We continue our interview with American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock who was instrumental in helping breathe new life into AMA flat track racing.
In part two of our two-part interview with Lock, Lock and Alan Cathcart discuss getting AFT on television, Harley-Davidson, some new metal that might be lining up on the start line next year, and the chances of flat track growing to other parts of the world.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY AMA PRO RACING
Click here to read this in the Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine.
Tell me about your television deal?
We did not have a television deal this time a year ago. Pro flat track hadn’t been on TV since the early 1980s—it had disappeared from view, it had gone. So, we entered into a dialog with NBC, who have a very aggressive fast-moving dedicated sports channel called NBCSN. I knew about it because it has the rights to English soccer! So I’d seen how they’d promoted a sport that had basically never succeeded in America, and they’d made it succeed. I realized these people know how to promote sport—not just broadcast it, promote it. So, we got into a dialog with NBC, and they said, “Okay, we’ve had a look at your sport, looks kind of fun, a little hokey but still fun. What do you propose?” “Well, we’d like to show our sport on your channel.” “Yes, of course you would. But how is that going to happen—because if we’re going to come to your races and bring six cameras and a trailer and stuff, we’re going to be charging you a couple of million dollars a year.”
Okay, that wasn’t going to happen but here’s the thing, Jim France made some very clever decisions about five years ago when he pushed to set up a broadcast arm called FansChoice.TV, which is a live streaming of a number of different properties within the NASCAR empire. So wherever you are in the world, you can pick up your phone and you can stream flat track, or you can stream some of the Junior NASCAR or IMSA races. So we had infrastructure, we had our own broadcast trailer, we were quite experienced at shooting for streaming, which is not TV but nonetheless, we had the bones of it. The deal we came to with NBC was very interesting. NBC said, “We trust your NASCAR parent, because we do business with them, so if NASCAR Media group is involved we might be able to talk about a deal.” Then we spoke to NASCAR Media in Charlotte, and they said, “Sure, we’d love to help you out.” So we took our streaming set up, we basically gave it some muscle, and worked it out over the winter.
So you provide the cameras, not them?
We provide all the cameras and the trailer, and we shoot the show with NASCAR’s supervision. We then send the show up to Charlotte, and they turn it into a one-hour TV show with all the graphics, the voice-overs, and so on. We present the finished show to NBC who trusts it because it’s come from Charlotte, so they broadcast it. So we leveraged our existing infrastructure plus our parent’s expertise, and NBC said, “We’ve got nothing to lose, we’ll run it for a year.” And we’ve just concluded that, so all 18 rounds.
Are they on again for next year?
I’m working with NBC’s headquarters in Connecticut to finalize next year’s deal that will be spectacular, much improved over this year’s in every way—production values, you name it.
Did Harley-Davidson underestimate the potential that Indian had to be competitive with a brand-new bike? Let’s face it, they and everyone else got blitzed by the FTR750.
I would prefer to say that Indian over-performed. I mean, in your considerable experience in motorcycle racing, Alan, who ever designed and built a brand new race bike, then went and dominated the sport with it in its debut season? That never happens, I didn’t think it would happen, and having looked at some of the contracts that the Indian riders had, clearly Indian didn’t think so, either! Jared Mees and Bryan Smith and Brad Baker are quite a bit better off financially at the end of this year than they thought they would be! So I don’t think Harley was any more guilty than any of us in not seeing this coming.
Will Harley make an effort to come back at them in 2018?
Oh, I’m pretty sure. I know the people at Harley—they’re proud, determined people, and they don’t like coming second at anything. Which is exactly why it’s so great to have them in the sport.
It’s good to have two to tango, but you need to have a supporting cast. Are any other manufacturers coming in next year, or in 2019? You already have Kawasaki, which finally won an AMA Flat track title in 2016. Are they in again officially? Is Yamaha coming in with the MT-07? Or KTM with their new 790 Duke?
There is a lot going on in the space you’ve just described. There is one Japanese factory who I’ve been speaking with for about nine months, who I fully expect to be on the grid at the first race next season in Bike Week 2018—it’s not Kawasaki, but it’s another company with very proud racing heritage who has been developing a bike in house, in California. I expect to see them on the grid. Kawasaki is not directly involved as a company, but they’ve put a big contingency fund into the sport to encourage Kawasaki-engined bikes. Honda doubled their contingency in 2017 as a show of support for the sport, and utterly dominated the singles championship without winning it. So I’m expecting to see increased support for AFT from many manufacturers.
Clearly the KTM 790 powerplant is tailor-made for our sport—we know that, and KTM knows that. But the 790 bikes won’t be arriving in the USA until the second half of 2018, so if they do do something it would be a 2019 effort. But we’d love to see that powerplant in the sport. We already have involvement by their sister company Husqvarna, which is the official motorcycle of the Singles championship, and I know that they’re pursuing having a factory-backed effort in flat track next year, which I’d love to see. We also have very good relationships with Triumph and with Ducati.
On a personal level!
Ducati has flirted with flat track over the last couple of years with the Lloyd Brothers team, and have won races. Their factory’s Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti loves flat track, comes to races whenever he can, and has raised some support for the Lloyd Brothers team. Johnny Lewis has ridden for them; he’s very talented. Troy Bayliss came over and left with his tail between his legs a little bit. Troy is a wonderful competitor, but our sport is tough. So Ducati has flirted with it, Triumph has flirted with it; Joe Kopp came up one point short of winning the Hooligans Flat Track Championship for them this past year, which is kind of like the entry version of our sport. And I pop into Hinckley every now and then just to have a chat and tell them what’s going on—they’re very keen, they just need a powerplant that can be competitive here.
Someone who has that already is Royal Enfield, with their new twin-cam eight-valve 650cc parallel-twin models. Have you been talking to them?
I have not spoken to Royal Enfield yet, but I’ve been watching their progress and we would certainly welcome them as the world’s fastest growing motorcycle company that’s got big potential in the USA with its new 650 twins. Look, we would welcome all of them. The more different brands in the sport the better, as far as I’m concerned.
If Kawasaki can win the AFT Championship, in that case you should entice CFMoto, the Chinese manufacturer which has already finished fourth in the Isle of Man Lightweight TT with a near-identical motor.
I saw that, yes! That would provide a whole new dimension to the championship—the greater diversity of powerplants, the greater diversity of brand support, the more different manufacturers from different countries, the better for the sport.
This leads to what sort of package you see AFT developing into outside of the USA? Because, it’s America’s home-grown sport—but Speedway was Australia’s home-grown sport which emigrated to Britain and then the rest of the world. Look at the huge success of the Speedway GP series today. Do you think AFT can become IFT?
There’s no doubt whatsoever about that. I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years, and the first stage is to secure international broadcasting. I want the world to see our TV show, so I’m currently negotiating with two pretty powerful entities to secure an international broadcast deal for 2018. I’m very confident that we will end up going with one of them. They’re both names you’d recognize and trust, and one of them would make you raise an eyebrow and say, “Really, are they interested?” What we must do first is beam our sport into the homes of European and Asian audiences. I am currently in discussions with a rather well known annual motorcycle festival held on a small island in Western Europe who are very interested in showcasing our sport at their festival. I’m hoping to get that wrapped up in order to be able to do that for 2018, between two of our rounds. We’re going to have to collect all the bikes, fly them over, do our stuff, and fly them back for the next round.
Would that not mean constructing a purpose-built track?
It may not! They may not go round an oval. They may go up a hill.
That leads me to my next question. Do you feel there’s a correct balance between lengths of track and types of tracks? Should there be more TTs?
It’s an eternal question! We’d gotten down to one TT, so this year, 2017, we had three TTs out of 18 races. The TTs are a polarizing discipline within our sport, even though the Peoria TT is the oldest event on the tour, held in an amazing natural amphitheater in deepest Illinois. There are the purists who say, “That’s not flat track.” There are the guys who say, “That looks like a poor man’s motocross.” There are the riders who say, “Woohoo, I love this!” There are the riders who say “I hate this!” What I can tell you is that out of 18 rounds this year, the two best attended races were both TTs. For the Daytona TT in the Tri-Oval, inside the Speedway, we had 10,000 paid admissions, which was the biggest crowd flat track had had for over a decade.
Then we went to the Buffalo Chip at Sturgis in July, where they’d built a TT course in front of the rock stage. Oh, what a nightmare that was! We had to build the track overnight, after the Saturday night rock concert, put in all the safety equipment, the lighting, the cabling. Run our racing through the afternoon and the evening with a hard stop at 9:15 at night, in order to break down all the lighting and safety equipment so that a rock band could come on stage at 10:30 p.m. But 15,000 people turned up, they were everywhere! It was like one of those photos you see from the 1930s of people hanging on telegraph poles watching—amazing! So I think having three TTs means we take them seriously. We need three of those, we need a couple of short tracks, we need a handful of half miles, and we need probably 50 percent of the series to be miles, because any mile is like the Coliseum in ancient Rome. It’s a spectacle!
How many Miles did you have in 2017?
I think we had eight miles this past season—but these are really a different sport. It’s not just double a half mile—it’s high drama, so we must have a lot of miles. Fortunately, there are many horse tracks across America that are very well suited to motorcycle racing. Phoenix is a good example, Sacramento another, Remington Park in Oklahoma, the Red Mile in Kentucky, etc. We’ve systematically increased the number of horse tracks since they offer great facilities, great viewing, comfortable surroundings, and fast, fast racing.
In terms of the personalities that you have in flat track, this has always been one of the series’ great strengths—these are real men riding their mighty machines.
Oh my word, yes they are!
But you’ve also got real women. Shayna Texter so nearly won the singles championship this year.
Yes, and with all due respect to Kolby Carlile who did win the championship, Shayna might think she should have won it. But she has a real weakness, an Achilles heel for the TTs. The TTs are elbows out, very aggressive riding, and it’s the one discipline where weighing 100 pounds and being five-foot two-inches tall, is a distinct disadvantage. It’s actually an advantage on the miles, being lighter and more aerodynamic, but she needs to get better at TTs. I mean, she didn’t qualify for two of the main events, so she didn’t get any points at two races. But, Kolby Carlile rode that classic season, what I would call an Eddie Lawson kind of season—he scored points at every race.
Are there any other women riders coming through?
Yes, it’s this old cliché, I call it the Bjorn Borg effect. I don’t think anyone in Sweden was playing tennis before Bjorn Borg came along, and then suddenly every world champion was Swedish. So Shayna is an inspiration. We do have other females coming up in the sport, thanks to her and Nicole Mees, who’s now had a baby and is permanently retired!
Is NBC going to do a profile on Shayna?
You never know, that might just happen!
What novelties will you have for 2018, compared to 2017? Any new tracks?
2017 was a year of revolution; rule changes, class structure changes and re-branding. 2018 is fine-tuning that. We have to speed up the race evenings. I want to run the whole program within three hours. So heat races, last chances, semi-finals and finals in three hours—that is an attention span that we can sell.
Both classes. We managed to run within three hours just four times out of 18 in 2017, simply because there were so many moving parts. I’ve tasked the team to tighten it right up, so that’s going to be a big priority. Also, the entertainment needs to be better between races. We piloted a few different things, which we’ve learned from. I don’t want to dumb it down, but I do want there to be constant entertainment while the fans are there. Because I don’t want to say that I’ve created a sport only for white-male baby boomers. They’re very welcome, but I want them to bring their wives, their kids, their grandkids even. To do that, we have to have more three-dimensional entertainment. Supercross knows this very well, but no other motorcycle sport really takes entertainment seriously, because they’re so focused on the core product. We have to do better than that. So the show will improve, it will tighten up. The marketing will be better, we’re making increasing use of digital, not only in a general sense, but specific to races, of targeting in geographic areas, getting into people’s social media feeds with eye catching calls to action-related advertising. So that there’s a big emphasis on that, we’ve tweaked the schedule a little bit, we’ve dropped a couple of tracks and we’ve brought another couple of tracks in.
Still 18 races though?
Eighteen races for next year at present, although there might be a very interesting 19th.
On a little island in Europe?
No that would be a 20th! But generally speaking, the formula worked in 2017, I don’t want to mess with it. But there’s one particular race we’re trying to tie down for next season that might be in conjuncture with a large manufacturer’s significant birthday. If we can get that one tied up, we will add that to the schedule.
Final question. Are you satisfied with the way your baby’s growing up? You must be pleased with the way things went in 2017.
Mostly. I mean, we added over one thousand percent to our audience by going on TV. We now get more people tune in for a one hour-long TV show than buy tickets during the entire season, so that’s the scale of things. I want to tie up the International broadcast distribution, I want to bring in a headline series sponsor who is non-motorcycle, and I want to get more OEMs on the grid. If I can do those three things for 2018, I’ll know that AFT has arrived—and we should indeed be able to do all of them. Watch this space.CN