A new chapter is to be written in the long and illustrious history of motorcycle racing on Montjuic, the hill that borders the south side of Barcelona. On January 11th, a selection of Grand Prix racers, including all three world champions Marc Marquez, Pol Espargaro and Maverick Viñales, are to compete in the Superprestigio dirt track event to be held at the Palau Sant Jordi on Montjuic. The event is to be broadcast on Spanish TV
The race is to be held on single cylinder four-stroke flat trackers, raced around a 200 meter dirt oval inside the former Olympic indoor arena. Entry is by invitation only, and racing will take place in three separate classes: the Junior category, for riders under 18; the Open category, for experienced riders from around the globe racing in national championships; and the Superprestigio category, for riders currently competing in the MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3 classes. At the end of the evening, a run off is to be held between the four best racers in the Open category and the four best from the Superprestigio category.
The entry list for both categories is impressive. The Superprestigio category will see Marc Marquez, Pol and Aleix Espargaro, Maverick Viñales, Bradley Smith, Alvaro Bautista, Julian Simon, Jonas Folger, Moto3 teammates Alex Marquez and Alex Rins, Hector Barbera, Tito Rabat, Johann Zarco, Niklas Ajo, Jordi Torres, Lorenzo Baldassari and Ricky Cardus race against one another. Nicky Hayden was also invited, but as he has just had wrist surgery, wisely but regretfully decided to pass on the event. Among the entries for the Open category are some of the top racers from the UK's rapidly growing flat track scene, former Moto2 racer and AMA singles champion Kenny Noyes, who has a dirt track school at Motorland Aragon, the winners from the European Dirt Track Festival held at Aragon in November, and some of the top Spanish flat trackers who, unlike their road-racing brethren, are virtually unknown in their own country.
But the star of the Open class will be AMA Grand National champion Brad 'The Bullet' Baker. Baker's invitation to the event came around after a campaign on social media by writer and former racer Mark Gardiner, who eventually goaded Marc Marquez into issuing an invitiation to Baker (for more background on this, see Gardiner's Backmarker column on Motorcycle USA). As AMA Grand National Champion, Brad Baker can justifiably be regarded as the best dirt track racer in the world at the moment.
The return of the Superprestigio revives a historic tradition. Back in the 1990s, the event was run as an end-of-season road race, which pitted some of the best American riders against some of the best from Spain. The Superprestigio saw a young John Kocinski make his first foray into Europe, which would eventually see him racing in Grand Prix and World Superbike, but it was also the place where Kenny Roberts Jr and Colin Edwards made their European debuts. In recent years, factory contracts and Dorna have put a stop to riders taking part in races on the road, but staging the event as a dirt track series neatly sidesteps any such ban. The event is the result of a collaboration between Jaime Alguersuari - father of the Spanish F1 driver of the same name, and founder of Spanish magazine Solo Moto - and Marc Marquez, who is an avid dirt track racer in the off season. Marquez had wanted to organize a race against his peers over the winter, and Alguersuari saw an opportunity to revive a once-great brand he had been involved in in the past.
The Superprestigio also stands as the current high point of the ongoing dirt track revival. After its heyday in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the popularity of the sport among road racers went into something of a decline. This was rather odd, as many of the top riders - Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner, to name two MotoGP champions - grew up racing on dirt ovals. But the past few years have seen the discipline gain popularity again, with riders such as Marquez and Valentino Rossi taking it up with much enthusiasm.
The reasons for its revival have been manifold. Perhaps its biggest attraction is that it allows riders to race at speed and slide a bike with limited risk of injury. After suffering a serious shoulder injury in 2010, Rossi set about building his own dirt track ranch near his home in Tavullia, allowing him to train without risking another similar injury. As a dirt track circuit tends to be flat, and most motocross injuries are picked up from crashes after jumps, dirt track removes a major source of injuries. Racing a bike on a loose surface also teaches riders to manage and control slides, at both the front and most especially the rear wheel. Throttle control also becomes paramount, managing the sliding of the rear, an increasing necessity in road racing, especially in Moto2 with limited electronics, and in MotoGP, following the direction opened up once again by Casey Stoner and Marc Marquez, after a period in which tires and electronics had killed it off during the 800cc era.
More and more riders are setting up their own dirt track facilities. Valentino Rossi has laid out a complex of circuits at his Moto Ranch, but Marc Marquez also has a private track where he, his brother Alex, and a host of invited riders also train.
The dirt track revival has also seen new schools growing up teaching the art. Perhaps the most famous is Colin Edwards' Texas Tornado Boot Camp, a mixture of dirt track and Texan adventure. A less expensive and more race-focused school is run by Kenny Noyes. The Noyes Camp school is run at Motorland Aragon, where it hosted the European Dirt Track festival.
The European revival is also down to the groundwork put in by the British publication Sideburn Magazine, run by Gary Inman. That magazine has helped foster a thriving scene in the UK, with riders from all over Europe racing there. It has even fostered the Dirt Quake event, a wild and weird mixture of flat track racing on entirely unsuitable machinery, live music, and motorcycle culture.