Dirt Track Resurrection!

Date :

December 30, 2014

Dirt Track Resurrection!

At the post-Superprestigio celebrations at the OMM restaurant and nightclub in downtown Barcelona, race promoter Jaime Alguersuari spoke from the stage, accompanied by the four fastest riders of the event: Marc Márquez, Jared Mees, and Kenny Noyes, the podium finishers in the Superprestigio Superfinal, and Brad “The Bullet” Baker, injured and unable to compete after a crash in qualifying.

“This is not over yet! In fact, it’s just starting,” Alguersuari said. “All four of these riders and more will be back, plus we will invite the AMA champion if it is not Jared or Brad. This time, it is the Americans who ask for the rematch, and we are proud to offer it at the Superprestigio III in December of 2015.”

Later, speaking to a Spanish journalist, Alguersuari said, “Spanish riders learned dirt track from the first Martian [the traditional nickname for Kenny Roberts in Spain and Italy] and now, Marc Márquez, at least on our short track, has proven he can battle with AMA Grand National Champions.

“Last year, Marc crashed and lost to ‘The Bullet’ and wanted a rematch. This year, Brad Baker crashed in practice and was unable to ride, and Marc just managed to beat Jared, while Kenny Noyes, our American who has a dirt-track school in Aragón, was third for the second time in a row, and there were two European dirt trackers in the Superfinal main.

“Our European roadracers are becoming better dirt trackers, and our European dirt trackers, exposed to the best from the AMA, are improving, as well. Something big is happening for dirt track in Europe.”

It was the late Italian photographer, Franco Villani, who branded Roberts as “The Martian” in 1978. No one in Europe had ever seen a rider ride a 500cc Grand Prix bike quite the way Roberts did. I remember Villani telling me, “I called him a Martian because he was a small man, dressed all in yellow, who was obviously from another world.”

That world was AMA Grand National Flat Track.

When the first American dirt trackers, Steve Baker, Formula 750 World Champion in 1977 (and 500cc runner-up that same year) and Kenny Roberts, 500cc world champion in 1978, his rookie season, broke onto the roadracing world stage, the way premier-class motorcycles are ridden changed forever.

European racers coming up from the 125 and 250cc classes had traditionally ridden the 500s as if they were big 250s, carrying high corner speed through long arcs and easing the power on as they gradually picked up the bike on corner exit. American dirt trackers coming off the AMA ovals adapted dirt-track trajectories, sacrificing entry speed, picking up the bikes early and launching them out of the corner, spinning and often crossed up.

Famed Spanish engineer Antonio Cobas, originator of the twin-spar chassis that has been almost universally used in roadracing bikes since the late 1970s, observed Roberts firing the factory Yamaha out of the Bugatti Hairpin at Jarama circuit during the 1979 Spanish Grand Prix and remarked to me that day, “The 500 and the way 500s are ridden by Roberts are aberrations that defy logic.”

For over two decades, from Roberts’ first title in 1978 to Mick Doohan’s last in 1998, all 500cc world champions except Italians Marco Luchinelli (1981) and Franco Uncini (1982) came from dirt-track backgrounds. Wayne Gardner, champion in 1987 and Doohan, who won five titles in a row (1994-98) raced as youths in Australian short-track competition.

Kevin Schwantz was never an AMA Grand National rider like previous American champions Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, and Wayne Rainey, but as a young man, he rode amateur short-track and TT events in addition to trials and motocross. Although he was never a full-time AMA flat-track participant, Schwantz trained with his uncle, national number 34 Darryl Hurst, so he is not really an exception. Roberts, Lawson, Spencer, and Rainey, however, were AMA professional dirt trackers before specializing in roadracing.

Even though 1999 500cc World Champion Alex Crivillé came out of the European school (80, 125, and 250cc), he is not entirely an exception, either, because he rode dirt track extensively at the Kenny Roberts Training Ranch (Circuit of Catalunya) and not just on Honda XR100s but also 600cc Rotax “framers.” Kenny Roberts Jr., the next 500 champion, never campaigned as a Grand National regular, but he was raised on dirt-track bikes and also rode frequently as an amateur at the Lodi Cycle Bowl.

Valentini Rossi, who began a five-year winning streak in 2001, came from the 125/250cc school, but was encouraged by his father, Graziano, a GP winner, to practice dirt track since childhood. Today Rossi has a dirt-track facility near his hometown of Tavullia and uses dirt track as his principal training method. Rossi was the last 500cc champion and the first MotoGP champion when the premier class went from 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-strokes.