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Where's the banked track?

Q: I thought roller derby was played on a banked track. Where'd it go?

If you've just seen your first roller derby bout, or watched videos of modern roller derby online, you may have been surprised to see the sport played on a flat floor surface, rather than the traditional banked track of classic roller derby. While a handful of local leagues use banked tracks (as portrayed in the film Whip It), over 98% of the 1100+ leagues playing modern roller derby around the world skate on flat surfaces.

The viability of roller derby without a banked track was discovered almost by accident, during the reinvention of the sport in Austin in 2001-2003. To raise funds and stir interest, the first skaters organized exhibition bouts in a skating rink, with an oval track taped out onto the floor.

Much to everyone's surprise, they discovered that roller derby actually works just fine on a flat track. While the speeds are lower, the hard hits remain, and the lack of an outer rail means a solid hip check to the outside can send a skater sliding all the way to the edge of the audience. Not even basketball provides quite this level of audience proximity to a spectator sport.

Modern derby's grass-roots, DIY approach imposed practical considerations as well. A banked track costs $15-20,000 to construct. Once built, it needs a permanent space to live, which can mean a warehouse rental at anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 per month. Even if a suitable warehouse can be secured to set the track up for practice and training, the space almost certainly won't meet fire code to house an audience. In this case, for every bout the track must be disassembled, transported to the bout venue, reassembled, and then struck and returned home.

Contrast a flat track, which can be set up with a tape measure and about a hundred bucks of nylon rope and tape. Practice time in a skating rink might cost $50-200 per hour, substantially less than warehouse rental. As more people in more locations set out to start playing derby, these practical matters led many to forego the traditional banked track in favor of flat track's flexibility.

Despite the challenges, a few modern leagues have made a go of it on banked tracks, including the Derby Dolls in Los Angeles and San Diego, Arizona Derby Dames in Phoenix, Tilted Thunder Rail Birds in Seattle, OC Rollergirls in Orange County, and the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls in Austin.

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