The Champ Strikes Back! — AFT Mid-Season Review

After a slow start, reigning champ Jared Mees has nearly caught early AFT Twins points leader and teammate Briar Bauman … but Bryan Smith is lurking, and could easily play Spoiler

Words by Chris Carr

Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Scott Hunter/AFT

I’ve seen and been involved in a lot of National-class dirt track races over the years. But the Lima Half-Mile at central Ohio’s Allen County Fairgrounds on the evening of June 29 – round nine of the 2019 American Flat Track championship series – was easily one of the best dirt track races I’d ever watched.

After I caught my breath after the absolutely knock-down-drag-out battle on FansChoice.tv, a race with handfuls of lead changes and plenty of goosebump-inducing drama, I said to my wife Pam, “We just watched what may go down as the best Half-Mile race in history!”

I also realized that we now had an AFT Twins championship chase on our hands.

Prior to Lima, Briar Bauman had built up what looked like a pretty good points lead for himself, with seven podiums in seven straight races (with the May Springfield Mile and the Sacramento Mile having been postponed to August due to weather). Defending champ Jared Mees had encountered some trouble at Daytona and Laconia and was 40-some points back.

At the Red Mile, Bryan Smith (right) grabbed his first podium of 2019 and proved to Mees (center) and Bauman he’ll be a factor on the Miles.

But with Mees’s dramatic win at Lima, combined with Bauman’s freaky mechanical (more about that in a bit), things in the championship points chase have changed dramatically.

Going into the season, the 2019 AFT Twins Championship was being billed as Jared Mees (5-time Grand National and 2-time defending Champion) vs. Bryan Smith shootout. Mees would be back on factory Indians, while Smith had returned to the Crosley Radio/Ricky Howerton team with which he’d won his first Grand National Championship in 2016. It was to be an epic rematch of the pre-AFT era, in which Smith fended off a challenge from Mees on the final lap of the Santa Rosa Mile to win his first Championship.

But like Mees, Smith had some hiccups early in the season, and Bauman had continued right where he left off in 2018 – ungodly fast and hungry for his first GNC title.

So here’s a recap of the season thus far. As press time we’re through rounds 8 of 18. The season kicked off with a hybrid TT at Daytona International Speedway, with a quarter-mile-long stretch of asphalt tri-oval over the start/finish stripe tossed in for kicks. Briar Bauman dominated the race over Henry Wiles, while Mees and Smith dropped out with mechanicals.

After a lackluster 2019 start, the Crosley/Howerton/Smith effort retooled and found some speed in Kentucky. Team Harley-Davidson’s Jarod Vanderkooi (20) and Sammy Halbert have found some, too, which bodes well for their chances in the second half of the season.

Ten days later on the smooth yet slick red Georgia clay of Dixie Speedway just North of Atlanta, Brandon Robinson on the Kennedy Racing privateer Indian used a dramatic outside pass on Jared Mees late in the race to score his first win since Lima 2016 on a Kennedy Racing privateer XR750. Bauman was third and maintained his point lead. Smith was a surprising ninth.

Easter weekend on the fast and unforgiving black gumbo of Texas Motor Speedway, Jared Mees out-raced Briar Bauman to score his first win of 2019. This was the first time this season where Bauman and Mees squared off head-to-head. Smith and the Howerton Kawasaki failed to make the main event and declared they were going back to the drawing board to prepare for the upcoming Mile tracks, skipping the next 2 races.

It’s been primarily a Bauman (14) and Mees (1) show this year. Mees got within striking distance of BB14 with his win at Lima, but a seventh at Weedsport dropped him 26 points back again.

A new venue, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside of Phoenix, played host to the Arizona Super TT. Typically hosting the Lucas Oil Off Road Series for trucks and UTVs, this track offered multiple elevation changes and two high-speed jumps. Bauman dominated the event until his over-cooked rear tire and a late-race charge by Estensen Racing Yamaha’s J.D. Beach moved him to the runner-up slot. This was Estensen Racing’s first AFT Twins win, in their hometown no less, the first Twins win by a Yamaha’s relatively new MT-07, and the first by a Yamaha-mounted rider since Scott Pearson won the Peoria TT in 1981. Mees was a distant third.

AFT returned to Southern California’s Perris Auto Speedway for the SoCal Half Mile, where Brandon Robinson scored his second win of the year. Uncharacteristic of Bauman and Mees, early-event struggles saw both riders starting from the second and third rows, respectively. Early in the Main, Robinson held off a resurgent Factory Harley-Davidson XG750 Revolution X-mounted Sammy Halbert. A mid-race red flag (for downed rider Henry Wiles) and staggered restart enabled Bauman and Mees to snag a bunch of track position and finishes of second and fifth, respectively. The restart cost Halbert the most, dropping him back to seventh early on, yet he fought back valiantly to give the H-D/Vance & Hines squad its best finish (3rd) on an oval since the XR750 days.

Spring rains forced postponement of the Sacramento and Springfield Miles until later this summer. More on that shortly.

Like Smith, Jeffrey Carver Jr. (23) has found mid-season speed, with runner-up finishes at the Lima Half-Mile and Weedsport Short Track. He’s currently sixth in the championship.

The first Mile of the year came at the Red Mile in Lexington, Kentucky on the first of June. But the much-anticipated clash between Mees’s Indian and Smith’s semi-redesigned Howerton/Crosley Kawasaki didn’t really materialize. Smith and company had been vocal about their increased focus and the team’s return to the Mile tracks, and even hinted at picking up where they left off at the end of 2016. The big difference in 2019, however, is that Mees wasn’t riding an XR750, which became obvious halfway down the back stretch on lap one of 25 when Mees blew by Smith like Smith did to Mees while aboard a privateer XR750 back in 2016. “Chained to the ground,” is how one pundit described it to me. In the end, Mees held off a late-race charge by Bauman to take the win, with Smith a few clicks back in third, his best finish of the year so far.

From the mile-long red clay of Lexington, the AFT regulars headed to the shortest track of the year, a recently built go-cart track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Taking place during the annual Laconia Motorcycle Week, this event turned into a sandpit in a hurry and was widely considered the roughest flat track seen in years. But what the track lacked in smoothness it certainly made up for in race drama generation. Younger brother of Briar – and Indian Factory teammate – Bronson Bauman (22) held tough through red flag restarts on the rough and tumble quarter-mile oval, fending off repeated challenges from older brother Briar. It seemed Bronson was destined to win his first National at the first race at this new venue, as every time he was passed for the lead a red flag would come out for a downed rider elsewhere on the track. For the most part, the race was a follow-the-leader, survival-of-the-smoothest affair. Following Bronson across the line was older brother Briar and Estenson Racing Yamaha’s Jake Johnson.

And the drama? In separate incidents, and during both red flags while setting the grid for a restart, Team Harley-Davidson’s Sammy Halbert and Factory Indian’s Jared Mees each stalled their motorcycles just before the start and ended up watching from the infield. With Bauman finishing second, Mees took a huge hit in the points. Smith finished fourth on his Kawasaki.

Heading into round eight at the Allen County Fairgrounds in Lima, Ohio, Briar Bauman and his seven-straight podiums (one win, five seconds and one third) in seven rounds appeared to be in a position to upset the Jared Mees championship freight train. With a 34- and 35-point lead over Robinson and Mees (who was also the Lima race promoter), Bauman – who was returning to a track at which he won his first AFT Twins national (in 2017) – looked poised to extend his points lead after finishing second at five consecutive races. Ho hum.

But what we witnessed instead was a race with more twists and turns, lead changes and downright quality racing in 25 laps than the previous seven races – or 175 laps – combined. The day started with Roof Systems of Dallas/Indian-mounted rookie Brandon Price as fast qualifier. Price would go on the finish third in his semi and a very respectable fourth in the Main. Brandon Robinson (second in points coming into Lima) suffered a mechanical in his Semi, and since he’d used his only Provisional start in New Hampshire, he goose-egged in the points column at Lima.

Semi number one was a Briar Bauman runaway, with Johnson and Price second and third. Semi number two was much closer, with Roof System of Dallas’ Jeffrey Carver Jr. and Mees trading places at the front and Henry Wiles not far behind in third. A Lima 25-lap Main Event typically features a runaway by a dominant rider; in 2018 it was Mees, Carver, Wiles and Bauman first through fourth, with Carver challenging Mees late but unable to mount a serious attack. This year’s version, with the same four protagonists, was a Half-Mile race for the ages.

Bauman led the field down the backstretch on lap one, with Mees charging by going into turn three. These two would go back and forth, stretching their lead over Johnson until a red flag came out for Twins rookie Justin Jones, who went down in turn three. Carver and Wiles took full advantage of the restart and jumped into the fray with Mees and Bauman.

Mees controlled the race from the front, and every time Bauman would pass, Mees would pass him right back. Until lap 15, that is, when what I’d describe as a first happened to Bauman when the rear Dunlop on his Indian literally came off the rim. Apparently, Bauman spun the tube on the restart, raced the tire until it was flat, with a rut finally dismounting the tire from the rim.

With Bauman out, the Carver/Wiles battle inched closer to the rear tire of Mees. Each took turns in second as they pressured Mees at the front. The last five laps were every bit as exciting as the first five as Carver and Mees passed and repassed each other repeatedly. The five-time champ dug deep on lap 25 and was able to hold off Carver, with Wiles right there in third. Officially, Mees led at the stripe for 22 of the 25 laps, with Bauman leading three before dropping out. That stat is hugely misleading, however, as these determined riders swapped positions more times than I could count. Wow!

My, how the fate of championships can turn. Bauman, who’s been as consistent as Mees has been during his championship-winning years, has bad luck and DNFs. Mees gets his third win of the year after two previous DNFs, with his old 35-point deficit now slashed to just 13. Mees has proven his ability to win, and win often. Bauman is still learning how to race.

Despite not making the Main at all three of the TTs so far this year, Shayna Texter has two wins (Texas and Lima Half-Miles) and lies sixth in the AFT Singles championship. Dalton Gauthier currently leads that series with two wins and six podiums.

The AFT series has a slow month of July, with only the New York Short Track in Weedsport scheduled for July 13. After that, AFT resumes with four races in 13 days in three different time zones. First up are the Buffalo Chip TT (August 4) and Rapid City Half-Mile (August 6) during the Sturgis Rally. Four days later AFT heads west for the rescheduled Sacramento Mile on August 10. One week later AFT returns to the newest version (a redesigned jump) of the legendary Peoria TT – a race and racetrack I’m pretty familiar with. After a deep breath, AFT returns with a mammoth double-header at the Springfield Mile on August 31/September 1. The last three events of the AFT season take place in Mechanicsburg, PA (Williams Grove Half-Mile on 9/7), Minneapolis, MN (Minnesota Mile on 9/14), and East Rutherford, NJ (Meadowlands Mile on 9/28).

So it appears we have a two-horse race on our hands at roughly the halfway point in the season. The younger – and at times faster – Briar Bauman has proven to be a threat at any type of track, every week. Mees, a five-time champ already, is still hungry for a good scrap, as we saw in Lima. But their fates may not be determined by who beats who each and every race between now and the end of the season.

This year’s championship might just be determined by a third rider in the mix, and one that’s no longer a threat to win the championship. Yep, with five of the last seven races on Miles, the fate of Briar Bauman and Jared Mees just may be determined by Bryan Smith.

Team Harley-Davidson, with riders Jarod Vanderkooi (20) and Sammy Halbert (69) on production-based XG750Rs, has inched closer to rival Indian and its all-conquering, race-spec FTR750, though the squad is still looking for its first win with the now-three-year-old machine.

Of the 10 remaining rounds, Smith has won at six of them, including all five Mile tracks. Mees has won at four remaining venues, but with less regularity. Bauman has won at two remaining tracks, but his chances of winning races have improved immensely over the last 12 months. If not for his misfortune at Lima, Bauman appeared to be in a great position to derail the Mees freight train of the last two years.

Mees, originally from Pennsylvania and residing in Smith’s home state of Michigan, has put a wrinkle in who the Michigan Mafia roots for. They are rivals, bitter at times, for the affection of the loyal Michigan flat track fans. Smith’s position as a potential spoiler to another Mees victory party may be just enough motivation for he and the Howerton/Crosley Team to finish their season stronger than they started.

And given how tough a competitor Mees is, Briar Bauman just may need Smith’s help in derailing that Mees train.

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