Have you ever tried slotting the proverbial square peg into a round hole? Using a ham and cheese baguette to play snooker, or maybe a pane of glass as a tennis racquet? If you answered yes to any of the above, you’d probably love riding a genuinely road legal, perfectly pristine motorcycle round a speedway track for shits and giggles.
That’s exactly what I did on Friday night. Ducati’s Scrambler – in various fanciful guises – has overwhelmingly served the modern retro scene, hurling a Ducati into the world’s top-ten best-selling bikes for the first time in history. However, getting loose, throwing shapes, and fighting for grip on a shale surface with 11 other hooligans certainly wasn’t in Bologna’s original design brief, although it turns out it ain’t too shabby either.
So, in this week’s instalment of Challenge Alastair (like Challenge Anneka, but featuring a balding twat rather than a blonde, urm, lady), where I attempt reckless stunts and challenges for entertainment purposes, Ducati UK suggested we pick up their press bike and enter Dirt Quake: the now annual race event organised by Sideburn Magazine, where bikes designed not to race round a speedway track do exactly that. From humble beginnings, it’s turned into a mini festival atmosphere, attracting riders from all over the world including the likes of Guy Martin (who kindly dressed his gnarly Honda 500 in 44T attire) and Carl Fogarty, running alongside the Dirt Track Riders Association (DTRA) where pukka flat track machines compete with serious intention in a national series.
Our class was anything but serious. My speedway/flat track experience consists of several laps on a shonky old speedway bike. In other words, I had my excuses sorted – or so I thought until I saw the rest of the field. The aptly named ‘Hooligan’ class comprised of an old air-cooled BMW GS, numerous Harleys (which were actually pretty handy), an ancient Yamaha FZ600 ridden by some crazy French bloke (with what looked like the original tyres still fitted), and a few other unrecognisable barn finds – all ridden by capable pilots. And me.
I loved the closing line in the event brief – ‘Dirt Quake is fun, but it is still motorcycle racing and racing is dangerous.’ The guy who previously raced this very Scrambler left somewhat of a legacy, winning the Hooligan class before breaking his wrist whilst celebrating on the cool-down lap. I could sense an air of disappointment when I showed up. No pressure. No pain, no gain.
Everything was entirely novel and alien: the event, solely turning left, not being able to scrub off speed with perfectly adequate brakes. I was fitted up for a steel shoe, which is essential for flat tracking and allowing your left foot, in theory, to glide majestically across the surface beneath. Our first on-track sortie was a casual practice session, the chance to see what the bloody hell I was letting myself in for. Being brutally honest, I bimbled round searching for grip on a surface that was difficult to walk on, and studying what was feasible with road tyres and 70bhp on tap.
On paper, 70bhp sounds as exciting as a night in confinement with Theresa May and a solitary bottle of olive oil, yet the Scrambler’s light crank, free-revving motor and bugger-all grip rubbished any horsepower figures. It was soon worked out that 2nd gear was the only option (1st was too peaky and hit the limiter, and I couldn’t change gear properly with the clown boot attached). The way in which it suddenly let go and started to spin was far from predictable, although it took a surprising amount of abuse before doing so.
And there’s no hiding from the fact I was on the fastest, freshest, most expensive steed in the field, but I couldn’t do the Scrambler justice in the corners. Dreamy preconceptions conjured up visions of full-lock shenanigans, absolutely sideways, drifting like a pro for the camera. In reality, it was all about gripping on for dear life and trying desperately hard to keep it upright. Despite air fences, those barriers never seemed to far away.
Onto the racing. There were 12 of us. 12 ‘Hooligans’ sacrificing a perfectly good Friday night. After practice, we’d get three heat races and a final, all six laps, each taking in turn to line-up on the grid of four in three rows. I started from the back for the first heat and had no idea of the starting procedure. A light? A flag? I just gassed it when everyone else did. Turns out it was a nice, well-defined green light.
Aside from evading Kings Lynn A&E department, there was another major objective: DO. NOT. TOUCH. THE. FRONT. BRAKE. Or any brakes for that matter. What’s the instinctive reaction to wanting to slow down on a motorcycle? Grab some lever. While the ABS system is pretty sweet, its parameters weren’t set to cope with shale, so scrubbing off speed with merely engine braking and pathetic attempts at two-wheel drifts on corner entry had to suffice. The level of grip was astonishing though, particularly from the front-end when dialling in meaty lean angles. I kept leaning further, turning tighter and the chassis just kept on giving. ‘It’s not supposed to do this,’ was constantly polluting my brain.
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the dude on the FZ600. It looked like hernia-inducing agony trying to keep that thing upright. You’d think that simply riding round in circles and wobbling round like a numpty wouldn’t require too much physical exertion, although my inside leg was in pieces. And muscling 170kg of metal was certainly felt the following morning….
But hilarious fun was had by all. I had absolutely zero expectation, or any idea of expectations for that matter. I think I finished 7th in every heat and 6th in the final due to someone crashing, and came away with a serious flat tracking virus and a newfound respect for speedway/dirt track riders. With plenty of flat track material in the Scrambler’s original press bike, that night at Kings Lynn showed it was more than just a marketing exercise. With a decent pilot onboard (and some decent rubber), it wouldn’t embarrass itself against more thoroughbred.
Thanks to: Gary Inman at Sideburn and the DTRA for letting us gatecrash Dirt Quake – we’ve got grand 1200cc plans for 2017. And to Ian at Design147 for some pics. Love.