Imagine driving faster than you ever have before. Not on a straight, dry road, but curving dirt. Then picture that you’re not on four wheels, but two.
There are no bright white lines separating traffic, and everyone around you is working hard to get somewhere very quickly. Dust cakes your eyes, and those behind are aggressively trying to pass. Sandy grit forms in your mouth mixing with the oil and gasoline fumes from your bike. A chunk of hot metal is fastened to the bottom of your boot, which happens to be sliding along the ground in a controlled skid, supporting you and your bike. You’re doing 140 miles per hour around a mile-long track at one of the oldest motorcycling sports venues in the world, the Springfield Mile in Illinois. This is American Flat Track motorcycle racing.
Flat track racing has been around for a long time, over 100 years, and it’s enjoying a sort of renaissance these days. After some years of decline, sponsorships are picking up and even network coverage is getting really good, especially in digital formats and distribution. What has never changed, though, is the community of these racers, their dedication to the sport, and the excitement it all brings to the fans. Accessibility has never been better; in addition to TV and digital viewing, it’s highly likely a venue exists within a day’s drive from wherever you are.
Evan H. Senn has been my go-to guy for video projects since around 2013. In 2019, he plans to release his latest work "Fast & Left", a self-financed film project highlighting the world of flat-track motorcycle racing. That world, like most racing environments, is made up of some unique personalities, a strong and competitive community, and, as expected, some very compelling racing. I got to talk with Evan and explore some of what has gone into the "Fast & Left" film.
Evan described the concept and execution, “I hadn't planned on traveling as much nor the scope of this film getting as big it did. I am from Wichita, Kansas, and I didn't even know that a venue for flat track racing was here. If I had known when I was two feet high, I would have been at Jeeps Motorcycle Park every single race weekend. The story I want to tell in “Fast & Left” is that right here in Wichita is this great track that not a whole lot of people know about. I just wanted to spend a season at Jeeps, get some good images and stories, and let people around Wichita know the track is there. And maybe others around the country could learn that there are a lot of similar tracks nearby. They're very cool, and if you look you can probably find one close to you. Once I started filming at Jeeps the story evolved quickly.”
A racer whom Evan has known for a while indicated how big this project could be and that Evan would be warmly accepted into the race community. However, Evan was initially hesitant. He told me his thought was, “Yeah right, I'm this annoying guy with a camera, I don't race, and many of the photographers at the races have been there for decades.” Evan really didn't think doors would open easily and assumed he would be the black sheep.
The hesitancy was more than just internal, though. Evan tells about the logistical challenge. “I was turned off to the project initially because I felt that the only way to tell my story through video would be to have six cameras, a crew, and to follow a racer through an entire season, which would not have been affordable nor logistically possible.” He is editing the film currently, and it is possibly evolving. “At this point, I am not so sure a story will be told as much as elements of flat track racing will be brought to light. It'll be more about the themes within flat track racing -- family, community, simplicity, and complexity of racing.”
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“As soon as we started shooting,” Evan says, to his surprise and excitement, “people opened up and started embracing what we were doing. Across the board, they started offering to provide additional contacts and suggested other races to shoot. I didn’t expect to be so warmly welcomed.”
Jeeps Motorcycle Park is a short track, which means that it’s shorter than half a mile. Describing Jeeps and the chain of events after starting shooting, Evan said, “what's shocking is how quickly we started shooting other tracks. We initially planned for a season at Jeeps, and then, all of a sudden, our second race was an AFT (American Flat Track) event at the Oklahoma City Mile”, a significantly larger track. He continued, “before we started, I wasn't too familiar with the flat track environment and so didn't have context to the different sizes of the tracks. We went from largely amateur racing on a short track in Wichita to the top pros on a mile-long oval within a month.”
By the end of the season, Evan and his team had captured the essence of flat track racing. Initially planning for 6 to 7 races at Jeeps, they instead were welcomed to several of the Plains States’ best-known venues, such as the Oklahoma City Mile; the Ellis County Fair Grounds at Hays, Kansas; the Thomas County Speedway in Colby, Kansas; the Rooks County Speedway in Stockton, Kansas; and the Springfield Mile in Springfield, Illinois.
Evan wants his project to help bring about awareness of flat track. He says, “I am hopeful that people will learn to embrace it or even get on a bike and try it for themselves.” Attendance is building at the tracks around the country, due in large part to the AFT. The AFT organization includes the best-of-the-best professionals. The big racing teams are all there, Harley, Indian, Kawasaki, Husqvarna. They just picked up NBCSN and Fans Choice broadcasting for free-of-charge viewing digitally. There are cameras at every race, and you can now watch them live, even the practices and the qualifying, along with some behind-the-scenes content. NBCSN condenses the programing so that someone new to the sport can watch and not be too overwhelmed.
Evan discusses what it was like to work in the race environment, “As soon as you get to know the racers, that's when the drama and fun really come into it. We only shot on race days, so we only had moments before and during races. It was a very limited time, and what's interesting now that I am editing is that there were people I caught on film at the first race who I didn't really get to know until 4 months later. There are racers of all ages, from 7 to 70 years old. As far as expense to race and demographics, flat track is all over the place. There are wealthy yacht owners competing with others who rely on friends and fans for room and board, others opt for nights under the stars. Amid the diversity and competitiveness lies a unique familiarity and trust between the racers.”
When asked about the concept of competitiveness and trust, Evan says, “the racers are in close proximity, side by side, with no front brake. Most don't even use their rear brake. The braking pattern for this sport is interesting, and the gearing changes, too. One of the craziest things I learned is that there really are no braking patterns or gear changes during a race, especially on mile-long tracks. On a mile track, you throttle up and shift into fourth and then use throttle control and body position the whole way. At 140 mph, that’s a hell of a lot of trust in your bike, the track, and everyone in front, behind and beside you. You let go, then put it into a controlled slide during the turns. All while trying to overtake people, or allowing others to overtake you, or keeping people from overtaking you.” It's control and trust in everyone around you. Evan described how one guy compared this to fox hunting; “it's a gentleman's sport with lots of respect and trust for those around you. It's aggressive, it’s dirt and gasoline, and it is people wanting a gold trophy; but it's also about trust and everyone wanting everyone else to get home safe. To see that at 140 on a full mile is truly incredible.” AA