For 2018 the flat tracking carnival that is Dirtquake moved from its adopted home at the Adrian Flux Arena in Kings Lynn to Arena Essex, home of the Lakeside Hammers Speedway team, just 30 minutes from our Shoreditch HQ. I sadly missed the first North One TV produced Dirtquake last year (the Dirt Quake brand was sold by Sideburn Magazine's founder and UK flat track protagonist Gary Inman) and I was interested to see if the formula would change much given a new venue with the potential draw of extra spectators from London.
But to be completely honest that was all a bit of a sideshow for me. Having been on a hiatus from racing myself I've been enjoying the rush vicariously through a few mates. At Round 1 of the Hooligan Championship at Kings Lynn in April I got chatting to Gary Birtwistle about what he could ride if all the Indian Scout seats were taken for the rest of the year. He'd run out of steering lock (easily done on the big ol' Scout) and crashed-out meaning no points to start the season. I boldly suggested I could probably blag a bike from a manufacturer if Mike Hill from Survivor Customs would prepare a competitive racer from a street legal donor.
I thought it an idea to tell the story of exactly how the rest happened as pitlane Chinese whispers have resulted in some quite wonderfully elaborate hearsay. Here's the completely biased but factually accurate take on the 2018 Hooligan Championship.
(For those who don't know, the Hooligan series started in America as way of reigniting interest in flat track racing and the rules were simple; 750cc twin or larger within a stock frame, the rest was a free-for-all. Until the Indian Scout came along pretty much everyone used a Harley-Davidson Sportster. I ran a Cagiva Gran Canyon (900cc Ducati L-twin) in 2016-17 and there've been a couple of Triumph Bonnevilles and a KTM Adventure in the UK series. Gary Inman campaigns his work-in-progress Harley with frustratingly fast and reliable effect, beating him aint easy.)
After the Kings Lynn round I called Ducati UK and without much salesmanship at all described the winning formula that could be Gary Birtwistle riding a Survivor Customs Scrambler 800. My charm offensive worked and the next afternoon my buddy Tom rode into the 'Shed and handed over the keys to a nearly new press bike. I felt bad stealing his long termer so hooked him up a Club Moto London
Monster 1200 so as not to rub salt and suggest an Über home. It was going to a good cause though and he was nearly as excited as me to see the wheels in motion.
But by the time the right parts were ordered from Italy and Mike had the bike on his bench in Newcastle there was only a fortnight before Round 2 at Hells Race in Holland. The other issue was that Mike had been smashed-in quite badly after a big pile-up at Kings Lynn and was trying to manage an existing backlog of fabrication work as well as the Ducati project, with broken ribs, a busted hand and a face that looked like he'd called Anthony Joshua's girlfriend a fat lass. But being made of stout stuff, and an ex-BMXer, Mike just got the job done, even if it meant texting back and forward late at night, "Reckon I can chop this bit off, what about cut that bit?".
Ducati sent a set of spare hubs, which Mike would have laced to Excel rims, and a nice looking but timid sounding Termignoni exhaust. The Scrambler runs a 17" rear wheel which would be OK for the Hooligan series as riders don't have to use the 19" Dunlop control tyre like the rest of the DTAR classes. But 17" rubber options are limited. I ran a Heidenau wet on the back of my Cagiva Hooligan racer and it was useless, it wouldn't turn, and had no grip or drive at all. The Scrambler's aluminium swingarm was modified to take the larger diameter combo but it's still pretty tight in there so large gearing changes would mean half links in the chain as the wheelbase is fairly set.
The ignition was relocated beneath the seat on the left side, neatly mounted to a new panel. Mike wanted to tidy the cockpit as much as possible but stopped short of ditching the clocks as there wouldn't have been time or budget for that level of rewiring job. Plus Ducati wanted the bike back at the end of the season to sell at the 'Shed so it needed to be easily returned to standard condition. And speaking of budgets, there wasn't much of one of those either. I didn't want to scare-off the nice man at Ducati so Mike came up with a small number for the invoice, one that'd undoubtedly fail to cover his labour costs properly. Meanwhile I was getting regular photo updates and badgering Ducati on a near daily basis as one of the hubs was on back order in Italy.
Mike modified and trimmed a Knight style fibreglass seat and tail unit, painted it Rosso Corsa and added Gary's number 11 board to the forks. Seems silly but as soon as that square DTRA plate was attached the bike not only looked ripe for racing but confirmed that we'd make the looming deadline of getting across the water to compete at Hells Race in The Netherlands.
Gary was itching to go testing before Round 2 but timing didn't allow for such professional luxuries. I arrived at Lelystad, just outside Amsterdam, just in time to see Gary hustling the Scrambler at a really decent pace. But he wasn't half making some strange shapes, which made me nervous... had we signed the damage waiver? The stock shock was designed for carrying rider and pillion along the Amalfi coast, not backing-it-in to slippery dirt turns. Max Hunt, also on a Ducati Scrambler, thankfully a canary yellow one, seemed more planted. I sidled up to his bike and spotted a custom Hagon shock and surreptitiously took a quick photo of the serial number.
Apart from pulling off a piece of plastic trim to enable perhaps an extra half a degree of steering lock I couldn't offer Gary any assistance, and being the first new Scrambler Mike had built he had no meaningful spares or mods to send Gary off with (Mike needed to rest his ribs so sat-out Hells Race). Gary was fast but it didn't look easy. Sunday was race day and time to see if the Indians could be conquered and whether the devastatingly fast Grant Martin aboard a Harley Street 750 was beatable. The battles were epic all day and Gary made the final easily and had a decent gate pick for a front row start. To my utter frustration the track prep guys dug-up the whole oval just before the final and took an age grading and tyre packing the rust coloured shale. I waited, and waited, nervously. My plane back to Blighty was due to leave in less than two hours, and the airport was 45 minutes away, and I still needed to collect my bag and passport from buddy James' (ex-BSMC crew) place the other side of town. I donned my gear and sat on the back of his BMW GS, engine running, just hoping they'd hurry the fuck up and start the race.
We called time and sped off to the airport. 10 minutes later my phone buzzed with the news. My cheer above the 100 mph wind sufficient for James to hear - Gary had won! Sunday was also my birthday, and as presents go, that was a good one.
Gary had remained the consummate professional all weekend and didn't really let on that he'd been struggling. The suspension was awful and the 800cc Desmo L-twin runs new Siemens ECU with a harsh rev limiter. Apparently it felt like hitting the brakes just as the juicy part of the power curve should have been kicking in. There was no fix for the ECU but Mike ordered lighter fork oil and first thing Monday morning I called Hagon to talk shocks. Gary and Mike took an educated guess at what they wanted the rear end to do and at midday I robbed Dutch's credit card and placed an order for a custom shock setup for Gary's weight and requested reduction in the bike's ride height. The very next afternoon Gary was testing the new suspension at his local track way up north, somewhere near Norway. Sounds like a shameless plug for Hagon, there's no shame - they pulled out the stops for this one and helped put Gary on a level playing field.
The next 2 rounds were held at the MCN Festival at Peterbourgh Arena, my favourite track on the calendar. I had a first dabble of the season and managed a podium in the minibike class but was taken out on the way to a spot in the Thunderbike final. But none of that mattered, I was there to see if the Ducati could hold off Leah Tokelove and Lee Kirk-Patrick - the two fastest Indian Scout riders, and Grant of course. Well, that and the simply astounding sideshow (or main event depending on your standpoint) of Dave Aldana riding a beautifully recreated BSA built by vintage class hero Frank Chatokine, alongside fellow American Johnny Lewis aboard the all conquering Indian FTR750. Those who were lucky enough to witness that special moment will surely cherish it as one of life's special memories, I know I will.
Leah, Lee and Grant were on fire during Saturday's heat races and Gary rose to the challenge, although with Peterborough being a longer and wider track than the Ducati had previously encountered the rev limiter became an issue. The swingarm's awkward shape and the lack of flat sump meant swapping rear sprockets was a real pain in the arse, but a compromise was found and Gary went on to win the final and bag 20 valuable points. The climax of the weekend's double header was a grid packed with not only potential race winners, but championship contenders also. The Ducati had a good gate pick on the front row but there was a false start. Who flinched first is still up for debate and grainy video footage wasn't available at the time so the Race Director had to make an instant call based on what he saw. Gary wasn't eliminated but sent to the back of the grid. I looked at Mike, he looked at me, "Gary's not a win it or bin it type is he?" I asked nervously. "Nah, the lad's got plenty in reserve like, he'll be reet". We hollered, we flinched, the crowd in the grandstand pumped fists and cheered. The bright red Ducati scythed through the field and after 12 laps snagged the last step on the podium. A great points haul and a terrific performance. We'd definitely backed the right jockey and picked a great horse.
Sadly the Hooligan Championship wasn't part of the DTRA's Redcar, Greenfield or Ammanford rounds but Gary kept sharp on his DTX spec Honda CFR450. Podiums and wins in the pro class gave further hope that he could take the title at the season finale at Dirt Quake.
In the meantime the Survivor Scrambler took pride of place on the Ducati stand at Bike Shed London 2018.
After an agonising wait the Dirtquake weekend came around. Grant and his Harley led Gary in the standings by four points but DTRA regs dictate that riders drop the points from their worst round, to level the playing field - it is still a grassroots club after all. The promise of scintillating race meeting was on as the title was genuinely up in the air. Grant, Gary, Leah, Lee or Johnathan Falkman (Indian team rider from Sweden) could win on points and anything can happen in motor racing - and it usually does! I had a feeling Leah would be the rider to beat on the day. She's shown such brilliant bike control and turn of speed all season that it sort of seemed inevitable that she'd find form and romp it. And Lee from Krazy Horse was a big threat too, rapid on race day and just four points behind Gary.
It was kind of strange turning up to the pits at Arena Essex and seeing all my pals but not actually racing myself, especially as it was Dirt Quake four years ago and Gary Inman's help that moved me from lifetime flat track fan to bonafide racer. I'd kept a stiff upper lip in our BSMC Monday meetings about our chances of being involved in a winning team but everyone from the Bike Shed who wasn't rostered to work in Shoreditch last Saturday was trackside and super excited at what could be.
Sporting a crisp BSMC/250 London race jersey Gary calmly went about his business of feeling-out the slightly marbley shale. Competition in the heat races was tough, the Indian team had brought their A-game but so too had Dakar Rally finisher Max Hunt on the aforementioned yellow Ducati Scrambler. Mike was also in the mix on a gorgeous and fit looking Noise Cycles Harley-Davidson Street 750 borrowed from top bloke and stylish flambouyantist Adam Brinkworth. Was Mike going to protect Gary with some form of team riding, maybe drop a box of tacks behind him, or a smoke screen perhaps? Was Gary due a crash? Would there be a massive first turn pile-up allowing Johnathan the points needed for the title?
What transpired was one of the best races I've seen in a long time. Gary and Grant came out swinging, close racing would be a marked understatement. Both rode hard but with respect, rubbing occasionally but nothing a race steward would be fussed about, they both gave as much as they were given. At one point Grant took the inside line away from Gary and ran as tight as he could on the exit, the tail of his Street 750 wagged and the rear tyre scrabbling for grip made contact and snicked the Ducati up into 3rd gear. It took Gary a lap to get within striking distance again and he repaid the favour with a controlled but brave lunge. The lead was swapped a couple of times a lap, the crowd cheered, I stopped breathing. Then Lady Luck dealt a hugely cruel blow, with the narrowest of leads Grant tried to protect his line into turn 3 and lowsided the Harley. Nobody collided and he managed to jump to his feet but the bike wouldn't restart. I guessed the tip sensor which had caused issue at Lelystad was to blame. I held my breath and crossed everything for another few laps until the chequered flag waved and then let out a cheer of relief and elation. We'd done it, the win and 20 points meant our last minute little rag tag team had pulled it off - 2018 Hooligan Champions. Well, that's diluting it somewhat, Gary was the pilot so the accolade is all his.
I felt for Grant though which tempered celebrations somewhat, I did the same thing during the final of the inaugural UK Hooligan Mini series in 2016. Although that season the series was finding its feet and was just a bit of fun. This time around the biggest prize in flat track racing this side of the pond was at stake - title sponsor Indian Motorcycles would give a brand new Scout Sixty to the championship winner. Neither racers were focussed on the prize value though. Gary refused to even look at the Indian website to see what a Scout was worth, and Grant's face on the way back to the pits said it all - his pride was dented, not his wallet.
The final result on the day: 1st Gary Birtwistle - Ducati, 2nd Max Hunt - Ducati, 3rd Lee Kirk-Patrick - Indian. I'll let the DTRA do the maths and work out the other positions in the championship.
I wasn't the only one to be sitting-out the racing this year. Dutch no longer has a street tracker and although Vikki has two, didn't have time to prep one of her Honda Dominators. Café Racer Cup podium finisher and Hollywood stuntman Brandon Beckman said he and his dad would take care of the maintenance if he could borrow her original pride and joy. Late night fuel tank repairs and a whole lot of last minute McGyvering and Brandon lined-up on the grid for his first ever flat track experience. Within a lap he had the hang of going fast and turning left, to the unbridled joy of Vikki who squealed loud enough for him to hear above the Dommie's fire spitting open exhaust.
In one of the heats Brandon went into turn 1 too hot, ran out of lock and lost the rear. From the banking I saw his fingers cover the clutch and he was back on his feet in no time, but plumb last. In the second best race of the day, in my biased opinion, he picked off the competition with the deftness of someone who'd been dirt tracking for years and on the last run to the line bagged third place - heroic!
AND... while all that was going on actual Dirtquake happened!! There were scooters, pizza bikes, choppers, a PW50 and even a tatty but well used Vincent Rapide, that was very rapid indeed! We all had a great day out and despite not racing ourselves were hugely honoured to be represented by Gary and Brandy. In fact it's better we weren't on track with them as they'd have kicked our arses, big time!
Click on the thumbnails below to launch the Dirtquake gallery.
If you need a flat track race bike or street tracker building then genuinely, you'd be hard pushed to find better than Survivor Customs.
Speak to Mike via his Instagram
Build shots - with Mike's or mine
Hells Race - Tom Bing and Ian Osbourne
Peterborough - Surprisingly my iPhone, I think. Gary & Leah, that might be Tom Bing.
Bike Shed 2018 - Amy Shore
Dirtquake - Dan Jones