American Flat Track has been delivering excitement this season, with the factory Indian Motorcycle team continuing to assert dominance, but independent teams are bringing the pressure with Indian’s of their own. The Calistoga Half-Mile presented by Indian Motorcycle continued the trend.
Although the Harley vs. Indian wars have not resumed as so many predicted, the Vance & Hines factory Harley-Davidson team has done their homework in the off-season and have been making gains. Results are mixed though with Harley riders Brandon Robinson (#44), Sammy Halbert (#69), and Jason Vanderkooi (#20) each trading bad-luck weekends so far.
Calistoga Speedway has an air to it that makes you feel at home before you’ve even made it through the front gate.
Vanderkooi has managed the best finish for the team, a 3rd at the short track in Atlanta. But Vanderkooi was bumped up to the spot when race winner Jared Mees (#1) was disqualified for an illegally modified tire. Vanderkooi also finished just behind privateer Jeffrey Carver (#23), who rode the now-retired Harley XR750. Mixed results indeed.
The Harley vs. Indian wars are still not shaping up. Will KTM bring a challenge in 2019?
The Calistoga Half-Mile was Vanderkooi’s turn to have bad luck, with a mechanical problem taking him out of his heat race and unable to make the main event. Robinson seemed to have borrowed Harley’s supply of good luck, leading half of his heat race before being passed by Jared Mees. Robinson’ 2nd place was just ahead of Jefferey Carver, the eventual 2nd place finisher in the main event and the only one that night who seemed able to match Mees’ pace.
However, the main event happens at night, with cooler temperatures that reduce traction. This saw Robinson quickly shuffled to last place as his Harley bucked and slid around the slick track. His teammate Sammy Halbert was left to carry the torch, coming in 9th. In fact, seven of the top ten finishers were riding Indians; and this despite the absence of factory rider Bryan Smith (#4), out with a broken leg.
Brandon Robinson took 2nd in his heat race but quickly fell to last place during the main. It wasn’t from lack of trying. Note the glowing red brake disc and the sidewall flex on the tire. He just couldn’t find enough traction once the sun went down.
Indian is also the only real choice for a turn-key factory race bike, so it seems an obvious choice for private teams. But at $50,000 each, a race-ready FTR750 is more than twice what it costs to piece together a custom frame and race-prepped Kawasaki Ninja 650 engine. But assembling a fast bike is not the same as assembling a bike capable of podium finishes. For example, Kenny Coolbeth Jr. (#2) left his factory Harley ride behind last year with a best finish of 6th. Riding an FTR750 for Nila Racing this year, he rounded out the Calistoga podium with a strong 3rd place. In Atlanta his 2nd place promoted him to a win after Mees’ previously mentioned disqualification. What a turnaround…
The strongest indicator of the FTR750’s capability might have been demonstrated by 2nd place finisher Jeffrey Carver. In only his second main event aboard the Indian, just a week after his 2nd place on the old Harley XR750, he got the holeshot in the main event and pulled a gap. True, once Jared Mees broke free from an early 4-bike battle he was able to catch and pass Carver for the lead, but Mees’ is also a factory rider, the number-one plate holder, and one of the winningest riders in the sport. Carver was the only one during the main who seemed capable of catching Mees.
Jeffrey Carver (#23) was the only one in Calistoga who could run with Jared Mees (#1).
Behind the Mees/Carver duel was a wicked battle early on between the aforementioned Coolbeth and Mees’ teammate Brad Baker (#6) on another factory Indian. The two fought hard in the early half of the race and the battle may have slowed them down enough to let Carver and Mees get away; the fastest lap for Carver, Coolbeth, and Baker were all within about 0.1 seconds of each other. Fifth place went to Davis Fisher (#67) on another Indian.
Kenny Coolbeth Jr. (#2) has turned his fortunes around this year after struggling on the Factory Harley-Davidson in 2017. Here he is seen battling on his Nila Racing Indian, the privateer bike fast enough to hold off factory rider Brad Baker (#6).
Honestly though it looked like no one had the pace for Mees at Calistoga. Carver reeled him in during the final laps and was only 0.114 seconds behind at the finish, but it’s likely that Mees was slowing down at the end because he thought it was in the bag.
1Your Calistoga podium: 3rd place Kenny Coolbeth Jr. (left), 2nd place Jefferey Carver (right) and race winner Jared Mees (center).
The “month of miles” will now begin, which more accurately means six of the next seven events will feature 1-mile ovals. The Indians seem to have no trouble with the high-speed mile races, with either Bryan Smith or Jared Mees winning every mile race in 2017.
It’s not all about Indian. Here we see Briar Bauman (#14) using the Zanotti Racing Kawasaki Ninja650 to pressure Kayl Kolkam (#98) on his Yamaha FZ-07.
The Arizona Mile happened May 12 and Jared Mees walked away from the start, leading every lap on a loose and dusty track. Now the series comes back to California for the Sacramento Mile May 19. That will be the west coast’s last chance to catch American Flat Track in person. This also might be the first time in seven years that Bryan Smith has not won the event. Smith plans to race the event, but it is unlikely his leg will be 100% healed. Or will Smith dig deep and pick up his chase for the title before he falls any further behind? That alone will be a show worth watching.
Be sure to check out American Flat Track’s full schedule for 2018 and don’t miss a chance to see the speed and fury with your own eyes. And for those events too far away you can either livestream the races on FansChoice.tv or watch the tape-delayed airing on NBCSN. There is no reason to miss racing this good.
Come see the races in person. You can smell the race fuel and the dust in the air, hear the roar, and feel the crackle of energy in the air as two-dozen lunatics head for turn 1.
Speaking of the rest of the season, Jared Mees has already won the first five races, leading the most laps at each one. Can anyone stop him from taking another national title? With so much of the field now on Indian FTR750’s Jared will have some challenges, but unless a specific rider can beat him consistently, Mees looks like a shoe-in for another title. Even if you’re beaten repeatedly, if it’s a different rider each time, you are still walking away with the title based on consistency.
But perhaps Vance & Hines Harley Davidson will sort their XG750R out before the season is through? Whether they do or not, will Indian be able to maintain it’s dominant position when KTM joins the series in 2019 with a twin of their own? The Austrian company’s motto is “Ready to Race.” They compete successfully in several offroad categories and have been a force to be reckoned with on pavement in the smaller displacement categories. But they will be going the same route as Harley-Davidson, making their 790 street engine into a racing package. While definitely possible, it isn’t as easy as purpose building an engine from the ground up for racing, such as Indian has done.
Jared Mess won the title last year and has won the first four races this season (although he was disqualified from Atlanta’s event for an illegally modified tire). Can anyone stop him?
Another new development for the 2019 season is a proposed Production Twins class. This would allow riders in the Singles class to dip their toe into the big-bike class without breaking the bank. It would also provide fertile ground for Harley’s XG750R engine to compete against the upcoming KTM, and the Kawasaki Ninja 650, the garage-builder’s choice for years now.
There is record level contingency money for privateer teams to chase, with Harley alone is offering over $500,000 this year to Harley-mounted riders based on their finishing position. It’s very likely that both Harley and KTM will have big contingency programs for the Production Twins class next year. Watching private teams on custom built frames using a built-up street engine harkens back to the bygone days of racing when the “man in a van with a plan” could show up and take on the factory teams, hoping to earn enough gas money to make it to the next race. It should be great to watch.
There truly hasn’t been a better time to be an American Flat Track fan.