by Rajputana Customs at the John Singh Speedway (JSS) in Jaipur.
For those who are not well versed with the sport, flat track racing is a discipline of motorsport that began in Europe but really took a shining in the US of A. Racers take to a flat piece of land with the races run on dirt, hence the term flat track racing. The regulatory body for flat track racing in the states – the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) Pro Racing – has defined the circuits on the basis of length with specific restrictions to the kind of motorcycles you can race on them. The smallest oval circuit of them is the Short Track (ST) on which single and twin cylinder motorcycles race. The max length of the circuit is 0.4miles (643m). Then you have the Half Mile and the Mile. As the name suggests the circuit length is in the region of the half mile and a full mile, with only left turns. You also have the TT course, which involves right corners as well and depending on the venue, mounds or jumps as well. These latter three circuits have little restriction as to the type of motorcycle that you can race on them.
The John Singh Speedway is of the ST classification. It is nearly 300m in length. And it may seem like task of constructing a flat track circuit is pretty simple but it slightly more tedious than it looks. Firstly, you need the land, obviously. In this case, Vijay Singh Ajairajpura, the founder of Rajputana Customs and the man behind the JSS, sought help from his father for the land. Vijay was keen to get motorsport going in Jaipur and having a permanent motocross facility was not economically viable. That’s when the idea struck them to build a flat track. In order to actually build a track, they got the land and with landscaping and levelling done to even out the entire land, the flat track was ready. But there were still two crucial elements missing. Dirt and Oil. Dirt for obvious reasons, duh! You need nearly 25,000 litres of oil to blend in and mix with the soil to form a designated course. They make do with used motor oil abroad but Vijay’s father had objections to it. Being an organic cultivator, he insisted they make use of organic oil instead of motor oil. They found a retailer in Ghaziabad who would provide them with 25,000 litres of organic soyabeansoapstock oil to start the building process. And within a couple of months the track was ready to rip.
What about machines?
The track was ready but they still needed motorcycles to actually go do flat tracking. Their MX bikes were unsuitable for the task as they would just end up spewing dirt uncontrollably, not advisable for track sustenance. They approached Harley-Davidson India to help them in their venture. Harley is the top dog of American flat track racing with numerous titles to their name. Their XR range of motorcycles is the most successful in flat track history. Thus, with an initiative like this, Harley had to get involved. In fact, not only did they provide Vijay with a motorcycle to modify, they also lent their expertise at the subject to make sure the motorcycle was built to the correct spec. And thus at the 2017 India Bike Week, Vijay kept the crowds on their toes as he kept his tail wagging on his prepped Street 750.
It piqued curiosity of most present to witness the motorcycle and I certainly wanted to have a go on the motorcycle. Harley promised me that there was something bigger in the pipeline; we would surely get to ride the motorcycle. What was it? I just could not wait.
Di Traveso School in India
I kept myself abreast of any hints or inclination of the day we would get to ride the Street 750 flat tracker. Ironically, a day before I travelled to Delhi to learn how to build Harley’s latest big V-twin motor – the Milwaukee-Eight 107 – I get to know that Harley was going to organise a proper flat track school for us noobs. Wise decision, as they did not want us to go scurrying into the barricades, wrecking both the motorcycle as well as ourselves.
Harley knows their stuff. They did not mess about and brought in one of the best flat track instructors of the world to India. Meet Marco Belli and Alessandro Pagani, the heads at the Italian Di Traverso School of flat tracking. Read the box for a brief info on the man – Marco Belli. We would need more motorcycles and Harley had been gracious enough to provide Rajputana with four Street Rods to build them to a near identical spec to the Street 750. We were split into two batches, considering there were 40 of us and it would be utter pandemonium if Professor Belli had to control us all in a single go. I was drawn in the morning batch which meant the training would take place in cooler conditions; only downside was waking up at 4 am. As pumped as I was, early rising has been my Achilles’ heel. I almost missed the cabs on the second day. Sorry, Harley.
Growing up in Pune, I have been to numerous MX events with dad, being able to the capture the emotions close-up. I had picked up on the riding styles as the riders sat as forwards as possible with their arms arched up and throwing the bars down. When I turned 16, I got my first ride and used to ride my beloved Honda Dio with a similar body position. Few months into being the terror on the road, I had my senses knocked into me with a nasty crash, covering my limbs in bruises. Wearing helmets was paramount and I adhered to it dutifully. Over the next couple of years, I became more conscious of road riding and how to position my body differently. I was also privileged to do a proper track riding school which almost negated most of my wrongdoings on the motorcycle.
Marco began his classroom and it was the absolute opposite to what I had removed from my system. He told us to sit as high as possible on the tank when we needed to corner. Arch our arms up to push the bars and thus the bike into the corner. The inside leg should be perpendicular to the motorcycle and not stretched out at the front like MX riders as we needed it to control the slide and not load the front. With no front brakes, yes no front brakes, the only way to control the speed was as you guessed it – the throttle. You thought the rear brakes? They are just to control your slides by tapping them gently. Lastly, every riding school teaches this to you and this one is no different. Look where you want to go. If we saw the hay bale at the exit of the corners, we would definitely go into them. There is no runoff here like track racing.
To get us comfortable with this riding style and get over the fear of no brakes, we had a whole day of slalom riding ahead of us. The first slalom drill was just to get our body posture right. Marco and Alessandro were on hand, observing keenly and constantly shouting out instructions to correct ourselves. I was more than happy to revisit my early days of riding. I felt comfortable pushing the bike down and was getting the hang of it pretty quickly. At the end of the slaloms though was a complete 180-degree turn which was intended to get us accustomed to looking at the inside of the corner. I had a bit of trouble in the opening couple of tries. I was either looking too much into the corner or not looking inside at all, not getting the ideal drive out. Marco spotted this and called me out to keep my eyes on where he stood. Three runs in and I was getting a nice drive out with the tail stepping out of line. Marco egged me on.“Gas! Gas! Gas!,” he shouted in a typical Italian accent. As the rear kept sliding, a wide smile emerged each time the tail stepped out.
As great as this was, it was just the beginning of good times. Marco forbade us from using the left hand for the next slalom drill. This would just help us loosen our upper body, ridding us of any unwanted stiffness which could unsettle the motorcycle while cornering. But it also meant riding without the clutch. Now,I had practised riding without the clutch on multiple occasions in Pune, so this was not going to be a big issue for me. Not to toot my own horn but I was flying through the section. Given my progress, Marco matched me grin for grin.
The final slalom drill was to get our leg out and try to force the rear out with the body rather than mechanical drive. The cones were spaced out further for faster and wider runs. This drill would come in handy when undertaking a TT course race as one would have to tackle both left and right turns. I just loved the sensation of the bike sliding with me calm and composed, rather than flustered.
Professor Belli then took us back into the classroom for some basic tips on how to go around an oval. Instead of looking at course as an oval it would serve us better to take it as a quadrilateral with four distinct points of operation. The outside part at the middle of the straights was to be taken as the marker for our bikes to be extremely upright and throttled pinned to the max. When aiming for the upcoming bend we should have the bike bent over as much as possible at the middle of the bend with the throttle absolutely shut. The throttle transitions should be as smooth as possible for a faster lap, no jerkiness which may cause unwanted weight transfer. We were also told to judge the situation and find our own style.
Honestly speaking, if we had not done those drills, we would have just shot across the track and into the thorny bushes that were growing in front of the barbed wire that demarcated the periphery of the property. That would not have been a pretty sight. As instructed, the first laps were spent in checking out the condition of the track as an early morning drizzle meant there were still many damp patches. One should not try to slide on such surfaces as the rear won’t find any traction and just slide the bike from under you. Too much loose sand at the middle of the turn was also not beneficial as you would wash the front inadvertently.
I had found my rhythm and was getting faster lap after lap. However, just seven (or was it eight) laps into the session, my left thigh started throbbing. A couple of laps later, I had to stop it as the pain was starting to increase. And I must have ridden for barely 15 minutes. That is the thing with flat track riding as you drag and lean and slide, your body is constantly moving and working. It saps the energy from you pretty quickly. I called it a day as we had another day to go.
Noob to podium
Marco had us practising our starts on the second day. Finding the right balance between slip and traction is the key in a good launch. Too aggressive a launch and you keep on spinning on the spot. Too soft on the throttle and you lose time. Little did we know that we would be racing each other. Just my luck that I drew with Harley’s Vijay Thomas (yes, he’s also Vijay. Let us call him VT for the rest of the story) who had been on the track couple of instances prior to this. Yes, there were all excuses locked and loaded in case I lost (I was getting into the whole racer spirit). Lady luck though was on my side as VT overcooked it in the penultimate corner and slipped. I took victory and followed it up with another one to move on to the semis. Vijay Singh’s uncle, Kunal, also trained in our batch and he had a bit of racing background. He literally whooped my arse. Thankfully in the heat for third I managed to get the better of fellow journo Sherman Nazareth. I finished on the podium! Yes! As rewards, Marco presented the podium finishers with ‘Di Traveso’ caps, something that I will cherish greatly. Batch two got the Maa-rco trophies (local cacti that Marco himself had planted).
All this was great but what does it translate going forward. Where does this head now? What are the plans? I got chatting with the boss at Harley, Peter McKenzie, who himself kicked up some dirt given his MX background. I enquired as to how Harley goes from here to cultivate the sport. He said, “The first step is taken and everyone who is going away will spread the great word about it. The second step is starting to work with our dealer network and have them engage with customers and have opportunities for their customers to come and try flat tracking. You really have to experience it to appreciate it and I think everyone here today is walking away with such a high buzz that it is really the next thing.”
Vijay tells me that he is building up the facility to begin the country’s first flat track racing event. “We have been speaking to the FMSCI, taking their guidance for some time. God willing, if everything goes to plan, we should have a flat track association formed this year and a national one-make championship running Harleys by the end of this year.” And that just gives me great impetus to return back to JSS, train harder and win the Maa-rco. Let’s do it again soon, Vijay and VT!
BOX: Professor Marco Belli
Belli is the man who helped a certain nine-time Italian MotoGP champion to build his ranch in Tavullia with a full-fledged flat track course. Yes, he taught Valentino Rossi the nuance of going sideways. Belli has raced and won multiple times in Europe and America and currently also trains the VR46 riders when they arrive at the ranch for the first time.Belli runs the Di Traverso School in Italy where eager participants learn the correct steps to go sideways. Di Traverso literally means ‘crosswise’ and like Marco says, “In Dust We Trust.” Words to live by, I guess.
BOX: Get flat tracking!
Why should you be eager to have a go? A couple of reasons. First and foremost, who does not love a slide. Learning to control the motorcycle with the rear going in the opposite direction of your intention just looks damn cool and you feel like Josh Herrin. Secondly, it teaches you throttle control. Dirt helps you become smoother with on/off throttle transitions. This helps you remain comfortable in the saddle. There is no ruckus created by the motorcycle. Thirdly, it is cheap. Cheap to participate and organise. A setup should take a minimum of 10 lakh rupees which is pennies compared to making a circuit. Motorcycle builds also are not that expensive. Just tune it right and with dirt tyres you are ready to begin. Lastly, MotoGP riders do flat tracking in their off time. It helps them find the limits of grip and traction which come in handy during last lap situations when the tyre is completely gone and you are fighting for every inch of space. For us mere mortals, it would come in handy during our erratic monsoon. You will learn the limits of traction and braking in slippery conditions. Your reactions will sharpen up.