Jared Mees has never led the AMA Grand National Twins Championship this late in the season. To say No. 21 is feeling the weight of the championship battle would be an understatement.
Coming into Saturday's Indy Mile, the Blue Springs/Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson/Rogers Lake Racing - sponsored racer from Clio, Michigan, has a five point lead in the championship. The only problem for Mees are the riders breathing down his neck.
There's Kenny Coolbeth, who's the No. 1 factory Harley-Davidson rider and the guy who has won three straight AMA Grand National Championships. Then there's Sammy Halbert, the fastest up-and coming young gun in the series. Not to mention the all-time wins leader among active riders - Chris Carr. You may have heard of him. And finally Bryan Smith, one of the best mile racers in the business. Did I mention that two of the final three rounds are on Miles?
No pressure at all for Mees. Yeah right.
Mees, 23, has earned podiums in half of the GNC Twins races, but it's been two years since the 2001 AMA Horizon Award winner has taken a victory and that's something he's hoping to change soon.
Cycle News talked to Mees about the close of the season to get an idea of how he feels about his chances. A hard crash at Peoria last weekend didn't help his cause, but a phone call today (Friday) revealed that Mees was feeling fine and was on his way to compete in a Friday night Hot Shoe race in Gas City, Indiana.
There were some surprises in the interview, including some interesting tidbits on his personal life.
CN: This is the latest in the season you've led the championship. Do you feel the pressure of being the rider with the target on your back?
Mees: There's no doubt if you go back and look my results on the Miles in the past have not been that strong. I'm sure that thought floats around in my head as we go into Indy and Springfield, but I feel pretty confident in the team that I have. We had a pretty good run at the Springfield Mile [in May] from the third row to get third place. I'm feeling confident, but the pressure is there for sure. I'm working hard, my team is working hard and I'm just looking at it one race at a time. With this new Dash for Cash format you have to be on your game in the Heat race to make sure you get into the Dash to earn the extra points.
CN: Do you have the same team as you did last year?
Mees: It's pretty much the same sponsors, but I'm riding for Craig Rogers of Rogers Lake Racing and I have a new mechanic, Brent Armbruster. I rode for Johnny and Sarah Goad before and we had six great years together. They taught me a lot about racing and a lot about life. With the new team it's nice because Brent only lives about a mile and a half from my house so it make it convenient to have the team based out of Clio, Michigan, where I'm from.
CN: You've been really consistent this year, but you haven't quite broken through for a win this year. In fact it's been a while since you've won a national. What do you think it's going to take for you to get back on top of the podium?
Mees: I had a really good run at both Bulls Gap and Lima. At Bulls Gap Sammy Halbert out-rode me plain as day and at Lima I made a big mistake going into turn three with four or five laps to go and that let Bryan [Smith] reel me in and we had a three-lap dash and he got the better of me.
I've got to take away the mistakes. I'm kind of forgetting what it feels like to cross that checkered flag in the number-one spot and I really want to get a W. Not only for me, but for Brent and Craig too. Brent's never won a Grand National race and it's a long time for Craig. The races we've got to go aren't my strongest, but anything can happen. Especially on the Miles the older I get the better I feel about racing them.
CN: In the remaining races where do you think you have the best shot of winning?
Mees: Possibly Pomona, but really I think I have as good a shot as anybody out there. Coolbeth and Carr are tough, and Sammy Halbert is coming on strong and then Smith is so strong at Indy and Springfield and Pomona too. I expect Smith to be the strongest rider in these closing rounds, but we all know anything can happen in racing.
CN: You gained a reputation for being a hard-nosed, aggressive rider. Riders react to your aggressiveness differently. What are your thoughts on that?
Mees: One of the riders who said he has some problems with my riding is my buddy Bryan Smith. Then there are some, like JR Schnabel and Sammy Halbert who we rub and bump into each other and ride aggressive and then can shake hands and laugh about it after the race. There are some out there if you rub elbows with them or bump around a little they look at it like ‘We've got the whole racetrack to race. Why are you doing that?'
I understand both views. A lot of what I hear about is what happened at Lima. I understand it was pretty aggressive and it might have been a little overly aggressive, but the way I'm thinking about it - it was for a Grand National win and a win at Lima one of the biggest races. My feeling was I damn near led the whole thing and made a little mistake. I wasn't going to sit back and not make a hard effort to win. I don't think my move at Lima was dirty. Aggressive yes - but a dirty move? No. I grew up in the state of Pennsylvania and got knocked down I don't know how many times by Georgie Price and the top pros there. I've learned to ride aggressive and I don't get uptight about what people say about it.
CN: Why did you move from Pennsylvania to Michigan?
Mees: I graduated from high school in 2004 and then that summer started hanging out a lot up in Michigan. I like it because you can ride year-round. From December to April we have ice racing up here and then in the summer there are a lot of motocross tracks you can go to and practice. Plus it's more centrally located than Pennsylvania. I've got a great deal on a house in Clio and have done some updates to it, so I'm pretty happy up here.
CN: You're a young guy out on the racing circuit, what's the personal life like? Are you in a relationship?
Mees: I'm not married, but I do have a girlfriend and that's Nichole Cheza. It's no surprise in the dirt track community. Right now I've got no plans to get married or have kids or anything like that. Right now I'm focused on winning races and championships and living life to the fullest.
CN: I didn't know you and Nichole were dating.
Mees: When we're at the racetrack we're professional about it. She does her thing and I do mine. We don't pit next to each other because we both want to focus on our jobs, but I definitely keep an eye on her when she's on the racetrack. If she's struggling I'll go over and say something to her or maybe talk with her team to try to come up with some ideas on gearing or things like that. For the most part I just go to the races and do my own thing and then after the race we'll have dinner.
CN: What's it like to have a girlfriend on the racetrack and maybe even be racing against her?
Mees: Back in the day she got into some bad wrecks. She got hurt pretty bad in testing once up in Monticello (N.Y) and right there I told her if she was going to race we'd have to go our separate ways during race weekends and testing because it messed with me a little bit. It's not weird though because she's out there doing what she loves to do. She's a racer just like the rest of us. When I'm out there I want to beat her just as bad as she wants to beat me. I get the question if it came down to the last lap and she was in front of me would I ride as aggressively with her as I would with Bryan Smith? Damn straight I would. She wouldn't have it any other way.
CN: A lot of flat trackers have moved over to road racing. Have you ever thought about trying that?
Mees: We're always told the money's in road racing and we get a lot of people telling us that's where we should go, but I never dropped everything and said, ‘OK, I'm going road racing.' I've got a pretty good deal with the Harley-Davidson Company and would it make sense for me to spend my own money to try to make it in road racing or would it be better to stay here in flat track where I can put a little money away and be a threat to win the championship every year? I kind of felt like I made a good decision with that especially right now with what's going on in road racing. Some of the top riders right now in road racing are splitting purse and not getting any salary. No form of racing will ever come to being as close and fun as dirt track. I mean you look at the Hayden's and some other guys - if they could make the kind of money here they could in road racing they'd be dirt tracking.
CN: If the series goes to the wire like it looks like it could, what's it going to be like in Pomona with three or four guys battling for the championship?
Mees: Theoretically the championship came down to the last race in 2007 too, but Kenny only needed to finish 16th or something like that to beat me. Coolbeth and Carr have definitely gone into last races with the pressure on them. So they know what it's like. I'll go into Pomona looking to race like I do at every race. I'm going to go for the win no matter where I am in the points.