Common Tread

American Flat Track season opens with a new twins class, new racers

Mar 13, 2019

The 2019 American Flat Track season begins tomorrow with the Daytona TT. The coming season will introduce new riders, new teams, new rules, and new venues to flat track’s very traditional — dare I say conservative? — fan base. Those are changes that AFT hopes will broaden the sport’s appeal.

Every series pumps out a breathless annual “We can’t wait!” press release, but there really is a lot going on when it comes to AFT’s 2019 season. All I can do is skim a few highlights and draw attention to storylines that I think you should follow as the season develops. If I skip something that you think is particularly interesting, please add your own thoughts in the comments section!

Production Twins: “No Indians allowed” in a new intermediate class

AFT has expanded and redefined the Production Twins class, which will run at all half-mile and mile tracks. The new class means that fans will see three main events at most races.

Technically, Production Twins will be run to rules very similar to AFT Twins, but "race-only" motors will be banned. For practical purposes, this means that there won’t be any Indian FTR750s in the field. There also won’t be any Harley-Davidson XR-750s (which have quickly become an endangered species) or Honda RS750s (which have been extinct for decades, anyway).

The Production Twins class is open to any AFT Singles riders who can field a suitable motorcycle. Racers competing on a Singles license will be able to race 450 singles and Production Twins at the same events, if they wish.

Licensed AFT Twins riders will also be able to step down to race in the Production Twins class, with two provisos: They must ride a "production-based" motorcycle (“No Indians allowed,” as they used to say in some saloons in the Wild West). And, they can only race in one class per event.

The rationale for Production Twins class is, firstly, to provide a stepping-stone class for Singles riders, and secondly, to provide a class for AFT Twins riders and teams who feel they cannot compete with the likes of Jared Mees and his FTR750, the motorcycle that has dominated the last two years.

A conversation with AFT’s Gene Crouch left me with the impression that AFT would rather have a smaller field of really competitive riders in the premier class — AFT Twins — and an additional main event with second-tier teams and racers, who will get more attention from fans and TV coverage in Production Twins.

AFT wants to present a quick-paced series of main event races in a fan- and TV-friendly package that’s less than a couple of hours long. That’s a fine strategy as far as it goes, but over the last couple of years there have been times when track quality — and with it, rider safety — seems to have been less important than sticking to some arbitrary schedule.

Ironically, a more powerful Production Twins class will also give AFT Singles racers a safer option on mile tracks. The last time I saw 450 Singles race on a fast mile track, racers were basically flat out all the way ’round, drafting each other on both straights and corners. Close racing is good, but there’s such a thing as too close. A few years back, the prestigious Springfield Mile banned the Singles for that reason.

Jeff Ward: everything old is new again

One great storyline this year is that Jeff Ward will return to national competition in a new discipline. Ward is best known as a seven-time AMA motocross champion. Talent? Check. Ward’s also raced NASCAR’s western series, won X-Games gold medals in Supermoto, and even won in Indycars. Versatility? Check. There’s just one catch: He is 57 years old.

Originally, we heard that Ward was planning a one-off appearance at the Daytona TT. But I talked with Johnny Lewis, who is helping Ward prepare both his body and a KTM 450, and it sounds like the plan now is for Ward to race all five TT races.

In dirt-track terms, a TT is a race with at least one right turn and a jump. Historically, there have only been one or two such races each season, so the fact that there are five on the 2019 schedule is noteworthy in itself. Peoria has great history and atmosphere, and produces scary and intense racing. But most of the other TTs I’ve seen don’t put on enough of a show to impress fans who, after seeing a modern Supercross race, could be forgiven for asking, “That’s a jump?”

One interesting TT note is that this year, the season-opening Daytona round includes an asphalt section. In addition to the dirt, racers will use part of the Daytona International Speeday track.

Reverse migration: More road racers coming home

Although Estenson Racing’s J.D. Beach is the best candidate to rack up a Grand Slam, he’s not the only asphalt refugee who will be returning to the dirt in 2019. James Rispoli was a multi-time AMA Amateur Grand Champion dirt tracker before switching to asphalt. He was an AMA 600 Supersport champion back when that class was split into East and West divisions. He actually won East in 2011 and West in 2012!

In 2014, the faltering U.S. road racing scene caused him to seek his fortune in the U.K., where he hoped to work his way into a British Superbike ride. He raced five seasons over there, mostly in the U.K.’s Dickies 600 Supersport championship. But, the team he expected to ride for in 2019 collapsed in the off-season. As of now, "The Rocket" hopes to race the whole AFT Singles series.

Another American returning from Europe is P.J. Jacobsen. He has been racing in Europe for the last seven years, with a best season in which he finished second overall (seven podiums including two wins) in the Supersport World Championship.

Jacobsen has signed to contest the AFT Twins series on an Indian FTR750 owned by Kenny Coolbeth, under the Team Nila/Coolbeth Racing tent. Like Beach, he will do double duty and will also race in MotoAmerica, competing in the Supersport class.

New tracks, new markets

Last year, Michael Lock scored a win of his own when American Flat Track managed to schedule the series finale at the Meadowlands horse track in New Jersey, right across the street from the MetLife Stadium where the New York Jets and the Giants play. The race was even featured in The New York Times.

This year, the series continues its efforts to expand into new markets. AFT will hold a short track race on a new oval at New Hampshire Motor Speedway during Laconia’s annual Motorcycle Week, which has drawn huge crowds for close to a hundred years. Unfortunately, getting that Laconia date meant dropping the OKC Mile. So there will be no races in the lower Midwest, which is a part of the country with a great flat-track heritage and lots of fans.

AFT has struggled to find a good venue in the Arizona market and finally abandoned hope of getting a good racing surface at Phoenix’s Turf Paradise horse track, which has no lights. That means racing has to happen during the day, in an environment that’s too arid and hot to control track moisture. This year, the series will try a "Super TT" at the Wildhorse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Arizona. The Super TT will be held on the same track that hosts Lucas Oil off-road trucks, and if AFT uses the same layout as the trucks, it will be a flat-track race in name only; there will be about seven jumps per lap.

Changes at Indian

Here’s what hasn’t changed, as far as the Indian Wrecking Crew’s concerned: Jared Mees will still carry the #1 plate.

Mees is a factory rider; at least, that’s what Indian says. But in reality he runs his own program, makes his own sponsorship deals, and owns his own bikes, which are prepared at Kenny Tolbert’s shop in Texas. Going into 2019, Mees is still the fastest guy, with a proven program based on knowledge that is not shared with the other factory riders.

Here’s what has changed at Indian: The rest of the team. Bryan Smith and Brad Baker are out, and Briar and Bronson Bauman are in as Wrecking Crew riders. (Pause here while I replace the capital B on my keyboard, and you scribble your own notes on who’s who.) Last year, Smith and Baker’s Indians were prepared by Ricky Howerton in Indianapolis. This year, the Bauman Brothers’ bikes will be prepared by Dave Zanotti, who will work out of the S&S shop in Wisconsin.

Briar is the older Bauman brother, but it’s all relative; he’s still only 23. He’s been riding for Zanotti since 2017, and started last season on Kawasaki before he and Zanotti realized that they weren’t going to get to the front without an FTR750.

Luckily, Jerry Stinchfield had a couple of FTR750s he could spare. (Stinchfield’s Roof Systems business, based in Dallas, is a major sponsor of several AFT riders.) It took a couple of races for Briar and Zanotti to get good basic setup for the Indian, but from mid-season on, Briar was one of the guys keeping Jared Mees honest. Despite Briar’s tender age, he’ll win races and will be ready to pounce any time Jared falters.

Can anyone beat Indian?

Bryan Smith and his friend/tuner Ricky Howerton are still together, and they’ve chosen to race Kawasakis again in 2019 after two years with Indian. If anyone knows what they’re getting into by running another brand against Mees & Co., it’s those guys. With the support of their faithful sponsor, Crosley Radios, they obviously feel that the FTR750 can be beaten.

I asked Howerton whether the revised rules, specifically the 40 mm throttle body allowance, had factored into their choice of the Kawasaki platform. He was cagey, as usual, but told me that improved performance on a flow bench might be offset by the 105 dB noise limit.

“There’s no point sucking it in,” he said wryly, “if you can’t pump it out.”

In any case, Howerton downplayed the Kawasaki’s raw power. He told me that so far in the off-season, he’s focused on Smith’s TT and short-track bikes.

The five TT races on the 2019 calendar don’t play to Smith’s strengths, but he still has a title shot, if he can accomplish three things: dominate on the miles, score solid points, with some wins, on the half-miles, and keep the winners in sight on the short tracks and TTs.

Realistically, even if Bryan does all that, he will need some help from the Bauman brothers, who will need to finish ahead of Jared Mees from time to time, too.

Estenson Racing is emerging as a super-team. With sponsorship from Monster Energy and Yamalube, they’ll run five riders across all three AFT classes, as shown in the Instagram post above: Dallas Daniels (163) and Ryan Wells (94) in AFT Singles and J.D. Beach (95), Jake Johnson (5) and Kolby Carlile (136) in the twins classes. The team’s professionally organized; they just hired retired roadracer Tommy Hayden as Director of Racing Operations. Given the investment made by Tim Estenson, nothing less than a championship will be satisfying. But I’ve heard that off-season tests of their Yamaha MT-07 twin exposed some fragility.

What about Harley-Davidson?

The flip side of the Indian-wins-everything story that has dominated the last couple of AFT seasons is the collapse of Harley-Davidson’s once-dominant factory team and the failure of the Street 750-based XG750R race bike. Results in 2017 and ’18 were simply unacceptable — both to Harley and AFT. Even rivals admit that the series is hurt by the lack of a strong Harley-Davidson team.

I recently spoke to Harley-Davidson communications, brand, and racing managers (Joe Gustafson, Eric Jensen, and Matt King) on a conference call. They pretty much had to tell me that Harley’s goal for the season was to see their official riders — Sammy Halbert and Jarod Vanderkooi — “up on the box.” Those two had one third place each last year, and they were outside the top 10 as often as they were inside it. So regularly challenging for podiums will take a big step up, performance-wise.

Last year, AFT allowed Harley to run a completely new cylinder head (with valves actuated by shims and buckets, as opposed to rocker arms) but that didn’t seem to help. I wish I could tell you what Harley’s problem is, but all I can report is that both H-D employees and rival teams have assured me that it’s not power; the bike makes adequate power.

Wheels up on my @harleydavidson XG750R 🦅 🦅

A post shared by Jarod Vanderkooi (@jarodvanderkooi20) on

Although no one wants to kick Harley when they’re down, two veteran tuners both summarized The Motor Company’s problem as, “This ain’t drag racing.” That could have been a dig at the Vance & Hines race shop, which prepares the factory bikes.

My hope is that Vance & Hines can take advantage of the 900 cc displacement limit and build a bike with improved tractability. But, I heard a rumor that Halbert and Vanderkooi spent a whole day testing 2019 development bikes late last fall and then, at the end of the session, they rode stock FTR750s that they’d brought along for comparison, and were immediately a second per lap faster. After two seasons of development, the XG750R still needs a breakthrough.

“The big unknown is, will [Harley Davidson] ever regain competitiveness?" said Hall-of-Famer Bill Werner, who ran Harley’s race shop for decades. "Even when we were getting beaten by Honda and Yamaha, I remember a CEO telling me, ‘We don’t have to win every race or championship, but if we’re not at least a threat to win, all we’re doing is paying to make the other guys look good.’ At some point, that will occur to them. If they’re not competitive this year, they’ll pull out of AFT, and back a hooligan series where they can win some races.”

Wait... What? Could Harley leave?

Let’s face it: If you’re a Harley-Davidson employee, talking to a journalist about the XG750R race program is about as fun as having the plaque scraped off your teeth. The only time the Harley guys really got excited was when I changed the subject to hooligan racing, and they told me about Flat Out Friday, which was a few days’ hence. (Halbert raced FOF and posted this on Instagram afterwards.)

While American Flat Track has done a good job rebuilding professional flat-track over the last few years, there’s a lot more buzz around Roland Sands’ Super Hooligan series for lightly modified production twins. Harley-Davidson, Indian, Triumph and Ducati have all shifted sponsorship and promotional effort to the hooligans. That’s money and energy that aren’t going to AFT.

Lately, when I talk to AFT paddock regulars, I’ve made a point to ask what they think about the hooligans. One long-time sponsor told me, “The last time I saw one of those races, I wondered how many of them would be on the line if they had alcohol testing.” In general, pro flat-trackers are dismissive of stock-frame bikes and riders who are often not just amateurs but worse, amateurish.

The thing is, a lot of those amateurs are pros when it comes to social media. (Racers talking to each other during the race using Senas? Only in Hooligan racing. See the video below).

#Repost @superhooligans · · · @senabluetooth hooked Frankie Garcia and Jordan Graham up during their heats for Round 1 at @the1moto . Check out the full video on SENAs Facebook page. Next up is Round 2 at the world famous Daytona Speedway. Click the #linkinbio for more info. #rideconnected . . @frankiegarcia24 @j__graham @superhooligans Presented by @progressive Powered by @indianmotorcycle Official tire by @ridedunlop Superhooligan Ride with @russbrownmotorcycleattorneys . and @knfilters @bell_powersports @motulusa @jpcycles@wisecopistoninc @rekluse_motorsports @fox @americanflattrack @disupdates @ama_racing #americanflattrack #daytonatt #daytonainternationalspeedway #flattrackracing #superhooligan #daytonabikeweek2019 #SHNC2019

A post shared by Roland Sands Design (@rolandsandsdesign) on

Harley-Davidson’s posting live broadcasts to their Facebook page — and reaching a lot of people. Sands’ series will run races at both Daytona and Sturgis, and I would not be surprised if his events don’t make more "total impressions" than AFT’s Daytona and Sturgis races.

For now, Harley-Davidson remains committed to American Flat Track’s premier AFT Twins championship. But if they can’t challenge for wins this year, something’s gonna’ have to change. Either Harley must move its factory team to another race shop, or run the factory team in the Production Twins class, or withdraw from AFT altogether and refocus on hooligan racing.

American Flat Track probably won’t appreciate that last paragraph, but here’s some free advice to Michael Lock: Form a strategic partnership with the Super Hooligans series now, while you’re still running America’s top flat-track championship.

2019 American Flat Track schedule

If you can't make it to the races below, you can see them live-streamed at FansChoice.TV. Also, NBCSN will show every AFT race with a weekend broadcast within two weeks of the event and present a weekday re-broadcast.

2019 American Flat Track schedule
March 14 DAYTONA TT Presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys Daytona International Speedway, Daytona, Florida
March 23 Atlanta Short Track Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia
April 20 Texas Half-Mile Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas
April 27 Arizona Super TT Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Chandler, Arizona
May 11 So-Cal Half-Mile Perris Auto Speedway, Perris, California
May 18 Sacramento Mile Cal Expo Fair, Sacramento, California
May 26 Springfield Mile I Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois
June 1 Indian Motorcycle Of Lexington Red Mile The Red Mile, Lexington, Kentucky
June 15 Laconia Short Track The Flat Track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon, New Hampshire
June 29 Lima Half-Mile Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio
July 13 New York Short Track Weedsport Speedway, Weedsport, New York
August 4 Buffalo Chip TT Buffalo Chip, Sturgis, South Dakota
August 6 Black Hills Half-Mile Black Hills Speedway, Rapid City, South Dakota
August 17 Peoria TT Peoria Motorcycle Club, Peoria, Illinois
September 1 Springfield Mile II Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois
September 7 Williams Grove Half-Mile Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
September 21 Minnesota Mile Canterbury Park, Minneapolis, Minnesota
September 28 Meadowlands Mile Meadowlands, East Rutherford, New Jersey