Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Complete Book of Flat Track - Gerald Foster interview

It's nearly Christmas and we reckon a load of you won't be struggling to think what you'd like (Harley XR750, Ruby Pavillon helmet, Belstaff riding attire, your own roller derby team...), but the Complete Book of Flat Track Racing is something you NEED and have a real chance of being bought. Get it on your Christmas list. It's a bloody beauty.

We've been selling a load of copies and everyone who has bought seems to be very happy, so we decided to interview the author to find out a little more about it.

Click here to find out how to buy your own copy.

What inspired you to write the original Complete Book of Flat Track Racing?
It wasn’t any great flash of inspiration I must admit. I had been contributing to and writing magazine dirt bike tests and street riding books. The early seventies were the start of motocross in the U.S. and coming from Europe gave me a certain expertise on the subject. Or so the American editors and publishers thought! Anyway, by 1975 the motocross market had become a lot more sophisticated and my “expertise” had become eclipsed by younger more competent evaluators and riders. I was by this time thirty five years old, married with a pregnant wife and looking for work to pay the bills. In my quest for work I attended the American Booksellers convention in Anaheim, California, and met Tim Parker, who at the time, was holding down the fort at the Haynes booth. Two good things came out of that and subsequent meetings over the next few days: The promise of a contract to write a book on flat track racing, and a friendship that still continues today.

1970s Gerald

How did the reprint come about?
A couple of years ago Tim finally started his own publishing company, after being instrumental in putting Motorbooks International on the map, and asked if I would be interested in working on a reprint of the flat track book. To be honest I wasn’t interested, mainly because I didn’t think the original was marketed very well, (read very few sales), and I didn’t want to go down that road again. Besides, thirty years on it was outdated. I didn’t realize at the time that that was the beauty of it. In addition, the print artwork had been destroyed and I had no idea where many of the original photographs were. I was convinced to at least consider the idea after Tim suggested using other photographs to replace those missing. In effect the book didn’t have to be exactly the same because if you hadn’t seen the original you wouldn’t be aware of any differences. And, I offer this only for those who actually own one of the original copies; in doodling around the Internet I found several copies of the book for sale at anywhere from 15 pounds to $450.

The quality is beautiful. Whose idea was the embossed cover?
I take no credit for the quality and layout of the book, That was all done in Stillwater, Minnesota; it was Tim’s idea to emboss the cover. I do think the cover is a definite improvement over the original, and the quality of the paper gives the book a more expensive look and feel. I’m very happy with the finished product. It definitely exceeded my expectations.

The repackaged Gerald

How much work went into the repackaging?
After I agreed to do this I had no idea how time consuming it would be. I’m sure a lot of the time was because I treated it as though I was starting from scratch; reading every word, re-editing and trying to find if the companies that were mentioned were still in business – some were, some weren’t, and finally we decided not to update the original information since the book was a snapshot of a moment in time.
As I mentioned the photographs were the biggest problem. I had boxes of photographs in the garage which I dusted off, and went through in an effort to locate the originals. Some were never returned from the publisher but I did manage to track down Dan Mahony, at the end of a dirt road in Missouri, who provided many of the original photographs and graciously provided a lot more from which I was able to choose. All in all a lot of work, but since I’m retired, no big deal. It was just like going to the office every day.

Looking back what has changed in the Flat Track scene over the last thirty years?
The 1960s were really the height of the golden years of American flat track racing. There were races practically every night somewhere around the country, and tracks such as Ascot Park in Gardena, California, were the training grounds for future national riders. By the time I became interested in the mid -70s the sport was past its prime. Yes, there were still some great races at the mile tracks that drew huge crowds, but to be a flat track racer meant building your own bike, and collecting all the necessary parts from specialist manufacturers. And, this was at the beginning of the motocross craze where young riders could buy a perfectly capable off the shelf production motocross bike, and fly through the air with the greatest of ease. The direction became motocross, motocross and more motocross. Granted there were a few years in the mid eighties when Honda took the national title away from Harley-Davidson, but the decline continued. The American Motorcycle Association (AMA) is, I believe, not without blame here as since its inception has represented the factories and the riders. To say that the manufacturers held sway with the organization to the detriment of the riders would not be a dishonest statement. Technical advancement was limited, and I’m sure this contributed to the decline. And, as stated, with the advent of motocross the pool of young up-and-coming flat trackers began to shrink as the AMA devoted more and more effort to motocross. Now, having said that, I know nothing ever completely dies. There is always a core of enthusiasts who will nurture something and keep it going. And, that is the miracle of flat track racing. Old farts wanted to race, and so set up their own organizations independent of the AMA, and slowly there has been resurgence. The AMA National schedule under Mike Kidd’s leadership has also started to add races, and since I wrote the preface for the reprint in May we now have a National in California after an absence of quite a few years. So, in thirty years I’ve seen a decline, but now I’m hoping we’re seeing an upsurge. It may never get back to where it was but one never knows.

Who is your all time favorite racer and favorite track?
I don’t really have one because they are all so exceptionally talented. To stand at the end of the back straight of a mile track and watch these guys scrub off 130+mph by putting the bike sideways into the corner is something to behold. Favorite track? I like any cushioned track where the riders can run around the outside with the throttle wide open. That’s spectacular.

And the best race you ever remember seeing?
The best race was one I never actually saw. I write about it in the book because everyone I talked to who saw this race remembers it. It was the 1975 Indianapolis Mile when Kenny Roberts rode the TZ750 Yamaha and won coming off the last corner. Kenny was in third place on the last lap, and throughout the race had been working hard to put the enormous power of the bike to the ground. Exiting the last corner Jay Springsteen and Corky Keener were congratulating each other when Kenny just turned the thing on, and with a huge rooster tail, beat them both to the line by literally inches. An incredible feat which also helped seal the fate of seeing the machine in future competition. You’ll have to read the chapter to understand why though.
As a footnote to that story, at Indianapolis this year Kenny did several laps on a replica TZ750 and at 57 years old looked pretty damn good.

King Kenny (at Houston)

Did you ever race yourself?
I was fascinated when I went to Ascot Park to watch my first flat track race soon after I came to the United States but having grown up competing in scrambles in the UK I didn’t really see myself riding. Too fast and maybe a little too late to learn something new. And, with my new wife the only one working, I doubt she would have been too keen on sponsoring my efforts. Besides, I really wasn’t a very good scrambler. I remember someone, and I cannot remember his name, describing his own scrambling ability as ‘mudgrunt vulgaris’. The same also applied to me.

Do you go to flat track races now?
Rarely, though I do enjoy vintage racing. There are a couple of events every year I do like to attend put on by Ventura Vintage Outlaws. The racing is fun, there are classes for bike size, bike age and rider ability. There are even Harley road bikes and choppers in the mix. And, like their website says: Nobody is allowed to take themselves too seriously. Add to this the fact that this little racetrack is literally yards from the ocean, and on a hot summer’s night when it is a hundred degrees in the city, there is no better place to be with a beer and a hot dog in your hand.

Ventura Vintage Outlaw race

Do you know anything about the fledgling short track scene in the UK?
I didn’t even know it existed until I came across a link to on a vintage flat track site here. And, I love that Ironman Chris Carr comes over and teaches. All you need now are some longer tracks, and to make sure that you have a governing organization that doesn’t screw things up.

Thanks Gerald.
Click here to find out how to buy your own copy.


BlackCountryBiker said...

I bought a copy of Gerald's original book back in the early 80s, loved it so much I went out and bought an XS650, threw away all the junk, sprayed it yellow and added some black and white chequer stripes from a "fizzie". That was me hooked and I've been a flat track fan ever since. Thought I was the only one n the UK for years until I discovered Sideburn, seems I wasn't alone after all. Cheers Gerald, your book was an inspiration way back then and I'll defo be gettin the new issue to add to my book shelves.

Mick P said...

Nice one. Might end up having to buy this book.

BlackCountryBiker - where abouts in the Black Country are you from?

BlackCountryBiker said...

Hi Mick P "BlackCountryBiker" is Ade (Ian Yemms old mukka) from Cradley Heath... hence my fascination with bikes that go sideways!

Did anyone here ever witness the longtack meeting held at the old stock car track near Cannock back in the late 70s. I believe the derelict remains of the stadium and 1000m circuit are still there too. It would be great to get it up and running again and would make an excellent short track venue for the UK.