Archives Column | Give 'Em A Brake! (Or Not)

Cycle News Staff | February 14, 2021

Cycle News Archives


This Cycle News Archives Column is reprinted from issue #5, February 11, 2004. CN has hundreds of past Archives columns in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. So, to prevent that from happening, in the future, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.

Give ’Em A Brake! (Or Not)

When flat track racing said yes to brakes.

By Scott Rousseau

If not the end of an era, the start of the 1969 AMA Grand National Championship dirt-track season was the beginning of the end. For it was then that the AMA first allowed the use of rear brakes for dirt track racers.

Before that, part of the spectacle of flat-track racing lay in the racers’ abilities to race inches apart from one another before pitching their machines into the corners purely with throttle control.

“It all depended on the track, but there were places like Sacramento where you’d run it in there deep and gather it up and then just get right back on the throttle without ever using a brake,” 1970 AMA Grand National Champion Gene Romero remembers. “I doubt that there are many riders who could do it like that now.”

In actuality, says brake proponent Dick Mann, who notched a title each in the different eras (1963, 1971), the brake rule came about as the result of what was happening in the short-track portion of the discipline.

Mert Lawwill- circa 1971, Cycle News Archives Column

“Brakes came about because the two-strokes were beginning to dominate the short tracks, and they needed to make it fairer for the four-strokes, so they put brakes on them,” Mann says. “But for years, we had been in favor of putting brakes on all the dirt-track bikes.”

It sounds as if it should go without saying, but the ideology behind the adoption of brakes was safety. The rub is that no one actually anticipated riders using them in normal race conditions.

“Let me tell you, I had no idea that anybody would ever put the brakes on to go around a corner,” Mann says. “In those days the straightaway speeds weren’t so high, and you could slide the back wheel by just shutting the throttle off. It was supposed to be a safety feature for extreme conditions. We never thought that somebody would put the brake on while they were racing.”

But many riders did begin to use brakes to their advantage, racing down the straightaways and applying the binders, thus gaining the ability to hug the low line. Mann remembers that the young lions of the day, such as Jim Rice, Don Castro, Don Emde and Dave Aldana, were particularly adept at using brakes. Romero says that Rice was the absolute master.

“To me, it was just an added thing, but I came up in the time when—well, when we were novices, we had a rear brake, but the only time you used it was when you came in the pits,” Romero says. “The first guy who I saw really make them work to his advantage [on big bikes], and a guy who I copied immediately, was Jim Rice. I learned how to use them, but I came from a time without them. If they would have said, ‘No brakes,’ we’d have went with it. But the racing kind of changed with the brakes.”

Mann agrees with Romero on that last point.

“It [a brake] never changed my riding style, but I was lucky because it was a transition that came about very slowly. I think that it affected Mert Lawwill more than anyone. For years, he was one guy at the top of the ladder who continued to use that old style, and he was the fastest guy at the races with that style. But if he got into traffic, he was in big trouble.

Lawwill, the 1969 AMA Grand National Champion, says that he hated brakes.

“The one thing that really hurt us is when they went to brakes,” Lawwill says. “I was against it then, and in retrospect, I still think that we shouldn’t have done it. Even after we went to brakes, I never used them for a long time.”

However, Romero and former BSA and Yamaha rider Chuck Palmgren remember Lawwill’s attitude as being a little different from that.

“That might be a little hypocritical of Mert, and the reason that I say that is because the two biggest proponents of having brakes on the rear was Dick Mann and Mert Lawwill,” Romero recalls. “They sold that package to the AMA.”

Palmgren says that Lawwill appears to have a selective memory, although he agrees with what Lawwill is saying now. “Mert wanted the brakes,” Palmgren remembers. “We really didn’t need them.

“They did take away from the show, they didn’t improve the sport, and you could no longer accidentally run over the referee [laughs]. The brakes weren’t very good or reliable anyway, and that was partially due to our inexperience with them at the time. I remember one time at Ascot, Dud Perkins poured oil on Dan Haaby’s brakes just to get his wheel to roll more freely. Of course, I don’t know how you could go back to not having them today.”

Two-time AMA Grand National Champion Gary Nixon (1967-68) concurs with Palmgren that the brakes didn’t work that well.

“In fact, the day that I got hurt in Santa Rosa [California] in 1969, I had taken my brakes off. I guess we needed them because it was some sort of safety thing. But it didn’t really affect me that much either way. We rode TTs with brakes, so it wasn’t much different than that.”

And yet it was different, somehow, especially on the big mile tracks.

“It changed the show,” Mann says. “In some people’s minds it ruined the show, but it is really stupid to have a vehicle that fast without brakes. The big sticky tires and the development on the engines changed it even more than the brakes. Until the tires got that sticky, you couldn’t use the brakes that much. Today, you see the guys passing each other many times on the straightaways, but nobody really does much passing in the turns.” CN


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