Special report: American Flat Track racing is revving up for prime time

American flat track motorcycle racing was formally organized in 1954. Informally, it’s much older than that—older even than any current 2020 presidential candidate. 

Really, nobody knows the official birth date, but we know the official rebirth date: June 4, 2015, on a warm spring night in Texas. On the eve of the 2015 ESPN Summer X Games, held at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin, many of the top riders from the American Motorcycle Association Pro Flat Track series were invited to compete in the inaugural Harley-Davidson Flat Track event.

But the Circuit of the Americas didn’t have a flat track. In a field west of the Formula 1 track, a cobby dirt paper clip maybe a third of a mile around was carved out of the weeds. It looked, to both spectator and rider, uncomfortably like a plowed cornfield. Heavy rain had not helped. Truck-mounted Musco lights were rolled in for TV-quality illumination.

COTA had erected some tall aluminum grandstands, but since this was a Thursday night, and nobody had bothered much to promote the $35-a-head race, half of the grandstands were roped off.

But the fans came, and they kept coming. Long before the first heat, the ropes disappeared; the grandstands were nearly full. Crappy carved-out-of-a-field track or not, the racers—ranging from four-time Daytona 200 winner Danny Eslick to the then-and-current darling of flat track racing, Jared Mees—put on a hell of a show, including the 20-lap feature. Mees led for 19 and a half laps, but he was passed when the rough track caused his Harley-Davidson to spit off its chain. That allowed Kawasaki rider Bryan Smith to squeeze by and take the win, just ahead of a charging Sammy Halbert, who took the silver medal, and Brad Baker, who took the bronze.

Something else happened to AMA Pro Flat Track racing in 2015: Jim France took a genuine interest in the sport. Currently chairman and CEO of NASCAR and chairman of the International Speedway Corp., which has 13 racetracks, including Daytona International Speedway, France is also chairman of sports car sanctioning body IMSA and principal of AMA Pro Racing. With all that, how much time can he dedicate to flat track motorcycle racing?

The answer is: a lot. It isn’t widely known, but France dearly loves flat track. He served as starter for the U.S. Motorcycle Grand Prix in the late 1960s, raced a Bultaco on dirt in the 1970s and has been a member of the American Motorcyclist Association for decades. At 74, he continues to ride. And he decided it was time to fix flat track racing.

“It’s a great sport,” France told Autoweek. “It deserves a larger audience, and we’re taking steps to make that happen.” For a series that, over the years, spawned superstars like Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts and Eddie Lawson, flat track has been virtually invisible the last 20 years to all but the die-hard. France remembers those days; he wants them back.

Enter Michael Lock, a Brit who came to America to fix Ducati North America, then Lamborghini. He was looking for a job at the end of 2014. France made him a consultant; by 2015, he was CEO of AMA Pro Racing, which is mostly flat track—its Pro Motocross and ATV National Championship series are essentially operated by licensees.

One of the first things Lock did was change the name. AMA Pro Flat Track racing is now American Flat Track: easy to remember, looks good on a T-shirt. There’s an old-school feel to the series, which is a compliment, but with modern bikes, scoring, website (americanflattrack.com) and TV package, which airs—not yet live—on NBC Sports Network.

Lock also simplified the racing, settling on just two main classes: The top class is the American Flat Track Twins, with two-cylinder engines no larger than 900cc, on custom racing frames. The other is the AFT Singles, a production-based class with single-cylinder engines no larger than 450cc. Those two classes are competing at all 20 events this year. At about half those races, they will be joined by the AFT Production Twin class, using twin-cylinder engines from street bikes that are no larger than 800cc.

American Flat Track is affordable—startlingly so. “You can buy a Single for $10,000 that is virtually ready to race,” Lock said. “Change the suspension and wheel sizes and you have a race bike.” KTM and Red Bull are, for the first time, fielding a factory-backed team in Singles competition, with 27-year-old veteran rider Shayna Texter—arguably the face of flat track racing—as one of its riders. Yamaha, Suzuki,  Kawasaki and Honda are also represented in the class.

You’ll find Yamahas, Harleys and Hondas in AFT Twins; they are battling a bunch of potent, championship-winning Indian FTR750s. Indian introduced the FTR750 in 2017, and, as Indian rightly claims, it “revolutionized flat track racing.”

“It’s $50,000 turnkey,” Lock said, “and you don’t have to assemble it from pieces.” The FTR750 was introduced with a new, relatively simple engine designed to go half a season without an engine rebuild. There are some riders on other brands, Lock said, “that have to change half the engine after every race.”

An Indian won the first three races this season, but J.D. Beach won the fourth on his Yamaha MT-07, so the FTR750 can be beat.

This is the third year AFT races have been televised on NBC Sports Network, on tape delay. NBC is amazed, Lock said, at the growth trajectory. He intends to go to live TV sooner rather than later, which could “double or triple our audience.”

“People have been starved for this sport for a long time,” he said. “I see no reason why we can’t become the biggest, most popular motorcycle sport in America. After all, it was once that way.”

So what went wrong?

What happened to AFT is what has happened to the motorcycle industry in general, Lock said. When the recession hit in 2008, people were faced with riding a motorcycle or making their house payment; sales sagged. But as the economy rebounded, sales didn’t bounce back to where many industry analysts had hoped they would, “and the industry took it in the shorts.”

A big reason for that, Lock said: “A demographic time bomb. For years, the motorcycle industry spoke only to one customer: the baby boomer.” Post-recession, many boomers retired and either quit riding or saw no reason to upgrade the motorcycles they already had. Meanwhile, “their kids and grandkids are simply not buying motorcycles at the same rate.”

That’s one huge reason he’s bullish on the future of flat track: It appeals to its traditional market, but also a much younger one, victims of the much-lamented Short Attention Span. “Our longest race is 25 laps and maybe 15 minutes. You can see the whole track from any seat. We have guaranteed close racing, and even if it isn’t, there will be another race in five minutes. …We have a package that, I think, no manufacturer can resist. We have half of them now, and I want the other half.”

This means turning some racers, who are very comfortable with their comparative anonymity, into superstar spokespeople. Lock said AFT is offering instruction in media training and on how to attract sponsors, something they’ve seldom had to do: “It’s almost like speaking a foreign language to some of them.”

The ultimate goal, Lock said, is to help the racers’ bank accounts. “I have to get our riders better compensation. Compared to other sports, they’ve spent two decades on the bread lines. No one is wealthy from what they make here.”The 2019 season began on March 14 with the Daytona TT Presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys.

Opening night is on a new temporary part-dirt, part-asphalt TT track built mostly atop the grass infield inside Daytona’s front straight. Fifteen of American Flat Track’s 20 races are on dirt ovals—from a quarter-mile to 1 mile long—but for those other five races, AFT uses the TT format, an oval that also has a right-hand turn and a jump. Some of the riders—mostly those with motocross experience—love TT, and some of them hate it.

Shayna Texter hates TT, and with good reason: On regular ovals, you can get into a flow, and the bike does most of the work—you don’t even need a front brake like you do on TT tracks. With TT, there’s a certain amount of manhandling involved, and when you are a woman who is barely 5 feet tall and weighs 95 pounds, no amount of working out will allow you to manhandle as effectively as a rider twice your size.

Texter (pictured, left) didn’t make the main event in Daytona, but she won on April 20, her third time out with her new factory KTM at the Texas Half Mile, at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. She was joined in victory lane by her older brother, Cory, who won in the part-time AFT Production Twin class. 

And Daytona wasn’t a total loss; Briar Bauman, aboard an Indian, won the AFT Twin 25-lap main. He is Shayna’s boyfriend.

Why not one of the better-paying two-wheel sports? “I was born into it,” she said. Her grandpa raced; so did her father, who had a national ranking. Shayna and Cory literally grew up in the business; Dad owned a Harley dealership in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As the first rider in the AFT Singles class with a factory sponsor, “this is a big deal for me. It’s a huge break.”

Unlike many racers on two and four wheels, Shayna isn’t interested in moving on to another, better-known series. “There’s no other home for me,” she said. “I want to stay here.”

That’s an answer you hear a lot as you walk the paddock, even from younger riders like Kolby Carlile, 21, who won the AFT Singles championship in 2017 and has moved to the Twins class, on a Yamaha. “I want to stay here in flat track racing forever,” said Carlile, known as “The Flying Tomato” because of his long red hair. He began racing flat track in 2013, and he likes what he’s seeing: “Michael Lock, and a good group of people he has surrounded himself with, are doing a really great job.”

He began racing in flat track because “my dad thought it was safer than motocross,” he said, laughing. “It’s really an exciting sport to be part of. On paper, it looks so simple, like checkers. You think it would be easy and straightforward, but it isn’t.”

At the other end of the age demographic at Daytona was Jeff Ward, 57, who appeared in the legendary 1971 motorcycle racing film, “On Any Sunday,” when he was 10. Ward won multiple AMA Motocross and Supercross titles before moving to IndyCar, where he finished second, third and fourth in the Indianapolis 500. He has raced in NASCAR, the Lucas Oil Off Road Series, in Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks.

And now, American Flat Track, where he will compete in the five TV races on a bone-stock KTM 450 SX-F, like Texter rides. “I just thought it would be cool. This is some of the best racing there is,” Ward said. He likes the direction AFT is heading: “There are some drivers here with great personalities,” he said. “They have to get out of their comfort zone to help grow the sport, and I see them doing that.

“For a sport that’s been around forever,” Ward said, “I think the future is bright.”

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