Welcome to the New Renaissance: An Interview With Indian's Wrecking Crew
This is exciting. This is big. Have you ever had that feeling of being part of something historic? Perhaps you were at a rally for a future president. Perhaps you were there at Game 7 when your team won the World Series. Some moment or time period where you knew even then that people would be talking it for the rest of your life, and you would always be connected in some small way, always be able to say: "I was there."
If you enjoy that feeling, right now is a good time to get interested in flat track racing, because that's where the homegrown American sport is these days: on the cusp of a new renaissance. In the future, when all the amazing and unimaginable things that will come from this period in flat track are known, you will be able to tell your grandchildren: "Oh, sure. I was watching it happen."
In that future, the tidy nature of how we write history will say everything started on March 16, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Florida: the day of the first event in the first season of the American Flat Track series. But if you can't honestly claim to have been paying attention before then you could be forgiven. The sport had lost its way since its pre-1960s hey-day. Formerly known as AMA Pro Flat Track, it had watched fan numbers drop steadily over the decades, devolving into a largely esoteric activity. It's hard to pin the blame on any one thing, but the general feeling now is that it had lost sight of the cardinal rule of spectator sport: If you're going to expect people to pay to see something, you need to give them something worth paying for.
The fingers of NASCAR (who definitely know how to put on a show) started working their way into flat track a few years ago, but now the changes are more obvious: new name, new rules, new racing classes, and, oh... an old rivalry.
Those of us who never stopped loving flat track feel obligated to downplay the renewed battle between Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle – we will point out, after all, that there are a hell of a lot of Kawasakis and Yamahas out there and they are winning races – but deep down we know how big this is. NBC hasn't signed on to air flat track because Americans care about Kawasaki and Yamaha.
Harley, of course, never left the game and had been dominating flat track for many of those years you weren't paying attention. So, to a certain extent, the credit for renewed interest goes to Indian. It's a happy by-product of the brand's desire to find a level playing field. Having only been resurrected four years ago, there's no way Indian can currently compete against Harley in unit sales. Or clothing sales. Or tattoo sales. Or general brand awareness. But on the dusty race tracks of America reputation doesn't mean as much as results. Indian sank money into building a technologically-advanced, purpose-built flat track engine alongside a stellar chassis. And so far it’s been paying off. Indian's factory team has stood on the podium at every race this year.
With the 2017 season nearing the quarter mark (the fifth of the series' 20 events will be held in Sacramento, California, on 20 May), we sat down with three of the men who are writing this historic era: the Indian Wrecking Crew
The New Wrecking Crew
Go back far enough, and the term "Wrecking Crew" actually belonged to Harley-Davidson factory riders. It was the nom de guerre of the same pre-World War II group of riders responsible for our now referring to Harleys as "hogs." After the war, the name was somehow pilfered by Indian riders Bobby Hill, Bill Tuman, and Ernie Beckman.
READ MORE: How Harleys Became Known As Hogs | RideApart
Sixty four years after Tuman last won a Grand National Championship on an Indian, the name is back, this time used by Bryan Smith, Brad Baker, and Jared Mees. Shortly before last month's Charlotte Half Mile event (where Smith took first and Mees took second) we sat down with the team to talk about where the sport of flat track stands, and whether all this really is a sign of the return to the Golden Age of American motorcycling.
Bryan Smith, started with ice racing at age 7 ("It’s what you did in the winter time in Michigan") and followed that up with 50cc bikes the next summer. In 2001, he turned pro at age 16, becoming Rookie of the Year at the same time. In 2004 at Daytona, Smith took his first podium at a Grand National Race. From there, things slowly progressed: more podiums, more wins, and eventually – last year – the No.1 plate. After three years of finishing the season as runner-up Smith took home his first championship in stellar fashion on a Kawasaki, holding out Jared Mees to the last corner of the last lap.
“It’s funny how your career changes," he says. "Seconds and thirds are cool, but until I’m winning the national, it all don’t matter. Being the bridesmaid three years in a row, that was just putting gas on the fire.
“Finally, last season, my whole life made sense. Since I was 8-9 years old [I’ve dreamed of the Grand National title], now I can check that off my list.”
So how does it now feel for Smith to carry that long-awaited No. 1 plate?
"Sure, you see it in the pits, but then you go out for practice and someone comes up after, showing you a picture on their camera and you go: 'Whoa, that’s the No. 1 plate.' It caught me off guard the first time I saw it, just 'cause I’ve been national No. 42 since 2002. It was basically tattooed on me. Obviously being No. 1 was no problem to accept, though. It’s really fun and really cool for me. After you win the championship you think that’s [going to be] added pressure, that the No. 1 plate is heavy, but once I won it, it felt like getting that monkey off my back. It gave me more confidence. Now with Indian behind me, too, that’s added confidence.”
RideApart: What’s the state of American Flat Track, with Indian entering and you joining them?
Bryan Smith: It’s a fun time in flat track right now, with Indian and Harley, that’s a big deal. There’s a lot of buzz around the sport, and for me to be No. 1? Well, it’s just a lot of fun for me. It’s made me more comfortable in my own skin, I just go out there and ride like I know how to ride, and not really worry about the rest of it, because I know I have an army behind me.
RA: Do you feel the sport is growing as a result of the hype?
Smith: For sure, it’s to a point where I never thought I’d be apart of it. Like, when there was the factory Harley team and a factory Honda team. Now we’re back to that point with three Indian factory riders and three Harley factory riders. Now, we’re going to be on TV, something I never thought I’d see... Flat track is some of the best bar-to-bar racing you’ll see, I just never thought I’d be a part of it getting this mainstream and people getting to see it nationwide. It’s a pretty exciting time... and I’m just happy to be apart of it.
RA: You did a lot of testing on the new Indian FTR750 before the season, right?
Smith: No. Actually, I only tested it once. Parts showed up a little later than we expected and there were a handful of delays. For the results we’ve had, I’m very happy... especially with the first two races being tracks I’m not that comfortable on. It’s hard that we haven’t been able to ride between races, but during the mains you push the bike harder than before and start to find weak links. After Daytona we found a couple places to improve the bike, to make it better for me. At Atlanta, we changed it again. It’s a new bike, new engine, so it’s about tailoring it to make it the way I like it. It’s a never-ending process, even when you’re winning you come off the track thinking about things to make the bike better.
RA: With all the changes and hype, do you feel this season is unique?
Smith: Mostly [what makes it unique] is running the big bikes – the twins – on the small tracks. Running the TT (An oval course that includes a dog leg and a jump –Ed) with a twin is something that hasn’t been done since the ‘80s. It’s something that’s really cool, something – and my competitors can say the same – that the heroes of the sport, like Scott Parker and and Jay Springsteen, did. Back to even earlier days than that: the ‘70s. Like Evel Knievel, taking jumps and making tight turns on big bikes. Now we can finally be as cool as our heroes, because we’re riding the same bikes on the small tracks and taking jumps. The old guys can’t tell us were not men anymore. It’s bragging rights a little bit.
RA: So, are you happy with how you've done so far?
Smith: Coming out of the first two races with a second and third was great. They were definitely some of the toughest tracks for me, looking at the series. To come out of it second in points, I’m happy. The ovals are getting bigger [in upcoming races] so, I’m pretty excited about that.
RA: What do you think is the influence of American Flat Track on the motorcycle industry? Is it a return of the old slogan: "What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday?"
Smith: What goes into a race bike, definitely a lot of the styling has come from street bikes. Like the Scout. Obviously, you get to a certain point you just can’t make it look like a street bike anymore, even though Indian would love that... But the cool thing about Indian is that they’re making our bikes available to the public, even though it’s not a street bike. You can essentially go and buy my race bike. It’s something that hasn’t been done since the ‘70s with Harley and the XR750.
At only 24 years old, Brad Baker is particularly young for flat track – the youngest of the Wrecking Crew by six years. Still, his resume is just as stout as his teammates; he seems to win on any bike he’s given. Like Smith, he started racing as a young boy – when he was 5 years old – and quickly moved to pro.
RideApart: Is the sport now the biggest you’ve ever seen it?
Brad Baker: Yes, in the last three years, going on four, this sport has completely transformed. And it keeps getting bigger. With international attention and things like the X Games, and now this year with Indian coming on board, along with the complete revamp of American Flat Track. There are a lot of things to come; we’re just getting started. This is by far the best year we’ve seen in a long time.
RA: How is this year’s schedule unique?
Baker: It’s pretty evenly distributed in terms of the discipline of tracks (The American Flat Track series sees riders competing on four different types of track throughout the season: the aforementioned TT, a mile oval, a half-mile oval, and a short track oval –Ed) , which makes the championship even. That’s always nice. You have riders that excel in particular tracks. We’re also in some really good venues – really good areas, urban-type environments – having races there helps us draw good crowds.
RA: Do you prepare for this schedule with a different strategy?
Baker: No, really you should just take a season race to race. It’s a long season. I sat out for the first race, [having crashed in the heats]. It was a 10 mph turn, but I had a rider go straight into my back and that pushed my helmet into the triple clamps. (Baker was knocked unconscious but came out of it relatively unharmed –Ed) Basically I had a big tire mark right here (points at his shoulder). I bit the inside of my cheek, my eye socket hurt. Smashed my helmet into the bars. Luckily, I had a road-racing helmet on, the motocross helmet has a weaker jaw protection. But you try not to think [about the season as a whole] and simply take it race to race and things fall where they fall. Usually in the top riders, you’ll have one bad race, one throwaway race. That was the start of the year for me. So now, I have to pour on the throttle and do the best I can.
RA: Did you get a lot of testing on the FTR750 before the season?
Baker: Only two small tests before Daytona. Dixie (Atlanta Short Track, the second race of the season –Ed) was basically my first race, which was my first test. We started slow the beginning of the day, we made some changes and got up to speed, finishing second to Jared, who had a lot more testing time. But knowing the bike and my team, we’ll be there in the nick of time.
RA: Indian seems pretty steadfast in its support of American Flat Track, but what's your experience with fans?
Baker: I’ve actually really enjoyed going to some of the Indian dealerships. Only a small handful of the H-D dealers know what flat track is; if you don’t even have a photo of flat track on your wall and you’re a Harley dealer? Well, where you been? But all the Indian dealers are involved. Indian and Harley are going half and half on sponsorship of the races. I notice the Indian fans more and their involvement is awesome. It’s great that Indian already has that following, despite Harley being there for so much longer. Here, the brands are on an even playing field.
RA: So, do you feel like you’re making history?
Baker: I was a part of history [in Atlanta], being a part of the first Indian sweep on the podium. Hats off to Mees to giving Indian their first wins. We still have a few more milestones left, like the first person to win a championship [for Indian]. Not to mention a half-mile, a mile... We have a few more to scratch off the list.
Jared Mees has long been an ambassador of flat track. He took home rookie of the year in 2004, only a couple years after Smith, and, like Smith, was runner up a few times before nabbing his first championship. But what sets Mees apart is his large number of championships. Last year he fought hard against Smith astride a Harley-Davidson XR-750. This year, he’s happy to jump to the Indian Wrecking Crew, but doesn’t plan on taking it lightly on his teammates.
RideApart: Is flat track now the biggest you’ve ever seen it?
Jared Mees: I would say so. Since I’ve been racing flat track, we’ve never had as strong of a program as NBC sports. We’ve had MAV-TV, which did a great job and it’s cool, but I was on MAV-TV and I don’t even have the station at home. Flat track is in the best place I’ve ever seen it. Back when I came onto the scene it was a one-brand competition: you had Harley with a few riders and the rest of the field was privateer-based, and a lot of those riders were Harley-Davidson dealership-supported. They can only provide so much support. Then Harley came in and stepped up their game. At the time, it was the best thing to come into the sport, but it wasn’t enough. Suzuki then came in and it looked good, but it didn’t have a return for them. But I feel like now – if Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki came into the sport [with factory teams] – we have something to offer... I feel like we’re at a way better stage than road racing. I never thought that flat track would be in a better place than road racing.
RA: Did you get a lot of testing on the FTR750 before the season?
Mees: We got one engine Friday and were supposed to race in Daytona on the next Thursday. But, I was very fortunate to be the test rider for Indian last year, which was a prototype engine and chassis. From the prototype to the race bike, it was mostly fitment changes, it was really, really close to the production model. Some minor things to needed to be buttoned up. The Harley XR was a proven winning motorcycle and the only motorcycle I’ve ridden as a professional. So, it was great to dial in the Indian and run the Harley back and forth. We’d see how far we were off or ahead. We’d make adjustments for feel... Charlotte last year was the turning point, we felt like we were right on par. The next session was in the Black Hills and I went back and forth between Harley and Indian and thought: "Man that Indian is right there, right on point, and maybe a tenth better sometimes." The next one after that was Springfield Mile, and that’s when I said: "This thing is good, I mean really, really good."
RA: How is the season unique?
Mees: For one thing: the fact we're racing twins at every track. Ten years ago it never would have crossed my mind. Never! I laughed about it leading up to Daytona and said to myself: "Tomorrow I can call myself a man because I’m jumping a twin at the Daytona TT." Jay Springsteen is one of the best flat trackers that ever lived and he did this.
RA: Do you feel like you’re making history?
Mees: I wanted to be the first guy to win on that Indian. I wanted to win the Daytona TT more than anything. First time Indian coming back, first time inside Daytona Speedway ever, and the first time on a Daytona TT in a long time. It was a huge checklist; Daytona was the number one race I wanted to win. After winning 22 Grand National races so far, Daytona is probably my favorite – on par with my first win when I think about my favorites.