As soon as the dust settled on new 2016 Grand National Champion Bryan Smith, AMA Pro Racing announced that the flat-track series will get a new coat of paint for 2017. Plus, a rival series is also being planned for next year.
What’s going on in flat-track racing?
How to read a news release
AMA Pro Racing issued a news release announcing that the series will now be called American Flat Track and the format and rules will change. There’s an art to writing a news release, and an art to translating one. So at the risk of being labeled cynical, here are some excerpts from the news release (in italics) and my interpretation.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Sept. 25, 2016) – AMA Pro Racing has proudly announced the official rebranding of the all-new American Flat Track (AFT) series — formerly known as AMA Pro Flat Track. The rebranding of the series coincides with the dawn of a new era for America’s favorite motorcycle sport, which includes a restructured class system as well as a re-envisioning of the event format. While holding true to the legacy of a sport rich in history, the modifications are designed to provide a more understandable and exciting format for the modern fans and make the series more accessible to new fans.
It is with considerable relief that AMA Pro Racing has changed the name of the series to American Flat Track. The people who run the AMA these days want nothing to do with racing and since AMA Pro Racing has very little to do with the AMA, it makes sense to use the name as little as possible. Plus, the guys who inherited our mess after we mismanaged roadracing and ran the Superbike series into the ground are doing OK after changing the series name from AMA Superbike to MotoAmerica, so we’ll copy that.
There are also changes to event format which promise an action-packed program of racing. The traditional format will move to a tournament style format, where the fastest 48 riders from timed qualifying advance to the heats. From there, the race program will consist of four six-lap Heats with nine of the 12 riders transferring to one of the two Semis. What was traditionally a last chance effort to make the Main, the new Semi format is a knockout round where 18 riders duke it out for the nine spots that transfer them to the 18-rider Main. The Main events themselves see little changes, with the premiere AFT Twins class keeping its traditional 25-lap Main and the support AFT Singles class sees a slight increase from 12 to 15 laps.
While we’re copying stuff, we’re going to be more like Supercross, the one motorcycle racing series in the United States that doesn’t have trouble putting fans in seats and getting time on TV. When we say “a more understandable and exciting format for the modern fans and make the series more accessible to new fans,” you can bet that the words “modern” and “new” are not referring to 60-somethings who personally remember when flat-track racing was the highest form of the sport in the United States. We need to find more kids who want to watch bikes turn left on an old horse track.
Then there’s the alternative
Meanwhile, a group called Octane Sports Management is planning an alternative flat-track series to consist of at least five races in 2017 and called the Steel Shoe Nationals. Former racer and race team public relations person Christy Cottrell has written two articles on LinkedIn about the new series. The second one promises that a TV deal is set. The earlier post says the effort resulted from frustration when the group pitched a plan for overhauling the sport and got nowhere.
“We sat down with the owner, presented a very detailed plan,” Cottrell wrote. “Laying out everything from soup to nuts and a how to plan to improve the sport from the fans to the sponsor level to improving team exposure. That was 18 months ago. Today this sport is stuck in the same old ruts, riding the same old groove.”
OSM says their series will complement American Flat Track. I assume that means they’ll tap different markets, rather than go head-to-head with the established series from the start.
The history of second motorcycle racing series is not a promising one. There’s barely enough support to keep our domestic series running, much less money enough to go around for two. In roadracing, remember Formula USA in the 1990s or Moto-ST a decade ago?
So what’s the outlook, really?
When media outside the industry, like mainstream news media or men’s magazines and their spin-off websites, start writing about a trend in motorcycling, I usually suspect a smart and successful public relations person working the levers behind the scenes. I’ve read a suspicious number of articles in the past year about “the renaissance of flat-track racing” or similar themes. Usually, the evidence is anecdotal: Roland Sands is involved, flat-track is in the X Games, or “street trackers” are the new style trend now that café racers are played out and scramblers are co-opted by corporate manufacturers.
I wonder. Even if thousands of people build street trackers and adopt some of the style of the sport, wearing a vintage jacket with the right patches on it, that won’t add a single dollar to Brad Baker’s racing budget, if those people never go to the track and buy a ticket.
Is there really a renaissance in flat-track racing — I mean the racing itself, not just people who have never been to a race adopting the style of it? For that, I’m waiting to see the evidence.