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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?