American Flat Track Champion Bryan Smith Interview

An interview with one of Indian’s Wrecking Crew.

Indian flat track Bryan Smith
Bryan Smith carries the #1 plate for 2017, while earning a factory ride and battling his main rival on equal machinery. You can't write a better story.Photo: Scott Hunter

While change may be the only constant, Bryan Smith is having more than his fair share of it, and that's a good thing. Coming so close to winning the AMA Pro Flat Track (now American Flat Track) championship for years, the 33-year-old Michigan rider claimed his first title in dramatic fashion last year, taking victory in the final yards of the final race of the season, narrowly beating out multi-time champion Jared Mees.

Not only does Smith come into 2017 with the number 1 plate, but he does so as a full-factory rider; as one of the three-man Indian Wrecking Crew, made up of Smith, Mees, and Brad 'the Bullet" Baker. Adding to the changes is a re-imagined series (rebranded American Flat Track), who are running a new race format that puts the top riders out on the track more times each race night. The classes themselves are also new, with riders using the same high-powered 750cc twins all season, as opposed to years past when riders would use modified 450cc motocross machines for short tracks and TT courses.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Three rounds into the 2017 series and Smith finds himself battling long-time rival (and now teammate) Jared Mees. Mees has won two of the first three races, but the series now moves to several mile events, starting with the Arizona Mile on May 13. Smith is known as a “mile guy,” dominating at tracks like Sacramento and winning mile races from Springfield to Arizona. All indications are that 2017 will be a bar-to-bar battle between Mees and Smith, with at least another half-dozen riders capable of upsetting the apple cart at each event.

The Indian Wrecking Crew at Charlotte
Bryan Smith (#1), Brad Baker (#6), and Jared Mees (#9) are the Indian Wrecking Crew.Photo: Scott Hunter

Smith gave us a few minutes of his time before heading to Arizona, allowing us to talk about the new series, track safety, and what it takes to make Valentino Rossi's eyes go as big as saucers. First up we asked Bryan about the new format, where heat races determine qualifying for the semi-finals, which transfers riders to the main.

“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.”

Next we asked 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 put into use:

“Time will tell, when we go to Arizona. The week after winning the [2016] 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:

Charlotte Half-Mile flat track podium
Bryan Smith (center) managed to break Jared Mees' (right) winning streak in round 3 at Charlotte. "Slammin'" Sammy Halbert (left) finished 3rd.Photo: Scott Hunter

“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 borders 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:

“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.”

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With five of the next six races being on mile tracks, Smith stands a good chance of creating some momentum for at least the next part of the season. This year, however, he and Mees are on equal machinery, and it will be interesting to see if the advantage remains. Every brand is capable of pushing near 140mph on the straights, but with long, sweeping corners and multiple lines to choose from, a mile track offers many places to find (or lose) an advantage. Surprisingly, when talking about the mile tracks that Smith does so well on, he seemed to have more reverence for them than confidence:

“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.”

And it doesn’t sound like Smith 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:

"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!