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Here’s Why Flat Tracker Motorcycles Are So Popular

Paved roads aren’t the only places motorcycles can go—or race. Events like the Mint 400 and the Paris-Dakar see competitors jumping dunes, scrambling over rocks, and flying down gravel paths. As a result, off-road bikes have jumped in popularity in recent years. And included in that are flat tracker motorcycles.

What is a flat tracker motorcycle?

On the surface, a flat tracker motorcycle can resemble a scrambler. In fact, several modern examples, such as the Ducati Scrambler, have been turned into flat trackers, BikeExif reports. However, although both terms now serve to define a look as well as a segment, they’re not quite the same thing.

Blue 2020 Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE left of green XC
2020 Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE and XC | Triumph

A scrambler, Braaap explains, is designed for off-roading, or at least designed to look like it can off-road. The most-capable, such as the Triumph Scrambler, have skid plates, extra suspension travel and ground clearance, and high-mounted pipes. All these modifications protect the engine and other components from low-hanging obstacles.

Vance & Hines #4 racer Bryan Smith sliding a Harley-Davidson XG750
Harley-Davidson XG750 flat tracker | Vance & Hines via Instagram

A flat tracker, on the other hand, is a race bike. Yes, there are road-only models, so-called ‘street trackers,’ which ape the look, Cruiser reports. And the earliest flat trackers were converted road bikes, BikeBrewers reports. However, a flat tracker is designed to compete in American flat track racing events, which take place on an oval-shaped dirt track. The track is flat because there aren’t any obstacles besides the other racers. Instead of avoiding rocks, the riders slide and drift in the corners, and sprint down the straights.

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American flat track racing has an international counterpart in the form of speedway racing, Goodwood reports. But, while speedway also involves motorcycles sliding on dirt, the bikes themselves aren’t flat trackers. A speedway bike, Motorcyclist reports, has a 500cc menthol-burning single-cylinder engine, a 1-speed transmission, no brakes, and a 70-mph top speed. Which isn’t too different from the original trackers, the board trackers of the early 20th century.

There is a single-cylinder flat tracker class. However, most competitive flat trackers use 750cc gasoline V-twins with 4-speed transmissions, and they do have rear brakes. That’s necessary, because they top out at 140 mph.

Why the rise in popularity?

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Flat track racing isn’t a new sport. Ever since the 50s, both Indian and Harley-Davidson have actively competed, as have foreign manufacturers such as Honda, Kawasaki, and Triumph. And in the 1970s, Harley-Davidson released the XR750, the most successful AMA racer ever, RideApart reports. Evel Knievel used it in his stunts.

But the sport, and the flat tracker segment as a whole, received a big boost with the rise of hooligan racing, Cycle World reports. Hooligan race bikes are still flat trackers, but they’re basically showroom-stock. Besides a few bolt-on parts, the only modifications allowed are extended swingarms for stability. So, not only is participation relatively inexpensive, the bikes look like the ones in the dealers.

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As a result, enthusiasm for the sport and segment has grown considerably. Not only are Triumph, Ducati, Harley, and Indian taking part, Royal Enfield is gearing up to join in too, RideApart reports. The brand’s even opened up a flat track education program, and sponsored racers like Shayna Texter, the first woman to win a professional American flat track race, Iron & Air reports.

And now, some of these same manufacturers are offering street bikes based on the racing ones.

Getting one of your own

Harley-Davidson flat-tracker bike concept
Harley-Davidson flat-tracker bike concept | Harley-Davidson

While Harley still offers a flat tracker in the form of the XG750, it’s not a street-legal machine. And while the company was working on a road-legal flat tracker, that bike’s future is at this point uncertain.

As of right now, if you want a road-legal American street tracker, Indian’s your best bet, in the form of its FTR bikes. Indian offers 3 FTR 1200 models: the base $13,499 model; the $13,499 Rally; and the $14,999 S.

Weighing over 500 pounds, the Indian FTR 1200 isn’t exactly light, Cycle World reports. But it does have a 123-hp 1203cc V-twin, ABS, cruise control, and on the S, traction control, and stability control. Plus, thanks to its mid-mounted foot controls and wide handlebar, the FTR is both comfortable to ride and easy to handle, Revzilla and Rider report. Though for those looking for some additional off-road-ability, the Rally’s tires are better-suited for it, Jalopnik reports.

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There’s also the option of building your own flat tracker, Cycle World, and Iron & Air report, from either a classic or modern bike. And you don’t have to go for an extensive build, either. Visually, most incorporate a single seat, a tapered rear section, an upswept exhaust, flat or upswept handlebars, and either a minimal or completely-removed rear fender. After that, it’s just a matter of finding good wheels and tires.

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