Briar Bauman clinched the 2019 American Flat Track Twins Championship at the Minnesota Mile on Saturday night after a season-long battle with his Indian factory teammate, Jared Mees, and an epic 17 laps — yes, 17 laps — of racing in the Main.
Bauman arrived at the Canterbury Park horse track outside Minneapolis, venue for the Indian Motorcycle Minnesota Mile presented by Law Tigers, the penultimate round of the AFT Championship, with a significant points advantage: 305 to Mees’ 270. But the score was really only lopsided on paper; on dirt the two Factory Indian FTR750 riders were pretty much even and head and shoulders above the field.
Mees wasn’t about to relinquish his #1 plate without a fight — the veteran isn’t just fierce and fast, he’s arguably the sport’s wiliest tactician. But the points gap was such that Bauman could just follow him home, so Mees needed help to keep his championship alive.
When I spoke to Bauman on Thursday, he admitted that so far this season, Mees has had his number on the Miles, and especially so on tracks that form a narrow groove; it’s difficult to outsmart Mees in a drafting battle. But Bauman noted that he likes the Minnesota Mile a lot. The dirt is sandy, and prone to forming a bit of a cushion, which plays to his strengths.
“I was leading there last year until I ran low on fuel with two laps to go,” he reminded me. “I hope to do the same thing this year, but with a little more fuel in the tank!”
Qualifying: Mees strongest, but Bauman looks strong enough
In qualifying, it was if Jared Mees had been eavesdropping on our phone call and wanted to quickly drive home the point that he was down but not out.
In Q1, Mees was definitely the cat to Briar’s mouse. The reigning champ not only circulated several ticks faster, he also passed Bauman at will, whether they were circulating low on the brushed-off part of the track, or high up in the cushion.
Later in Q2, he passed Bauman once, then Bauman circulated behind him. Maybe he wasn’t capable of repassing Mees, or he just wanted to study the veteran’s lines on the "skitterish" surface. But at the end of qualifying, Mees was almost half a second clear of Bauman — an eternity in this discipline.
Mees was the class of the field in the first Twins semi, using absolutely all the track on the exit of turns two and four. Conditions dramatically illustrated the Indian FTR750’s traction advantage, and the amount of roost thrown up as the evening wore on put a premium on a front-row start. Bauman won the second semi but worked harder to do it.
Race: Un. F***ing. Believable
All day, racers had asked for more water on the track. But between practice and the Main, the sun went down and the wind died. Water that had soaked in deep began to wick its way back to the dry, sandy surface. Additional water added between the AFT Singles final and the Twins Main just sat on the surface, especially in Turns three and four. It was slippery, and the roost in mid-corner was blinding.
Mees bobbled the first start, but recovered quickly and was in the lead halfway through the first lap. Meanwhile, Bauman really messed up and was back in the tight mid-pack. Thirty seconds later, that proved to be a very dangerous position.
Briar, his brother Bronson, and three other riders all went down in two separate, scary, 90 mph incidents at the end of the first lap. Briar’s FTR750 almost cartwheeled right over the airfence; it was lucky no one was killed. Red flag, obviously.
That set up a drama on the front straight that was worthy of the Metropolitan Opera. The first thing you need to understand is that AFT rules don’t allow for backup bikes; after a crash you have to repair the bike you started on. The second critical rule is that bikes cannot leave the track; your team is limited to repairs they can perform on the spot. The third is that only two people are allowed to work on any machine. Last but not least — according to the rules — the restart was due to occur in eight minutes.
Bauman, lucky to be walking after that get-off, scampered down to meet Crew Chief Michele DiSalvo. Presumably, he gave her a quick damage report so she could radio the truck and get the parts they’d need to try to get his Indian running. Things didn’t look too promising, because the bike was pushed down to the grid area looking very second-hand. The radiator was hanging off it leaking steam, the handlebar was way bent, and the entire front end looked wonky.
Luckily — or perhaps strategically — AFT officials felt they had to drag that turn four area for a long time, so DiSalvo and one other mechanic (who I wish I could name because he deserves more credit) installed a new radiator, swapped or repaired the throttle, and then managed to get an entire front end installed. As I watched, I wondered if the rebuilt bike would even have the same offset and rake, as all that stuff’s adjustable on the FTR.
Meanwhile, math happened
While Bauman’s crew worked, everyone had their own math problems to solve. First, AFT rules also prevent refueling. Would the bikes have enough fuel for a full restart, with a new sighting lap? Then, since two of the crashed bikes were out of the race, even if Bauman’s bike was terrible, he could circulate dead last and still pickup five points for 14th place. Assuming a Mees victory, Briar would leave the Twin Cities with a 15-point cushion and one race to go.
Either Michele and that mechanic got Bauman’s bike ready before they finished dragging turn four, or the AFT crew dragged turn four until they saw she’d got the points leaders’ Indian ready.
AFT officials called for two sighting laps on the restart, and Briar, his brother Bronson, and Sammy Halbert — who’d all been involved in the incident — lined up on the fourth row.
Mees entered turn one in third again, but again quickly made his way to the front, where he could at least see. Bauman began the difficult task of working his way forward through a storm of roost on a motorcycle that he could not be sure was even safe. He’d picked up a few positions when two more riders crashed, about where the first incident had occurred, bringing out a second red flag.
Officials called for another full restart, and a few riders protested that this meant they’d need to eke four more laps out of their gas tanks. AFT allowed them to refuel on the track. DiSalvo got another chance to look over Briar’s motorcycle. And our STEM educations continued with more math as, with two more riders out of the Main, Briar was guaranteed at least seven points just for crossing the finish line.
Just before riders lined up one more time, AFT announced that because of a 10 p.m. curfew at Canterbury Park, the Main was shortened to 15 laps and there would be no sighting lap. At least no one would run out of gas.
A sprint for the championship
Mees didn’t get a decent start all night, but he was always up front within moments. He was the class of Canterbury Park and quickly broke the draft. If he put a wheel wrong, I missed it.
Meanwhile, Briar Bauman, painted in roost, probably hurting, and on a less-than-perfect motorcycle, began working his way up from close to last. For several minutes, the track announcers talked as if fourth place — worth 15 points — was enough to give Bauman the #1 plate. It was not enough, although Briar could have circulated in a safe fourth place, which would have virtually guaranteed him the Championship next week at the finale in New Jersey.
That’s not his style. Earlier, I had asked him whether he’d safely follow Mees home to win the championship, or go for the win.
“All year long, I’ve done what feels right,” he answered. “And for me, that’s usually going all in. So if I feel that I’m faster, I’ll try to pass him. But I suppose if I thought we were equal, I’d ride for the championship.”
Well, as it happened, Mees was in a different ZIP code, but Jeffrey Carver and Bryan Smith were between Bauman and his first AFT Twins title. For the last several laps of the shortened race, Bauman did as he’d said he would, and went all in.
Carver and Smith were in their own battle, using totally different lines; Carver, on an Indian with better traction, was fastest in the low cushion. Smith, on a Kawasaki that made plenty of power but didn’t put it down as well, was riding the shortest possible lap on the brushed-off part of the track (which, in places, showed a decent blue groove).
Bauman’s first task was to somehow get between those two, who were trading places about twice a lap. He finally got past Carver (who, to my eye at least, perhaps thought it best not to risk getting tangled up with a fellow Indian rider in a way that might cost a rising star the championship).
With a handful of laps remaining, third place was enough ensure Bauman’s championship. But — perhaps afraid Carver might try to repass him — he pressed on and attempted to pass Smith for second.
Bauman’s line was way, way up in the cushion, almost skimming the airfence. He was riding a long lap, but carrying momentum, keeping it pinned, and relying on the Indian’s great traction. Smith’s low line, again, brought them dangerously close twice a lap and he was not about to give an inch. They banged together pretty hard as they began their last run to the flag, and Smith had just enough Kawasaki power to cross the line in second.
Bauman’s third place was worth 17 points and the championship.
Mees relinquishes the #1 plate in style
At the end of the race, Jared Mees — who’d run alone at the front almost all night — took Briar as his passenger for a victory lap.
The enormity of his achievement, and crazy emotions of the night at Canterbury Park, finally hit him. Bauman cried as his girlfriend, Shayna Texter, stretched a special printed vest over his leathers. He was almost speechless during the awards ceremony, in which he was presented a truly hideous Viking helmet trophy for third place, a classy gold Bell crash helmet with a big red "1" on it and, last but not least, the #1 plate he’ll carry in the inaugural SuperTwins Championship all next year.
Bauman’s been fast since he was a kid, living in Salinas, California. Back then, he raced at the Lodi Cycle Bowl and in the Chowchilla Barn Burner series. Those are short-track talent crucibles. But his parents hauled him and his little brother to bigger tracks up and down the West Coast, exposing him to a wide variety of tracks and rounding out his skillset. (He’s since moved to western Pennsylvania, to live with Texter.)
As a pro, Bauman continued to progress, finishing 12th overall in 2016 and sixth in 2017 on Kawasakis. He finished third last year, after team owner Dave Zanotti sprang for a privateer FTR750.
Briar and his younger brother Bronson both signed with Indian in the off-season when the factory team was forced to rebuild after Brad Baker’s career-ending crash (at the 2018 X-Games) and Bryan Smith’s defection back to Kawasaki.
So, the Bauman Bros. found themselves nominally on the same Indian factory team as Jared Mees, who’s won the championship three of the past four years. (The Baumans’ factory bikes are prepared at S&S Cycles in Wisconsin; Mees runs his own operation, out of Kenny Tolbert’s shop in Texas.)
Bauman took an early lead when Mees DNF’d at the Daytona season opener. Opening his 2019 account with a 25-point cushion gave Bauman some breathing room, and although there weren’t "team orders," there were a few moments over the course of the season when his little brother also helped his cause.
Neither of those things were decisive factors. Although Mees tallied more wins over the course of the season, Bauman’s championship is the result of being even more consistent than Jared Mees, which is really saying something. Coming into Minnesota, Bauman had finished on the podium in almost every event. (The exceptions were the Lima half-mile race, where he suffered a fluke mechanical DNF when his tire came off the rim, and at the scrappy and amateurish Buffalo Chip TT, where he crashed.) Bauman also gelled with the factory FTR750 very quickly; he was the fastest qualifier at about half the races this year.
The AFT season finale is next weekend at the Meadowlands Mile, just across the Hudson River from New York City. Both the Singles and Production Twins titles will be decided there.
First through at least fourth places in the Twins class are locked in at this point, so next Saturday will be all about who — besides Briar Bauman — will have bragging rights for the off season, and who wants to throw down early markers for 2020.
I expect Mees to come right back out, swinging.