Many years ago, when American riders first burst onto the roadracing scene, and immediately dominated Grand Prix racing, dirt track racing was seen as a key part of their success. Training on the hardpacked dirt, where pushrod twins have far more power than they can ever transfer directly into drive, translated very well into racing 500cc two strokes, which had the same excess of power over grip. As tire technology advanced, and as the number of racers coming out of the US to race on the world stage declined, dirt track fell out of favor. Styles changed back towards keeping the wheels in line and carrying as much corner speed as possible, a skill learned in 125s and 250s, and taken up to 500s and MotoGP. The advent of the 800cc bikes, which caused a quantum leap forward in electronic control, emphasized this even further.
The dirt track mindset had not disappeared completely: both Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden cut their teeth racing on the dirt, and carried that style into MotoGP. Hayden suffered once the series switched to 800cc bikes, especially as Honda switched their development focus to corner speed, and the European 250cc style. Stoner used his dirt track skills to control the fearsome Ducati Desmosedici, the bike which destroyed the careers of so many other riders. Stoner's switch to Honda coincided with Shuhei Nakamoto's changed approach at HRC, putting more emphasis on rider input, putting more control of the rear tire back in the hands of the rider.
The return of the 1000cc bikes and the improvement of feel from the Bridgestone tires made it possible to help steer the bike by sliding the rear once again. Since then, there has been an explosion in interest of dirt track, especially due to the influence of two champions. Marc Marquez has been an evangelist of the discipline as both a great training ground for bike skills and racing aggression, Valentino Rossi has used it to hone his already formidable skills, and to test out new ways of riding and new riding styles.
The difference in approach is visible in the tracks they use to train on. Marc Marquez' manager Emilio Alzamora managed to persuade the community of Rufea to build a short track oval in the town, not far from Marquez' home town of Cervera in Spain. Valentino Rossi constructed a huge facility with a wide variety of possible track layouts on private land he owns near his home town of Tavullia in Italy.
The Rufea layout is simple: a short oval (two left turns), where Marquez, his brother Alex and friend of the family Tito Rabat train regularly. Their training is aimed at several things: first, at gaining feeling on the bike, understanding how the bike reacts when it is sliding, how to use the power to help turn the bike. Marquez trains without a front brake, using the rear brake and throttle to help control the bike and slow it for a turn. Races are held frequently, to train aggression and hone race-specific skills: where gaps open up, how to spot them and exploit them, not to fear the close proximity of other riders, how to survive contact. Tito Rabat hailed the practice sessions at the circuit as one of the keys to his championship victory in Moto2, not just in terms of riding skills, but especially in terms of race craft, and aggression during the race.
The layout at Rossi's VR46 ranch is much more sophisticated. There is a wide variety of left and right turns, of varying speed and radius, which can be combined to create a range of different track layouts, from short and simple to long and complicated. Rossi rides there with a European-style bike, complete with front brake, as fitted to all the bikes at the VR46 ranch. The focus for Rossi seems to be much more about honing riding skills, rather than learning about racing aggression. The way the corners flow and combine teach riders more about handling a bike through difficult sections when it is moving underneath you than about pure race aggression. The wide difference in corner layouts - from very tight to fast and flowing, from reducing radius to wide open - mean that there is a chance to practice different approaches, different riding styles to deal with different types of corner. Rossi trains there with friends and fellow riders regularly, as well as with the young riders from his VR46 Rider Academy, an initiative to help nurture young Italian talent. Like Marquez, Rossi races frequently, especially with the youngsters, to help retain his aggressive edge.
Which is better? So far, Marquez is up two championships to zero against Rossi, though Rossi made the youngster's life increasingly difficult towards the end of the 2014 season. Marquez is focused on the basics of racing, of finding way past opponents, being comfortable in close proximity, and of not being afraid in racing. Valentino Rossi is focused on racing finesse, on fine-tuning his weaknesses, exploring the subtleties of riding style in a range of situations. Their two different tracks reflect that, Marquez a straight oval, Rossi's track more like an MX or Supermoto track without the jumps and the loose dirt.
Whichever proves to be the more successful, dirt track is back with a vengeance. The switch to spec electronics in 2016 will see even more emphasis on rider throttle control, as the sharpest edges are taken off the extreme sophistication of the current generation of factory electronics. Dirt track facilities are springing up all over Europe, especially in Spain. Kenny Noyes has been running the highly successful Noyes Camp program for a couple of years now, and a new facilty has just been added closer to Barcelona. The European dirt track scene is flourishing, the level of the competition rising rapidly, and publications such as Sideburn magazine growing in popularity. Wild and irreverent events such as Dirt Quake, in which entirely inappropriate bikes are raced around an oval, are becoming cult classics.
Then of course there's the Superprestigio, an invitation event in which the best flat trackers in the world take on the best road racers in the world (as well as the best Supermoto, enduro and trials riders in the world) on an indoor short track oval in Barcelona, on 13th December 2014. This event is helping to spread the popularity dirt track even further, among fans who know little of the discipline. Expect more dirt track facilities to spring up in the next few years, though whether they will be ovals or long, complex layouts like Rossi's ranch will be determined as the two do battle on circuits around the world in the next two seasons.
Rossi's complex dirt track layout at the VR46 ranch at Tavullia:
Compare this with Marc Marquez' short track oval at Rufea