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Flat track or banked track?

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Roller derby was first invented in 1935 by Leo Seltzer and was played on the banked track. That was the beginning of the same roller derby many remember from watching the San Francisco Bay Bombers. In about the 1970s roller derby of any kind was in major decline until the Flat Track Revolution at the turn of the century.

Largely attributed to the Texas Rollergirls, in the late 1990s and early 2000, a roller derby resurgence began, whose success was owed mostly to the flat track. The movement, now led by the cooperative Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), is made up of independent grass roots leagues who skate on a flat track. There are an estimated 1,513 roller derby leagues worldwide with 344 WFTDA leagues.

Why flat tracks?

Banked tracks are large and expensive pieces of equipment costly to store and maintain. The flat track, which can be constructed on just about any flat surface out of rope and duct tape made it possible for derby leagues to spring up all over the world. Without the invention of the flat track, modern roller derby would not be possible. Nowadays most roller derby is the flat track variety, although banked tracks still exist. And yes, the Bay Bombers are still out there skating.

While the original roller derby created by Leo Seltzer consisted of predetermined outcomes and staged violence, the modern roller derby of today, whether played on a flat or banked track, is a true athletic competition where the best women win. Still, there are differences.

Differences in game play

Flat track roller derby is played according to WFTDA rules. Banked track derby is less regularized but is usually played according to the Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues: Banked Track Roller Derby Rules. Both rule sets are continually updated to better meet the needs of the game.

The same stuff

Much of the basics of roller derby has remained the same since inception. There are 14 girls on a team with 4 in a pack plus 1 jammer, making a maximum of 10 skaters on the track at a time. Both tracks field a jammer, a pivot, and three blockers. Currently, both games start with a single whistle blast and the object is for the jammer to pass the opposing blockers in order to score points.

Up until recently both tracks had a 1-minute penalty. The flat track now has a 30-second penalty and up to a 2-minute jam, while the banked track has 1-minute penalties and 1-minute jams.

Center track

While officiating happens in both flat and banked track derby, there are no outside pack refs on the banked track, for obvious reasons. In a flat track bout the skaters wait at their benches and serve penalties on the outskirts of the track. Because of the raised sides of the banked track the benches, penalty box, all of the refs and everything else going on with the bout must be handled inside the track boundaries, leaving a tight operating space.

Perhaps due to the constricture, penalties are assessed differently depending on the track. When assessed a penalty on the flat track the skater must immediately leave game play and sit in the box for the remainder of the jam and perhaps part of the next. Skaters are never removed from a jam in progress unless there are too many skaters on the track, a skater on the track is supposed to be serving a penalty from the previous jam, a skater is found to be missing safety equipment, or if a skater commits a penalty during the last jam.On the banked track, though the penalty is called during game play, it won't be assessed until the jam is complete. The penalized skater will sit out the next jam and their team will skate down.

Penalties

Players on both tracks are subject to the same penalties and slaves to the same target and blocking zones. Contrary to popular belief, elbows are not legal on the banked tracks (they are a vestige of the staged derby of yore). The RDCL rule reads: elbows may only contact another player if the first contact was with the arm between the elbow and shoulder, and the contact was maintained continuously.

The line-up

Regardless of position, on the flat track, a penalized skater will sit out for the full 30 seconds. On the banked track, each jam must have a pivot and at least two blockers; a penalized pivot will sit as a blocker and a new pivot will be fielded. If more than two blockers are penalized the remaining blocker will skate that jam and be penalized the next. It is perfectly okay for there to be only one blocker on the track in a flat track bout (though it can only go on for 10 seconds).

Power jams still exist on both tracks. On the banked track, when both jammers are penalized in the same jam, both jammers will sit in the penalty box as blockers and the teams will field two alternate jammers. There can be no jammerless jam. On the flat track, one jammer will only serve as much time as the previous jammer before being released. There are rare instances however of 10 and up to 30 second jammerless jams.

The last jam

On the flat track the last jam happens whenever the last jam happens. On the banked track the last jam is declared by the referee when there are 60 seconds or less left on the game clock. In the last jam, if a blocker or jammer receives a penalty, they must immediately report to the penalty box for the duration. Lead jammer may call off the jam and another jam may take place if there is still time regardless of the ref's call of Last Jam. In the last jam the banked track rules are much more like flat track rules.

Skating the track

According to bi-tracktual skaters (or those who skate both on the flat and banked track) there are a few subtle differences from track to track. Skating on the banked track, for example, takes more inner thigh strength while skating on the flat track requires stronger stopping and lateral movement techniques. It is more difficult to maintain and build speed on the flat track which may lead to quicker fatigue. As a game the banked track, by nature of gravity and centrifugal force, is a forward moving with inherent speed. The flat track, because it has no tilt, is a more lateral game in which players often stop and move in the opposite direction. Both games have one important quality in common: female athletes doing amazing things on eight wheels.

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