PHOTOGRAPHY BY LARRY LAWRENCE
The flat track racing world was rocked this morning at the announcement by Ricky Howerton that the Crosley Radio/Howerton Motorsports team was pulling out of AMA Grand National competition. Bryan Smith rode the Crosley/Howerton Kawasaki to second-place in the AMA Grand National Championship this year and won the Expert Twins division of the series for the second year in a row.
Howerton Motorsports developed the fastest motorcycle (based on the Kawasaki EX650) in the championship and Smith rode it to victory four times in the past two seasons, and more importantly was a serious contender for the Grand National title all year in 2013, in a series that came down to the final race.
On Grand National Miles the Smith/Howerton Kawasaki combination was undoubtedly the team to beat.
In two short years the Indianapolis-based team became a powerhouse in the championship and arguably the most competitive non-Harley-Davidson squad since the factory Honda team of the mid-1980s. Ironically the factory Honda flat track team was based out of the same near-Westside motorsports complex (just a stone’s throw south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) that Howerton Motorsports calls home. Team owner Ricky Howerton used to hang out at the Honda shop as a kid.
Howerton said the decision to leave the series was a tough one.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize what level we kept that motorcycle,” Howerton said. “We were there after our normal jobs on a nightly basis from probably 5:30 to midnight and that was seven days a week. We would take the bike down to the frame after every race. We built different engine combinations we were trying for Half-Miles and Miles, just kind of doing the way you would if that was your job. Growing up around the Indy Car scene that’s just the way we were brought up to do stuff.
“Working those amount of hours wasn’t any big deal to me; I knew that going into it. The only thing that bothered me was amount of hours that I wasn’t around my kids. Ultimately that’s what it came down to.”
Howerton said the hardest part is breaking up the team.
“We had so much fun and there was so much camaraderie there. I’ve got such a great relationship with Bryan. It’s so much more than just rider and team owner relationship. I told him that if we didn’t have such a great relationship and personal bond it would make this way, way easier. It’s like chopping one of your family members out.”
Howerton said the cost factory of running a top-level team through the whole season was not a major factor.
“I put some of my own money in it, but I knew that up front,” he explained. “Crosley paid the majority of the bills no doubt. He spent a lot of money. It’s funny I don’t know if people liked us or hated us. We kind of came in, had a different motorcycle with a Japanese engine, we had a super-nice pit setup. I thought one of two things; either they’ll either love us or hate us.
“I think on the AMA side I think they liked it, because they wanted their other teams to be similar in appearance and professionalism, but on the other hand do the riders not like us because we’re coming in with new and good stuff? But if you look at it, we probably had less money in our motorcycle just because everything was built here. I really think the passion I had, that Jeff Gordon (Chief Mechanic) had, that Dink (Ron Glidden, mechanic) had it just came from cubic hours. I think that passion was way more important than if we were making a good living on it, because it keeps you in it. I think the other guys would for sure keep going with it, but they are OK with my decision.”
Howerton says departing the series at this point does feel a bit like leaving some business unfinished on the table.
“If we would have won the No. 1 plate this would have been a way easier decision,” Howerton admits. “I feel bad for Bryan. He got so close and he’s tried for so long. I wanted to win the championship more for him than for me, because he’s been doing this his whole life.
“He’s the one who made our team we didn’t make him. A lot of people talk about how good our motorcycle is. Is it a good bike? Heck yeah it is, but Bryan was winning races before he met us and he’ll win races after we’re gone.”
Howerton went on to say he was going to retire the bikes raced these past two seasons, but left the door open ever so slightly for a future comeback to the series.
“I’ve actually have sort of the Mark II version so to speak that I’ve already drawn on the computer,” Howerton said. “If we were moving forward and had endless amount of money that’s probably what I would build because I think it would be even a little better. Who knows what will happen. It would be fun to slowly build one of those throughout the year, go testing and maybe show up at the Indy Mile, but man that’s out there.”
Bryan Smith could not be reached yet for comment and at this point there’s no news as to where he might race next season.