There are almost 700 active dirt tracks in the United States. Three of them are less than an hour from where we’re standing, a few miles outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, in the dust and grit of Eagle Raceway’s gravel paddock. The one-third-mile oval sits in a natural bowl, surrounded by wide green fields save one corner near the gate, where the granite rows of a cemetery stand. They are either ominous or convenient neighbors, depending on the day. They give me plenty to think about.
I have never driven a dirt track car, but I am moments from strapping into the Yamaha R1DT prototype, a 1,200-pound tube-frame creation powered by a cross-plane inline-four plucked from the YZF-R1S motorcycle. The 998cc engine churns out 175 hp, and a six-speed sequential gearbox shuttles it all to the rear wheels via a chain as thick as your favorite cigar. It sounds like glory. The exhaust churns and claws at the track’s empty grandstands. Dave Park, Yamaha’s new business division project manager, wants to sell you one.
“We’re talking about buying a car, taking it straight to the track, and racing it,” he says. “We’re talking about a car that has an owner’s manual, service and maintenance intervals, and good parts support. Maybe even retail financing.”
You know when to pile on more throttle, steer with the fuel, and slingshot yourself to the next turn. I want to do this all day.
There’s nothing else like that in the dirt track world. Park’s talking about bringing the factory GT3 approach to the masses, and although Yamaha seems like a strange standard-bearer for the project, he insists this sort of wild diversification makes perfect sense for the company.
“We’re new to dirt track racing, but we’re not new to racing,” he says. “We understand the challenge of putting together a race vehicle for the track. It’s tires, it’s suspension, it’s fueling—it’s all these things that could take weeks or months.”
The R1DT isn’t breaking new ground. There are already several classes for tube-chassis machines with motorcycle engines, just like Yamaha’s prototype. There are noticeable differences, however. Engineers and product planners spent plenty of time researching what drove circle track racers away from the sport. What they found, Park says, was a familiar pair of devils: time and money. From the beginning, his team set out to manage those woes by developing a car that offers low operating costs, beginning with reliability.
A typical race might subject a car to 30 or 40 laps, and most teams at the sport’s upper levels budget for an engine rebuild at the end of each season. During development, Yamaha subjected the R1DT to more than 2,500 laps of testing without so much as a valve adjustment. In a season that could see as many as 10 races, that sort of durability potentially represents years of competition without the cost or time of a teardown.
It has other money-saving tricks. The chain-drive con-figuration means swapping gears is no more difficult or expensive than changing sprockets on a bike, and Yamaha developed its symmetrical suspension geometry to keep teams from having to stock unique spares for the car’s left and right sides. There’s also the size of the thing. At 140 inches long and about 1,200 pounds, it’s more than a foot shorter than a 1990 Mazda Miata and almost half the weight. You could tow it behind a Subaru Outback and park it in a lawnmower shed.
The car was designed and built to be a driver-training tool, with adjustable power output from 120 to 175 horsepower, selectable through the instrument panel. The screen is gorgeous, plucked straight from the mighty R1, as is the car’s GPS-based data-acquisition system. Using an app on any smartphone or tablet, the R1DT can display staggering amounts of information, including learned track maps and throttle and brake position. There’s no better way to know exactly what you’re doing and where you’re doing it on a course, and that information is the foundation of going faster.
I’m a long way from needing to know where I can pile on more throttle. As I work my way into the cockpit for the first time, I find myself muttering that threadbare prayer to the gods of speed.
“Don’t let me bin it.”
I expect the cockpit to be cramped, like wedging myself in between a maze of table legs, but it’s big and open inside. That was intentional. Yamaha did a pile of research, renting or borrowing cars from across multiple classes, and it found the current crop to be claustrophobic and off-putting. None of them were a place you wanted to spend time.
There’s a small-diameter quick-release wheel bolted to an electronic power steering system and a rack from a Yamaha Viking side-by-side UTV. The shifter is an easy reach for your right hand. Pull back to go up a gear, push forward to go down. It’s contrary to the paddle operation in a modern vehicle, but it doesn’t take long to rewire your brain. Besides, the instructor tells me I can run the whole track in third. There won’t be much cause for shifting.
The start sequence is easy: Turn the key, and mash the big red start button, both lifted from the R1. The engine churns for a split second before lighting and settling into a perfect flat-plane idle. I’m already grinning before I drop the gearbox into first and finesse the sensitive motorcycle clutch into forward motion.
The track is coarse, pocked with ridges and clumps of sticky soil. The R1DT uses off-the-shelf Fox shocks with custom valving. It’s not as compliant as I would’ve guessed. I’m bouncing over the worst of it until I drop into the groove, my fillings spilling out on the track behind me. The trick is to go faster, and by the time I’ve talked myself up to third gear, both car and track have smoothed out.
There is glorious thrust, and the first deep dig into the accelerator has me ripping past my conservative brake marker before I know where I am. I’d had the thing pegged as loose and wild in my head, a car constantly on the edge of slinging out into the fence, but it’s not. There’s an astonishing amount of grip. When it does break loose, as it’s designed to do, it telegraphs the available traction straight to your backside. You know when to pile on more throttle, steer with the fuel, and slingshot yourself to the next turn. I want to do this all day.
Yamaha is keen to oblige. The company is not stingy with our laps. As someone who has spent his adult life pinging around various road courses, I expected to find four corners as invigorating as a walk to the mailbox, but each lap is different. The track changes with water content and sun exposure. You’re constantly adapting and learning to get the most speed out of the car. Your mind is always working, and that’s with just one car on the course. Actual race fields can see as many as 30 competitors going wheel to wheel at the same time. Delicious chaos.
As with any track, the aim is to straighten it out, to turn four corners into two, diminishing your time off the throttle and increasing the seconds spent accelerating. By midafternoon, I’m apexing late on Turns 1 and 3, riding high on the track to drop my outside wheels into the unpacked earth up there before lifting, dropping in a quick stab of brake, and coaxing the car’s tail out then picking up the slide with the throttle and aiming for an early apex on Turns 2 and 4. A season of dirt track competition could teach you more about car control than a lifetime of low-budget Lemons racing.
Yamaha is tight-lipped about whether the R1DT project will get a green light or how much the cars will cost if they do see production. The company doesn’t know where the machines would be built, who would sell them, or in what class they would race. Those are all big questions, but the manufacturer seems keen to answer them. Dirt track racing might be the most American of motorsports, a door to the paved ovals of NASCAR, IndyCar, and beyond. The R1DT could be the key the next generation of drivers needs to throw it open.