Meet the Riders: James Smith - A Rookie with Resilience

Each year we welcome a new crop of Rookie riders to the DTRA, but just because they’re new to racing dirt track with us doesn’t mean they’re new to racing altogether.

We owe a lot to DirtQuake - which was originally created and organised by Sideburn Magazine - for introducing so many people to dirt track racing; many of our riders had their first taste of it as riders, or even just as spectators at the event, got bitten by the racing bug, and went on to join our club and rise through the classes.

Among these were James Smith (#143), who joined us for the 2016 season to race his Hooligan and Vintage motorcycles, but after being disappointed with his results he went ‘back to basics’ and entered Rookies in 2018. Starting from scratch in a new class and with a purpose-built Survivor Customs Rotax, and committing to putting in the training - even more than he commits to a good night of drinking - has paid off, as he comfortably and deservedly took 1st place on our Rookies podium at Round 1 of the 2019 Nationals championship.

Settling into the first year as a Rookie at Redcar for Round 3 of the 2018 Nationals.

In his own words, here is James’ journey to dirt track racing via DirtQuake, several hangovers and a near-disaster in Florida, and why there’s no shame in going back to the start line.

I don’t even know where or how I heard about DirtQuake II, back in 2013, but my mate Tim and I decided to go and camp the night before - not knowing a single person, or really why we were there. Up until then I had never seen flat track racing; my first exposure to it was the DTRA meeting on the Friday night before the DirtQuake event. To say that I fell in love instantly would be a massive understatement.

On the day of DirtQuake, I snuck around the pits, taking photos of the bikes and getting an appetite to get involved. Having seen the less than race-specific machines that were about to get used, my next move was to try and blag a last minute entry on my Harley Sportster...

My habit of being an annoying twat began before I had even done a race. I looked around for anyone with headset or clipboard and asked, “Could I please enter?” - only to be met with, “Sorry, you missed sign up months ago”.   

With a heavy heart I watched from the stands but it was still a great day. I recall seeing Hubert (Bastie, #2) and Dimitri (Coste, #67) and their crew of loons in fancy dress, and all the exotic bikes people had chosen to sacrifice at the muddy altar.

A plan had been made to race the following year. I counted the days, in waiting for the DirtQuake III entries to open, and signed up to ride my 1976 Harley chopper with 10+ over forks.

That time I rallied up some more mates to come with me, having told them the myths and tales of what I had seen the year before and offering the promise of good times. DirtQuake III was the first time I had been on a motorcycle on anything other than concrete, ‘terra firma’ - and it was after a heavy night of drinking. My friends that were spectating had already started at the bar, and it was still morning...not wanting to trust these pissheads with my bag and tent, I strapped them to my sissy bar and got stuck in.

Despite probably coming last in every race, I was having fun and gave the old girl as much gas I could until I managed to shake it to bits and snapped my transmission axle, killing the bike. The silver lining was that I won a prize from WWAG for having the bike with the longest forks.

I was about to sell the trusty Sportster I still had when I saw (via Sideburn) that the DTRA had announced the new Hooligan class for 2016, and there went that plan for some quick cash...I also wanted to enter the Vintage class, and having made a decision around that time that altered my cash situation, I turned to a 1965 Triumph T90 I had and was brave enough to butcher it.

I spent most of my first DTRA racing season at the back of the pack, and did the same the following year with a 1969 Harley Ironhead that was even worse handling and under-powered than the bike I used the previous year.

Having only really had track time on either an almost pedal-powered relic, or a tank on wheels, I decided I had to unlearn what I hadn’t learned and approached Mike Hill at Survivor Customs (#35) to build me a Rotax for 2018.

Now I had no excuses - I had the perfect bike, but even thought it wasn’t my first rodeo, i was still basically riding around the track with my bollocks tucked up neatly inside me and not really kicking up any dirt.

James Jordan (#78), who was keen to get better in the Hooligan class, convinced me to head out to Florida with him for some training with Johnny Lewis at his Moto Anatomy school. We messed up though, as we landed on Halloween in Orlando and ‘accidentally’ went out on the piss all night, making the next two days on mini bikes hard as hell. After surviving that and trying to take in what we could, we had two days on bigger bikes and a bigger track, but the weather had other plans - we only managed to get in a handful of laps before heavy rain set in for the next couple of days, killing any hopes of further training dead.

Still I returned home with a phone full of notes from Johnny and a hunger to get better. I kept an eye on the flat track racing pages on Facebook, and started going to practice days at the Rye House track as often as I could afford to over the winter, where I would ride non-stop until I ran out of petrol. With getting better came a new cost that I had never had previously been aware of: tyres. I had started to push harder, burning through the tread to the point where I had to turn the tyre around and then replace it altogether before the first race of the season.

In the last few months, ahead of the start of the 2019 DTRA season I felt a lot of things click into place during practice; I was starting to overtake people, and on places that I wouldn’t have before. I was also keeping up with, or taking longer to get overtaken by podium regulars in the upper classes...

At the Round 1 weekend, during Heat 1 of the Hooligan races that I hole shot into an early lead, Geoff (Cain, #45) and several others noticed that I kept looking back in disbelief that there weren’t the usual stampede of people charging past me on the track. I managed to hold onto for 1st position for 5.9 of the 6 laps. Afterwards I had so many compliments and so much support and surprise from people, it was amazing, but my focus was really on how I would fare in the Rookie class. I really wanted to try and at least make the final - unlike the last season, where I barely made two finals and finished 26th overall, with my friend Luke (Kempton, #61), a true first-season Rookie, coming in just a few places behind me.

It would seem the time and effort that I put over the winter paid off. With a 1st, 3rd and 1st in the Rookie heats leading to a 1st in the final, it wasn’t just a fluke but a consistent level of racing that I had finally achieved.

When hard work pays off. James glides into 1st place in the Rookies class at Round 1 of our 2019 Nationals championship and graduates to Inters.

Talking with Thunderbikes rider Tom Clemans (#42, who also took 1st place in his class that weekend), he mentioned that years ago, the DTRA would have been lucky to fill a single grid in a particular class, but now can barely fit riders into three groups to a class and the line between Pro and Inter has been blurred, as has the definition of ‘Rookie’.

I understood the system as that if you placed above a certain place overall at the end of the season you could progress to Inters, but with many of the riders that placed way above me at the end of the 2018 season sticking in Rookie, I felt that staying in the class for 2019 was maybe the right thing to do.

But it seems that my years of riding Hooligan bikes, my trip to Florida, and the hours of practice and track time that I put in over the winter helped click those last pieces into place.

From Round 2 I will be riding in the Inters class, and hopefully progress yet again from the back as I chase the fast-paced people in front of me.

Thanks for the excellent post James, and a huge well done on your result so far this year - we’re looking forward to seeing how you perform among the Inters, and are glad you’ve stuck with us to get this far.

We have now opened our entries for Round 2 of the Nationals championship at the MCN Festival of Motorcycling in Peterborough on May 18th and 19th - click here to sign up for Round 2 now and look out for blog post coming very soon, with all the essential information you need ahead of the round.

In the meantime, our next DTRA race will be Round 1 of our brand new Euros championship (incorporating Round 2 of our Hooligans championship) at Hells Race, Speedway Lelystad, Netherlands - click here to find out more and to sign up if you plan to join us.

Best of luck to you James, and all of our riders, for the rest of the 2019 season. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram and keep checking this blog for photos, videos and updates, and we’ll see you at the races.

Additional photographs by Ian Osborne and Tom Bing.

© 2019 Dirt Track Riders Association Limited