Preview of the 2016 Superprestigio Flat Track Race

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Christmas is in the air (regardless of David Emmett’s protestations) and that means one unfortunate fact; the racing season is almost finished. We’re drawing towards the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, but thankfully there is a bright light in the sky to guide us.

It’s not a star leading to a manger, where a new born baby lies in wait to save us all, but rather one last event of the racing calendar. Flat Track takes center stage this weekend and the Superprestigio in Barcelona has quickly become one of the most anticipated events of the year. 

Rebirthed in 2014, the event has grown in popularity, and on Saturday night we will once again see Brad Baker take on the best that Europe has to offer. The American is a former AMA Pro Flat Track champion, and generally regarded as one of the biggest talents to come out of the US series in years.

Baker and Marc Marquez were born a day apart in February 1993, and both have captivated their relative championships in recent years and gained reputations for their bravery and spectacular styles. This is the one weekend a year where they battle for supremacy on track together.

The honors stand at 2-1 in Baker’s favor, and with Jared Mees not racing this weekend it would be a surprise if the fight for overall honors doesn’t come down to these two. For Baker the chance to spread the popularity of flat track racing is a major incentive for him to come to Europe.

Speaking in Valencia at the final race of the MotoGP season the Washington native said:

“It’s great to ride with Marc or Valentino, but I’m definitely someone that they use to gauge their performances on,” said the 2013 Grand National Champion.

“They are competitive racers, and it doesn’t matter what type of bike they are on, they want to know how good they can be. They don’t have that absolute gauge with which to judge themselves against until someone of my caliber comes over. They all kinda gun after us when we come over!”

“You can definitely spot the road racers when they try flat track! The way they have their shoulder tipped into the corner is the give away. Their body positioning and how they sit on the bike is good, but the way they use their body and how their elbow isn’t up means you can tell from their style that their road racers…also if they don’t have a steel shoe on that’s a giveaway! I think that you can see an evolution in their styles – whether it’s Marc or Valentino – there is a progression.”

Over the course of the previous three iterations of the Superprestigio the respect that Baker has for Marquez has been clear to see, and when asked about Marquez’s style of riding it was clear that Baker sees a lot of influence from his time training on the dirt.

“I think that you can definitely see some influence from dirt track in Marc’s riding. He’s always looked like he’s pushing the limits and he definitely isn’t afraid of a bike being loose beneth him. He has the mentality that helps, and as he gets more experience he lets the bike hang out more and more. It feels natural for him now.”

When pressed if he felt those influences would mean that Marquez could cut it in a full round of the American Flat Track series the straight talking Baker reframed the question.

“I think that on a short track, with a 450, Marc could qualify in an AMA event. Marc does well at the Superprestigio, but people need to understand that the track is exactly the same as the one that he trains on. With that track, an HRC bike, and the 17-inch wheels, he’s got it dialled in.”

“We ride on 19’s in the States and with different size tracks and different surfaces, it would be a whole other ball game. But in saying that, he went to Rossi’s Ranch and was faster than Valentino, so he’d be able to figure it out no problem on a 450. 

“On a mile though…he’d be shaking in his boots if he was sitting on a twin! Troy Bayliss is a good example of someone with a lot of dirt track experience from Australia and Troy is used to fast, open tracks but he had a rude awaking when he jumped on the Ducati for the half mile and mile. It’s just a totally different world.”

The road racing contingent for this weekend’s races will see Marquez joined by various riders including fellow world champions such as his brother Alex, Toni Elias, Julian Simon, and Nico Terol along with a string of Grand Prix and WorldSBK race winners one name is absent from the list.

Former MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden had hoped to make his Superprestigio debut this weekend, but is sidelined as he continues to recover from injury.

It’s a shame that injury has ruled him out of a Flat Track return this weekend, but it’s clear that having spent time riding with Baker and Brad Mees last winter the desire is still there to test himself against the world’s top Flat Track racers.

“Last winter I was able to do some days training flat track with Baker and Mees, and for sure they were very fast, but all I’ll say is that I was very happy with how I stacked up against them. That probably made the dirt track itch even stronger to scratch for me again!”

There aren’t many riders better placed than Hayden to talk about the challenges facing riders as they adapt to the short track of the Palau Sant Jordi. The American is a former AMA Pro Flat Tarck racer and won six races of the prestigous championship before jetting off to Europe to compete in MotoGP.

Three of Hayden’s wins came on short tracks similar to Barcelona and he gave his insight into what riders will need to do this weekend:

“On a short track the start is really important, but the start position is probably more important,” said Hayden. “It’s a short run to the first corner so you need to be sure that you can get into the right position off the line.”

“I’m not sure how the qualifying is done at the Superprestigio, but typically on a short track race the inside lane is the best option. The goal is to get the hole shot out of the gate and make everyone else pass you round the outside.”

While Hayden grew up with the goal of being a flat track champion, the European riders obviously grew up with a different mindset. Their training was also tailored towards road racing and being as fast as possible on tarmac.

For Americans, the biggest goal is to learn how to feel and adapt to changes. In an excellent podcast for Motor Sport magazine, Freddie Spencer talked about how he learned to find the limit of the track.

“When I was a eight or nine years old I learned a lot by riding in my yard,” said the triple world chamion and three-time AMA road race winner. “We had an acre of property with a lot of trees and in the fall the leaves would fall from the trees but in the South we had a lot of rain.”

“I wanted to ride every day, and after hitting the trees a few times it forced me to learn how to judge the conditions! I learned how much attention I needed to pay because the only way I’d know how wet it was to pay attention to the color of the leaves. That feedback taught me the trajectory and lean angle that I needed to carry. That training instilled in me how to ride without slowing down or hitting a tree!”

In the midst of a flat track race, riders need to react in a similar way to how Spencer did growing up in Louisiana.

“The track changes so much over the course of a dirt track race,” explained Hayden. “The easiest thing to compare it to is to a wet road race where the track dries out. From heat to heat, and even lap to lap, the grip changes constantly and you search for the grip.”

“You’re looking for the rubber on the track – you’ll see the black lines where the dirt has been moved this weekend – and that’s where the traction is.”

“In Barcelona, it’s a very short track with tight corners, so you’ll see the riders use the gas to turn the bike. On more open tracks you tend to keep the wheels more in line to go fast.”

While the likes of Marquez have plenty of dirt track experience, the subtle nuances of the discipline take a long time to learn. With no front brake the style of riding is completely different and how you lose your speed on the way into the corner is key.

“For me the biggest difference for road racers when they race dirt track is getting used to not having a front brake,” explained Hayden. “You need to lose speed on corner entry so you scrub that speed by sliding the bike and using the rear brake, but the top guys in dirt track they will also scrub their speed on the front wheel by turning it down in the corner.”

With Hayden absent through injury he will be one of many interested viewers on television on Saturday night. Being a spectator at MotoGP is something that Baker has become accustomed to, but the 23-year-old is now keen to get out on track in 2017.

Having spent recent months in Spain training with various European racers and raising the profile of flat track, he is now keen to try something different for himself. Having raced on short circuits prior to joining the ranks of professional flat track racers, he is keen to sample it once again. 

“I used to race 125s and 250s, and it’d be cool to do some road racing again maybe in supermoto,” recalled Baker. “There’s some things in road racing that would help me in flat track too, with things like getting comfortable with the speeds.”

“If you get used to 200mph it will make 140 seem slower to you, and I’d be able to perceive things quicker. Chris Carr said that when he was road racing in the early 2000’s he really helped him on the miles.”

At one point Carr switched to racing in the AMA Pro Superbike championship, and was rookie of the year, and the experience helped him greatly when he returned to flat track.

Once back racing flat track, he went on to win many of his record-setting 29 victories on the treacherous mile-long ovals. However, he fell short of one of his goals; winning a road race. He never quite managed to do that and thus missed out on the fabled Grand Slam Club.

There are only four members of this elite club. Dick Mann, Kenny Roberts Sr., Bubba Shobert, and Doug Chandler are the only riders to win a mile, half-mile, short track, TT, and road race at the AMA National level. 

Hayden has won on everything except a mile. The Kentucky Kid was a blitzing comet in US racing at the turn of the millenium. He won his first flat track race just weeks after his 18thbirthday at a short track meet at Haggerstown, Maryland and went on to win two more short track races, two TT’s, and one half-mile race over the course of the next three years. 

In 2002 he was the AMA Superbike champion and won four GNC races. In 2002 he raced flat track, AMA Pro Superbike, and made his WorldSBK debut at Laguna finishing fourth.

By leaving for Europe, Hayden never quite won a mile and it’s something that has meant that he hasn’t been able to join the Grand Slam Club. 

After announcing his move to WorldSBK for 2016, Hayden talked again about his goal of someday wining the Grand Slam.

“I still love dirt track racing and follow it. I’ve definitely not forgotten about it! But I don’t have any immediate plans to go back and race.”

“There’s only been four riders ever to get the grand slam, and I have everything but the mile. I’ve come close a few times and led even at the last corner, but got beaten. That’s always been something I wanted to get. But I’m focused on Superbike for now.”

It’s a shame that injury has ruled Hayden out of a flat track return this weekend, but with Baker against Marquez we’ll have fireworks on track once again in the Palau Sant Jordi.

Photos: © 2015 Steve English – All Rights Reserved