Bryan Smith and Jared Mees used to build backyard bonfires together and share hotel rooms on the road. Smith was even in Mees’ wedding at the Springfield Mile in 2013. But when they meet this weekend at the Santa Rosa Mile to decide the AMA Pro Flat Track championship, friendship will play no role in the competition.
The two racers have hardly spoken to each other in a year.
The friendship started to sour with the great tire doping scandal of 2015, when Mees went unpunished over what was alleged to be a chemically treated tire. Smith’s team helped a journalist break the story of what appeared to be a coverup by AMA Pro Racing. After Smith won the Springfield Mile in September, Mees retaliated by doing a post-race burnout and goading Smith. “You want to test this one, too!?” Mees asked.
“We’re always needling each other. That’s what we do,” Mees said.
It’s befitting of Mees’ personality, hyper and wide open, while Smith is laid back and easy going. Smith felt Team Mees’ response to the tire inquiry was poorly handled. He said he wasn’t originally upset at Mees, but rather at AMA Pro Racing and the way they handled the matter.
Still, the two racers went from communicating daily at home and at the races to almost no contact, save for the occasional head nod or podium "good race" gestures.
In August, the next scandal, which we’ll refer to as the "Wheel Deal," broke. Mees won the New York Half-Mile on August 20 then filed a protest against Smith because he wanted to know why Smith’s rear wheel was seven pounds heavier than his own. When asked how he even knew about the wheel’s weight, Mees says tech inspection is a small place.
“It’s all right there and it’s open to the eye,” Mees said.
A protest was filed within 30 minutes of the end of the race and Smith’s wheel was found to be out of compliance with rule 3.22.h:
“All chassis ballast must be fixed to the frame. Under no conditions is it allowable to add chassis ballast as rotating mass to the wheels outside of normal balancing procedures,” according the AMA Pro Flat Track rulebook.
A specially engineered band of metal was bolted and bonded to the inside of Smith's rim. According to Smith, he’s been using it off and on for three years. Smith says since his Kawasaki Ninja 650-based race bike revs very quickly, altering the rotational mass of the wheels helps counter the abrupt power delivery.
“When the track is loose and slippery, the wheel spins slower,” he said of the modified wheel. “It makes it to where the rider has a better feel.” (Weighting isn’t new; riders used to put water in the inner tubes, a now-banned practice.) Three days after the race, Smith was disqualified and stripped of his 19 points from the race.
“I don’t blame him,” Smith said of Mees filing the protest. “I would have done the same if someone came to me and said something wasn’t right.”
Smith appealed, however, because he had the ultimate trump card: a letter from AMA Pro Racing in March 2016 saying that the wheel construction was allowed under rule 3.22.h.
After publicly saying nothing in the tire doping scandal last year, AMA Pro Racing has showered the industry with information regarding "Wheel Deal." On Sept. 13, a press release stated an appeals board had reversed the disqualification. On Sept. 14, AMA Pro Racing CEO Michael K. Lock issued a 1,350-word open letter (350 words longer than this article) further breaking down the issue and pointing out they goofed:
“AMA Pro had not carried out due diligence by inspecting the wheel to determine its eligibility prior to giving written approval, nor had they rescinded approval in an appropriate (written) manner.”
The next day, AMA Pro Racing’s Al Ludington departed his role as technical director.
But what about the race this weekend?
For race fans not concerned with the bureaucratic details of protests and appeals, or modified wheels and chemically treated tires, the two-point differential between Smith (211 points) and Mees (209) means this weekend's finale will be a rare showdown. It’s the first time since 2010 that the season will conclude on a mile track and only the sixth time in series history the final race will feature two riders separated by two points or less in the championship (thank you Bert Sumner for the stats!).
Each rider has four wins this year. Smith has 26 career wins to Mees’ 20, but Mees, with more than 80 career podium finishes, has been more consistent and leads 3-0 in the championship department, winning three of the last four. Smith, meanwhile, has finished runner-up three times (2013-2015).
Smith's advantage may be that the final race is on a mile track. He has won 10 of the last 15 mile events on his “Mile Killer” Kawasaki. Since switching to Kawasaki in 2012, Smith has given the marque its first wins in Grand National Championship (GNC) Half-Mile and Mile competitions and all he has to do is simply beat Mees (Harley-Davidson) this weekend to give the brand its first-ever GNC title. He is in control of his shot at the title.
"All I have to do is beat one guy," Smith said. "The bad thing is that one guy is pretty damn good." Even though Smith has been the one to bet on in mile competitions, Mees won in Oklahoma on June 18, his first win on the big oval since the summer of 2013.
Protests and scandals have turned two friends into competitors who don't speak to each other, and that is not likely to change this weekend. Both Smith and Mees leave room for hope it will change someday, however.
"It’ll blow over," Smith said. "It’s competition."
"It sucks that we’re not as close," Mees said. "We became friends because of racing, separated because of racing and hopefully we can reunite because of it."