Many of the top flat trackers in the country headed to Florida to provide feedback for a new Dunlop tire for AFT racing and also gave us a preview of things to come for next year’s championship.
By Chris Martin | Photography by Scott Hunter
Just some 20 miles up the road from Daytona International Speedway, Progressive American Flat Track and Dunlop Motorcycle Tires gathered with more than a dozen of the sport’s most accomplished riders at Volusia Speedway Park.
Despite featuring a different discipline of motorcycle sport, the two-day Dunlop Tire Test existed as something of a spiritual successor to the Daytona Tire Tests that once attracted the road-racing world’s attention during the AMA Superbike Championship’s halcyon days.
Dunlop arrived at the test with a clear objective: identify a medium-compound tire that offered feel and confidence in line with the DT4’s softer R5 compound, along with durability more similar to that of the harder R9.
By inviting 14 elite riders and their teams to provide feedback on five different medium-compound candidates via exhaustive blind tests over two days, they were well positioned to accomplish exactly that.
Of course, there are extensive road-racing roots found within the ranks of AFT’s brass. This allowed them to understand that the magic of the Daytona Tire Tests ran far deeper than just the technological and safety advancements they made possible.
Rather than hide the testing behind closed doors, the Daytona Tire Tests of old served as an annual preview party for the upcoming season. Media flocked to Daytona Beach’s cheap hotels and eagerly grabbed the first photos and quotes of superstar riders who were making their American debuts, or switching to new colors, or brandishing a brand-new model all decked out in carbon-fiber black.
At its peak, the Daytona Tire Tests likely garnered more hype and attention than just about any individual round, as evidenced by a series of 190-mph crashes suffered in the quest for fast-lap honors.
While still in its infancy, AFT’s Dunlop Tire Test has the potential to fill a similar void in the hearts of flat-track fans desperate for any ounce of information as they await the new season.
Some small hints of that sort of drama were there to be found at Volusia Speedway. The primary drivers of intrigue were the riders most heavily impacted by Harley-Davidson’s recent announcement that it was ending its direct factory involvement in the sport.
H-D’s exit paved the way for long-time factory pilot Jarod Vanderkooi to throw a leg over an Indian for the first time in public since his one-off ride aboard an FTR750 at the 2017 finale.
With all but the ink on paper, the hard-charging Vanderkooi appears destined to join Jerry Stinchfield’s increasingly powerful racing operation on a JCS Racing/HCRR Indian FTR750 in 2021. And if his performance at the test was any indication, he also appears destined to join the frontrunners on a more regular basis.
Vanderkooi posted the fastest lap of any rider on day one and ended up fourth fastest overall at the conclusion of the test (20.133).
“Terry Vance was nice enough to be a little lenient on the contract and let me ride an Indian in December,” he said. “I’ve worked with [JCS Racing partner] Ben Evans a lot over the years. He lives literally in the same town as I do. Going back to when I was 10 years old, he built all my engines up until I rode for a team.
“The consistency of the Indian is pretty good. The power—the way it comes on to the way it decels—everything is so smooth. The chassis is pretty good too. They did a hell of a job.”
After three years of hustling the XG750R around, Vanderkooi will finally be on equal terms with the championship favorites—and with no excuses in ’21.
“It’s kind of a relief,” he said, “but at the same time, not. It’s like, all right, the pressure is on. Now I’ve got to do my homework and go fast. If my physical conditioning isn’t there, or I’m having an off day, I can’t say it’s the bike.”
Vanderkooi’s 2020 teammate, Dalton Gauthier, was present as well, although he was still riding a V&H-tuned XG750R. It gets murky behind that, as there are still several moving pieces behind the scenes as he maps out his ’21 plans. No determination has been made as of yet on even what class in which the uber-talented ’19 AFT Singles Champion will participate.
He said, “We’re here with the Harley-Davidson XG750s that Terry Vance kindly gave us to test out for some racing for next year. We’ll see how it goes. I’m excited to see what we can do and what kind of team we can build.”
There’s even still some degree of mystery surrounding 2020’s most successful XG750R pilot, runaway AFT Production Twins champion James Rispoli, although it doesn’t seem like there should be at this point.
All signs point to Rispoli continuing on with Latus Motors as they graduate to take on the premier AFT SuperTwins class on a dealer-backed Harley in 2021. Rispoli, George Latus, and even H-D have openly discussed that intention in the press. However, they are not yet officially committed to the Herculean task with deals in both directions yet to be signed.
Rispoli, however, flashed the speed to make waves in the premier class in Florida, clocking a nearly identical time to Vanderkooi to rank fifth-best overall (20.155).
“We’re not really focused on the other guys,” the multi-time, multi-discipline national champion said. “We know, yeah, I’m going against the top guys in the world—Briar Bauman, Jared Mees, B-Rob, all the boys. But that doesn’t really bother me. At the end of the day, I’m a racer myself, and I’ve raced at a really high level in road racing. Even when I was in Production Twins, I considered them my peers. I was on essentially the same motorcycle and doing similar lap times.
“Is it going to be a tough task? 100%. You’ve got to respect the level those guys are at. I want to train like I did last year and come in like we’re going to war. We know the Harley isn’t the best motorcycle, everybody knows that. For us, it’s more about taking the momentum from last year, moving it forward, and keep on improving.”
The Daytona Tire Test didn’t only offer a glimpse of the sport’s future in terms of tires, rider/team combinations, and new rules under discussion. It also provided the first professional appearance of a rider that many have projected could be the sport’s future in his own right: 2020 Nicky Hayden AMA Flat Track Horizon Award winner Kody Kopp.
Kopp did nothing to diminish the hype, clocking extremely competitive times that ultimately saw him lap faster than every 450cc-mounted rider, save AFT Singles’ dominant defending champion Dallas Daniels.
The son of 2000 Grand National Champion Joe Kopp, the racing prodigy is well aware of the lofty expectations. However, Kopp refuses to allow them to impact his approach to his rookie campaign one way or the other.
“We’re going to be training hard all winter down here in Florida to prepare for the opener, wherever it may be,” he said. “James Rispoli and my dad are both great mentors to me.
“I definitely think there are some expectations, but I’m just going to do my thing and see where that takes us. We’re going to come out swinging in 2021.”
While impossible to ignore, lap-time comparisons between riders weren’t supposed to be the point of the two-day affair. And returning to the stated primary objective, Dunlop was more than pleased with how the test played out.
“We’ve come out of this test with a clear winner,” said Michael Jackson, Senior Manager of Motorcycle Development & Road Race. “We’ve got all our tires tested with the vast majority of riders. We’ve had a lot of feedback, so it’s been everything we hoped it would be.
“The goal of the test was to find a more durable version of the R5 but not as hard as the R9, which was the only other compound they had last year. We focused on questioning each rider on how the new spec compared to the R5.
“We asked them to do 8-10 laps, and then we picked the best candidates and hammered out close to race distance on those tires. We asked them if the tire improved or got worse throughout that run. ‘Did the track change?’ ‘What’s the positive and negative of each tire?’
“We’ve got all the information. I’m just in the process of doing a basic report. There’s nothing else we need to do in terms of tire testing. The focus now shifts to production.”
Reigning Grand National Champion Briar Bauman, for one, took his role as tire tester seriously.
He said, “It’s cool, as long as you can keep your mind open about it and really just try to focus on the tire and what you feel, and not think about the chassis or anything else. I think it’s pretty neat.
“I’m not great at testing parts; I can’t typically tell the difference in a lot of stuff. So, it’s cool to have a bunch of different compounds and actually be able to tell without actually knowing if it was harder or softer or whatever it was.”
It was emphasized to the riders that this gathering was not meant to break out into a hot-lap shootout. However, the temptation to go for fast-lap honors is inevitable whenever pro racers are cutting laps with timing and scoring tracking their progress. Right?
“I think most would think I’m lying, but honestly, no,” Bauman said. “I know when we’re supposed to be competitive and when we’re not. And I’m not a competitive guy. Honestly, when the track is getting fast like it is and we’re able to ride the bike hard with a good tire that we have on, it’s more just fun to burn laps.
“We’re in offseason mode, for me, no pressure. I haven’t looked at the times on my phone once. I just understand what we’re here for and just like riding.”
Of course, it’s easy to have that attitude when you’re the champion and have grown accustomed to being on top. Incidentally, if Bauman would have looked at his phone, he would have seen his name at the top of the charts and as the only rider to break into the 19s (see the time chart below).
That temptation was more clearly evident down the order.
“Yeah, we’re all definitely looking at the times!” Brandon Robinson said, fresh off his season-ending Daytona double. “We all want a shot at the title.
“It’s been good though. It’s been good to be able to look at the times, even if we don’t know what everyone is doing per se, just to know we’re in the wheelhouse. I try not to look at it too much. I’m using the times mainly for myself, comparing the different compounds. I’ve been trying to get the hard compound to where our soft compound is and bridge that gap to have something we can actually race on in the future that’s a little bit better.”
It wasn’t a shock to see Robinson end the test ranked third overall at 20.043. Perhaps more surprising was the rider who split him and Bauman on the timesheets—Estenson Racing’s JD Beach aboard the Yamaha MT-07 DT.
No one has ever questioned Beach’s talent or determination. But the results simply weren’t there in 2020 as the team struggled to get the most out of their developing machine. Beach was cautiously optimistic this latest performance points to a stronger 2021.
“This test has been really good,” he said. “In the past, we’ve tested a lot, but it’s been hard because it’s only us at the track. We’d feel like we’re making improvements, but we’re only going against ourselves, so it’s difficult to judge.
“But at this test, we look a lot better than we did last year. It’s only one test at one track, but I think we’ve made some headway. We’ll try not to get too excited until we go racing.”
Title contenders Jared Mees and Sammy Halbert ranked near the top of the charts on Tuesday before heading home early ahead of Wednesday’s [faster] sessions. Likewise, Johnny Lewis had an abbreviated test aboard the Daytona-winning number-10 Royal Enfield Twins FT.
Another rider who only rode on Tuesday was 2019 AFT Production Twins champion, Cory Texter. Despite his expectation that he’ll be back competing for a Production Twins title with G&G Racing again in 2021, Texter rode the Wally Brown Racing/American Suzuki RM-Z450 at Volusia.
With his team based on the other side of the country, Texter was eager to take part and more than willing to help out WBR (who will make a rider announcement in the near future) in order to do so.
“I came down to help develop the tires and try to make them the best that I can,” Texter said. “I think I offer good insight. I’ve been around the sport for a long time, so I’ve used a bunch of different tires and rode a bunch of different bikes. I’m able to jump on different cc motorcycles and get a good read on what the tires are doing.”
Texter actually posted the fastest time among the AFT Singles riders on Tuesday (20.700), outpacing the likes of his highly decorated sister, Shayna Texter, as well as returning class champ Daniels and his Estenson Racing teammate Mikey Rush.
Daniels stepped it up considerably overnight, however, leading all AFT Singles contenders with a SuperTwins-like 20.243 to rank sixth overall on the final order.
Shayna Texter was the sole representative for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing on track at the test, just as she was in 2020. However, the buzz in the paddock was that she could have a teammate again in 2021, yet another of the many potential announcements expected shortly after the new year. CN
AFT Daytona Dunlop Tire Test Overall Times
- Briar Bauman (Indian Motorcycle/Progressive Insurance FTR750): 19.919
- JD Beach (Estenson Racing Yamaha MT-07 DT): 20.043
- Brandon Robinson (Roof Systems/Ben Evans Racing Indian FTR750): 20.087
- Jarod Vanderkooi (JCS Racing/HCRR Indian FTR750): 20.133
- James Rispoli (Latus Motors Racing Harley-Davidson XG750R): 20.155
- Dallas Daniels (Estenson Racing Yamaha YZ450F): 20.243
- Sammy Halbert (Indian FTR750): 20.424
- Jared Mees (Indian FTR750): 20.569
- Dalton Gauthier (Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson XG750R Rev X): 20.578
- Kody Kopp (Latus Motors Racing/Fast Track Racing Honda CRF450R): 20.585
- Cory Texter (WBR/Suzuki of America RM-Z450): 20.700
- Mikey Rush (Estenson Racing Yamaha YZ450F): 20.753
- Shayna Texter (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing 450 SX-FFE): 20.770
- Johnny Lewis (Moto Anatomy X Powered by Royal Enfield Twins FT): 21.259