It’s a week after the Meadowlands Mile and I’m still on a high. Even though this was just one of many races I attended this season, the day was quite special, and for several reasons.
I’ve been a racing fan for decades, initiated by my then-boyfriend’s fascination with, and prowess at, dirt track racing, competing in the hobby class with his hopped-up pink-and-white ’56 Chevy. In the years since, I’ve gone to drag races, flat track, motocross, hillclimbs, road racing, funny car exhibitions, demolition derbies—you name it. If there’s any combination of speed, excitement, and danger, I’m there.
Until recently, drag racing was a lot more prevalent, and popular, than flat track among my circle of friends. Although flat-track racing is considered America’s original extreme sport, it seems to have lost its luster by the ’80s when motocross and supercross became big. But a few years ago, non-sanctioned grassroots flat-track racing came into vogue in a rather public fashion. Social media helped, and, of course, the fun factor… and anybody could participate. You didn’t need factory backing or big-name sponsorships. Ingenuity, drive and determination, along with the help of your racing and wrenching buddies, went a long way toward Sunday fun days. Roland Sands Design got into the game early with Hooligan racing, and many flat track races, such as Flat Out Friday, War of the Twins, and Bradford Beach Brawl, were founded to complement already-existing events.
In 2015, Nascar’s Jim France of the prominent France family that operates more than half of the Nascar tracks in the country hired Michael Lock to overhaul AMA Pro Racing. The next year, the American Motorcyclist Association announced the rebranding and renamed the racing body to American Flat Track, with now-CEO Lock at the helm. Cameron Crowe, the COO of AFT, promised to also bring extreme entertainment to the crowds. In his own words, “Come for the party, stay for the race.”
One of the goals was to improve the fan experience, and that’s exactly what AFT did, starting with the premiere race during Daytona Bike Week 2017 where Lock took a cue from Nascar fan zones and other features found at racing venues. At Daytona International Speedway, the layout was such that we could wander in and out of the pits at will, chat with pit crew and racers, and enjoy other activities going on before and during the racing action. And after 60-some years, the Harley vs. Indian wars were back! Harley-Davidson was still racing its XR750 but for 2017 introduced the XG750R, based on the H-D Street 750, while Indian took the opposite tack with the purpose-built competition-only Scout FTR750 which is the inspiration for the FTR 1200 and 1200 S for the street.
Upping the ante with spectator participation proved to be a genius move on Lock’s part, as did the broadcast deal with NBC Sports that resulted in top ratings for NBCSN viewership, and a continuation of live-stream viewing on FansChoice.tv. The overhaul and simplification of the rules and class structures were a real boon as well. All of a sudden, flat tracking racing exploded out of the background and into the mainstream with coverage from publishing giants such as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Popular Mechanics, and Car and Driver. Motorcycle aftermarket companies got interested, with major sponsorships forthcoming from S&S, Vance & Hines, and more. Apparel and other AFT-branded merchandise appeared at racing venues. And fans started flocking to flat-track racing venues in droves.
The 2018 racing scheduled comprised 18 rounds, the same number as 2017, but with the substitution of several racing venues. Much to the delight of New York and New Jersey race fans, the final round of the 2018 season would be held at Meadowlands Racetrack, known in the horse-racing world as the Big M. The track is just across the Hudson River from New York City, and only 30 miles from my home.
Joe DeMase, a fellow member of one of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America chapters I belong to, Bear Mountain AMCA, put together a package for us. He rented a bus (don’t laugh—we knew there would be drinking involved and if you’re ever been to an event at the Meadowlands, you know that traffic can be a cold-hearted bitch), and got us reserved seats in the grandstand right near the starting line.
We arrived around 2:30 p.m. when the gates were opened for fans. Practice for Twins started an hour after that, and Singles were close behind. In between all the action, fans could visit the displays set up, listen to live music, buy AFT merchandise, get a raffle ticket from the Rookie Class of ’79 nonprofit for a 2018 Indian Bobber to raise funds for injured AMA Pro Flat Track racers and their families, sate our hunger with food trucks that provided more variety than the usual racetrack fare, and quench our thirst at the outdoor bar. A few local Indian and Harley dealers were present, one with a small exhibit of vintage bikes. Indian brought out the newly-revealed FTR 1200S which proved to be quite popular for photos, questions, and seat testing.
Between the two sets of qualifiers and the Singles and Twins Mains, the paddocks were opened so fans could visit the pits, watch the magic that happens to get bikes back on the track, and meet the racers who happily autographed posters and posed for photos. While I was shooting, Indian factory rider Bryan Smith offered me his autograph. Although I’m generally not an autograph collector, how could I say no?
To everyone’s delight (except maybe her competitors), the Singles Main was won by the amazing go-fast gal Shayna Texter. And then, 2016 Grand National Champion and 2015 X-Games Gold Medalist Bryan Smith on his FTR750 took the Twins Main! Talk about the connection between rider and fan… I was pretty happy about this. His was the only autograph I got that night, and now I’ve rather embarrassingly turned into a fangirl.
Just as Harley-Davidson has begun to switch the mindset of the company from building motorcycles to building riders, Michael Lock has spearheaded the charge to get more fans into seats (and screens) by creating connections between fans and racers. And AFT races are more inclusive and family-friendly than ever before.
The past two years have seen dramatic increases in AFT ticket sales as well as television and online viewership. And now I’ve learned that one of the rounds for 2019 will be held in New Hampshire, during Laconia Motorcycle Week. It’ll be great to see flat track return to the rally, and interesting to see what kind of a draw that June 15 race will bring. It’s obvious that AFT is on the right track.