American Flat Track rider Jeffrey Carver Jr. discusses his early racing days, his unique approach to racing, his mental wrestling match with fear, and his goals for 2020
Words by Joy Burgess
Photos by Evan H. Senn, Tom Stein, Scott Hunter/AFT
Red lights flashed around the dirt track as emergency medical crews scrambled to attend an injured rider, while mechanics rushed to supply riders with water and fresh tearoffs. Amidst the chaos, Jeffrey Carver Jr. sat alone in the middle of the track, lost in thought awaiting the restart of the race. American Flat Track announcer Scottie Deubler called it the “shot of the race,” although to my knowledge no one actually captured that moment. But that scene from the 2019 season will always stand out to me, a stark example of how different Carver is from everyone else in the paddock.
They call him ‘The Wizard,’ a nod to his skill and that extra bit of magic we’ve seen appear like when he pulled off the incredible win at the Springfield Mile I in 2018, finishing ahead of Jared Mees by a full 0.810 second. One of the best privateer riders in the field, he’s proven repeatedly that he can ride upfront with the best factory racers … and even beat them.
But what really sets Carver Jr. apart is his unique mental approach to flat track racing, a sport that involves racing at speeds of over 100 mph around a dirt oval. There’s no room for mistakes; injury and death are always a possibility when riders throw a leg over their bikes, and split-second decisions mean the difference between success and failure. Often called the “most analytical rider” in the paddock, it’s his mental wizardry and creative approach to racing that makes him something special.
It’s not unusual to see Carver crouched down in the dirt, looking down the track with deep focus etched across his face. He’s been known to ride his bicycle around the track, getting the feel of the track and searching for lines that may crop up during the race. He often walks the track, analyzing the dirt, and spends time jotting down impressions in his notebook. You might even see him with his eyes closed, deep in his head preparing himself for the mental chess match that’s such a critical part of being a serious contender in flat track.
When the lights flash yellow and then green on the track, and his body language conveys how much he wants to win as he hits the throttle, what is Jeffrey Carver Jr. thinking? I caught up with Jeffrey several times throughout the 2019 season, and again after the season ended, to find out.
So, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get started in flat track racing?
Well, my grandpa raced motorcycles, and his number was always 23. Later, my dad started racing, too. When I came around, I was at the track as a little kid and watched my dad race. When I was three, I got into trouble riding my tricycle down the slide at preschool, and I think that may have been when my parents knew I was going to grow up to do something crazy. Rode a bike at age three, and by age four I was riding a JR50.
As a kid, I’d come home from school and write down gibberish on my homework to make my parents think I’d finished so I could go riding. I started racing motocross at age five, but injuries made me change my focus to flat track. I started riding local TT races at age 12, and I just started chasing it. I won my first amateur national race at the Springfield TT. With just six months on flat track tires, I was winning, and that’s when my parents knew that I had something different.
Getting your start in motocross, do you feel that helped prepare you for flat track, particularly since you’ve done really well on TT tracks?
Yes, for sure. And in the last seven years or so I’ve been back to riding a lot of motocross. Motocross allows me to get back to a sport I love and grew up with, and it lets me work on other areas, training my brain and working on muscle memory. I use it as one of my base cross training tools.
They call you ‘The Wizard,’ and I’m so curious about that nickname.
It’s funny; my buddy ‘Slo and I came up with it together sitting around a campfire in Kansas one night. Just sorta happened, but it resonates with me. At first, I wasn’t sure about the nickname. It seemed a little rowdy or different, but yet, it totally describes me. I’m calm at the track. I’m known for riding different lines than others do and finding things other riders don’t see. Sometimes I ride off all day and then pull something together for the main event. Plus, I’m a mystic, spiritual activist and hippie at heart. It’s an interesting, mystical way to describe me, and people who know me just get it.
The beginning of the 2019 season was a bit up and down for you. Was that getting into your head?
Going into Springfield, I was really just down in the dumps after racing out west. It seemed like all the effort I put in just wasn’t working. Then I hurt my wrist and was riding injured at the Red Mile in Kentucky. After that, something just kinda clicked in my head. I didn’t want to look back and see that I didn’t put in 100%, so I started to turn my thinking around. After Kentucky, I had two weeks off and I went to work, riding nearly every day before going to Lima. Always riding — that’s what makes me feel comfortable, ever since I was a little kid. I focused on living simply, playing guitar, riding my bicycle, and spending time on the bike.
Speaking of that race at Lima … that was insane! In fact, some called that race the best Twins Main Event they’d ever seen. The battling between you and Jared was crazy to watch. Tell me what makes Lima so different and how you were feeling that night.
For people who don’t know what a pea gravel track is, it’s like a finely ground rock driveway. There are rocks on that track the size of golf balls. You come home with bruises on your chest, arms, and knuckles. The track is 60- to 80-feet wide, and with that type of surface it’s possible to ride anywhere on the race track. Funny story; I actually had a fan come up to me after the race and tell me that I punctured an unopened beer can in someone’s hand with a piece of rock when I raced by. That tells you how fast rocks are flying and how sharp they are.
That night, wow, I showed some authority in my heat race. And whenever I get into that mindset, when I can take charge of things and get full commitment out of myself, it goes really great. After the restart in the main event, I went after it, going to town on Jared (Mees) and working on him a bit, trying to cut across his line and steal his momentum. Ultimately, I took second that night, but I was really happy with the way it all went down.
People often call you the most analytical rider in the paddock. What makes your riding style and approach to racing flat track so different?
I really don’t know (laughs). That side just comes natural to me. I haven’t really been one to fit in with everyone at the races. A lot of racers, their entire life is wrapped up in racing. When I’m off the track, I’m chill; I’m relaxing in street clothes. I enjoy a slow, subtle, calm life. I guess that almost contradicts itself. I’ve been riding since I was four years old, so I’ve always been a racer, but I’ve always been different.
I guess I have a different mind of things. I feel like life’s a spiritual journey, and the motorcycle racing allows me to enjoy adventure, grow and show people that they don’t have to change who they are to achieve their dreams. I get the chance to strengthen my own mindset and work on things on my own, and I guess that’s not the standard approach.
I’m curious. Why do you love flat track so much? What’s driving you as you compete in this sport?
My love for flat track comes from the simplicity of it. Yet you never stop learning in flat track. I’ve been riding dirt track since the age of 12, I’m 28 now, and you just never stop learning. In motocross, racers usually peak in their early 20s. But in dirt track, you see riders peak in their late 20s and 30s when the full understanding comes around in this chess game. That’s what kinda drives me and keeps pulling me forward. The simplicity of it, and yet the depth of it — that contrast — is what keeps me coming back.
I have to ask you about the end of the season, track conditions and what happened at the Meadowlands Mile.
At the Meadowlands Mile, the riders protested to not race that main event for money or points, and that hasn’t happened since the mid-‘90s. We’d seen how things had gone all day on the track, and then the crash happened involving Oliver Brindley, and we didn’t feel right about the whole ordeal. It really put a damper on the end of the season, reminding us what the risks are.
However, the people managing air fences and rider safety, that’s all they think about. They’re always working towards bettering rider safety for us. Everyone involved is working to keep people safe and alive, and sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason to the injuries that happen. When we put on our helmets and roll out, we all understand the risk.
So many injuries have happened, particularly at the end of the season. How does the fear of injury affect you when you race? Or does it?
It does affect you. It becomes a battle to decide whether to push or preserve yourself. After the big crashes at the Minnesota Mile, I got the holeshot and was up by the air fence. But when Briar Bauman, Bryan Smith and I were all going at it, I found I mentally couldn’t allow myself to get up by the air fence again. I had just seen seven of my good friends hit the ground that day, so it was a mental block to how hard I pushed. Sometimes I’ve been known as a rider who takes a step back, but it depends on how much you’re willing to risk. How far are you willing to push it? And that’s a very fine line in this sport.
There have been times I’ve been at the track and almost wondered whose card was going to get called next, and that’s a terrible place to be in. I want to be all in, but sometimes these things leave me feeling like pulling my cards.
Do you feel you must get beyond that mental block to win a championship?
There is that mental block sometimes, but no, I don’t think I have to go beyond it to win a championship. If you put yourself in proper contention and you work really hard, you find ways to get beyond that and make things happen. Win races and the championship will come.
Knowing the risk, why do you keep coming back even during those dark moments?
It’s an addiction really. I almost don’t have a say in the matter because racing is so deeply ingrained in me. I get that adrenaline rush. When I’m on the motorcycle, I’m free to do what I want. So that freedom and addiction keep me around.
I know the end of the season was heavy, and you had to get away and spend some time clearing your head. But what are your goals for 2020?
I feel like next year can be my year! The experience I have, the drive, the help I have around me, the knowledge and my mechanics – everything is coming together. I’ve failed so many times, and you have to go through difficulties to see how to do it right. I’ve gone through a lot of tough times on the track, and 2020 is going to be my best year.
The thing about being ‘The Wizard’ is that I have a mindset that’s unique. I have simple goals. I want to be happy. I want to know that I’m putting in 100% and not just 80% when I race. Everyone has seen my potential here and there for years, but I feel like things are coming together to be able to show my full potential next year, and we’re going to see where it takes us. The sport is dangerous, but I’m ready to go all in.