We got the chance to sit down with Flat Track Champion Joe Kopp to talk about his long-term experience backing-it-in on the dirt oval as a professional.
American Flat Track is America’s original extreme sport. The highly competitive, adrenaline based, motorcycle sport reaches speeds of 140mph. What more could race fan junkies want? We got to chat with one of AMA Flat Track Champion Racer, Joe Kopp. Joe Kopp is an AMA Pro Flat Track Racer from the United States who has competed in the Championship since 1993, winning the AMA Pro Grand National Championship in 2000, but you probably already knew that (hopefully). We found out more about Joe, his biggest accomplishments, how he found his success, the struggles he faced, and what he hopes to see for the future.
Joe got into racing because his dad and uncle were very successful racers. They raced motocross, cross country, and hillclimb, bringing lots of diversity. He grew up around the race track, and most would say he was born with the racing spirit running through his veins. Many would be surprised to know that he actually grew up racing off-road cross country and desert races. When he was about 16, a friend asked him to come try out his Champion framed Honda CR250 at a local flat track. Up until this point, he had been racing a KX500. Once Joe twisted the throttle on that dirt oval, it was all history from there, and he became a Flat Track racer ready to start what would be a very long and successful career.
What was the biggest accomplishment in your career?
Joe: I’d say winning the GNC #1 plate in 2000 along with also winning the SuperTrackers series and the 600 Hotshoe series that same year. Everything just seemed to click that year.
It’s not all fun and games though, with good memories, wins, success, also comes struggles. Joe says some of his biggest obstacles in his career were injuries. “When Will Davis died in Missouri in 2001, I had some bad injuries from that crash as well, both wrists broken along with head and internal injuries,” commented Joe.
At the time, Joe Kopp was at the top of his game with the #1 plate, so this was a big shock in the middle of a successful season. It would take time for his injuries to heal, and it would take time for him to work his way back to the top.
How did bike and physical/mental preparation differ for different races/venues?
Joe: Most racers usually had like a baseline setting for certain size tracks, say a ½ mile, we’d start with the base line chassis stuff as we knew what it was probably going to start like by looking at the track prior to ever getting on it. Dirt track racers had to know how to read dirt! The mental part of any racing I feel is huge, but with dirt track it’s even more important as there are always so many unknowns with what the dirt and surface is going to do so you’d see one guy doing this or that to his bike, but sometimes you knew that you had to stick with what you knew was right, even though everyone else out there was maybe doing something a bit different. I loved the mental part of the game, and I can honestly say that I won some races I probably should not have just because of my mental preparation.
What races stick out in your mind as the most memorable and why?
Joe: For sure Daytona 2009. We had 2 GNC races back to back, Friday and Saturday. Friday I had an idea to try something with my bike setup that was totally legal. It worked great for that particular day’s track conditions, but they decided to ban the idea and make it not legal for the next day. The first day I ended up 3rd from a 4th row start because I had a bike issue. The next day they banned my new idea and that kind of put a big mental block on myself for what I had. So, I started out struggling the next day and finally put it all together by the end of the day when the checkered flew and came home with the win. They were sure I had not played by the rules that day but when the dust settled, we just flat kicked their butts!
Any advice you have for racers in the beginning stages of their career?
Joe: I’d say to treat it like a job. I mean have fun with it too, as not very many people get to race a bike for a living, but ya gotta take it serious if you really want to go to the top and stay there for a while. I also see a lot of racers following other racers training regimen or stuff like that. I always had the attitude to do what the others weren’t doing because I didn’t want to be as good as them, I wanted to be better than them, so I always made it a point to do it different.
What do you think it is about flat track that creates such a loyal following?
Joe: The racers and people that are involved. We all know that we’re not better than anyone else, sure maybe we can go around this race track better than someone else, but in the end, we’re all pretty normal people that just love to go to a motorcycle race. Two types of racers in my opinion: cheese & wine, or beer & brats. Dirt track racers and their fans are definitely beer & brats type of people!
Now, being retired, Joe is busy raising a family. His son, 13, Kody Kopp is following in his dad’s footsteps, racing flat track. He, like his dad, dreams to be racing flat track for many years. He’s lucky to have such a great coach!
What do you hope to see for the future of the sport?
Joe: We’ve got one of, if not the best, bar to bar motorized sports out there, and we’ve always had trouble getting it in front of the public eye. So, getting on mainstream TV would be great because once the world really sees how awesome this sport is, it’s gonna take off.
What is the most important thing(s) when it comes to prepping your bike for the race?
Joe: In dirttrack, I always felt that you had to have someone that had been there and done that as far as bike prep because the XR750 that most of us raced was a great great bike, but very finicky. So you better have someone that knows how to work on an XR, not just a Harley mechanic.
What kind of engine and chassis development goes into building bikes for the different races in GNC (AFT)? How has that development progressed over the years?
Joe: We kept many a notebook on bike set up from chassis to motor mods. One track we knew we had to have these certain exhaust pipes on it because the track usually always got slick come main event time. Then this track we knew the moisture would come up more later on so we would make sure we had our “hotrod” motor in for that time of the day and we always had to plan for things like that, but really that’s a big part of the game, guessing and knowing what to do before it happened. You’d see the engineer type of people come into the race scene every now and then and they thought that it was going to happen this way because that what the pencil and paper formula says is going to happen. Well it usually doesn’t happen that way in dirt track racing as you’re always chasing the traction and mother nature keeps you on your toes all the time.
Joe Kopp raced flat track as part of the Wiseco team since 1996. He met Dave Fussner, Wiseco Engineer, in 1996, took a tour of the facility, and he has been family ever since.
What products made a big difference in bike development and racing?
Joe: I’d have to say all of the “hotrod” pistons and different piston combinations that Dave and the guys at Wiseco have helped us develop over the years with the XR750. I’ve had some race bikes that I had to ask my mechanic after a race or two, “that motor is legal, isn’t it”?
How did Wiseco help you stay competitive in your career?
Joe: Wiseco supplied me with the products I needed to run at the front of the pack time and time again, whether on my Honda 450, my XR750 or now with my son’s race bikes, Wiseco makes it easy!