Arch-rivals Jared Mees and Bryan Smith talk about the upcoming 2019 American Flat Track season
Jared Mees and Bryan Smith have become one of the best rivalries in the 65-year history of American Flat Track racing. In the past couple of seasons, Mees has gotten the best of the battle, but that could change in 2019. Smith is going back to Kawasaki, the brand he won the title on in 2016. Ricky Howerton, the man who owns the team Smith rides for, has also gained a reputation as one of the all-time elite builders. According to Smith, the 2019 Howerton Kawasaki version is even better than the previous versions, which were all considered state of the art.
Yet for all the speed Smith has shown on the Kawasaki, he’ll face the two-time defending champ Jared Mees, who has his own majorly talented team behind him, spearheaded by tuner-extraordinaire Kenny Tolbert. And, of course, Smith is riding the Indian FTR750—a motorcycle so good that AFT had to even up the playing field by giving other motors in the field the advantage of bigger intakes. There is that, and the fact that Mees is one of the most versatile racers in flat track history. He can win just about any day on any track, and that’s something you can say about few others.
While there certainly will be other players in this year’s American Flat Track Championship chase, there’s no question that many fans are focused on a 2019 edition of the Mees-Smith rivalry.
We caught up with Mees and Smith in separate phone interviews to see how their 2019 preparations are going, get an insight as to how they see the upcoming season playing out and perhaps get an inside view on the status of their own longtime rivalry.
The Champ – Jared Mees
How’s your off-season been and how’s everything looking going into 2019?
It’s looking good. Off-season’s been actually pretty good. It’s been pretty mellow. I haven’t had a whole lot of contracted items that I’ve had to do, honestly. Maybe just one or two. So, a little bit mellower, actually, than last year this time.
The landscape is changing a little bit with Bryan doing the Kawasaki thing, and Yamaha getting a little bit more involved. Who do you look at this year as maybe your primary competition?
Well, I think honestly it just kind of depends on what track we’re at. I think, of course, the miles Smith, but the TT’s Bauman and Wiles. The half miles and some of the miles for sure Jeffrey Carver. So, it just kind of depends on track to track. Brandon Robinson is probably going to have some solid finishes this year, as well, getting back on an Indian. I think overall for the championship I think it’s going to be Carver. Carver and Bauman are my picks.
I think going in, most people would consider you the favorite. What kind of approach do you take going into this season?
Pretty much the same approach to the last couple. Just put in the work in the off-season and approach each race individually and do the best I can in each race and move on. The goal is to go and win as many races as I can, but more importantly, it’s to win the championship. So, I guess at the end of the year if I only win four races or three races and I still win the number-one plate, we got the job done, and we move on. It’s damn nice winning 10 races—don’t get me wrong—but the big picture is the number-one plate.
Does having Bryan on a different machine this year and maybe a little bit more competition from some other areas as well, does that get your competitive juices going? Because you’ve been so dominant in the last couple years, do you look forward to that challenge?
Yeah. For sure it was kind of cool for a couple years for Bryan and I to jump on the same exact bike to see how everything stacked up. It’s no secret—when I was on the XR, and he was on the Kawasaki, and we were on the miles, I was at a disadvantage. I didn’t have the straightaway speed that he had. It’s not saying excuses, it’s just a stone-cold fact. That Kawi was fast. It was a modern motorcycle, where the XR was 1970s technology, 30, 40 years-old technology. I feel like what we’ve done in the sport on that thing against the modern bikes, it was pretty incredible for our team’s standpoint. Tolbert had the fastest XRs, but they had their day, and we had to move on. I think there were interviews where he said that the XR was better on some of the half miles. Then I would do an interview and say that the Kawi was better on the miles. So, I think it was good to get on the same thing and leave all the excuses behind us and let it go. But now I think the entire time he’s been on the Indian, he always felt like he was better on his Kawasaki. So, I guess now it’s going to be fun to try and keep the same results and prove that the Indian is the best bike and it’s not the Kawasaki. I’m not saying there’s more motivation, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.
Has Harley approached you about coming back to their team?
No. Before 2017, before I signed my Indian contract, I was approached by an individual about riding on the Vance & Hines Harley team, yeah. But at that point in time, I was pretty set that I wanted to ride the Indian. I really like the atmosphere there with Indian. I like the people a lot. I feel like I’m treated very well and they do everything they can to accommodate what our needs are, on and off the racetrack. So, at this point in time, I’m pretty happy.
Do you think you’ll close out your career riding with Indian?
Well, you never know what tomorrow can bring with anything and anyone. At this point in time, I can just say that I’m happy where I’m at. I guess if I become unhappy, then I’ll go looking. But right now, I’m happy. If I continue to stay happy, I don’t see why we couldn’t.
Looking at the 2019 schedule, what do you think about the mix of tracks this year as compared to previous years?
I think it’s a pretty balanced schedule. I remember last year we had eight miles. This year we only have six. So that only counts for one-third of the races. I think everybody keeps saying, what do you think about Bryan on the Kawi? He’ll definitely be fast on the miles. He’ll definitely be a frontrunner on the miles, as he would be on anything, but at the end of the day, if he’s only competitive at the six mile races, that’s only going to count for one-third of the series. That’s not enough. I think it’s a pretty balanced schedule. We have one more TT than we had last year. We have five half miles. We got another short track added. It’s a pretty balanced schedule, so I think a very versatile rider is going to do well.
The Challenger – Bryan Smith
How are your preparations coming? Have you tested the new bike yet?
Yeah. Everything’s going real good. We tested actually the earliest we’ve ever tested a new bike. We tested just after Thanksgiving for the first time, which was pretty exciting for all of us on the team. Me and Ricky [Howerton] were pretty excited to get some feedback and seat time. It’s a new creation that Ricky’s built. Real similar to what I won the championship on in 2016. A couple small cosmetic changes, a couple small technical changes, I guess, would be the best way of putting it. But it was good to get some feedback. I felt at home right away on the bike. We actually took an Indian, rode that, then I went out on a Kawi and I was instantly faster on the Kawi. So, it felt real good to not only feel good, but actually be faster by the stopwatch, always is what matters.
Wow, that’s interesting to come right out of the gate and go that fast.
Yeah, it was good. Whether it’s the bike or me or what, I just feel better. I think just from riding them for so many years, the Kawi’s that Ricky has built. It’s like somebody that golfs that has a special club, that’s my special club.
From the seat of the pants, how do you compare the two bikes? What’s the strength of the Kawasaki as compared to the Indian or whatever else you’ve ridden?
The biggest thing is with Ricky building a Kawi especially, he can tailor it to fit me. Just looking at it and the first thing just sitting on it and riding it is the physical size of the bike. Not that the Kawasaki is teeny, but it’s a smaller twin. I’m a smaller rider, so it just makes sense. The Indian is a pretty big bike. Besides me, everybody that does good on them is pretty tall for flat track or a pretty bigger guy. The first thing is the physical size, which kind of leads to the power delivery, and the physical weight of the bike lets you do different things on the track, with the Kawi that was kind of the advantage against the XR750 that I think will be a little bit of an advantage against the Indian. It just allows you to run a little bit different lines because it decelerates and accelerates quicker than the Indian. But that can also hurt you at certain tracks.
What kind of backing are you guys getting from Kawasaki, as compared to what you had with Indian?
None. It’s pretty simple. Indian gave us everything from Indian and Polaris, and Kawasaki—either way, me and Ricky were going back to Kawasaki, but it felt like we were baited in a little bit from Kawasaki saying that for the last year they’ve been wanting to get us back on the Kawi and get a Kawi back out there winning. Then we did it and standing there with our hand out, and essentially it was the whole “budgets are full, budgets are tight.” There’s no money for flat track, essentially. So thank God, what made it possible for us to do it whether Kawasaki was helping us or not, Kawasaki would have been the cherry on top for me and the sport if Kawasaki would have helped, but if it wasn’t for Bo [LeMastus], which he owns the Crosley Brands company, he made it completely possible and he’s funding it. If it weren’t for him, it would not be possible.
Are there at least contingencies?
Yeah, they put out contingencies. It’s better than it was in 2016, so they are doing something for the sport, in the Singles class and all that. It’s not like they totally turned a cold shoulder to flat track. (Editor’s note: There are Kawasaki contingencies in the series, with $5000 to win an AFT Twins race.)
How do you scope out the competition this year? Who do you think are going to be the prime guys that you’re going to have to deal with?
It’s the same story—Mees has been so hot the last couple years. Me and him have been arm-wrestling back and forth for the last five or six years. It’s been me or him basically first or second up until this past year, and I broke my leg. He’s at the top of the list. The Bauman brothers, especially Briar, because he proved himself big time last year. They’re going to be on the factory Indian, so they’ll be tough. Carver was tough last year. You can basically look at the points. Wiles had an unbelievable year. I would say, Jared, number one and probably Briar and Carver as my top three strongest competitors, no doubt. Weird they’re all on Indians. Imagine that. But nonetheless, with or without Kawasaki, with leaving Indian and all that, it’s only for one reason, and that’s just for me because I think I can win more on the Kawasaki. So that’s essentially why we did it.
Any feelers from Harley-Davidson towards you guys?
You would think so because they struggled, but no. No communication. It’s funny, because Ricky’s race shop, where we ran the Indian program out of, and then now our new Kawasaki program, is like a football field’s length from Vance and Hines. It’s kind of funny. It’s right there in Brownsburg [Indiana].
They got decent riders, so that’s not the total problem. I would say me and Mees are probably better than their riders by looking at their standings over the last whatever number of years, but they’re good enough that they should be able to get out front once in a while. They’re really not doing that so that basically points to the team. Then the next problem is there’s not very many good team owners, mechanics, engineers in flat track. Like you said, it’s Howerton or Tolbert. I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to go after any one of them.
What do you think about the schedule, how the mix is this year? There are fewer miles this year.
Yeah. There’re fewer miles, more TTs. I don’t even know where it stacks up for half miles. If we were going racing on Indian again, then I’d say, yeah, hands down Jared is going to be better on the half miles just because he always was on the Indian when we were both on that bike. I think I was probably consistently better on the miles, maybe we were even on the miles. But on the Kawi, I’m better on the half miles, personally. So,, once again, it just goes back to being more comfortable. We finally got the Kawasaki in 2016 where consistently quite a few races we won on the half miles, and faster than him on his XR, which I think his XR probably on a half miles, was better than the Indians. So, I don’t think we’re going to be lacking anything on the half miles, bike-wise. I feel better on that bike. So we’ll be competitive. Not saying it’s going to be easy by no means, but I think we’ll be more in the hunt on the Kawasaki than I was on the Indian on the half miles.
What are your feelings about racing on the pavement and doing sort of a supermoto style track at Daytona?
I like it because it’s a bigger track, first off. Before, it seemed like we were racing around a rodeo barrel and drag racing down the straightaways and turning around another barrel. It’s good because it opens it up and makes it a little bit bigger, which I like. The bigger, the faster tracks I like. So personally, I like it. After seeing some of the videos of them guys down there testing it, I don’t think it will be any issues going on the pavement. At first, I kind of was reserved about it. But I think overall, it’s going to be fine. It adds a little bit of excitement, the history of the Daytona 200 how they used to go on pavement and down the beach. It’s kind of a little bit of a cool factor. But I’m not counting out the fact that it could turn into a train wreck if the wrong kind of dirt and chemicals get drug up onto the asphalt and cause some problems. But I’m going to be optimistic and say it should be just fine. Personally, for me as a rider’s standpoint, it’s better because it’s bigger and faster and I like the bigger and faster tracks. The Kawasaki is better on the bigger and faster tracks. By what I’ve seen, I think I’ll be good there.
Who is with you this season, personnel-wise?
Basically, it’s essentially the same team that we started with in 2012 and ’13. 2013 was our first full year. It’s the same crew of guys back together all again, which is Ricky Howerton, Jeff Gordon, and Ron Glidden, which they were in and out on the Indian deal basically. But essentially, we’re doing everything in-house—engines, frames. Ricky’s building the frames. Basically, finally back to how it was. We don’t have any influence from anybody. We can do whatever we want, right or wrong. So it’s cool. That’s how we wanted the Indian deal to be. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. So it ain’t like we’re starting over. It’s the same team just getting back going again.
It’s put a lot more juice into the season as far as interest and anticipation because I think it was getting a little monotonous with Indian winning everything. I think a lot of people are looking forward to some competition.
Yeah. For the sport, it’s going to be good, and I think for me it’s going to be good. I’m excited. Last year I wasn’t so excited.
How are you physically? Have you recovered and everything well?
Yeah, everything’s good. I broke my leg there the first part of the year. That healed. When I broke my leg, it kind of re-injured my ankle that had a plate and screws in it, so I had to have some of the screws taken out of my ankle midway through the season. So I missed Peoria and Buffalo Chip trying to let that heal. But I came back strong and won two or three of them last races, whatever it was.
Which leg was it?
Left leg, of course. The third wheel on a flat track bike is the left leg. So that’s why I sat out the TTs just because it was no reason basically to thrash on it. I was better on the miles, so I kind of saved myself for those. Obviously, it paid off because we won three of the last four.CN