By Mike Adaskaveg
Merced’s Robbie Hannah knows how extreme of an “extreme sport” professional flat track motorcycle racing is.
His homecoming at Merced Speedway will be his first race after a devastating crash in January. Hannah turned pro this season, only to be sidelined at its start.
A completely different show will be the program at the speedway on Saturday. American Motorcycle Association (AMA) flat track racing will see amateur and professional racers compete at the speedway for the first time in many years. The amateurs race in the afternoon, and the pros race under the lights at night.
Considered America’s first “extreme sport,” professional flat track motorcycles will be driven around the speedway’s quarter mile dirt track at 80-90 mph, with six bikes in a heat race and 20 in the feature events.
Hannah, 26, worked his way up the ranks from a 50cc beginner motorcycle up to the 450cc Honda CRF he races today.
“The appeal to going pro is mastering the speed and the amount of dedication it takes – emotionally and physically,” Hannah explained.
Hannah rode every weekend up until January, when his bike was hit from behind in a race and he spilled onto the track, breaking his wrist in 11 locations.
That injury is long forgotten.
“My regimen is to shut off everything in my mind when I go to the track. I can’t even think of falling or getting hurt – I just have to drive the bike as fast as I can,” he added.
Mental concentration and physical stamina work together to bring success to pro racers.
“You have to have the physical ability to race a motorcycle as hard as you can and as smooth as you can,” Hannah continued. “You have to know what gear to use. You have to know how to make your bike better so you can be faster. You can have the fastest bike out there, but without the athletic ability to last the night, you are not going to win.”
Believe it or not, Hannah rides a bicycle to be a better motorcycle racer. His cardio workout also includes running.
“It is a physically demanding and sometimes dangerous sport,” Hannah said of motorcycle racing. “Some people think I am crazy participating in it. You use nearly every muscle in your body to drive a motorcycle competitively.”
Hannah will be racing just two minutes from his home for the first time in his career. He usually travels several hours to compete in AMA Flat Track racing.
“It will be a great chance for my local fans to see me race,” he said. “Many can’t make the far away events.”
The professional program for AMA Flat Track Motorcycle racing begins at 7 p.m.
Amateurs – from Children to Seniors – Race in the Afternoon
The speedway will host races for amateurs beginning at noon on Saturday and lasting until the 7 pm. professional event.
For senior racers like Christopher Ross, 59, returning to a youthful passion is invigorating.
“I used to race ‘flat track’ in the 70’s and came back to it after my kids grew up,” explained Ross. “On a whim, I took an AMA instructional class with some friends and we were instantly hooked.”
Ross, of Miwok Village, tried to resurrect his old bikes, but soon realized he would have to buy a modern motorcycle. A pro should him his number three bike.
“Racing at Merced Speedway will be a little different because it is a car track,” Ross explained. “I picture it to be a lot like Lodi Cycle Bowl, where we have raced several times, in size and surface.”
Ross said he thought Merced would be what bikers call a “blue oval” – because the surface is hard and tires would leave a rubber coating upon it.
“The Senior 50+ class has the biggest turnout every race week,” he said. “There are a lot of racers my age who are still going at it.”
Saturday’s Schedule of Events
Merced’s Barhoppers Motorcycle Club has raised $5400 in purse money for the AMA Flat Track event and plans a “ride around” Merced in conjunction with the event.
The AMA has a split program with amateurs racing in the afternoon program and pros racing in the evening program. The evening program is a more compact show that highlights the group’s top talent.
Amateur classes include Veteran Expert (35 years and older), Vintage Heavy Expert (pre-1982 motorcycle with riders 30 years old and older), 85cc Expert (age 7-15), 250cc Expert (age 12 plus), and Open Expert – the top class in AMA amateur flat track racing (age 14 and older).
Pro Classes include Pro Motorcycle (Most riders have AMA national racing licenses and compete on a national level); and Pro Quad racers (who race quads – four wheelers powered by motorcycle engines).
Noon: Gates Open
12:30 – 2:30 PM: Signup & Tech
3:00: Practice sessions
5:00: Amateur qualifying heat races
6:00: Amateur main events
7:00: Opening ceremonies
7:30: Pro/Expert qualifying heat races
8:30: Main Events