There have already been a few off-season moments to make American motorcycle racing fans go, “Hmm...” this fall.
The first such moment came shortly after the final MotoAmerica round at Barber Motorsports Park when J.D. Beach, having won the Supersport championship convincingly with 11 wins in 17 races, appeared to be without a ride of any kind in 2019.
“Towards the end of the year, I thought I was going to get the Yosh ride,” Beach recently told me, referring to the spot on the Yoshimura Suzuki team that opened up when Roger Hayden retired. “We got to Barber, I found out that wasn’t going to happen.”
Not only was Beach not destined to step up to one of the top two Superbike teams, Yamaha was not even going to defend its Supersport championship with an official team.
That was a “Hmm...” As in, “Is MotoAmerica OK?”
Beach is friends with Kolby Carlile, who raced in the 2018 American Flat Track Singles Championship for the fast-rising Estenson Racing team. Suddenly, J.D. faced a 2019 season with no planned racing. He texted team owner Tim Estenson, asking, “I’ve got some spare time. Do you think I could race [flat track] with you guys?”
Estenson scrambled to get another Yamaha MT-07 ’tracker together in a couple of weeks, and Beach ran the last two races of the 2018 AFT season. He finished seventh in Minnesota and sixth (first non-Indian) at the season finale at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Then, J.D. announced that he’d race the whole 2019 AFT series with Estenson.
That was another “Hmm...” As in, “Is flat track, once again, America’s premiere motorcycle racing championship?”
I happened to chat with AFT CEO Michael Lock just after that news came out, and he was positively gloating at the thought that his series had poached one of MotoAmerica’s most talented riders. I texted J.D. to confirm that he’d really dropped road racing in favor of flat track, and his response was a cryptic: “I’m going to do both.”
He also mentioned that he was in Valencia, Spain, at the time, talking to Moto2 teams about 2020, which was my first clue that he had not given up on road racing. Later that day, I read that he would race the AFT series and defend his MotoAmerica Supersport title while riding for RiCKdiculous Racing.
Hmm... Nothing against RiCKdiculous, but that was somehow less than satisfying. Tim Estenson thought so too, figuring that if J.D. was going to road race, it should be in the top class. Estenson asked Andrea Wilson — she handles his team’s PR and has good contacts in the road racing community — how to get Beach on a Superbike.
Wilson knew that normally it would be impossible to find a competitive ride in November, but that this wasn’t a normal off season. Yoshimura Suzuki was still playing musical chairs; Josh Herrin seemed to be holding out for the Yosh seat, leaving Rich Stanboli’s Attack Performance team without a confirmed rider. Andrea called Rich, and he pretty much immediately agreed to run J.D. in 2019, on the same Yamaha R1 that Herrin had used last year. The bike was competitive enough to win two races and let Herrin finish third in the championship, as the top non-factory-team rider in MotoAmerica Motul Superbike.
So Estenson Racing will team up with Attack Performance to run J.D. in MotoAmerica’s Superbike class, as well as providing him a ride in AFT. For fans of a certain age, flat-track and Superbikes in the same season is not “Hmm...” news. It’s “Hell yeah!” news.
Remember when road racing and flat-track were one?
Between 1954 and 1985, the AMA Grand National Championship was a series of races run on both dirt and asphalt. There were road races on asphalt and dirt-track races on miles, half-miles, and TT tracks (with at least one right turn and a jump). Short-track races were added into the mix in 1961. Some years, there were more than 30 events. Winning this grueling championship took a particularly versatile rider. In the era of 500 cc two-stroke Grand Prix bikes, American riders’ abilities to slide road-racing motorcycles as if they were dirt trackers — developed in that unified championship — gave our side a distinct advantage. Beginning with Kenny Roberts in 1978, Americans won 13 of the next 16 500 GP titles.
In 1986, however, the U.S. dirt track and road racing nationals were split into separate championships.
Could J.D. Beach win both championships in a single year?
The short answer to that question is almost certainly no.
That’s not a diss on Beach, by any means. I still carry deep emotional scars from attending an American Supercamp with him. I don’t remember the year and don’t know how old he was, but he looked about 11. He handed my ass to me over and over; he passed me as if I wasn’t there at all. I didn’t wonder who he was, I wondered what he was — like, was he some kind of alien? He went on to become the first American to win the Red Bull Rookies Cup, won the last Superprestigio, three U.S. Supersport titles, etc. The kid’s talent is otherworldly.
But there are five direct conflicts between the AFT and MotoAmerica schedules, and since series points structures reward consistency, missing even one or two rounds would put him at a huge disadvantage. I asked J.D. how he and Estenson would decide which series to favor when those scheduling conflicts arose.
“There’s more to it than just the points,” he told me. “It will be a team decision. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Over the course of our conversation, it was pretty clear that while he loves flat-track, he has a more burning desire to prove himself on asphalt. Winning the MotoAmerica Motul Superbike championship as a class rookie is unlikely, but I’m sure that’s his goal. My prediction is that Beach will race the entire MotoAmerica schedule for as long as the title is mathematically possible. That strategy will leave him free to run 13 of 18 AFT events.
Dreaming of another... Argh! I don’t dare say it
So if winning the Superbike title’s a heavy lift, and winning the AFT championship after foregoing five rounds is nigh impossible, what’s so exciting about J.D.’s one-man plan to reunify the championships? There is another possible outcome, but I won’t curse it by naming it. Instead, I’ll call it an "Andgray Amslay."
Only four riders have won at least one Expert "National" on every type of track in the old Grand National Championship. They are all legends: Dick Mann, Kenny Roberts, Bubba Shobert, and Doug Chandler.
|Road Race||Mile||Half-Mile||Short Track||TT|
|Joe Leonard||Windber 1953||San Mateo 1953||Sturgis 1953||N/A||Peoria 1953|
|Dick Mann||Laconia 1960||Homewood 1972||Heidelberg 1961||Hinsdale 1969||Peoria 1969|
|Kenny Roberts||Road Atlanta 1974||Colorado Springs 1973||Ascot 1973||Houston Astrodome 1972||Peoria 1974|
|Bubba Shobert||Mid-Ohio 1984||Indianapolis 1982||Phoenix 1986||San Jose 1984||Ascot 1985|
|Doug Chandler||Mid-Ohio 1989||San Jose 1986||Ascot 1986||Hinsdale 1983||Ascot 1986|
Dick Mann compiled his wins over a period of 13 years; it was only after he finally won on a mile oval in 1972 that anyone thought to give the achievement a name. Kenny Roberts was the last to do it in the unified era. Shobert and Chandler scored premier-class wins on every type of track in the GNC and and also won AMA Superbike races. Now, the Grand National Championship’s morphed into American Flat Track and the old AMA Pro Racing Superbike championship’s been taken over by MotoAmerica. And for the first time in years, one person has a real shot at winning a national on each type of track.
It would be an incredible feat to compile five such disparate wins in a single season. Only Joe Leonard came close. In 1953, he won nationals on asphalt, a mile, half-mile, and TT. (There were no short-track nationals that year.) The first official year of the AMA Grand National Championship was 1954.
I don’t want to curse J.D. by labeling him as Andgray Amslay material. It would be like mentioning a no-hitter to a pitcher sitting in the dugout between innings, or like a Shakespearean actor uttering the name of the play "Macbeth" in rehearsal. The thing is, my friends are already mentioning Beach’s name and that special achievement in the same sentence, albeit while touching wood, crossing their fingers, or throwing salt over their shoulders.
I called Doug Chandler and asked him whether he’d considered the possibility that J.D. might join his elite club, and he readily admitted the thought had crossed his mind, too.
“Before he died, I always thought that Nicky (Hayden) would be the next one,” Chandler told me. “Because all he needed was a win on a mile. But now J.D. has that potential. Of course, he’s never ridden a Superbike, so it remains to be seen how he’ll adapt to it.”
Chandler believes, as I do, that J.D.’s flat-track skillset will make him a winner. “On short tracks and TTs, he’s going to be right there,” Doug opined. Then he added, “On half-miles, hmm... probably. The miles may take a little longer, because there’s so much strategy to learn.”
Estenson Racing has a lot of work to do
The Estenson/Attack alliance came together very quickly, over the Thanksgiving week. Tim Estenson didn’t even talk to J.D. about it until it was a done deal, then he called Beach to ask him if he could get out of his agreement with RiCKdiculous. Those guys were cool with letting J.D. go race the Superbike.
Estenson Racing has a lot on its plate for 2019. They are developing a new flat-track bike with a completely different frame. J.D. rode the flat-track bike last Monday and the Attack Superbike Tuesday and Wednesday at Chuckwalla. I spoke to J.D. after Tuesday’s sessions.
“I haven’t ridden a thousand since 2011,” he told me, “So I just went out and rode it, we weren’t really trying stuff.”
For a guy who had no racing plans at all right after the Barber MotoAmerica round two months ago, Beach now has something like 34 races scheduled between next March and October. Really though, except for additional travel days, his life won’t look that different. He rides a bicycle almost every day, works out, runs occasionally, and has a short track and a "turn track" on his own property in Kentucky where he rides at least a couple of times a week.
As for the future, “I love flat-track. It’s what I grew up doing and it’s great to see it growing,” he told me. “But I love road racing too, and there’s stuff there I want to achieve.” Considering that he flew to Valencia to mingle at the final World Championship round, I think it’s pretty clear that "stuff" involves racing in an FIM World Championship.
After talking to them both, I believe that in Tim Estenson, J.D. Beach has a sponsor who will stick with him long enough to win a top-tier American championship. Or two. Would that be enough to get him to Europe? Probably not.
My feeling is that he’d already be racing in MotoGP but for a speech impediment that sponsors can’t get past. Ironically his written communication is far more coherent and thoughtful than the average motorcycle racer’s. In any case, once the first wave of Americans taught the Europeans to train on dirt tracks, we lost our advantage over there.
But there’s something even rarer than a World Championship. I’m holding out for J.D. Beach to win a MotoAmerica Superbike race, and at least one AFT mile, half-mile, short track, and TT race.
Andgray Amslay, baby. That’s what I want.