American Flat Track Racing 2017 Season Preview

In a few days time, American Flat Track enters a new golden era with a new class structure, a new rivalry—Indian Motorcycle vs. Harley-Davidson—on an all-new TT track inside the tri-oval at the Daytona International Speedway.

American Flat Track 2017 at Daytona
The American Flat Track Series is about to kick off its new era of racing at Daytona International Speedway for the inaugural Daytona TT on March 16.Photo: Andrea Wilson

There's always a lot of excitement at the start of a new season, but for the newly rebranded American Flat Track Series (formerly AMA Pro Flat Track) those levels of excitement are at an all-time high. That's because going into the season opener on March 16 at Daytona International Speedway, no one really knows what's going to happen.

Defending Grand National Champion Bryan Smith
Defending Grand National Champion Bryan Smith stays with tuner Ricky Howerton, but the pair have made the switch to full factory in 2017 with Indian Motorcycle.Photo: Andrea Wilson
Brad "The Bullet" Baker
Smith’s new teammate Brad Baker is poised for a comeback with a new team and a new machine – the Indian Motorcycle Racing backed by Allstate FTR750.Photo: Andrea Wilson

There are some key changes to the series that have shaken things up and helped feed a growth spurt that is arguably the biggest ever seen in a championship with a rich history spanning over fifty years. Taking center stage in this new golden era of flat track is the rebirth of one of the oldest rivalries in motorcycle racing – Indian Motorcycle vs. Harley-Davidson. And even outside of the all-American slugfest that everyone is waiting for, there are some riders on bikes with more development time that could steal the show while Harley and Indian get their new machines sorted out.

With all the newness in the sport, here’s a breakdown of some of those changes and a look at the key players for 2017.

New Year, New Game
Without going into too much detail about the rule changes for 2017, there are some key changes to American Flat Track that were made to streamline the championship and make it more understandable. The first of which, and perhaps the most important, is the class restructuring to an all-twins AFT Twins class and an all-singles AFT Singles class.

It seems like an obvious move, but for years it was standard practice for the championship to use the best tool in the shed. It’s also not rocket science that singles (at first framers then later 450 motocross bikes in flat track trim) are the best machine for smaller short tracks and TTs and twins are the best machine for the big tracks – Miles and Half-Miles. But as Harley-Davidson, Indian, Triumph, Ducati, etc. don’t make a 450 single it was always going to be a problem with brand identity for a rider/team.

Defending Grand National Champion Bryan Smith
Defending Grand National Champion Bryan SmithPhoto: Andrea Wilson

So now in 2017 a manufacturer can truly claim the Grand National Championship for the first time in 17 years. That list of firsts will get underway at the season opener as the series kicks off on its traditional date during Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida but on an all-new purpose built TT track under the lights inside the tri-oval of the legendary Daytona International Speedway. It will be the first time in 20 years that riders will race twins on a TT, something no one in this modern generation has done.

Another big shakeup worth noting is an all-new race format. Instead of the traditional process to advance to the Main with Heats, Semis and LCQs; American Flat Track has moved to a tournament style elimination process. After the Heats, riders get one last shot to advance to the Main through the LCQ, but to make the Main event, riders will have to get through the Semi. There are no second chances, so the new format will favor riders with cooler heads and more reliable machines.

America's New Civil War
The biggest storyline in American Flat Track is the revival of the old rivalry between Harley and Indian. Harley-Davidson has dominated the championship for years with its old air-cooled XR750, but in 2017 Indian has thrown its hat into the game for the first time in 50 years. Indian have brought with them three of sports top riders - defending Grand National Champion Bryan Smith, three-time Grand National Champion Jared Mees and 2013 Grand National Champion Brad Baker - and a purpose-built liquid-cooled fuel-injected Scout FTR750.

Kenny Coolbeth Jr.
Kenny Coolbeth, Jr. leads the way at the Harley-Davidson Factory Flat Track Team as the veteran of the three-rider squad.Photo: Zach Prescott

The opposition has also gone with its modern era machine – the liquid-cooled fuel-injected XG750R – and signed three top riders as well: veteran Kenny Coolbeth, Jr. with three Grand National titles to his resume, Jake Johnson who has two of his own, and up-and-coming rider Brandon Robinson. Harley also enlisted veteran race team manager – Vance & Hines’ Terry Vance – to take over the operations of their Factory Flat Track effort.

The Players
Normally you would breakdown the list of riders, pointing out the odds on favorites and the riders that could surprise everyone. Normally that list of favorites would be heavily weighted towards proven champions and/or factory teams, but all of those guys will be lining up on all-new unproven machines. With new rules, a race format and new tracks it could very well shake up the natural order of things in the Grand National Championship.

Still it’s hard to count out the sports top two riders in recent years – Smith and Mees. Also for the first time in nearly five years the two rivals will be on the same machinery – or nearly the same machinery as Smith will be on a Ricky Howerton tuned machine and Mees on a Kenny Tolbert tuned machine. As interesting as it will be to see who adapts the best to all the changes in the championship, it will be interesting to see who comes out on top of that tuner war with the same machine as well.

The third member of Indian’s Wrecking Crew, Baker, could very well steal Mees’ and Smith’s thunder in 2017. The 24-year-old from Washington state has long been looked at as one of the most talented riders in the championship, but after his Grand National Championship in 2013, Baker was plagued with injuries and mechanicals at the old factory Harley-Davidson squad. So with a fresh start and a modern machine, Baker could very well be unbeatable, especially on the short tracks and TTs.

Then across the way, Harley’s trio can’t be overlooked either. With a mixture of experience and youth in Coolbeth Jr., Johnson and Robinson, those three work together very well. And that in the end could be their secret weapon in the race to develop a new machine.

AFT racer Sammy Halbert
Like Baker, Sammy Halbert looks to return to championship contender form with a new team—Estenson Logistics—and some support from Yamaha aboard an FZ-07.Photo: Andrea Wilson

Outside of the factory six, there are a couple of other riders not to be overlooked like Sammy Halbert and TT specialist Henry Wiles. While no one really knows what’s going to happen when they scrape off the Supercross track (especially after two days of rain) to reveal a clay mixture suited for flat track, it’s hard not to see Wiles as a favorite. Even though he’s a privateer on an older Kawasaki, he’s the winningest TT rider in the history of the sport and there will be no stress of developing a motorcycle.

Henry Wiles at Peoria TT
Although he doesn’t have the experience on a twin, TT-specialist Henry Wiles could very well steal the factory team’s thunder with a win at the season opener for the inaugural Daytona TT.Photo: Andrea Wilson

As for Halbert, like a lot of riders struggling to find money and team consistency during the hard times of the sport, he’s now found a good home with the Estenson Logistics team and some support from Yamaha. In the off season, Halbert won a local indoor short track on his practice FZ-07 bike and has felt better than ever going into 2017. The Washington native could very well be back to championship contender form this season, especially if he can stay consistent and get better results on the bigger tracks.

Still at the end of the day, there are no safe bets this year going into the Grand National Championship. The only safe bet is that it’s bound to be interesting and there will be some new records to add to the history books. And there are plenty of hungry riders looking to be that rider. We’ll just have to wait and see.