One does not have to be the loneliest number.
Bryan Smith took the number one plate in the 2016 AMA Pro Flat Track (now American Flat Track) championship, and he had company– in the form of Jared Mees, who came within a whisker of snatching the title away (which would have been his 5th). Now, in 2017 Smith finds himself on a factory ride with Indian Motorcycles’ “Wrecking Crew,” with his main rival Mees as his teammate.
The Indian team is completed with the presence of Brad “The Bullet” Baker, along with throngs of fans and journalists aching to get a few minutes of Bryan’s time. We were lucky enough to get some time with Bryan right before last week’s race, the Law Tigers Arizona Mile presented by Indian Motorcycle, where he won in dramatic fashion after just sneaking by Brad Baker on the last lap. We asked Smith about the difficulties of staying fit while on the road, the new format this year, and what it takes to make MotoGP racer Valentino Rossi’s jaw hit the floor in amazement…
MLAS: “So as far as training […], what kind of stuff do you do now? Obviously riding the [race] bike is expensive training. So what kind of… sports, or do you bicycle, ride motocross? What kind of stuff do you do?”
SMITH: “I do a lot of different stuff. I’m not a diehard cyclist but I cycle quite a bit. I’m not a diehard gym guy but I go quite a bit […]. It’s hard just get into the training routine and say, ‘I’m gonna jog five miles every day’… it gets old. So, I break it up. I’m from Michigan so in the winter it’s kinda hard to cycle, so I have an indoor trainer and I have a rower that I do somewhat religiously in the off-season. In the summer I cycle, along with riding trails and motocross, which– I’m not a very fast motocrosser but it beats the hell out of you so it’s good training. I have a couple gyms that I go to and I work with a trainer that’s a friend of mine.
“But at this point in my career I kinda know what I need and it’s a fair amount of riding, a fair amount of cardio and a little bit of weights. There is something every day that I’m doing that is considered training […]. It’s not really a hobby but, I enjoy it… an hour out of the day to kind of get away from everything for an hour out of every day and do something that translates back to training.”
MLAS: “How hard is it to keep [fitness] up on the road? Do you have a nationwide gym you’re a member of, or…?”
SMITH: “There are two good things. One is, obviously, the cycling. You can take your bike and stick it on the trailer, then, [I do] just a lot of biometric stuff. And that’s another benefit of being a factory rider is now I can fly in and fly out, and really knock the training out between the races. Between Daytona and Atlanta, then Atlanta and Charlotte, I was home all week, so I was able to train and do all the normal stuff that I’d do if I wasn’t on the road.”
MLAS: “One of the things I have a hard time with [as a racer] is eating right on the road. Is there anything for you, like a guilty pleasure? Do you have a Burger King fix you wish you could get rid of?”
SMITH: “No, probably my worst habit, which isn’t even that bad, is Starbucks. Which, that’s not even on the road… [laughs]… it’s at home too. I’m just a coffee drinker, I don’t even get the lattes, or the extra foam, and whipped cream, and all that crap… I’m just a coffee drinker. Not that that’s really bad but it is one pleasure I get on the road. I’m not a real big fast food guy, but you know the one way you’re able to kinda get around that—because that is the hardest thing when you’re on the road race to race, is finding any kind of decent food that isn’t just, gross– so a lot of times when I’m traveling from home I make sure I have food that I’ve made ahead of time for race day.
“But, traveling and eating right, it doesn’t work… at all. It’s tough. That’s the biggest problem for any racer that has to travel, you know– during the week [leading up] to the next race, is eating right.”
Next, we asked Bryan about the new format, where heat races determine qualifying for the semi-finals, which transfers riders to the main:
SMITH: “So far I like it. I’m sure there’s gonna be a day where it bites me in the ass, […] if you don’t get top nine in that semi you’re not going to the final. But what I have liked about it is you can kinda gamble on your set up for the heat race, and know that you’re probably gonna transfer to the semi, so it gives you another practice, another test.”
The Indian FTR750 seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in these early events. Despite this, the bike is still very new and under development. We asked how much more speed would come as Smith gets more comfortable on the bike, and what that might mean for his chance at a second title.
SMITH: “… I’m still getting more comfortable. I’m still getting the bike more dialed in, so there’s still room for improvement actually. I think, unfortunately, as the year goes on, as I get better Mees will probably get better. I wish, obviously, that I can beat him to it, win a bunch of races… which is what we’re trying to do… but his team’s good and he’s a good rider, my team’s good and I’m a good rider… so I see us, through the year, getting more dominant if anything.”
…I hope they surprise everybody, and myself, and have stepped their game up.
Speaking of rivalry, the Indian vs. Harley-Davidson rivalry has so far not materialized, leaving everyone to wonder if the factory Harley team can get enough speed from their new XG750R machines. The Suicide Squad of Jake Johnson, Kenny Coolbeth, and Brandon Robinson have so far struggled to reach the podium, with Jake Johnson’s 4th place in the season opener being the team’s best result. Johson was the only Harley in the main at Arizona, earning a 14th place finish. When asked about Harley’s struggles, Smith had this to say:
SMITH: “I expected them to have growing pains and us as well. You know, we’ve had a couple minor growing pains, but nothing like [Harley] have had. You know, if they catch up this year… I think we’ll know real quick when we get to these bigger tracks. […] They’ve got a lot of good guys on that team– good riders, good mechanics– they should be able to to figure it out. I know if it was my team that we’d figure it out, so I think they can. [Smiling] You know I hope they don’t, because that just makes my job and Mees’ job easier on the Indian and make us look like heroes. […] We’ll find out here at the first or second mile if they’ve done their homework or not.”
We asked Bryan about safety, which has been an area of some concern since the deaths of GNC2 riders Charlotte Kainz and Kyle McGrane in separate incidents at last year’s season finale. Smith was involved in safety talks during the off-season and hopes to see some of the ideas brought forth during that meeting put to use.
SMITH: “Time will tell, when we go to Arizona. The week after winning the  championship in Santa Rosa the AFT guys invited me out, along with some team owners and other racers. There were five of us there and we gave our feedback on what they need to do different, but we really haven’t been to the horse tracks with the split rail or steel rail around the outside, or the dusty and dry conditions. We haven’t really seen that yet, and that will be where we see if they went to school and learned on the safety.
…you can’t even bump it, you’re just getting sucked into it.
“I hope they surprise everybody, and myself, and have stepped their game up. You know, [AFT] stepped the sport up in a lot of other ways: with TV, and race sponsorships, and money and contingency, and I hope the safety goes right along with it. I mean, it only makes sense, to me, and probably everyone else in the world, but until they do it, it’s kind of a big question mark right now.”
When asked about specific improvements he was hoping to see, Smith offered a few hints as to what we may see at upcoming events. We specifically talked about tracks that normally host horse racing, where steel rail lines the outside, as opposed to walls or solid fencing. The turns are lined with hay bales and air fence like any other track, but leading onto the straights, riders are still sliding as they drift up toward the rails:
SMITH: “Obviously you can’t put the air fence out there on the straight-away because, you know, you can’t even bump it, you’re just getting sucked into it. Footpegs are gonna drag it out onto the track and the next guy is gonna hit it… so they can’t do that. What we talked about was them bringing out some sort of hard, safety barrier. […] It’s just like a wall at any other track: the hay bales only go so far but at least you’re going to, maybe brush it. If you do crash, you’re gonna bump off of it as opposed to go through it or around it and everything else bad that can happen with a split rail fence.”
The Arizona Mile happened last weekend, with a racing line that sends riders up to split rail. From the webcast on Fanschoice.tv is appeared a single row of hay bales we lined up to keep riders from hitting the rails, and painted plywood was installed behind that in order to stop riders from going through the split rail if they were to crash. Interestingly, Smith said during our interview before the Arizona Mile, “…even painted plywood would be better than a pole,” when referencing trackside barriers.
Smith stands a good chance of creating some momentum for at least the next part of the season. He is known as a “mile guy,” and with the exception of the Springfield TT, four of the next five races are at mile courses.
This year, however, he and Mees are on equal machinery, and it will be interesting to see if the advantage remains. Mees struggled at the Arizona Mile, but one bad performance does not a trend make… and third place isn’t exactly bad in the grand scheme. Surprisingly, when talking about the mile tracks where Smith does so well, he seemed to have more a reverence for them than a confidence:
SMITH: “It still gives me goosebumps. I mean, I’m in the main event but before that I’ll be watching the qualifying, and it gives me goosebumps watching it, how fast it is. But I’m out there, and yeah, you know everything feels in control when you’re out there, but watching it, it’s just gnarly. […] It’s real narrow and when a guy messes up he’s out of room real quick.”
It still gives me goosebumps…
And it doesn’t sound like Bryan is the only one with this feeling. Even people whose job is to go 220mph every few weeks have a hard time grasping the insanity of seeing a mile race in person:
SMITH: “I still remember Valentino Rossi when he first came to the Indy Mile for the first time back in like ’08. His eyes were just as big as saucers when he went down to a corner and was looking. That’s when I decided that I was pretty cool when I saw him kinda blown away that we’re going right up next to the air fence sideways at 100mph.”
Not bad for a throttle-twisting guy from Michigan…
American Flat Track is webcast live on fanschoice.tv, and on tape-delayed, one hour broadcasts on NBCSN. They race next at the Harley-Davidson Sacramento Mile presented by CycleGear, which Smith has won the last 5-times. Be sure to follow Bryan Smith Racing to keep up with Bryan and his team, and to check in with Indian Motorcycles’ racing news feed for information about all three factory Indian riders.