2018 American Flat Track Season Preview | What You Need To Know | Can Indian repeat? Can Harley rebound? Can Mees win it all again? Can Carlisle repeat as AFT Singles champ? These are just some of the questions going into the 2018 AFT season.
With Indian in control, privateers on the march, Harley as underdog, and the “Flying Tomato” preparing to fend off a pride of young lions (and lionesses), AFT’s 2018 season promises to be a doozie—and it all starts March 15 at Daytona
If you’d told a flat track fan who’d been hibernating for a decade or so about the highlights of last year’s American Flat Track (AFT) season, it’s a good bet they’d think you were nuts.
A season that had two brand-new racing motorcycles introduced by two of the most historic marques in history? No freaking way, they’d say. A season that saw one particular rider—on one of those historic marques—grab 10 wins, and podium on 17 of 18 opportunities? Not a chance. A season that saw a female racer grab five wins in the ultra-competitive AFT Singles class? Not likely. Or a season that saw one rider take his 13th consecutive win at Peoria—tying Chris Carr’s amazing record there? Never happen, they’d spout.
But it all happened, and so much more, too.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRIAN J. NELSON, ANDREA WILSON AND SCOTT HUNTER
The amazing thing is that the 2018 AFT season is shaping up to be every bit as intriguing. You’ve got Harley-Davidson’s Vance & Hines Motorsports team, which got smoked last year, adding speed, reliability and a couple of top-shelf riders to its ranks. Can they rebound? How will they react to underdog status? You’ve got Indian Motorcycle, which did a lot of the smoking last year, returning with its FTR750 motorcycle and the Wrecking Crew—Jared Mees, Bryan Smith and Brad Baker. You’ve got Indian selling handfuls of FTRs to some very hungry privateers, too, many of whom have the skills and backing to contest. And in AFT Singles you’ve got a whole gaggle of up-and-coming and veteran riders, including a couple of very speedy women, looking to blow up the Kolby Carlile consistency movement on a whole range of 450-class machinery.
Let’s start with AFT Twins.
There’s no argument that the Indian Motorcycle factory team’s performance during the 2017 American Flat Track season was dominant—and devastatingly so. Riders Jared Mees, Bryan Smith and Brad Baker won 14 of 18 races, grabbed 70% of the podium spots, and on six occasions filled the rostrum on their way to a 1-2-3 finish in the final standings.
Still, the guys had surprisingly different seasons. Series champ Mees was consistently fast all season long, never worse than third except for missing the main at Lima, Ohio. Defending champ Bryan Smith came out of the gate on fire, winning four of the first six races, but crashes and double-digit finishes at three events in the season’s second half kept him off of Mees’ point total. Brad Baker had a roller-coaster year, grabbing 11 podiums, five runner-ups and six third-place finishes (though no wins). Problem was, he suffered a pair of DNFs, and then broke his jaw in a mountain bike accident and missed the final two rounds.
So despite some inconsistency and bad luck for Smith and Baker, they and their Indian FTR750 race bikes were almost always faster than the rest of their AFT Twins presented by Vance & Hines competitors—all of which led to their #2 and #3 placings behind Mees in 2017.
The Big Question, then, is this: How are Mees, Smith and Baker approaching the 2018 season, knowing full well the rest of the AFT Twins presented by Vance & Hines pack has painted three neat little targets on their backs, and may have the horsepower and handling to be close enough to actually hit the bulls eye?
For AFT champ Jared Mees, there’s no such thing as complacency regardless of how dominant he was in 2017. “The bar has certainly been raised,” Mees said. “It was an amazing year. So many great things happened, on and off the track…a dream season. Still, I’m not expecting it to come easily. It’s a new year, and the competition, from my teammates and the Harley guys to all the rest, will be tough. I know they’re gunning for me, for us, and I don’t blame ’em. I’d be the same way. The goal, as always, is to win the championship. By a point, or by 89, it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty self-motivated, so when I put a goal out there, I aim right at it. We found a few little things with the bike in the off-season, which gives us confidence.”
For 2017 runner-up Bryan Smith, the motivation to regain the title is there. “I’ve still got a lot of fight,” he said. “We started out so strong last year, and even then we didn’t quite have our A-game, so we figured we’d get better. But we sort of plateaued after the first six or eight rounds, and when Jared started rolling, we sort of lost our groove, and I had a few crashes, maybe pushing a bit too hard. The off-season’s been great, though. I’m in great shape from all the workouts and tons of ice racing, and we figured out a few things on the bike. Just need to make my bad days less bad.”
After Brad Baker’s rollercoaster-esque year in 2917, he’s primed to regain the consistency that earned him a title in 2014. “I’m in a really good spot right now,” Baker says. “I had some off-season surgery to fix an old injury, and I actually got a bit of an off-season this year while recuperating, spending time with my girlfriend, family and friends. First time for that in a long time, really. So I’m recharged, and healthy, and in the best shape of my life. The objective is to win, but also be consistent. For me, that’s the key.”
Harley-Davidson/Vance & Hines Motorsports
From the very beginning, it was going to be a struggle.
The casual observer, who only saw orange and black XG750R race bikes and transporters, and was at least semi-cognizant of Harley’s multi-decade dominance of flat track racing, wouldn’t have recognized it. After all, Harley-Davidson had a brand-new race bike. Just like Indian. They had top riders (four-time GNC champ Kenny Coolbeth among them). Just like Indian. So hey, Harley’s going to be right up there, right? Right.
Those in the know, of course, knew it would be a tough season. Knew that getting a production engine from a budget cruiser to produce over 100-plus reliable horses—when it only made 50-some in stock trim—would be a challenge.
And it was. The Vance & Hines team struggled with horsepower, power delivery and reliability. That often happens in racing; there are teething problems; things to work out; parts to be redesigned. Especially when you’re running engine never designed to be a racing engine in the first place. Unlike Indian, which had a designed-from-scratch racing-only engine to work with.
Still, Vance & Hines principal Terry Vance, a longtime racer and team owner himself, maintains the longer view. “We didn’t enjoy losing last year,” said Vance to moto journalist Andrea Wilson recently. “But at the same time, we were learning. We didn’t want a year to go by where we didn’t have data from each of the tracks, regardless of our performance. And here’s the thing,” Vance adds, “regarding last year: We may not get credit for it, but we were trying to develop and race a production-based engine. That’s a really, really hard job.”
Over the off-season, the XG750R race bike has been fettled and improved in several ways. “We’ve tried different chassis,” Vance says, “and different engine configurations; whatever we have to try to get our bikes where we need them. We started testing the day after the [AFT finale] at Perris, and we’ve been at it non-stop since. The riders are very happy with the performance of the bikes, and the way things are working.”
Vance will have a mostly new team of riders this year, with only Brandon Robinson returning to the Harley fold from 2017. “I was really impressed with Brandon last year,” says Vance.
Perhaps the team’s biggest off-season acquisition was AFT veteran Sammy Halbert, one of the few riders to consistently run with the Indians last year. “Sammy really impressed me,” Vance says. “I love his grittiness. I love the fact that he’s been around the sport for a long time.” The third member of the 2018 Harley-Davidson team is 19-year old Jarod Vanderkooi who shows great potential.
Vance is right when he says there’s a “bunch of new guys on Indians” this year to watch out for. Indian may have swept the rug in a serious way last year, but with the company making its superbly functional FTR750 available in much greater numbers to many of the AFT’s top privateers, there are sure to be challenges to Mess and Co. There’s also the continuing strength of Kawasaki 650-engined race bikes, which carried Briar Bauman and Henry Wiles to wins in three of the four AFT Twins nationals that Indian didn’t win last year. And we’re likely to see some other factory-backed motorcycles this season, too.
Still, it’s the FTR750-mounted riders that’ll most likely pressure the factory teams the most in 2018, and three-time GNC champ Kenny Coolbeth will lead that charge. “I’m looking forward to giving the Indian factory team some competition now that we’re all on the same bike,” Coolbeth told us.
Fifth overall last year in AFT Twins and the winner of the Texas Motor Speedway Half-Mile on an XR750, Jeffrey Carver Jr. is sure to be yet another threat to the factory teams. Then there’s AFT Twins privateer Johnny Lewis who last year jumped on an FTR for the very first time at the penultimate round at Texas Motor Speedway and grabbed third overall. Lewis will also ride a Kawasaki 650 at some events.
California’s Chad Cose is yet another FTR-mounted privateer looking to taste podium champagne in 2018. Cose will ride an Indian FTR750. Other prominent FTR-mounted riders include ex-Harley-Davidson factory rider Jake Johnson, multi-time Peoria TT winner Henry Wiles and Jay Maloney.
The non-FTR750-riding rostrom threats include the aforementioned Briar Bauman. Ex-Harley-Davidson factory pilot Davis Fisher will be on a Kawasaki as well. AFT Singles phenom Wyatt Anderson, who finished seventh in the division last year, is moving up to AFT Twins, and could be formidable on KTM 990s and Yamaha FZ-07s.
Consistency, they say, is king. Must be some truth to that, too, because during the 2017 AFT season, Kolby Carlile had more than anyone else. Carlile, whose long red hair earned him the nickname “The Flying Tomato,” didn’t win an AFT Singles race all year on his Yamaha YZ450F. But he scored top-five finishes in 13 of 18 races and finished on the podium eight times on his way to winning the title by 23 points over series runner-up Brandon Price.
Two of Carlile’s primary antagonists are sure to be 2017 series runner-up Brandon Price and Shayna Texter, who won five races in 2017 and finished third in the AFT Singles standings, just four points behind Price. Price won three races in 2017, and definitely has the speed to contest this year. Texter scored big on miles and half-miles, but struggled on short tracks and TTs, a situation she hopes to fix this year.
Miss Texter will have family company in AFT Singles this year in the form of her brother Cory, who rode AFT Twins last year and is moving to AFT Singles for financial and personal reasons. Fourth overall on Hondas last year was Michigan’s Ben Lowe, who’ll be riding a pair of Kawasaki KX450Fs in 2018.
Kevin Stollings, fifth overall in AFT Singles last year, posted a number of top-five finishes in 2017, but was hurt by five mechanical DNFs. High-school student Cameron Smith captured sixth overall in 2017, and has his eyes set on bigger and better things for 2018.
And it all starts on March 15 at Daytona International Speedway. Get your tickets now at DaytonaInternationalSpeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.CN