It was time to finally get onto a dirt track, something I dreamt of for a long time. Read about my aches, pains, thrills and spills.
As I sit here sore, tired, achy and in general pain while writing this, I think back over my weekend. I know tomorrow will be worse, as today I’m still moving on the adrenaline of my 700-mile return trip.
By the last main race, I could feel the exhaustion beginning to consume me. I was succumbing to the pain that caused my early exit from the lead position.
I entered in two races, meaning I had three practice sessions: two heat races and two mains. All of this was after 12 hours of flat track instruction the previous day. In that short amount of time, I packed my head with information and techniques, like learning how to crash...many times.
The morning of the race, however, I hid my pain in order to simply make the starting grid. I was determined. I still am. The moment I left that race, I wanted so badly to line back up and race again. I still do. As I write this, I’m jumping back and forth between my Word document and the open tab to Craigslist, searching for keywords like “small dirt bike,” “race,” and “flat track”.
This is my two-day journey from the couch to my first flat track race.
Couch to the Track, Day 1:
The idea was simple. I had lazed around on my couch and in my lonely garage for long enough. It was time to finally get onto a dirt track, something I dreamt of for a long time. I grew up auto racing, running in a small division of NASCAR, but I was forbidden from racing motorcycles due to a family tragedy.
One morning, Brian Bartlow called me after his email went unanswered for a few days. I told him my idea of following a journey to my first flat track race. I could feel his excitement through the phone as he told me about his program.
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You may recognize the name, but not from dirt. Bartlow started a track-bike rental program, known as Feel Like a Pro, renting Ninja 250/300s at local track days around Southern California. A former road racer, Bartlow originally began helping some friends work on their riding technique by lending out a couple Ninjas. It eventually evolved into the operation it is today.
It was the perfect plan. They were able to keep overhead low enough that even riders who had their own bikes couldn’t pass up the opportunity to thrash on someone else’s. He has since sold that program to his head mechanic and moved his family to Northern California, opening up Feel Like a Pro Dirt—a program targeted to teach dirt riding, along with a simultaneous track-bike rental program.
Only problem was his class was two days away when he called me and I had planned to attend The Quail Motorcycle Gathering. Located in Monterey Bay, it was 5.5 hours (the boring way), but still another 5 hours south of Bartlow’s compound.
Well, I could spend a weekend looking at museum pieces while sipping champagne with my pinkie out and talking to millionaires about shit I’ll never own, or get filthy, sweaty, and sore during a weekend of dirt riding. Yeah...
I was to visit Greg Anthony at Treasure Island, which is made up of old Navy barracks and is located off the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. His plan was to leave the next morning for a cross country trip to North Carolina. I was to ride a KTM 1190 to his place then switch for his Triumph Speed Triple. This would make his return trip easier as the KTM belonged to KTM, which is located outside of LA so his drop-off would be smoother.
Remember Greg’s trip? Read here:
On Friday, I arrived much later than planned (naturally). After a Super Mission St. Burrito and riding around for hours looking for a late-night auto parts store that carried jumper cables to start Greg’s dead Triumph, I left the next morning with only a few hours of sleep.
That's me in the blue.
I jammed north up the 101 at 6 am after spending an hour getting the bike running. The 10-year-old Speed Triple was fitted with Viking Bags universal saddle bags, which housed a Napier tent, my camera gear and clothes along with my full Alpinestars ADV suit.
Up until this point I’d only ridden Hwy 1/Hwy 101 south of San Francisco, but I had heard the northern route was the best part. The highway jumped into a series of fast curves as it entered the South Cow mountain range. Bartlow’s town, Kelseyville, was on the other side of the mountains, making it hard to reach. I turned off the highway onto a small two-lane road that eventually went up and over the mountain with some of the best, most remote twisties I’d encountered. I hoped this was alluding to a fun weekend of riding.
Down a country road in Kelseyville is a white picket fence in the front yard of a blue house hidden behind a row of trees. Bartlow’s property was up the shared driveway behind that house. The trees opened up to a field a few acres in size. The main compound is a mowed grassy area with a large, ornate doublewide trailer and tall, steel pop-up garage building with a paved entrance, which was to be my home for the night.
Bartlow came screeching up on a little golf cart, exiting it with a smile that rivaled the size of his property. “Park over there and get yourself unloaded. There’s plenty of water over there too. I’ll be right with you.” I was the first to arrive.
East of the garage and house is a small standing shed against the border of trees that marks the property line to another empty field. On the other side of the shed was the track.
This was a complicated and technical track, which is made up of tight turns, switchbacks and long straights, all housed inside of a 1/8-mile oval, with scattered bails of hay and sprinklers throughout.
Bartlow’s wife and two toddlers were inside the house making lunch for the day, along with the junior racer, his teenage son. Far removed from the world, with acres of riding area and a tight knit family, I envied Bartlow’s life.
The compound was like a dream.
Our Kawasaki’s were lined up on the edge of the track, similar to a meet-and-greet session with racers before a race. Mostly Kawasaki KLX140L’s (140cc dirt bikes) with a couple 250s, at least one dual-sport bike and finally Bartlow’s personal race bike on a stand center stage.
The clouds overhead opened up as sun shined down on Bartlow’s KX450. Suddenly, I could hear his bike as it were far off in the distance, flying around the track-then I realized that was just Bartlow sliding through the gravel in the golf cart behind me, rushing to come welcome me to his class, who had now all arrived.
After introductions, we began to stretch. A practice that has become one of the biggest improvements to my own riding. I now stretch the night before, in the pits, and even the staging area. I look like a complete jackass squatting beside racers lined up in the staging area, but I don’t care.
We started with basic body position, probably the second most important lesson. Seeing the sexy pictures of riders sliding with their tongue out may throw you off. Some bikes appear to have a body position similar to road racing , but that’s the exact opposite of what we were learning today. Well, body position depends on several factors: the bike, the track, corner exit, corner entrance, etc.
How to Ride: Body Position
In the simplest form, you want to throw the bike away from you and into the corner. This was for our style, which involved short track riding on Kawasaki KLX 140s. You don’t want the front tire to actually steer like a car, but instead make the bike turn from its lean angle. Unlike the road racing body position where you lean off the bike, in an attempt to center out the tire and steer, here you want the most amount of lean angle as possible. Your body needs to remain on top of the bike, on the outside of the corner. The rear tire will step out. As the tire steps out, find the perfect time to add throttle input as you lean back into the seat, and pull the bike out of the corner.
Now many of the body position photos I’ve seen have been blue groove and short track photos, two seemingly opposite ways of riding in the same sport. These can confuse you. See, a short track you want that slide in a corner. But on a large, hard packed blue groove (and if you’re reading this, than you probably won’t be riding a blue groove track anytime soon, neither will I), you want a more sportbike style riding, because you have the grip there to handle it. With short track, loose dirt riding, you don’t have said grip.
Get your outside elbow up, inside arm almost straight. Imagine a very drastic way of holding a pool cue. This can only really be achieved when the bike is laid over into the corner. “Holding the grip like a screw driver,” said Bartlow. “Head over the handlebar.” In this instance, your body is positioned onto the outside corner, up onto the tank. Outside toe on the edge of the peg, knee into the tank, with inside foot out and into the dirt.
In simple terms, and how I interpreted it, your body wants to load the front tire entering the turn, similar to trail braking in road racing, BUT! You want to do this with your body, not the brakes, because you don’t have brakes. Oh, did I forget something? Flat track bikes don’t have front brakes (for our class session we had front brakes, but during the racing, they were removed).
Exiting the corner, you want the bike to hook. Get that power to the ground, by loading the rear tire, leaning your body backward. Keep your butt on the seat, don’t shift around too much, but lean back and twist it...just not too hard. Exiting the corner, “you can start to come around, you can start to let off lean angle,” said Bartlow. “As the bike starts to stand up, you’ll come up onto the seat.”
I laid the bike down about oh, I don’t know, maybe 12 or 352 damn times that day. Mostly due to too much throttle exiting the corner. The first time I jumped to my feet, to watch a cloud of dust I threw onto Brian’s feet, as he stood on the edge of the track. I looked at him for a quick and firm lesson as to the mistake I just made. Instead, I received a loud, enthusiast shout of excitement.
“But I laid it down…”
“That’s good, it shows you’re aggressive. So use it! Get back up and let’s go!” He screamed.
There was little time for phrases like, “see what your classmate did here was...” or “let’s take a moment to run some more scenarios on the dry erase board over there.”
Instead it was about riding. And riding. And then some more riding. Brian spent special one-on-one time with the students who needed it, but for guys like myself and the motocross riders, our lessons were shrunk into shouts from the inside of a corner.
“That’s it, now get on the gas! Yeah!”
“Stay off that brake!”
“Get your elbow up!” he’d shout while slapping his elbow.
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It was a lot to take in, but there was little time to sit, reflect and overthink what you were doing. Brian would give you some basics and send you out. This shook some of the fear out of many of the riders, including myself. No time to think about what not to do, but to simply attempt to build the muscle memory of it all. Thinking isn’t as important as simply feeling the bike’s rights and wrongs. The sensation of sliding, entering a corner too slow or more importantly, what it feels like to slide too much or enter a corner too fast.
“First timers, they do pretty good, it’s just getting them to get confident enough,” said Brian about his less experienced students. “It takes them all day to realize the tires will stick. If they have good body position the bike will stick.”
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.
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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.
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?
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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.