There are three guarantees in AMA Pro Flat Track racing:
- Riders will go fast.
- Riders will turn left.
- Henry Wiles will win the Peoria TT.
The last time someone not named Henry Wiles won the Grand National Championship final in Peoria, Illinois was in 2003. Facebook didn’t exist, Barack Obama was just a state senator of the 13th district of Illinois and Valentino Rossi was only a two-time MotoGP champion.
On Sunday, Wiles will line up for round 11 of the 2016 AMA Pro Flat Track Championship to try for his 12th consecutive win at Peoria (2007 was a rainout) and inch one step closer to Chris Carr’s record of 13 Peoria wins earned between 1986 and 2001. The sole TT (Tourist Trophy) left on the AMA Flat Track schedule, it’s a five-eighths-mile course and the only track on the series featuring at least one jump and one right turn. It’s the jump that rattles the riders.
“It’s intimidating,” admits Carr, a seven-time Grand National Champion who won eight in a row at Peoria (1988-1995) and is still known as the "Prince of Peoria."
“The jump is intimidating because it doesn’t exist anywhere but Peoria. If you think you can beat the track then you have the edge on the others. Wiles has a comfort level to hit that jump wide open.”
The jump is an innocuous looking roller following turn two. Since today’s riders compete on 450 cc motocross bikes in TT races, what’s the problem? The bikes are still set up for accelerating out of turns, not jumping. The suspension is shorter, the front wheel is smaller and since the jump is carved into a lefthand turn, riders are landing at an angle and on the left wall of their tires, making for a very thin margin of error. And because the motors have 60 horsepower and some riders hit the jump around 70 mph, the crashes are ugly.
“Everybody has gone over that jump and had a moment with it. There’s no way to avoid it,” says Jared Mees the reigning AMA GNC champion and five-time runner up at Peoria (all to Wiles). Mees has never won a GNC TT race and the closest he’s come to winning Peoria was 2015 when he was 1.32 seconds behind at the line. Wiles and Mees lapped up to sixth place in the 18-rider field. Mees echoes Carr’s take on the jump being intimidating. “Most people will make a mistake and then hit the jump slower and slower and slower throughout the race.”
Wiles says he has had many scares on the jump but he was a proficient motocross racer in Michigan, where he grew up and still lives. Once a wrestling recruit for Central Michigan University, Wiles chose to stick with racing when he was a teenager. A pro since 2002, he has 27 career premier class wins (10th all-time) but his best overall GNC points finish was fifth in 2013. After passing Carr in 2015 on the all-time TT wins list (16 victories), Wiles told ESPN, "It's phenomenal just to be mentioned in the same breath as that guy. But he has seven (GNC1) titles, and I have zero. Those win records are cute, but I want a title."
A part-time lumberjack, Wiles, 32, is as good at running skid steers and bulldozers as he is at winning TT races. For a generation of competitors he’s been unbeatable at Peoria, yet he has no magic formula or machine and he almost downplays what he’s been able to do.
“I don’t know!” he says. “It’s just a half-mile track with a jump in it. It’s got a righthand kink. I don’t go in there counting my chickens before they’re hatched. I know I will have to race hard for it.” Some years, Wiles says, he simply has more confidence than others but every year, and every win, has been different.
He’s won on Hondas, Kawasakis, spring forks, air forks and every victory has come aboard a machine 2008 or older and always with a carburetor, never fuel injected. He’s won with five different race teams, two broken wrists (2009) and only four months following complete knee reconstruction to his left ACL, PCL and MCL (2011).
In 2014 he felt his bike was a little slow. When he got home he re-tested it and found that it was down six horsepower (on the same dyno) from what he had before leaving home to race at Peoria.
He’s even won from the back row. In 2013, he had a mechanical DNF in his heat race. Fingers pointed as Wiles drifted off the course and each of the 10,000 spectators in attendance looked at each other; the streak is over, said the expressions on their faces. On a backup bike, he won his semi qualifier and slotted 13th in the final row. At the end of lap one, he was eighth. He took the lead at the beginning of lap 10 and sprinted away to a 3.317-second win and a record-breaking ninth consecutive victory.
“I wouldn’t have bet on myself that I would have taken the lead on lap 10,” Wiles said.
Wiles has led the last 66 consecutive laps of the 25-lap final going back to 2013. He’s won by as much as 11.4 seconds (2010) and as little as 0.862 (2008). His average win margin is 4.23 seconds. Mees is a three-time GNC champion but he’s never won a race on a 450 in the AMA Pro Flat Track series. In 2016, there are only three 450 (singles) races on the schedule — two Daytona short track rounds and the Peoria TT — and his last chance is coming up because the 2017 season will be contested entirely on twin-cylinder motorcycles.
“Sucks to say but it’s getting to me,” Mees says of losing to Wiles. “I want to beat him so bad and straight up, it’s mind-boggling. I can’t believe I’m so concerned about beating a guy that’s ninth in points.”
The Peoria Motorcycle Club has been hosting races since 1931 and the venue has been on the AMA schedule since 1954, the first year of the Grand National Championship. Whether Wiles gets a dozen in a row or not, his current streak is unlikely to ever be matched. To be able to show up 12 years in a row is impressive enough in motorcycle racing, given how injury-prone the sport can be. Then, consider the difficult of continuously being the best guy amidst unpredictable variables and new challengers every single year, and Wiles is truly doing something special at Peoria.
If you can't be at the race, it will stream live at Fanschoice.tv.