Tuesday, 27 September 2016

A New Dawn for American Flat Track...

At Sunday’s end of season awards banquet, just hours after Bryan Smith was confirmed 2016 champion in one of the most thrilling mile races of recent times, the company that runs professional flat track announced a new era for the sport. Sideburn was there to hear the announcement and below is our take, thoughts and questions about the changes.

Michael Lock, the British CEO of AMA Pro Flat Track, explained that they are changing their name. Why? Because AMA Pro Flat Track are nothing to do with the AMA. Confused, you should be. So was every potential sponsor, partner or new team Lock and his team approached. So the new name is American Flat Track. American Flat Track (AFT) writes the rules, sets the race schedule, runs the races that regional promoters host and organise to the AFT’s guidelines. AFT is to flat track what Dorna is to MotoGP.
The AMA will continue, we assume, as the licensing body.

Let’s be honest, the Bryan Smith wheel situation was a debacle and Lock admitted as much on stage, in an amusing way. He explained that there was too much ambiguity in the rulebook and that it was barely written in English, so, AFT say, it has been completely redrafted, simplified, clarified and will be released online in this week, six months before the season starts.

The twins rule, that was supposed to be implemented in 2016 but postponed after howls from teams and riders, will come into being for 2017.

The current GNC1 class will be the Twins class. The GNC2 class will also be renamed as AFT Singles and will run exclusively on DTX-style 450cc singles, where GNC2 currently mixes singles and twins. The GNC2 riders rode twins at Santa Rosa.

Any GNC2 rider who has scored 50pts in a season on twin machinery can enter the Twins class. If they regret that decision, for whatever reason, the rider can transfer back to Singles for the rest of the season, but then cannot move back to wins later in the same season.

The Twins class will compete the 18-race season exclusively on twins. That means miles, half-miles, two (I think) short tracks and up to three TTs all on twins.

Sideburn has been a big supporter of the twins rule since it was first mentioned. Speaking to Indian’s top brass this week they explained they weren’t interested in joining a series where their riders swapped between manufacturers machinery from race-to-race. If the status quo had continued, who could claim the title, if, let’s say, Baker wins next season, Indian for the twin he rode or Honda/KTM for the singles race points? An insane situation. One obvious downside of this new structure is the lack of opportunities,for singles riders to get experience on pure race machines, the kind of framer chassis used on twins, before moving into the top class. They build racecraft, but not the set-up skills a framer requires and responds to.

In MotoGP, riders in the Moto2 feeder class are riding bikes with a variety of custom chassis all using the exact same Honda CBR600-derived engine. So they’re learning what adjustments to make in different situations before the cream of the class move into MotoGP and race prototypes with twice the power.

If AFT followed the same thinking it could mean a return to framers, using a ‘spec’ stock 450 engine, supplied at a reduced price, and built into a chassis of the rider’s choice. This would be a return to bike that look like proper flat tracker, not motocrossers. I'm not hung up on DTX bikes, but they're no longer the future of the sport, but still an important stepping stone. Let’s face it, the OEMs didn’t get behind the DTX format in any significant financial way and the riders aren’t learning to race framers, which they need to if they want to be GNC1 champs.

The leathers rule, banning the wearing of motocross jerseys and trousers wasn’t mentioned in the presentation, but it’s still going ahead as far as we’re aware.

At the moment each racer has two timed qualifying sessions before a heat race. The top qualifiers in the heat race transfer straight to the Main, the event 18-rider final, so the very best riders only have two races in a day. This is changing. From 2017 riders will compete in four heat races with last three (depending on entry number, I guess) in the heat race being eliminated and not taking part in the rest of the day. The qualifiers of the heat races will ALL go into two semis, no one will transfer directly to the main. The top nine finishers from the semis will make the main. There will also be, as there is now, the Get Out Of Jail free card that allows national numbers who don’t qualify to gain entry to the main once in a season if they fail to qualify. It wasn’t entirely clear if they can only use that from the semis or if they can do it from the heats too.

In the current, now old, structure, Brad Baker, who won at Santa Rosa, broke down in his heat race, so missed the automatic transfer and was put in the semi (which is really a last chance qualifier) and finished in the top three. In the new structure he would have been eliminated and not given the opportunity to race in the semi.

There was no talk of the Dash for Cash, but the reason for the new structure is for fans to see the top racers compete more often during a race day, so it might remain.

AFT has negotiated with NBC sports network to show coverage of the sport in their Thursday night off-road Overdrive programme, shown in Thursday night primetime and available to 90 millions US homes. The highlights package will be shown every Thursday from June to September and will include full coverage of both mains, plus highlights of the semis and interviews with riders and explanation of tech. Fanschoice.tv will continue to livestream full event coverage online for hardcore and foreign fans. It wasn’t made clear if this coverage will be hosted on their website to watch after the event, but there is no obvious benefit, that I can see, to not doing this so we hope they do.

18 races, with 17 already confirmed in September of the preceding year will really help people get organised. This is much earlier than in any previous year in our memories. AFT has worked with promoters to try cluster races to minimise travel, and to give a real national spread to the races. There are new events on the schedule. These are the biggest changes…

The traditional Daytona short track double-header has been dropped. The season will still start in Bike Week, in March, but within the huge Speedway, that is undergoing an $500 million refurb. The race will be a TT on a track designed by Chris Carr. This will be the first time new generation twins will compete on a TT track. It’s going to be interesting.

For years there has been a massive wait for the next race, usually Springfield 1 at the end of May. Things changed for 2016 and 2017 follows the new format with three races between Daytona and Springfield. These are Atlanta: Charlotte and Arizona. There is a new race in Kentucky, a return to New York, but no Austin.

The enormous Sturgis Bike Week event hosts two rounds in four days, first is the Buffalo Chip TT, on a new track with two jumps, then the Black Hills Half-Mile. A hooligan and singles race was trialled at Buffalo Chip this year. The track looked sub-optimal, so it will have to improve for the AFT racers. The season ends on the big track at Perris, So Cal.

The only race of the 18 that is not currently confirmed is Peoria. Insiders say the track itself is not up AFT standards in terms of track width. The famous TT is pencilled in, so there seems a desire to host the race. There is also talk of modifying the jump, taking the top off it, to make it safer for twins to compete on.

The majority of OEM manufacturers have signed up to support AFT (Suzuki being one notable who haven't), with Indian being the big new name. Lock said there is a potential $500,000 worth of contingency for the singles class alone. I’m dubious of contingency figures. Sure, the potential might be half-a-million, but Manufacturer 1 could commit to paying $5000 to any rider who wins a race on their machine. If no one wins on Manufacturer 1’s bike then no one gets anything. So the manufacturer is in a win-win. They look like they’re supporting the series, but might actually pay out very little. But it’s better than nothing and the actual structure of the potential payments was not made clear, so I might be overly cynical.

Harley-Davidson paid Jared Mees a bonus of £25,000 for being top H-D finisher in the 2016 season, so contingency certainly is being paid in some examples.

Dunlop has signed a three-year deal to supply tyres and have committed to improving grip. Not sure how this will pan out and what it’ll do to the racing or the level of tuning bikes are then subjected to in order to exploit the new grip, but progress shouldn’t be avoided.

Michael Lock spoke of his desire/dream to put the whole of AFT on a plane, fly them to Europe and race in a soccer stadium. Spain seems an obvious host country thanks to links with Marquez, the RPM organisation and their successful Superprestigio race.

Or what about an Italian soccer stadium or horse hippodromo? Let’s not consider potential flies in the ointment like potential rain-offs. I said let’s not! The Speedway GP make temporary tracks in sports arenas and have a flyaway race to Australia most, if not all seasons, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility, but still is only a dream. It would be a very brave Euro promoter who invested the money needed to help make it happen. Superprestigio has shown some kind of precedent, but on a much smaller scale. Get Marquez involved, or Rossi, and it could grab the public’s imagination. Would 30,000 Europeans pay €25 each to watch a flat track race?

This is a time for optimism and excitement. We’re excited. Pro flat track was crying out for this revolution. There will be bumps along the way, but everything sounds incredibly positive.

We’ll put more meat on the bones of these developments as things progress.
Gary Inman


Frank said...

Great summary, Gary. I wish I could share your enthusiasm, but DMG/AFT have much to prove as a stable governing body, with a true regard for their fans and riders alike. I know things like a re-brand take a tremendous amount of work and planning, but to me the fact that DMG chose to plunge ahead with the announcement of it the day following their deadliest event in many years is an indicator of their level of disregard for their participants, and of us knowledgeable fans. Was their announcement so much of a juggernaut that it couldn't be paused out of respect to two young competitors?

I do think many of the changes they hope to make will be fine, especially if it brings the manufacturers back to a level of involvement, but a good percentage of the new venues they hope to move to (Lock mentions mile horse tracks specifically) leave much to be desired from a rider safety standpoint, Santa Rosa being a prime example.

If they take as much care upping their safety/track preparation game as they do in coming out with a new line of clothing or yet another new name for Experts and Pros (for the third time in 3 years), I'll happily shut up and enjoy the racing, but give me 2 seasons in a row of a semi-stable organization first.

Viva Flat Track!

Denver, CO

Anthony Brown said...

It all sounds pretty interesting and at least they have a stratergy to follow, I think Fans will remain scepticle.
I think they have some issues to address with the riders and saftey as well as marketing. For those who dont read Facebook there is a storm at the moment (some of which is not pretty and in my opinion ill timed and a little disrespectful).

However one very well written post by a top man (again in my opinion) JD Beach summarises the feeling of many of the riders who have commented in his support.
I understand that the press release would not address these sort of issues but I hope in the background the right people are working hard some of these points.

Here is the post for those who have not seen it.

Facebook post from JD Beach

This is a bit long but please take the time to read and share.

While many believe it’s been a rough week in the world of AMA Pro Dirt Track, it’s been a tough season. Protests, Appeals, and unacceptable track conditions have plagued the series and I believe that AMA Pro Racing needs to take a step back and look at the big picture, the program they run, and the people they have running it.

Because of my Road Racing obligations I was only able to compete at two nationals this year. During those two races I felt as though I was treated poorly, or at least below the stanards that I have seen in other forms of professional racing. I've been fortunate to attend about five or six events this year, as well as having several friends who have competed in both classes during the entire season. They have made the same complaints to me about how poorly the atheletes are treated as well.

Anthony Brown said...

When I attended Peoria this year, it was the hardest thing ever to not ride. I love that track and the history behind it. After practice and very little track work being done I told my family someone was seriously going to get hurt that day. There ended up being many crashes including the one that lead to Dominic Colindres being seriously injured. In the GNC1 main, Brad Baker, one of the best in the business, and one of the most gnarly (I know because I grew up racing with him since we were both on 50s) crashed in the right hander five laps into the main. Racers complained about this turn all day long but it took a nasty crash for AMA to prep the track. Five laps in the Grand National main event.

This has never been the case at Peoria. I don’t know what changed. Yes, the area received large amounts of rain leading up to the race, and having a track of my own at my home, I understand the major role that weather plays in forming a great racing surface. However, this is the longest running national on our schedule and I have full confidence that the Peoria Motorcycle Club knows how to work with the track in those sort of conditions. Was the program hurried along? Were short cuts taken? That isn’t for me to answer, but some one should.

Anthony Brown said...

After the day was over I was glad that I wasn’t able to ride because of my commitments to road racing. As a racer I wouldn't have pulled out of the event due to the poor conditions. As racers we are there to race and if the next guy isn't stopping, we aren't going to either. That's why we have officials at the races. We should be able to trust them with our safety and know they will make the best call for us.

MotoAmerica has been built up of racers and people that love the sport but also know the risks the racers are taking. We don't have as many races as we have had in the past but they make sure we go to the best possible tracks in the US and that we can race on in all conditions. Last year at their first race with national TV coverage, it was a down pour before my race. The track was not safe enough for us but instead of rushing us out for "the show" they held off until it was safe enough for us.

Now I wasn't in Santa Rosa so the only knowledge of the race track and of the events of what happened is just from what I've read and have gotten from some of my best friends and Team95 teammates. The whole day the track was horrible. The riders got cut short on track time because AMA Pro couldn't get everyone parked in time. This isn’t the best way to run things. We all know it. AMA Pro Racing has GOT to know it. In the last two out of three nationals two serious crashes could have possibly been avoided with better track prep. Since when is timing so important to AMA Pro Racing? They aren’t on live TV, they weren’t bumping up against impending darkness (Santa Rosa has no lighting) So why? Why was the track not prepped? Why were the water trucks not running? We deserve answers.

On Sunday I couldn't be at the races but I always watch live timing as much as possible during practice and then switch to fanschoice.tv for the races. I was out on a bicycle ride when the races started but I always have my phone close in case someone has questions about bike setup or just needs help. Normally I'll just answer while I'm riding and try and help the best I can. This time one of my best friends called (who was racing) but for some reason I felt the need to stop to answer it. It was one of the most heart wrenching calls ever. Hearing him tell me about Charlotte then telling me about how bad the track is. Telling me he's just going to put it out of his head because that’s what he feels professionals do and he wants to race. What do I tell somebody who is relaying that information to me? Don’t go chase your dreams? We all understand the dangers that comes along with racing. As many know, I continue to run the number 95 in honor of my fallen friend and brother Ethan Gillim. We know the risks, but there are also precautions to be taken within our sanctioning body that can reduce and manage that risk.

I realize this is a very emotionally charged letter, but with tragedies that have befallen our sport this season, it’s time that AMA Pro Racing rethinks who they have in place making these difficult decisions. I know it has to be a tough job but everything can always be done better. I put my life on the line every time I get on a bike. I'm ok with that, I know I'm taking a risk. But it's a lot harder to watch family and friends take that same risk knowing the track and conditions could be better. The sanctioning body can coast through the off-season, change their name to American Flat Tack and completely change the class structure and racing format, but the tracks will still be an issue.

My thoughts and prayers are with both the Kainz and McGrane families as well as everyone that has been affected by their passing. Both brilliant and talented lives that we lost much too soon. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to make positive changes but in this case, for the memory of the fallen and the future of this great American racing series, it’s time to ALWAYS put safety first.