I won my first ever flat track heat, and my first race meeting. And that was the beginning of the end of people helping me out and giving pointers. During the 2016 season I’d occasionally ask Boastie for his suggestion on a gate pick and series director Anthony Brown would sometimes tell me to chill and aim for smoothness but apart from that I was flying solo, hoping to improve by studying photos and assessing body position. Winning the Rookie Championship didn’t help matters either. All I felt I was doing was actioning everyithing I’d learnt on the Champions Flat Track School courses and holding on for dear life but without really understanding what was making me fast and what was pushing me closer to the edge of control.
In 2017 I watched Johnny Lewis (#10) make George Pickering’s KTM beach racer dance during a race at Peterborough, my favourite track. Right there and then I knew I wanted to ride just like Johnny. Well, not quite like him. He’s been astride a motorcycle for most of his walking life and racing one nearly as long. Formerly an AMA Supermoto front runner Johnny switched back to flat track and has achieved success against some of the stiffest opposition in the history of the sport. Those in the know reckon that some bad luck with machinery and timing impeded his rise right to the top. Typical motorsport… the guys who shoulda been champs often never are.
Anyway, I’d settle for some top tips and the chance to ride in a country not blighted by constant inclement weather. My rookie season nemesis Tim Aucott and the nemesis of everyone in the 2017 Rookie Class, Lucia Aucott, were booking a trip to Johnny’s Motoanatomy academy (formerly 10 Training) and asked me to join.
Having sat-out most of the 2017 season by early 2018 I was rustier than a ship’s anchor but promised myself I’d get myself into some sort of shape. But as with everything else in life, procrastinating absorbed all my energy and not only did I set off for Florida flabby and unfit, but every single one of my left-hand-side ailments decided to make their presence known.
As luck would have it one of Johnny’s schools coincided with Daytona Bike Week, which is incomprehensibly gash. But, the silver lining is the Amercian Flat Track championship’s opening round was to be held at the infamous Daytona Speedway – the American type of speedway, not English – think Dale Earnhardt, not Gary Havelock.
I’d made a slight AirBnB oversight and not read the details about the yacht I’d booked to stay on, so although I was very close to the venue I arrived jet lagged and sleep deprived. My ‘boatel’ was more dingy than gin palace, open to the elements in places. My teeth chattered all night. Florida, cold at night…. who knew? Tim and Lucia bought me a lovely breakfast to lift my spirits. An ice cold Bud Light. Delicious.
Part of me was a little gutted to be all the way over in America and at an AFT race that wasn’t a clay mile, but a TT course (right and turns and a jump thrown into the mix) instead. Thankfully Chris Carr had received so many wedgies and hatemail for the rubbish 2017 track that for this year a bigger, bolder configuration had been laid out. It looked much larger than on the telly and the jump was positively massive. We were in for a treat.
Now, I’ve been backstage at the Superprestigio in Barcelona and hung with Brad Baker, Marc Marquez et al and I’m the least starstruck person I know. But for some reason actually being inside an early issue of Sideburn Magazine had me feeling like a 12 year old. Race Control (Lucia) had insisted we buy the punchy Rolex VIP passes for access all areas so I followed suit and dropped my trousers for a ticket costing MotoGP money. But, she was right. It meant we could go where we wanted and poke our noses into the garages and ogle our heroes, and then quench our thirst up in the gods above the main straight. All the chat about Americans doing motorsport better is correct, they nail it.
Another bonus was having the opportunity to cheer-on ex-DTRA championship contender and AFT top ten finisher (of the entire season!) Oliver Brindley. His dad Derek was over for the week too so we hung out a bit between practice sessions. Despite the mega haulers, big name sponsors and TV crews the AFT paddock is about as grass roots as it gets. I’d wager that it’s not much different to the scenes from On Any Sunday back in the seventies. A real family and friends affair, welcoming and appreciative of all the fans – even ones that talked funny, like us lot (especially Race Control with her Slummy accent – part Slovak, part Brummy).
The racing was mega, like really good. We whooped, we hollered and we gasped. Johnny’s shock burst oil over his exhaust making for a cartoon smoke screen and impossibly slippery rear tyre. People clashed over the jump and landed inert on the massive tabletop. One even thudded so loudly you could hear his helmet crack and get torn off. And while stocking up on Bud Light I caught a glimpse of a rear wheel and swingarm bounce high enough to see above the spectator fence.
Apparently the rider, Stevie Bonsey, just styled it out and pulled over. Then there was Oliver, who’d ridden like a demon all day, despite only having a properly working front brake (the TT course mean front brakes are allowed) late into the heats. How he managed having to land, pump the lever a few times and back-it-in to a tight right, while overtaking people was beyond us. In the main he was up to second at one point and held third for a while. The lad is such a natural talent and a joy to watch on a motorcycle. But his box fresh and completely standard YZ450F motor was no match for the competition on their tried and tested, dyno tuned machines, despite our screams of encouragement from the not-so-cheap seats.
Next morning we headed to the famous Daytona Beach. Historically a place where the brave took life in their hands to prove themselves, and the speed of their machines. These days a 10mph limit permits only posing. So we jumped in the Aucott’s ‘Vette and followed suit, and ended up parking next to a scruffy white van, containing AFT star from the night before, Jeffrey Carver (#23), and his missus Lexi. Then Sammy Halbert (#69) and a bunch of other racers turned up. Flat Trackers are the most friendly and down to earth folk I’ve met in the world of motorsport.
Another night, another random Air BnB. This time a converted off-grid U-Haul truck in a swamp five miles off a paved road. It had a hammock and fire pit though so I figured I’d at least be comfortable before being eaten by a gator. And as it turned out good practice for the few days at Johnny’s gaff.
Johnny and his wife Alysha bet the ranch, literally, on this dream facility (I failed to take decent photos!). 16 acres of make-all-the-noise-you-want land well off the beaten track near the town of Centre Hill, complete with blueberry farm, converted shipping container guest pods and an outdoor shower. Oh, and an MX track in the woods, a full size (by UK standards) dirt oval, plus a minibike track. Verement veganists and pushers of good health and wellbeing, Johnny and Alysha welcomed us into their home and their family as if we were long lost cousins from across the water. Their two charming kids Maxen and Clarey complete the picture perfect alternative lifestyle.
There’s a big old yellow school bus ripe for conversion in the neighbouring field……winters in Florida, that sounds nice.
This may seem like a lot of idle chat suited to a Trip Advisor review but I want to set the scene, this is more than just a place to go and ride a bike while some wise guy tells you what to do. This is a proper moto escape from the ‘real world’. Heck, we didn’t even have WiFi, bliss! (this has now been installed).
Alas, one of us had packed our luggage carelessly and brought rainclouds over form the UK. No sooner had I arrived at Johnny’s front door we had to jump in the van to head north, a storm was brewing. then I caught sight of another mate from the DTRA paddock, Rich ‘Brokeback’ Thrower (he doesn’t share tents with Jake Gyllenhall, he got run over at Kings Lynn, breaking his back in 2017). “What the fuck are you doing here?” – me. “I said I was up for coming.” – him. “But that was 6 months ago, we haven’t heard a word from you since!!!” – me. Rich is a pilot so we can only assume he just didn’t say anything, borrowed a jumbo and pitched up. With four would-be racers, a pimped-out Corvette, a murdered-out Dodge Charger and a 1.8 litre Kia Rio (my rental) in the driveway Johnny’s face was a picture, wondering what he’d let himself in for. Brits abroad!!
Up north near the Alabama border the weather promised to be more typically Floridian so with a trailer full of bikes and kit we headed to the small town of Jasper where we met track owner Wade. His billiard-table-smooth clay oval set amongst pine trees was more than slightly idyllic.
At the time of our trip Johnny was supported (he buys his own bikes and gear) by Husqvarna so we had our pick of either a new model FC250 or FC450, plus a slightly older KTM 450. All we’d brought was our own kit, but that can be provided if necessary.
The training camps usually start with a whole day on the minibikes back at Lewis HQ but due to the switched schedule we had a few laps on the little Yamaha TTR125s and then got straight down to business. I’ve done a fair few training schools covering various disciplines and there’s one big difference with Motoanatomy – Johnny knows your shit bits before you even get on a plane. Thanks to the power of social media Johnny is able to study photos and video of his subjects and already has the drills and improvements mapped out in his head. He also asks what you want to achieve from the course. For me I’ve always felt like I’ve raced at 70% (apart from 2016 final at the Ammanford 1/2 mile – that was maxed out) as I don’t trust my skill and experience vault enough to get me out of trouble when surrounded by others on track. DTRA racegoers may baulk at this statement but, them the facts. I’ve never crashed when going fast, only ever when clamming-up and feeling unsure. I wasn’t really bothered about learning to go any quicker, I wanted to know how to ride smarter and safer.
The track took some getting used to. In the UK we only get to ride one clay oval – Greenfield up in Lincolshine. A place where owner George Pickering is constantly battling the weather to provide a decent, predictable surface. George has to use hugely expensive farm and haulage equipment and spends hour upon hour prepping the dirt in advance of a test or race day. In Jasper Wade has a slightly different technique. He hasn’t dug up his track in years and it’s as smooth as marble. He rides around occasionally on his golf buggy or in a Ford F250 pickup, squirting the beginnings of surface cracks with a small fertiliser sprayer, as if he was tending to houseplants. All the while chewing on a massive cigar like a sheriff in the movies. We were getting the full USA experience, and loving it.
I tried not to get too caught up on which bike I rode, they all felt different but I was happy to just jump on whatever was free. The 250 required an upshift on the straight, momentarily, before dropping back to second for the turns. The 450 just pulled hard in a single gear from apex to entry. The one big change was braking. Johnny is an advocate of using the back brake to control traction, whereas I learned to give it a dab, back the bike in and then get the ball of my foot back onto the peg. This new method (as used by most of the AFT field – hence glowing discs on the way out of corners) was going to take some getting used to as not only was it another thing for our brains to compute but it messed with the right footpeg to brake pedal distance and level. Various wooden blocks were gaffer-taped onto the peg to achieve the right balance of dragging and control.
This one change alone transformed my riding. No longer was I gunning the throttle and hanging off the inside of the bike to counterweight a highside, my right wrist and big toe were working in unison to control the slide. And importantly keeping me safe.
The other technique which I’d been trialling (badly) back in the UK was using the unbraked front wheel to scrub speed. Which must sound stupid to those unfamiliar with flat track. But once the bike is leant over there’s not a lot the rear brake can do to slow you down – by that point its ability to grip is minimal. Lock-up the rear wheel and you’ll probably slide off, or just pile on the opposite lock and run wide. Turning the bars away from the slide, into the turn, is about as natural as brushing your teeth with your left hand (witches and weirdos, imagine your right). But once you’ve trained your brain to know certain death is not imminent by integrating such black magic there’s no better feeling. The front goes light, your steel shoe is skimming the dirt and then there’s a moment where the bars tell you “Now, go now, it’s OK to turn the wrong way”. Once the tyre bites and the vital couple of miles-an-hour have been shed you’re hopefully at the apex, with your eyes locked on a marker down the straight and your brain telling your right wrist and foot to tango once more.
I’m not going to giveaway all of Johnny’s secrets but this gives a snippet of insight into the allure of trying to ride flat track, properly. It’s not about macho slides and full-lock hero photos it’s a dance along the knife edge of grip and balance. Mastering that is impossible, but watching a master at work is pure poetry in motion.
At the end of an intense two days I strapped a GoPro to Johnny and got him to follow me for a few hot laps. The blue groove (where the rubber is laid-down on the compacted clay) was only half a bike length wide, stray off this and the dusty surface layer reduces grip by at least half, usually leading to running hugely wide, a crash, or a saved one at least. Inch perfect consistency is key. With Johhny breathing down my neck and pushing I was heading at warp speed towards the edge of my comfort zone.
Where I’d been going fast earlier in the day I was popping off the limiter in 2nd gear on the KTM 10 yards before tipping it in. We swapped positions and I wore the camera while trying to keep up with Johnny. I got sucked in, dragged along. Then the world froze, I forgot where I was, my breaths were deep, insufficient and loud, tyre chirps turned to long, bellowing howls and I was now having to shift gears.
After a few laps of hitting the limiter in 3rd at the end of the short straight I knew I was close to the end. My talent pool had drained Death Valley dry and I had no brain power in reserve to save a spill. My lungs were burning and my arms pumped to near explosion. We pulled in.
Later I check the GoPro footage. While backing it into turn 3 Johnny calmly removed a hand from the bars to adjust his goggles! Ever watched Rossi do his thing and reckon you wouldn’t be at least a minute slower around Mugello? Forget it. People like this are made from completely different stuff.
Day three we took what we’d learned on the big bikes and continued the practice on the minibike track. My ailments limited my ability to do much more than attempt to stay upright but Brokeback and the Aucotts were having a whale of a time, dragging pegs, scrubbing the front wheel and finessing their styles. More drills, more homework and more techniques to try and master when we got back to Blighty.
On the morning of the last day we were all completely spent, with limbs made from jelly and the reflexes of a stoned sloth. We hit the sandy MX track where I demonstrated what a useless motocross rider I am. Tim was done in so we watched Race Control push herself on a minibike while Brokeback showed us all up. Then the heavens opened. Like proper biblical stuff with fork lightening and everything.
We packed soaked gear and clothes into our cases and wearily waved goodbye to the Lewis family, and their slice of paradise. I don’t generally sleep well on planes, but on arriving back at Heathrow I was awoken by a stewardess to a completely empty 747, apparently I hadn’t even made it through the safety briefing! Was it all a dream?
Since making this trip in March 2018 Motoanatomy has gone for strength to strength. Johnny’s academy has helped hundreds of riders, from cherry popping newbies to old pros like Jeff Ward get the hang of racing dirt track. And in the opening AFT round at Daytona Dalton Gautier returned to the grid and under Johnny’s management bagged a second position in the main event – on a stock bike!
But if you’re reading this and can’t afford the time or money to travel to the USA have no fear, Motoanatomy has a schedule of training camps in Europe this summer.
2nd-3rd May – Lellystad, The Netherlands (just before Hell’s Race)
11th-13th May – Greenfield, Lincolshire, UK
But be quick though, these camps sell out super quick. And if you’re still not sure, drop me a line and I’ll convince you!
Decent photos by Philip Fusco, the rest are off my iPhone 2
And don’t just take my word for it, read the Tim Aucott’s review over on Sideburn.