In a legends vs. AFT stars pay-per-view special on Bultaco Astros, yours truly lets his inner racer awaken
Words by Chris Carr
Photos by Willy Browning, Rob Fox and Bill Gutweiler
On May 6, which happens to be my birthday, I had a visitor and got a phone call. The two things gelled nicely and ended up becoming a pretty neat deal called the FlatTrack FITE Klub, which went down on June 9 in a pay-per-view online special. Covid-19 has changed things, for sure, and the FITE Klub was certainly something different.
My visitor was Chris Hawkins of Hawkins Brothers Racing. Hawkins was in town and asked me to ride over to southern New Jersey with him to deliver a Bultaco Astro to a buyer. I’ve ridden Chris’ Bultacos on several occasions since retiring from professional racing, and figured I’d at least get to see what the world looked like from the safety of a vehicle.
Prior to heading out I got a call from Terry Rymer, former GM of Black Hills Harley-Davidson, who had an idea for a special event and laid out the concept for Flattrack FITE Klub: Four Legends from the past vs. four current stars, with one-on-one match races, best two out of three wins, all leading to a final one-on-one, best-two-out-of-three match at the very end. It’d be a best-of-legends vs. best-of-today sort of thing on Bultaco Astro 360s with an AMA Rookies Class of ’79 charity component, live on pay per view. I was sold!
Terry’s next call was to Chris Hawkins, who was sitting in my kitchen, and on the drive to Jersey Chris was able to secure commitments from others with Bultacos to share, namely Major Green Racing and Campbell Racing, both from Louisiana, and Estenson Racing of AFT fame. We had eight Astros and four spare bikes secured before we had to put our masks on when arriving at our destination.
The two-day event kicked off on Monday night, June 8, with a live fireside chat on the www.FITE.TV live-stream platform. Around the campfire and emceed by Rob Buydos, longtime host of Lemans Corp. dealer shows, was none other than nine-time Grand National Champ Scotty Parker, three-time champ Jay ‘Springer’ Springsteen, 2000 Grand National Champ Joe Kopp and seven-time Grand National Champ yours truly. We were there to tell stories and talk trash to the youngsters, led by five-time Champ Jared Mees, 2016 Champ Bryan Smith, 2009 Unofficial Champ Sammy Halbert, and arguably the best all-around racer of this generation, Ryan Sipes.
The youngsters had difficulty getting a word in during this portion of the event, as the legends, especially Parker and Springer, appeared to be in the best ‘shape’ for this type of competition. Parker and Springsteen lapped the field with laughter while Kopp and I did our best to keep up. The youngsters were mostly left-slack jawed by the crap rolling off the veterans’ tongues.
The fireside festivities concluded with a blind draw for the Bultacos we’d ride the following night. The draw was oldest to youngest, with Springer (63) and Parker (58) drawing bikes from Campbell Racing. The pair would be teammates again for the first time in 35 years. I (53) went next followed by Kopp (51), as we both drew bikes from Hawkins Brothers Racing and became teammates for the first time. Smith (37) was next and drew from Major Green Racing followed by Sipes (35) and Mees (34), who would represent Estenson Racing. Halbert rounded out the draw and joined Smith on the other Major Green Racing mount.
Race day was met with warm, coronavirus-killing temperatures in the 90s. Race-time (8:30 pm ET) temps were in the upper 80s with no breeze, not ideal for ’70s-era air-cooled two strokes. The venue the Western Reserve Motorcycle Club in rural eastern Ohio, established in 1957. Their 50 active members provided us with a pristine, quarter-mile oval that proved perfect for the Bultacos.
Mees clocked the fastest times in practice, as all eight riders had a one-hour open session to sort themselves and the bikes. It took me a while to find the right gearing as I improved with each session. I knew my opening match with Parker would be tough, so I balanced my need to get the bike where it needed to be while conserving my personal energy throughout practice.
Each round was a best two out of three. The laps for each race (3) would increase by one for each round. Semi Finals would be four laps per race, and the Final would be five laps each.
In the opening match of the night I found myself squaring off with Mr. Nine-Time himself. So much for a warm-up! Beforehand, I was thinking this: “I have finished second to this guy more than anybody in my career, and in points, too. I can’t let it happen again!”
Off the start, Parker led the majority of the first lap, and when I squared him up off turn four he missed a shift thanks to the finicky Bultaco transmission and I was able to open a comfortable gap and take the win. In race two I got the holeshot, only to drift wide in the first corner. Parker got by down the backstretch and we swapped positions several time before I made a mistake on the last lap. Scotty scored the win and our match was even, 1-1.
Up until this point I was having a blast. Being able to rub elbows with the racers, in the pits but also on the track, was giving me a feeling, a feeling where some of my 53 years were melting away. A competitive desire in my core was stirring and a racing mentality was reinvading my brain…and then came the realization that I wasn’t ready for it to end so soon!
So, lining up for the third and final race against Parker, my rival for most of my career and to this day, my nemesis (in a good way), the guy all of us have been measured against since his retirement in 2000, I sensed a chance to excise some demons from my past defeats at his hands. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
Once again I found myself following Parker off the start, and I could tell immediately our pace was quicker than in previous races. It took a lap for me to size him up and I was able to get a good drive off turn two and down the backstretch. On the last lap I focused as hard as I could to hold off Mr. Nine Time, and was able to move to the next round! Whew!
My semifinal opponent was my next nemesis during my racing career, Joe Kopp, who’d faced crowd-favorite Springsteen in his match. Like me and Parker they went the distance, with Kopp winning a close one in the third race.
Having Kopp as a teammate and then as an opponent was weird. Through practice we compared notes on gearing and such and were genuinely enjoying the experience. But as we were strapping our helmets on I sensed Kopp was thinking the same thing I was…to send the other guy packing in two straight, if possible. I have nothing but respect for Kopp; he was a great racer, is a great family man, and he’s mentoring his youngest son Kody into AFT later this year. I just don’t like getting beat by him. The first race of our match, he did just that.
Always good off the line, Kopp got the holeshot. No matter what I did, I couldn’t find a way by him. So while the other semifinal was running, I ran our race back in my head and realized I needed to adjust my lines. Our bikes were equally matched, coming from the same stable, so I had to figure out how to create more momentum through the middle of the corners to create more speed on the straights. I figured I was charging into the corners too hard, and wasting time in the middle of the turns, and that affected my drives off the corners.
So in race two of our match, after taking a couple laps to get my timing down, I was able to get the drive I needed at the end of lap two and grabbed the lead. It was easier to keep my momentum through the corners while leading, and I was able to win this one to even the match.
By this time, with no breeze and temps still in the upper 80s, this old man’s body was feeling the effects of racing inactivity. But my mind wasn’t done yet. I could tell Kopp was in a similar state, so I just focused on doing the same thing over again in race three, which was a carbon copy of race two except that Kopp caught on quicker to my plans. With all the energy I could muster, I was able to hold him off, barely, at the line. I was headed to the Final of the inaugural FlatTrack FITE Klub!
In the Final I was up against none other than Jared Mees, a five-time champion and the current active rider with the most wins on the AFT circuit. He’s been a championship contender for over a decade and would be tough to beat for me at any age. Mees reached the final with a 2-0 rout of Sammy Halbert in the opening round, followed by a 2-1 win over his buddy and former champ Bryan Smith.
Mees and I have a lot of similarities. His current crew chief on the Roger’s Racing Factory Indian is Kenny Tolbert, my crew chief for 23 seasons. Neither of us were (or are) crowd favorites during our careers. While we both stand 5’5”, I’ve got him covered by about 20 years and 20-plus pounds.
Race one (at 5 laps) started with Mees and I swapping the lead back and forth a few times. On lap three I noticed Mees’ shadow coming off of turn two. Then on lap four the shadow was gone. WTF? Am I about to go one up? Turned out that Mees seized the Estenson Racing Bultaco coming to the white flag and I rode the last lap uncontested. Carr,1. Mees, 0.
But I knew this wasn’t over. Mees is nothing if not a tough competitor, and the entire AFT pit would give him grief for the rest of his career, if not his life, if he didn’t find a way to beat my old ass! While the Hawkins Racing Bultacos performed flawlessly for me all night, I, on the other hand, was running out of gas. So while the Estenson team scrambled to ready a new bike for Mees, I asked the ambulance crew to crack open the oxygen tank. I figured I needed all the help I could muster to beat this kid, so I took as many pulls on the old O2 as possible while they got his bike ready.
Race two started similar to the first one, and I pounced as quickly as I could to get in front. But by lap three Mees was able to work his way back by and evened the match at 1-1.
Race three was on track a few minutes later, and as expected, Mees dominated from start to finish. He rode perfectly as he has many times in recent years, and rightfully earned the FlatTrack FITE Klub championship belt. I got a belt, too, for second place, which was really cool. Bryan Smith finished third overall after a one-and-done match race win over Joe Kopp for the bottom step of the podium.
FlatTrack FITE Klub came to fruition on the heels of Moto FITE Klub on May 12. Like the motocross version, FTFK was meant to entertain and raise money for a worthy cause, the AMA Rookies Class of ’79 charity that supports injured flat track racers and families in their time of need. Just four short weeks after the Moto version, the flattrack idea became reality during a time when it was needed most for the flat track community.
While recounting this amazing event for you from a competitive standpoint, it dawned on me how much I needed this! I’m really ready to rip! Let the AFT season begin, and we’ll keep you up to date.
Want to see Carr give Mees a run for his money? You can still watch the FlatTrack FITE Klub racing here: https://bit.ly/2TKwhOj