Thrashing An Indian FTR750 Flat Track Racer

Roundy-Round Racer
Riding Indian’s revolutionary FTR750

By Dain Gingerelli
Photos by Barry Hathaway/Courtesy Indian Motorcycle

This story appeared in issue #355, available now on Greaserag.com.

Dain plants the left for the slide. Not much difference between him and Jared Mees above, eh?

To the uneducated or untrained eye, flat track motorcycle racing on a mile course is a simple exercise of going in circles. When the green flag drops to start the race, you accelerate through the gears as if you stole the bike before taking evasive action entering Turn 1, banking hard left to complete the maneuver. The bike begins to slide radically sideways as you continue bending the bike towards Turn 2, at which point you accelerate again, this time heading onto the back straight, earnestly twisting the throttle as if you’re choking a chicken. Steer left at the next turn, which happens to be Turn 3, and don’t stop turning left again until you exit Turn 4 as you head down the front straight to complete the first of 25 laps. Repeat as necessary until you see the checkered flag, and if you did things properly during that first lap there will be 17 hard-charging riders behind you, nipping anxiously at your bike’s 19″ rear tire to overtake you before the 25-mile race is finished.

Simple enough, and if you’re a spectator viewing all the action from the sidelines, chances are that you have an ice-cold beer or beverage of choice in hand while you hoot and holler for your favorite rider. And viewed from the grandstands, those bikes sliding through the turns resemble a high-speed ballet; the sideways motorcycles gracefully arc from right to left as if the riders magically balance them at speed. It’s a beautiful, even breathtaking, sight, and the maneuver led to the flat trackers’ creed: “If ya ain’t slidin’, ya ain’t ridin’.”

In reality, though, flat track racing is nothing more than a form of racing that puts the bike into a controlled and somewhat dizzying sideways motion that the racer mysteriously pulls out of to continue moving forward in a straight line. You know, the way a motorcycle is meant to be ridden in the first place. But flat track racers purposely force their race bikes into those contorted slides because the laws of physics dictate the exaggerated form of countersteering that you see on the track; the racer wants to turn the bike left, but the bike says otherwise, tugging hard to continue in a suicidal straight line for the outside wall or railing. The winner in this one-on-one battle determines whether the motorcycle continues on course around the track, or slams bike and rider unmercifully into those immovable trackside objects.

Brad Baker takes the corner just ahead of Indian teammate Mees.

For these and other reasons, I love flat track racing, even though my personal race résumé focused on road racing. I also love to go dirt bike riding and bombing around town or chasing the high road while touring, but flat track racing has always occupied a special place in my heart, even though I never flat-tracked in organized competition. However, over the years I’ve had the opportunity to ride a few flat track bikes as part of magazine assignments, and the most recent occasion occurred last June when Indian Motorcycle Company invited me and a few other curious motojournalists to take a few hot laps aboard the new and dominating FTR750. Our ride was scheduled to take place at Red Dirt Raceway, a quarter-mile, banked, red-clay oval track located east of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Indian factory team, consisting of defending champion Bryan Smith (No. 1), former champion Brad Baker (No. 6), and three-time champion Jared Mees (No. 9), were racing Saturday night in OKC at Remington Park, a thoroughbred horseracing track that boasts a classically-shaped mile oval that’s part of the American Flat Track racing schedule. The Indian team finished one-two-three that night, with Mees the winner, Baker and Smith second and third respectively; Smith himself had just won four Mile races in a row the previous weeks.

A very clean FTR750 behaves nicely for the camera.

That the FTR750 was dominant in the Saturday evening brawl underscores Indian’s return to flat track racing since the original Indian Motorcycle Company folded in 1953. Indeed, the FTR750 won the first eight races of the 2017 AFT season, giving credence to the team’s appointed nickname, The Wrecking Crew, itself a nod to past Indian-backed flat track teams of the 1940s and early ’50s that went by the same name. The current Wrecking Crew’s string of eight wins was broken, though, the following week in Ohio where Briar Bauman, riding Zanotti Racing’s Kawasaki Ninja 650, won the classic Lima Half-Mile, with Baker again coming in second.

But enough of this racing background, we’re here to see what it’s like to ride perhaps the best flat track racebike on the planet, the FTR750, and for the occasion we’ll be riding Smith’s backup bike. But this wasn’t my first rodeo aboard a frontline flat track bike. Back in 1985 I was given an afternoon session aboard the factory-backed Honda RS750 normally reserved for then defending AMA Champ Ricky Graham at the now-defunct San Jose Mile track. And so, to steal a line from baseball hall of famer Yogi Berra, my ride at Red Clay Raceway “was like déjà vu all over again.”

After a 32-year absence, my return to riding a flat track bike took place at a slippery oval dirt track in Oklahoma to sample what amounted to be the top flat track motorcycle in the world. And this time the track itself was slipperier than preferred thanks to thundershowers the night before. The Red Dirt Raceway’s crew did their best to dry out the track, but the red clay retained a lot of moisture, making it slippery on its surface and tacky underneath. Not the ideal conditions for riding a motorcycle that prefers having its rear tire kicked out of line with the front tire while blazing through the turns.

Dain’s ride for the day.

“Don’t crash it.” “Noted.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joining the motley crew of journalists were key players in Indian’s revived racing venture. Team riders Bryan Smith and Brad Baker were there to lend tips on riding the bike, while the bike itself was tended to by Smith’s crack crew members, Gene Burcham and Ron Gladden. Indian’s vice-president of Product Management Gary Gray and Director of Marketing Reid Wilson, both key players in fast-tracking the race team’s return to competition, also joined the show.

First, a few interesting specs about the FTR750 itself. The 53-degree, liquid-cooled, four-valve, V-twin engine boasts bore and stroke of 88mm x 61.5mm, with compression set at what Wilson described “a rather mild 14:1.” Yeah, mild. The four-speed transmission has its shifter on the right side, allowing maximum lean angle on the bike’s left side while cornering, although there are provisions to readily convert to left-side shifting for TT racing, a form of competition that includes right-hand turns and imperative braking technique. Horsepower is rated at about 110, with maximum rpm set at about 10000.

The FTR’s frame rake and trail are set at 25 degrees and 3.9″, respectively, although there’s room for adjustment. In fact, the entire chassis was engineered for various trackside adjustments, including engine placement within the frame. The 2.2-gallon gas tank has a form-fit shroud atop it that doubles as air intake for the fuel injection system (taken right from the Scout street model), and a compact, lightweight portable starter motor is used to fire the engine up.

Now riding #24 for the Indian Wrecking Crew, Dain Gingerelli!

When it was time to ride, I swung a leg over the FTR’s abbreviated racing seat and settled in. The bike’s firm suspension greeted me coldly. This wasn’t going to be a typical joy ride, and I was reminded even more of that when the technician motioned for me to move my left leg to make room for inserting the starter motor into the engine’s left-side case to give the 750cc engine life. The wappa-wappa sound that tumbled out of the high-swept S&S exhaust tips told me we had ignition. There’s no sweeter sound than that of a flat track V-twin engine when you crack its throttle.

Surprisingly, the engine’s rpm settles quickly back to idle when you rap the throttle. Past flat track engine technology dictated heavy flywheels to help spread the power delivery to the rear wheel in even doses so the rider could better control the slides through the corners. Interestingly, the FTR750’s throttle response favors that of a lighter flywheel, no doubt a factor that’s partially attributable to a more spot-on fuel delivery from the electronic fuel injection system that feeds the motor. Also, the rear wheel is weighted to help maintain the gyroscopic effect through the tire as controlled as possible.

I clicked the transmission into gear, slowly making my way to the track entrance. Behind me I heard Baker yell in jest, “There’s no front brake!” It was an honest statement because flat track race bikes don’t have front brakes. But Baker’s warning served more as a “Be careful out there, son” comment, which itself translated to “Don’t wad up our race bike, Mr. Motojournalist Guy.”

Despite the slippery conditions, the bike’s chassis and suspension felt responsive to the track. Accelerating out of the corners revealed how intuitive the steering could be, with rear tire slip feeling controlled and steady. Tire spin was surprisingly easy to regulate thanks to the EFI’s smooth fuel metering. Technology, in this case, has reaped big rewards in terms of tractability through the turns. I can only imagine how hard the engine pulls on those long straights at a mile track.

Picking up speed (right?).

Entering the turns required a little more temerity on my part; approaching the turns too quickly made the white cement wall lining the track seem even larger than it really was. Later Smith told me that under ideal track conditions, he’d probably run the bike hard into the turns, jabbing the rear brake to induce a slide that he’d carry all the way to the apex to slow down before bending the bike hard left to aim for the turn’s exit. “I’d make the oval track more diamond-shaped,” he told me.

I decided that I’d remain a diamond in the rough, taking my time to maintain a pace that wouldn’t bend the bike. I didn’t want to be Mr. Motojournalist Guy who crashed this year’s defending national champion’s bike. “Oh, you’re the guy who crashed Bryan Smith’s Indian flat track bike, aren’t you?” No, that’s another Dain Gingerelli; you’re confusing me with him.

Within a few laps I was feeling more comfortable with the bike, gaining confidence in how the FTR handled through the turns. By now, Turn 4 appeared to be drying out, so I did what any curious motojournalist guy would do and wicked it up a bit right at the apex. And the front end instantly washed out on me, veering suddenly to the right, taking me right for the wall! Instinct took over, and I gave the engine even more throttle to help kick the rear wheel out so that the front tire would reposition itself again for countersteering. The bike was extremely responsive in this split-second maneuver, in the process saving me the embarrassment of, A, soiling the bike had I dropped it onto the gooey red clay and B, soiling my leather racing suit.

Naturally at this point I did what any seasoned (read: old) motojournalist guy would do, and that’s head right for the pits so I could return Mr. Smith’s motorcycle to him intact and in time. Moreover, I did it all without using the front brake because there is no front brake. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I spent my summer vacation. Thank you, Indian Motorcycle Company.