As I write this, I’m still feeling the effects of learning the basics of motorcycle control on dirt. Just four hours with American Supercamp and I’m more obsessed with two-wheel death machines than ever before. Sure, some of my muscles feel like I’ve been on the Zac Efron ‘Roid Rage workout regimen for a few weeks straight, but the soreness only serves as a reminder of how much fun I had, and motivation to get back out there to further strengthen those muscles.
(Full Disclosure: American Supercamp wanted me to come out and ride so badly that they arranged for traffic on I-10 East to clear out on the day I was attending so it only took me 45 minutes to get there instead of the usual hour and half. They comped the day’s attendance fee, provided gear, stuck me on a dirtbike with a full tank of gas and did their best to make sure I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else.)
American Supercamp is officially billed as a “flat track training school”, but there’s really much more to it than just learning how to slide a motorcycle on dirt. With stops all around the country it’s really more like a traveling circus than a school, but there is no doubt their style of instruction works. The vibe is loose, with the staff happily cracking jokes at each others expense, and motivating you through good natured heckling.
The cost of attending varies by location, but from what I found it’s generally between $500-$675. Not bad for two days of intensive instruction in a small group, especially since bikes, gear and lunch are all provided.
When I was invited to come out to experience a heavily condensed version of the two-day school, sliding around a corner by executing a perfect drift was the first image that flashed through my mind. This was immediately followed by an image of me high-siding and going over the bars, due to the fact that I had no real experience with motorcycles. I played a-lot of MX vs ATV Unleashed back in the day, but that’s about the extent of it.
I arrived at the City Of Industry Expo Center in the imaginatively named City Of Industry, half an hour east of Downtown Los Angeles, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. At the professional level, races are held on mile, half mile or “short tracks” depending on the venue and type of race. Mile and half mile races see the use of custom built twin cylinder bikes that make 90+ horsepower and can exceed 140 mph.
The camp, on the other hand, uses the dirt “arenas” that are common at event centers around the country, and the “track” you start out on is a small oval roughly the size of a basketball court outlined by bales of hay. As they day goes on, the instructors make it bigger and re-shape it as they see fit to better challenge riders.
For ease of movement, and because you will get dirty, motocross gear is the suggested attire, but you could wear your motorcycle leathers if you wanted to. Boots and gloves are musts, which you’d think to be obvious to anyone with preservation of extremities in mind, but you’d be surprised. Knee and elbow pads are optional, I opted out for better range of motion, not to mention comfort. While they only have full face motocross helmets, you could wear an open face helmet of your own with sunglasses. Bottom line, you can bring all your own gear, short of a bike.
To keep things consistent and safe, the camp uses Yamaha 125 dirt bikes. Yeah, that’s what you ride at American Supercamp—a little bike, with low displacement, and you don’t need anything more, especially if you’re new to riding. Think about the rich kid(s) from high school and what happened to the WRX STI or S4 they were given as their first car. Didn’t end well, did it? Even if you’re an experienced rider, there is much to be gained from this experience, especially in terms of technique.
Slowing everything down allows you to focus on creating good habits, which is the basis of being successful in any sort of motorsport. Driving a slower car at the limit of your abilities is more fun than a faster car at 5/10ths, and I believe it when I’m told the same applies when you’re on two wheels. The indestructible little Yamaha has plenty of power to give you an enjoyable sensation of speed, but more importantly it won’t bite you when you screw up, well, too hard anyway. I got through the day without incident, but I can’t say the same for everyone.
I laid the bike down on the same damn corner a few times because I was trying too hard to achieve the maximum “cool guy sliding” look, but with some words of encouragement from flat track racing legend Chris Carr, I fixed my posture and got far better slides than I would have thought possible at the outset of the day. Take note that I said that I fixed my posture, not how fast I would approach the corner, or the angle of the bike, or the position of the front tire. Posture is everything in flat track riding and getting it right required throwing out what I thought I knew about proper two wheel technique.
For starters, the last thing you want is raise your center of gravity when you’re on two wheels, especially on a loose surface on which you plan to go sideways, so the upright posture, chest poked out, shoulders pinned back, that was the first thing I had to let go of. Instead of sitting like mother superior is watching, you should be sitting like it’s Saturday and you’re a six pack deep on the couch watching the Longhorns blow another game.
This lowers your center of gravity and serves to relax your body overall, which is essential to being smooth, which is essential to being fast. If you’ve ever had some track instruction in a car, you’ve probably heard the expression “smooth is fast, fast is smooth” and that applies to flat track riding as well.
To the casual observer it might seem like a violent sequence of events repeated lap after lap, come into a corner at full tilt, off the throttle, hard on the rear brake, shove bike sideways, straighten bike out, hard on throttle. You can go about it that way, as there is no “right way” to ride flat track, but there is a more efficient way, and that’s what you’re taught at American Supercamp. Once you get the hang of it, any notion of violence is washed away and it becomes clear that it’s waltzing, not breakdancing. You come into a corner hot, roll off the throttle, roll onto the rear brake, shift your weight to the outside of the seat, let the bike slide, straighten out, roll back on the throttle and that’s it, that’s all there is to it.
If that sounds easy, that’s because it is, going counterclockwise, with both hands on the bars, at low speeds, on a low powered bike, on a small oval loop. The camp isn’t in the business of making you feel like a badass on two wheels; they’re in the business of instilling good habits, and turning you into an actual badass on two wheels.
To that end, we did counterclockwise riding, which forces you to keep your “brace leg” up on the bike so you can use the rear footbrake, because you sure as shit do not want to use the front brake, unless you want to see how high in the air the bike can toss you. Our merciless instructors further pushed us out of our comfort zones by making us ride with one hand on the gas cap, both clockwise and counterclockwise. If you want to find out how strong your core is this is a damn good way to do so. I still don’t know how I managed to keep the bike under me through the one-handed drills, but I suspect that’s a bit part of why my legs are still so damn sore.
The day wrapped up too soon for my liking, right as I really felt like I was seeing the picture clearly, as much as I could can after a few hours anyway. However, we did go out with a bang, lapping a larger course in the shape of a U. Being asked to lean both left and right in one lap and kick the bike up into third gear around a big sweeper was the fix my competitive, speed addicted brain was looking for.
Going wheel to wheel with pros, as well as up-and-coming amateurs on the larger course, filled me with the late surge of adrenaline needed to finish the day on a high note, and I can’t stop thinking about how much I want to get back out there.
I know I wasn’t going all that fast, and I know that I barely scratched the surface of riding technique, but that doesn’t matter because I had a blast doing it.
Flat-track racing is essentially the art of mastering the panic associated with low traction and then getting back up to speed. The old refrain that an incident on a bike isn’t matter of if but when is never far from my mind. Even after just one afternoon of instruction, I feel better equipped to face whatever that incident may be.
Andrew Maness is a creative type who is especially good with words, photography, and video. Not much of a painter though. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @theroadlessdriven on Instagram.