The 2018 AFT season has arrived, and everyone has a plan
Daytona Beach, Fla., Mar. 13—Following months of build-up, the 2018 American Flat Track season opener is at last just days away with the impending arrival of Thursday, March 15’s Bigger, Better, and Faster Harley-Davidson TT presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys at Daytona.
The questions this year, and at Daytona specifically, are huge: One: How will Harley-Davidson race after its inaugural season on the XG750R, and is the XG750R on the road to fulfilling the legacy of the flat track-dominating XR750? Two: Can the Indian Motorcycle factory team—and reigning Grand National Champion Jared Mees—repeat, both at Daytona and during the season? Three: Will this year’s crew of well-funded and super-fast privateers give the factories a run for their money? And four: Can AFT Singles phenoms like 2017 runner-up Brandon Price, newly minted Husqvarna Motorcycles rider Shayna Texter, and a load of ultra-quick young guns displace Kolby ‘The Flying Tomato’ Carlile and his consistency?
In just a couple of days, we will know.
The offseason is where a racer’s foundation is laid. It’s where mechanical and mental preparation is completed, where optimism reigns, and where expectations and ambitions run unchecked. Now all that is put to the test and ultimately replaced by the cold, harsh reality of race results. Everyone’s got a plan until they get bunched up in Turn 1.
Indian Motorcycle may have had things its way last season, but that’s prompted the long-dominant Harley-Davidson Factory Flat Track Team to shake things up. The iconic team has overhauled its rider line-up while further intensifying its development program to unleash the full potential of the XG750R.
H-D’s new-look trio includes one holdover, one title-contender in waiting, and one youngster ready to blossom.
The lone returning rider on the squad is Brandon Robinson (No. 44 Harley-Davidson Factory Flat Track Team XG750R), who was the highest-placed Harley-Davidson pilot last year. He earned a seventh-place title ranking on the strength of three top fives. Robinson’s a proven race winner, and he’s eager to climb back atop the podium as soon as possible.
Joining him in 2018 will be the gifted Sammy Halbert (No. 69 Harley-Davidson Factory Flat Track Team XG750R). Halbert was arguably the sharpest thorn in the side of the Indian-mounted riders last year, pushing them for race wins and ultimately finishing fourth the championship. He scooped up five podiums, including three runner-ups, last year, while adding an X Games Gold Medal on the side. Backed by the might of the Harley-Davidson Factory squad, Halbert could be well primed to take that next step forward.
Rounding out the Harley-Davidson continent is rising star Jarod Vanderkooi (No. 20 Harley-Davidson Factory Flat Track Team XG750R). The 2015 Rookie of the Year has finished inside the championship top ten the last two years running and logged a pair of top five race results in ’17. Thursday’s Daytona TT will mark Vanderkooi’s final race as a teenager, underlining just how much room he has yet to grow.
The rider by which all others will be measured this year, of course, is reigning Grand National Champion Jared Mees (No. 1 Indian Motorcycle Rogers Racing Sidi Scout FTR750). Mees was the dominant force in 2017, assembling an historic season in which he logged truly ridiculous numbers—10 wins, 16 top-twos, and 17 podiums in 18 events.
A threat to win in any conditions or on any type of course, Mees comes into the Daytona TT with not only the #1 plate on his Scout FTR750 but the title of defending race winner. No matter how heavily revised the circuit, Mees will be widely viewed as the man to beat when the lights are shining down Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Also cast in an odds-on favorite role to contend at the front are Mees’ fellow members of the Indian Wrecking Crew, Bryan Smith (No. 4 Indian Motorcycle Racing backed by Allstate Scout FTR750) and Brad Baker (No. 6 Indian Motorcycle Racing backed by Allstate Scout FTR750).
The ’Crew lived up to its billing and then some in ’17, finishing 1-2-3 in the final AFT Twins championship rankings while racking up 14 of 18 race wins and 37 and 54 podiums with a full six podium sweeps along the way. That level of group excellence won’t do anything to satisfy either Smith or Baker, however, as both riders are motivated to significantly improve upon solid seasons in order to topple Mees from the top of the pecking order.
Smith registered four wins and nine podiums during last season’s campaign but lost some momentum down the stretch. He’ll be eager to reclaim that #1 plate, and demonstrated his ability to hustle a big twin around a TT course with a second-place run in last year’s Daytona TT.
Baker is probably even more likely than Smith to come out swinging. Despite leading the most laps in multiple races and coming painfully close to race wins with regularity in ’17, Baker has yet to take the checkered flag first aboard his Scout FTR750. The sooner he can get that out of the way in ’18, the sooner he can start orchestrating a realistic title push.
Beyond the leading factory outfits, there’s no shortage of potential contenders to be found with the entirety last year’s AFT Twins top ten returning to the fray in 2018.
Outside of those already mentioned, perhaps the rider to keep the closest eye on is Jeffrey Carver Jr. (No. 23 Roof-Systems/Indian of Metro Milwaukee Scout FTR750). Battling the factory-backed superstars in ’17, privateer Carver not only earned a top-five championship placement, he also scored three podiums, including a victory and a runner-up result in the season’s final two races. Looking to capitalize on that momentum, Carver has decided the best way to beat ’em is to join ’em, adding an Indian Scout FTR750 to his program in 2018.
Sixth-ranked Briar Bauman (No. 14 Zanotti Racing Kawasaki Ninja 650) enjoyed a breakout ’17 of his own with two race wins serving as twin highlights. Of particular note is that one those wins came at the Buffalo Chip TT, suggesting that Bauman could be in line to serve up another upset at the Daytona TT.
Davis Fisher (No. 67 Bob Lanphere Beaverton Motorcycles Kawasaki Ninja 650) was a fixture inside the top ten last year while occasionally flashing top-five potential. To be there in the end, you’ve got to be there, period, and Fisher has a knack for positioning himself to take full advantage when chaos inevitably strikes.
And then there’s “King Henry.” Henry Wiles (No. 17 DPC Racing Kawasaki Ninja 650) is the most accomplished TT master in AFT history with an astonishing 18 triumphs in the discipline to his credit. He finished on the box at the Daytona TT a year ago and comes into the season opener as one of the key favorites to contend for victory.
A pair of multi-time champions finished outside last year’s top ten but should not be overlooked this season as they adapt to new surroundings. Former GNC champ Jake Johnson (No. 5 Estenson Racing Yamaha FZ-07) moves to the powerful Estenson Racing outfit for this season and happens to be one of the more skilled TT combatants in the paddock. Johnson logged a podium in last year’s Buffalo Chip TT, was en route to do the same at the Peoria TT before encountering mechanical problems, and ended up fourth in the Daytona TT.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s former teammate, Kenny Coolbeth (No. 2 Nila Racing, Columbia Avionic Indian Scout FTR750), is looking to re-establish himself as a regular at the front of the pack. Already a legend in the sport, Coolbeth is among the racers trying his hand aboard a private Scout FTR750 in ’18 with an eye on displacing the factory Indian Wrecking Crew.
And keep an eye out for the wild cards. While neither JD Beach (No. 95 G&G Racing/Rickdiculous Racing/Team95 Yamaha FZ-07) nor Johnny Lewis (No. 10 Richie Morris Racing Kawasaki Ninja 650) will be logging a full AFT Twins season, they merit careful attention whenever they make an appearance. Both are supremely talented and versatile riders who can run up front whenever they throw a leg over a motorcycle, no matter the variables.
Multi-time national road racing champion Beach owns several AFT Singles victories and finished third in last year’s AFT Twins finale. His combo skill set makes him especially dangerous on TT courses. The same can be said of former Daytona Short Track winner Lewis, whose extensive Supermoto background is directly applicable to TTs.
Finally, there are a couple of notable class rookies graduating from AFT Singles competition in 2018: Parker Norris (No. 122 Roy Webber/Digitrace Kawasaki Ninja 650), who won last year’s undercard race at the Lima Half-Mile, and Wyatt Anderson (No. 120 Waters Autobody Racing, D&D Powersports Yamaha FZ-07), who was the best qualifier, lap leader, and race runner-up in AFT Singles competition at the 2017 Daytona TT.
A stacked AFT Singles field returns to square off in 2018. That field includes not only the defending series champion, but eight different race winners who combined to account for 13 of 18 victories. Far from a top-heavy entry list, the Singles class boasts remarkable depth; consider that eight wins last year came from riders who finished outside the championship top five.
Kolby Carlile (No. 1 Estenson Racing Yamaha YZ450F) carries the #1 plate into the opener, but even he’d admit he’s got some unfinished business to accomplish. Carlile won the championship in ’17 thanks to incredible adaptability, consistency, and versatility. He was a frontrunner no matter the venue and of particularly fleet form at the TT tracks. That said, none of his 13 top-fives or eight podium results resulted in a race victory. Carlile has been chomping at the bit all offseason to get another swing at a win. If he can just get that out of the way in Daytona, that could set the stage for a string of victories and a powerful title defense.
Brandon Price (No. 92 Parkinson Brothers Racing/DPC Racing Honda CRF450R) will look to go one better than last year’s runner-up title result. Price scored a pair of wins among his five victories, despite swapping bikes midseason.
Third-ranked Shayna Texter (No. 52 ST52 Husqvarna FC 450) had a feast-or-famine 2017. No one could compare to her five victories, and she was the category’s elite racer on oval tracks. However, her struggles at TT tracks ultimately cost her the title, as she fell 27 points short of Carlile, picking up zero points at the four TTs. She’s shaking up her effort in 2018, launching her own program on Husqvarna equipment.
Fourth-ranked Ben Lowe (No. 20 Bruce Lowe Excavating Kawasaki KX450F) and fifth-ranked Kevin Stollings (No. 99 Roof Systems Honda CRF450R) also return. Lowe was steady and solid, while Stollings was more mercurial but lightning quick. Both have the potential to do even better in 2018.
TT experts Jesse Janisch (No. 132 Roof Systems/West Bend Harley-Davidson-backed Yamaha YZ450F) and Dan Bromley (No. 62 Big Momma & Daddy Deep Pockets Racing KTM 450 SX-F) should be solidly in the mix Thursday night. Janisch dominated last year’s Peoria TT, finished second at the Springfield TT, took third at the Buffalo Chip, and ended up fourth at the Daytona TT. Meanwhile, Bromley took 10th in the AFT Singles title fight despite running a limited program. He’s a frontrunner whenever he turns up. Last year, he was victorious at the Springfield TT and finished no lower than sixth in any race in which he took the checkered flag.
Of course, history tells us to keep an eye out for guest riders at TTs—particularly visiting roadrace stars. Last season, Hayden Gillim proved utterly dominant in his two TT appearances. While Gillim won’t be racing the Daytona TT, that role of spoiler could be played by the likes of MotoAmerica Superbike star Jake Lewis (No. 185 Team M4 Suzuki RMZ 450), British Supersport ace James Rispoli (No. 143 RMR/Al Lamb’s Dallas Honda CRF450R), or any of several other one-off contenders.
American Flat Track will kick off its highly-anticipated 2018 season with the Bigger, Better, and Faster Harley-Davidson TT presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys at Daytona under the lights inside the fabled trioval at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday, March 15, 2018. Tickets start at just $30 and are available for purchase now at DaytonaInternationalSpeedway.com or by calling 800.PITSHOP.