Bill Tuman is drinking as much water as he can. It’s 105 degrees in Dodge City, Kansas and he’s about to run a 200-mile race on a dirt oval. He’s having the best race season of his career. To stay alert he chews lemons while he rides. He races. He wins.
A month later, Tuman is at the Springfield mile track for the race that, at that time, determined the AMA Grand National champion. Indian Motocycles had recently shuttered their doors in bankruptcy, but to rival Harley-Davidson’s annoyance, the race team didn’t fade away. Lacking factory support, Tuman and his winning team, The Wrecking Crew, turned to loyal local Indian dealers for parts and assistance. The dealers, feeling they had a national win in reach, came together to keep the season going.
Their feelings were right. Tuman won the Springfield race and earned the AMA Grand National No. #1 plate. It was 1953, and the final, amazing, last year for The Wrecking Crew.
The return of The Wrecking Crew
For the first time since Bill Tuman’s win in 1953, The Wrecking Crew is back racing and winning American Flat Track. Their dominance has taken the sport by surprise. Indian riders won every AMA Twins race this season until Saturday’s victory by Briar Bauman on his Zanotti Racing Kawasaki at Lima, Ohio, and swept the podium several times. Just two years ago, Indian staff didn’t even know a race team was in the works. In fact, the Wrecking Crew revival was announced almost by accident.
In June of 2014, buried in the middle of a lengthy Cycle News interview, Steven Menneto, president of motorcycles at Polaris, announced Indian would re-enter the world of flat track racing. It was just a few sentences, glossed over by most readers, but not for Reid Wilson, director of marketing, and Gary Gray, VP of product.
“That interview was the way we learned about it,” said Gray. Building a race bike, and a race team, can often take years. Now, Wilson and Gray, both passionate about racing, were tasked with getting a bike, and a team, on the track and in less than a year.
Wilson and Gray started with a Scout motor but quickly discovered it wasn’t going to work for flat track. “We needed better handling than a Harley on short tracks and faster speeds than Kawasaki for the mile tracks,” said Gray. The way to do that was to build a bike from scratch. Since the motorcycle world is terrible at keeping secrets, soon everyone knew a new bike was in development, including four-time Grand National Champion Jared Mees.
Mees is 31 years old, five feet, five inches tall, and built like part horse jockey and part Navy Seal. He is focused, professional, and fiercely competitive. Despite the assumption that Indian courted the racer, it was actually the other way around. Mees knew a fresh bike, built from the ground up to his feedback, and a new team would have advantages. He approached the Indian team and asked to take part in developing their new bike.
When Indian couldn’t match what Mees, a driven entrepreneur, was already earning through sponsors, they found a compromise. He would ride Indian, join The Wrecking Crew, but run as a satellite team with his own crew chief, Kenny Tolbert, and own sponsorship program. Mees, along with 2000 Grand National champ Joe Kopp, began developing what would become the Indian Scout FTR750.
With a new bike in the works, and Brad “The Bullet” Baker and “Flyin’” Bryan Smith signed on the factory team, Indian was ready to compete in the 2017 season.
“If we are going to make motorcycles, we want to win,” said Wilson. And that’s exactly what Indian has done. The pre-season speculation centered on a renewal of the old Indian-Harley rivalry, but instead it has been no contest. Despite a 60-year break from the sport, a brand-new bike, and an all-new team, Indian has dominated and humiliated Harley-Davidson’s new liquid-cooled XG750R.
The story, and excitement, around the new team are great for the sport, which is, perhaps, about to see a rebirth. But it begs the question why Indian is willing to put so much time, effort, and money into flat track racing?
“Why wouldn’t we? The company started in racing. The legend that we are creating now has to live up to what the founders did,” said Gray. The team shows a reverence for Indian’s legacy and a passion for competition.
“After each race, I’ll be texting results to the Polaris CEO. We truly want to win,” said Wilson.
But does that make business sense? Wilson points to a massive, leather-clad Indian Chief Vintage bagger and says, “Motorcycling, especially American motorcycling, is not a logical thing. It doesn’t make sense. Just look at this bike. It’s nearly 900 pounds.”
The future of American Flat Track
Indian is demonstrating an authentic love for the sport, and that could translate to sales. The FTR750 is available for sale for a cool $50,000 but a more realistic sale is the hooligan-friendly Scout Sixty, which runs under $9,000. The challenge for flat track racing, traditionally a rural hobby followed by Baby Boomers, is to crack the elusive new urban rider market. American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock thinks it can.
Lock is a motorsports veteran, having spent nearly a decade as CEO of Ducati North America, and previously as CEO of Triumph Motorcycles USA. He has already made changes to the sport, by reorganizing the two classes, and he sounds evangelical when he talks about the future.
“This is really American motorcycle racing,” he asserts. “Road racing is having a tough time and the money, and talent is moving to flat track. The Indian team is the most ambitious motorcycle project I’ve ever seen.”
Lock says flat track audiences are growing and he hopes to bring the sport to new fans in the 2018 season, moving beyond the sport’s roots on state and county fairgrounds horse tracks in smaller cities and towns to crack into that urban audience, much as Supercross has done. Lock is currently in negotiations with venues in Denver, the Seattle-Portland area, and new locations in New England, Los Angeles and New York.
“All motorcycle racing is awesome, but none is more awesome than this,” Lock boasts.
The story lines are indeed there. Flat track is truly an American sport. It’s co-ed, with Shayna Texter leading the singles series. Well funded factory teams compete against privateers, independent racers often traveling with only a van and a friend for support, giving the sport plenty of David vs. Goliath opportunities. Even within the teams, the competition is nothing shy of ferocious. Bryan Smith was Jared Mees’ best man, but the teammates now barely speak to each other. The drama would make for great television, and beginning next week, it will.
Lock convinced NBCSN to air the 2017 season in a series of shows featuring all 18 rounds. With the help of NASCAR’s production team, each round will be condensed into a one-hour show that features the entire Twin and Single main events, highlights of the heat races, and interviews and features that will follow the lives of the factory team racers through the season.
“There is going to be a pre-NBC and post-NBC flat track world. There is no reason we can’t have one million viewers each race,” Lock said. Later, when pressed for details, he said, “Well 100,000 viewers are completely attainable. We’re taking a long-term view.”
Being up close at a flat track race is thrilling. It's dirty, aggressive, loaded with danger and impossibly fast.
With the most powerful storyline, Harley-Davison vs. Indian, falling flat, will the burgeoning celebrity of The Wrecking Crew be able to carry the sport out of the woods and into the city? We’ll see.