The exciting Part 2 of Jesse Kiser's journey from couch to Flat Track race.
I did a lot of things wrong, the result of which was obvious: crashing. But what caused the crashes was harder to understand.
“Body position! The road racers don’t want to get the elbows up and sit on the right side of the bike. They want to get down,” said Brian Bartlow over the phone. I was reverting back to a road racing body position when I began to get tired.
“We caught you doing that a couple times...you did good and you listened, but when you got really aggressive or started getting tired, you started to put your butt in, you wanted to dip in like you wanted to put your knee in almost. That’s what a lot of the road racers do,” said Brian.
Our class consisted of a mixed group and I was in the middle; shifting between the slow and fast group throughout the day. There was a young student who planned a research trip to South America, during which she was going to be off-road riding despite not having any more experience than a manual transmission car. A large group of early-30s motocross and adventure racers were the faster guys.
One thing that I didn't even know I was doing right was scrubbing speed. Really fast guys will use the front tire to slow down despite the lack of a front brake. Sliding the front tire the wrong way will correct the path of the bike and slow you down. But as a beginner, you will rarely enter a corner too fast and need to know that skill.
My classmates became friends as we gathered around for Mrs. Bartlow’s amazing homemade lunch and shakes. She’d come out of the house with her youngest and watched from the golf cart. We laughed and told stories of riding, along with our difficulties from the day.
At the end of the day, winners were declared, but they only received that quick moment of bragging rights as we all cheered and hugged our goodbyes. I was again middle of the pack. The sun was disappearing at this point and so was my energy. As I got changed for the night and showered off, Brian loaded the truck for the next day.
His family was nice enough to lend me toiletries to get cleaned up before I ventured into town for a quick dinner. When I returned I snuggled onto the couch in the shop and immediately fell asleep.
Brian’s excitement was most apparent when we started racing against his stopwatch. He’d set up a weird, unique and technical track through a series of turns he’d pick seemingly off the top of his head. He definitely had the track layout to do that.
Midday and into the evening, he’d let the sprinklers run wide open, but did not move them. I quickly discovered why—he’d flood one part of the track, while the other side may be dry. At the end of a long straight was a water pit, then only a few feet before you were into the tightest corner. This meant once your tire was filled with mud, you had to jam on the rear brake and make the corner, completely throwing you off your game. I’d been accustomed to how the bike handled, but mid-lap everything would change. This resulted in many more spills, which resulted in less than stellar lap times.
I awoke and looked out the stained window of the dark garage just long enough to take a deep breath before my iPhone alarm buzzed for me to wake up. My hope this morning was to beat Brian awake, get myself packed and persuade him to let me help. I was also hoping to impress him with my work ethic, but sadly as I peered out the window, I saw him milling around the house. He appeared to have been awake for at least an hour already.
I rolled off the small couch as my body popped and pinged like an old, loaded trailer behind a pickup truck. I sat there for a moment trying to pinpoint the pain to no avail. I was hurting all over.
I limped over to my bag and downed my last ibuprofen. I limped around the calm and dark garage trying to flex the muscles in my legs—my inside leg was stiffer than the couch I had just slept on. I was determined to hide my limp the best I could out of fear that Brian would make me sit out on my first race. I was determined to race today and I wasn’t going to let my body hold me back.
The bikes and gear were all loaded and ready by the time I finished getting myself up and packed. I was to leave straight from the track and make it as many miles back to LA as I could before falling asleep from the already too-long weekend. Work was tomorrow and home was 700 miles away.
Nestled between the Howling Dog Cafe and a used car dealership is a dirt road that could be confused for that of the Lakeport Drive-In. A tiny sign hanging from the fence tells you it’s Delbert’s Memorial Raceway.
Down the 1/4-mile dirt road is a grass field with an early 1900s house, on the other side of the field is the track. From the outside, it was hard to tell the exact banking. Sitting against the tree line, it featured one small set of bleachers and a tiny shed that could be confused for an outhouse: this is where you paid your entry fee to the Nor Cal Short Track Association.
Working for a motorcycle publication has its perks, but is sometimes accompanied by drawbacks. If you’re ever riding and inform someone you’re an editor, they immediately become determined to test their skills against yours. The title "Editor" creates the assumption that you know everything about the subject you’re writing about and that you’re prolifically skilled at that subject, which is rarely the truth.
Of course, Bartlow made an announcement that I was a hotshot reporter from LA. So I stood there with an awkward smile as 50 locals turned to examine me all at once. I could hear a record screeching to a halt somewhere in the distance.
I knew this would mean I had a bullseye on my back for the rest of the day. Racers would race me harder and fans would watch me more.
Continue the ride on Page 2 below
This day I was on a Kawasaki with an epic 140ccs of power. In a parking lot or dealership floor, the 140 feels laughably small for my 6’3 frame. But lined up in the staging area, it felt huge. The view through your helmet is restricted, like a horse with blinders. But despite the fact that you couldn’t often see the crowd, flagmen or other racers, you felt their eyes upon you.
I’d teamed up with Dakota Galvan, the 16-year-old apprentice from yesterday’s school. Despite him being half my age, he had more flat track experience than I; however, to my comfort, he felt just as much intimidation about the day that was to follow.
Dakota has a sweet gig. He's a family friend and he’d been running back and forth throughout the day, grabbing gear and bikes for Brian as he taught. He was a young kid, sweeping the floor in exchange for seat time. He’d hang out in the back of the class, learning and then riding.
He was to be my companion for the day as he’d been to the track before. He was also my most fierce competitor. We rode out to the staging area together not knowing what was going on. After a few slaps on the arm from the flag man and a few screams of disapproval, we finally started to get the hang of it right as practice ended. So, I wasn’t exactly over prepared for my first race.
Dakota racing on one of Bartlow's bikes.
Our first race was fun because there was little to no pressure. We were also grossly outgunned and out-skilled. 140 Formula allowed for modifications and saw the likes of racers such as the Miller brothers, a semi-professional flat track team, along with one of the track workers who called this place his home. There were three of us on stocker 140cc bikes who made up the end of the field, and luckily our races were too short for us to get lapped. I didn't view it as a race, but as an aggressive practice. It gave me more seat time before my actual race, the 150 Beginner.
The 150 Beginner class was something Brian had cooked up to encourage more people to come to the races and, in turn, help his own business. As anyone (of basically any age) could now show up to the race, pay Brian a small fee, and race. No special licenses were required and there was no need to watch over your shoulder for veterans bullying you out of the way, cussing you as they passed.
I had the chance to win this one. The field was an eclectic mix of people and bikes. Three of us used Brian’s stocker Kawas, one of his former female students was riding a smaller Suzuki (she was fast, but just slightly underpowered), another female on a smaller Honda, along with a couple other younger guys.
The woman on the Honda was difficult to pass during the morning practice. She’d hold her line, despite me sometimes taking it from her, and did a good job of bullying me out of my spot, while I was too ill confident to take it back. I was also scared I’d wreck her in an attempt. I didn’t pass because I’m a nice guy, right?
My Main Race
Brian had us do something in his school that I’d never done in another class before: We practiced hot starts. Lining up on the dirt, he’d drop a flag and scream to go. Come race day, it paid off as I quickly jumped to the lead. Without any look to my side or behind me I charged into the first corner. A mix up behind allowed me to open up a good lead. I was charging hard.
Halfway through the race I slipped hard coming out of Turn 4 and lost good ground, allowing another Bartlow rental bike to sneak under me, along with two other riders. I was jumped back into line and slowly started making my way upward once again. Within maybe a lap—I’m not totally sure, it was hard to recall exactly what happened when—I found myself charging too hard on the gas too early exiting Turn 4 again. I ventured into the loose dirt and busted my butt as I watched the rest of the field pass me.
Here's Dakota racing in another mini class. We were seemingly in this newbie-racer thing together.
I kept looking over my shoulder as I entered turns, every time accidently and unknowingly shifting my body weight and throwing myself off course. Brian said he was frustrated watching me as he noticed I did this far too often. I had the victory, but I took it away from myself.
My adrenaline was still pumping as I rushed the bike to the infield and immediately started kicking the now flooded engine. I got it running again and charged back onto the track as I entered mid pack, but one lap down. I caught the white flag my next time by.
I was sorely disappointed with my finish. It felt like an anti-climatic way to end such a weekend, but it was far from a boring conclusion. As much as I had anticipated backlash and rivalries towards this "hotshot reporter from LA" persona Brian had established for me earlier, it turned out that I had nothing to worry about. After my fall from grace, every passerby to those in Bartlow’s pits stopped me for a pat on the back, and offered me a cold beer along with a smile. One at a time, people would stop to make sure this wasn’t going to deter me from returning to flat track. It hasn’t.
The Track, The People, The Racing
This track, while seemingly more dysfunctional than most, was set up like any other amateur flat track across the nation. The woman collecting your money was also the scorekeeper, who was probably married to the flagman whose cousin was racing, whose son-in-law helped clean up bikes off the track… this was a small, family-and-friend type of operation.
But with the joint efforts, came a combined sense of pureness about the sport. Like an army, we were all there for a common goal. While I was initially intimidated by not being a local, no one truly cared, or if they did, they didn’t act upon it. It didn’t matter the bike, the rider, the age, the demographic, social class or riding style, it was about riding in its most primal form.
Last week I called Brian: “So, did you ever forgive yourself for losing the lead and crashing?” This was the first thing he asked me. “Well, I did until you reminded me just now,” was my response.
Brian surrounds himself with positivity. If he finds himself around negative energy, he quickly and aggressively overpowers it with his own positivity and then leaves before waiting around to see if the situation is still negative.
Brian would let you experience the wrong way to do something, often on your own. If you walked into his class with attitude or questioned his methods, he’d let you figure out those mistakes a little more. There was no negativity to be had in his class.
He reminded me of a man I once worked for, a type of personality you may already know—someone who walks around a crowd of people slapping backs and high-fiving everyone as though they were long lost friends, while in actuality, they were simply acquaintances. The person just wanted to surround themselves with "friends," real or not. Brian was not like this. Everyone at the track seemed to know and like Brian: former students, fierce competitors, old friends and local business owners. It was an overall exciting and raw experience.
How it Works
Feel Like A Pro one day class costs $249 (if you use his bike, cheaper if you bring your own), and race day rental costs $125 plus race fees.