Speed Racers

It was easy to become a member of a tight-knit flat-track motorcycle racing community. Getting out of it, however, almost cost this photographer his life.

In 2011, Daniel Weiss started photographing flat-track motorcycle racers all around the United States. In 2014, he started racing, too. But two years later Weiss had a devastating crash, and he had to leave his newfound community behind to recover.

It was an abrupt, and shocking, end to what had been a personal and professional passion project. Here, in his own words, Weiss tells the story of his life as a flat-track motorcycle junkie.

Many racers wear customized leather suits for racing. The suits are a way for riders to express themselves, remain identifiable on the track, and protect themselves from dirt, gravel, and asphalt.
An RV from Texas with some Aussie pride at Volusia Speedway in De Leon Springs, Florida.
Dave Aldana in his signature skeleton leather riding attire at Volusia Speedway, 2016.

Flat-track racing started in America.

Before that there was board-track racing, where they’d build these velodromes of wood and race these very basic, early machines. As motorcycles became faster and more prominent, they moved onto dirt tracks. It has really continued, more than anything, because it’s the cheapest type of organized racing you can get into. You can buy something off Craigslist, throw some dirt tires on it, and take it to the track.

Talented young racer Logan McGrane, right, talks with another at Oglethorpe Speedway in Pooler, Georgia, 2016.
A spectator clocks racers’ speeds with a radar gun at Orange County Fair Speedway in Middletown, New York, 2014.
A racer leans into a curve at Oakland Valley Speedway in Cuddebackville, New York, 2011. At some of the larger tracks, the better racers can reach speeds of more than 100 miles per hour.
A young racing couple at the track.

I have some friends at a motorcycle shop near me in New York City. They specialize in old British motorcycles, so I was drawn to the shop because of that. They’re always going racing, and they’ll invite you to go racing, or at least come to the track. So I wound up going to watch it.

When you set foot on this intimidating track, you might feel like you don’t have a place there. But everyone is so inclusive. I never encountered anyone who wasn’t encouraging or who didn’t treat me with respect.

At first, I didn’t think I could ever race. But eventually I got my own race bike and got into it.

Sandriana Shipman from upstate New York at Oglethorpe Speedway, 2015.
Checking the lineup on race day at Oglethorpe Speedway, 2015.

To me, the people who do this kind of racing at that expert level are like Olympic athletes. The skill level is so high and the danger level is so high—higher than in most sports. And I think that’s the draw.

It’s hard to portray this through portraits, but these people are out there risking their life, in a way, for nothing. Wherever they’re from, they work on their own bikes, and it’s this self-reliant activity. There’s no real money involved. If you’re really good, you can win a few hundred bucks, but mostly you’re getting a plastic trophy and whatever that means to you.

Racers wait for their heat at Oglethorpe Speedway, 2015.
Leather gear is not cheap; suits can run into the thousands of dollars. Some racers get businesses or outside sponsors (such as their moms) to help cover costs.
A racer takes in the relative quiet before a race at Oglethorpe Speedway, 2015.
The speeds are fast, the noise is overpowering, and the safety measures are few at many flat-track speedways.

It’s very scary. The first time I was out there, I wasn’t sure if I could do it again. But I didn’t want to be afraid.

What you don’t get from the pictures is the sound of it all: it sounds like fighter jets flying by. And there’s something intoxicating about that. Just being out there, especially your first time, and there are these riders flying around you so fast—it’s kind of terrifying, but also really attractive.


A poster at the Sixth Street Specials bike shop in New York’s East Village tells the story of what happened when photographer Daniel Weiss got bumped off the track while racing in Pennsylvania in 2016.
Weiss was able to cover some of his medical bills with the proceeds of a Sixth Street Specials T-shirt sale and a GoFundMe campaign.

I always thought these people were crazy. The whole sport is a bit crazy, but any racing sport is. And you have to know what you’re getting into. I thought that I knew.

But on April 16, 2016, I was racing in the first race up north on the racing circuit, which starts in Georgia. I was doing pretty well: I was neck-and-neck with this guy through the finish line. We were both going too fast, and he bumped me. The turn right after the finish line had this 20-foot drop, and at the bottom of that was a cinderblock wall.

So he bumped me, and sent me straight off of that. I flew through the air and crashed through that wall.

I was in bad shape. I had to get airlifted out of there to a trauma center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I basically broke everything on the right side of my body. I broke my ribs so bad, they punctured a lung. My whole right leg was destroyed. I was in a coma for 12 days. I spent basically three months in the hospital. I’m done with racing now.


Jeff Hogan, aka “Jeff Dude,” works on his bike at Oakland Valley Speedway, 2011.
A bag of ice cools down a motor to prevent it from overheating or exploding later in the day.
A vintage-class heat at Oglethorpe Speedway, 2015.
George Wills, a 14-time national champion, at Oglethorpe Speedway.
Fire extinguishers and other objects line the track.
Racer number 54 finds some shade during a hot day at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Florida, 2016.

I haven’t been to a race since.

It takes a very interesting, different, motivated, crazy group of people to do this. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about it. To really succeed in the pro races, these guys are sliding their motorcycles at a 90-degree angle at over 100 miles per hour. People have died on the same track I was on. But the people who do this, they have so much heart. Funnily enough, they think riding on the street is too dangerous—they trust the other riders on the track. I guess it’s when these people feel alive. It’s these people for whom regular life is boring in relation to this activity.

How could you not try it?

Dust and exhaust settle after the start of a heat.

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