Flat Track Racing on the Rise

5 Questions with AMA Pro Flat Track’s New CEO Michael Lock

AMA Pro Flat Track CEO Michael Lock
Michael Lock recently joined AMA Pro Flat Track as the new CEO, and has big plans to bring more attention to the sport.Photo: Larry Lawrence

AMA Pro Flat Track recently brought on Michael Lock as their new CEO (click here to see Michael Lock as CEO). Lock brings his experience from years as CEO at Ducati North America, CEO of Triumph USA, and COO of Lamborghini USA, with a plan to bring more attention to flat track. We sat down with Lock recently, and asked him a few questions about the state of flat track in the US.

GNC1 racer Bryan Smith
GNC1 racer Bryan Smith on his No. 42 Crosley/Howerton Motorsports Kawasaki Ninja 650 at the inaugural Law Tigers Arizona Mile in Phoenix, AZ on May 14, 2016.©Motorcyclist
MC: When did you join AMA Pro Flat Track?

ML: I've been working with the team since March last year (2015) as a consultant, brought in to have a look where a business plan can be created, what needed to be changed, and so on. So by the time I came on board (in October 2015), we'd been talking about all the things we need to do. So it wasn't like hitting it cold. It's not rocket science, it's really not. It just needs determination, clear strategy, making sure everybody in the organization is all pointed in the same direction.

Because the sport is gold. The racing is super close and exciting. We just need to construct the business around it that gets more people to come and play. Whether they be fans, or kids who want to get into the sport. There are hundreds of thousands of teenagers across the country who participate in motocross. So, if they can ride the same (brand) bike they ride in a motocross race that they can race in a pro flat track race, there’s huge potential. Appealing to them, making it easy for them, getting the manufacturers to support and endorse that, it will really open up.

GNC1 racers Kayl Kolkman and Jarod Vanderkooi
GNC1 racers Kayl Kolkman (No. 98) and Jarod Vanderkooi (No. 20), both on Kawasaki Ninja 650s, compete at the Law Tigers Arizona Mile in Phoenix, AZ on May 14, 2016.©Motorcyclist
MC: Did you see an increase in interest in flat track before you joined the AMA Pro Flat Track team?

ML: I think it's been coming for a while. I see the bike industry as a phoenix rising from the ashes. 2008, '09 and '10 were not bad, they were much worse than bad. Dealerships closed all across the country, all the OEMs laid people off. People stopped buying bikes. Well, the bike market is coming back, but it's not resembling what it was before it went away. Adventure bikes are really interesting now and really sophisticated. Touring bikes are more interesting now. Sports bikes sales are lower than they have been since anyone at this table was alive.

There was a big [market] that brought young people into the sport, and the root to it was rapidly changing technology, cheap bikes, available on cheap credit. The cheap credit has gone away, the cheap bikes have gone away, therefore the young people have gone away. So what’s happening? From the street upwards, not from the OEMs down, there’s this trend: restore old bikes from the ‘70s and ‘80s, pull them out of barns, dust them down, put modern suspension and brakes on them, make them look stylish. It’s really interesting.

Cody Johncox (No. 96) on a Yamaha FZ07 and Brandon Robinson (No. 44) on a Harley-Davidson XR750
While the Harley-Davidson XR750 has been a flat track favorite for decades, newer street bikes are being converted to flat trackers now, too. Cody Johncox (No. 96) on a Yamaha FZ07 and Brandon Robinson (No. 44) on a Harley-Davidson XR750 compete in GNC1 qualifying at the Law Tigers Arizona Mile in Phoenix, AZ on May 14, 2016.©Motorcyclist

The economics might have been the catalyst of [this trend], but it’s moved on from that. It’s become cool. So, the manufacturers have noticed. Look at what Triumph are doing, look at what Ducati are doing: they’re making seemingly simpler, more accessible bikes, with lower absolute performance. Because where are you doing 200 miles an hour now? You’re either dying or going to jail if you do, right? No one wants to die, and no one wants to go to jail. They want to enjoy motorcycling, and it coincides with what we perceive to be a very interesting societal change.

Our industry was traditionally a white male sport, for decades upon decades. But it’s changed, because society has changed. The family unit is important. So now it has to be inclusive. Inclusive means that everybody in the family has to agree on getting that bike. So that probably means bikes that seat one person that can do 200 mph really quickly are gonna be less attractive. Look at bikes like the Ducati Scrambler. It’s accessible: anyone in the family can ride it.

From a perspective of motorcycle racing, of dirt track racing, we say, "They're coming along whether we like it or not. Can we adapt, survive, and then flourish?" And we can, but we need to change a lot. We need to change what's being raced. Our sport traditionally had very bespoke race bikes, very often backyard-built race bikes. That's part of the appeal, but can we sustain a commercial sport in that? Not entirely, so we need a production race class as well. We need something that kids can go to a local showroom and buy a bike they can go and race in flat track. We've got that with the 450 singles, but we need to arrange the class to re-celebrate those bikes. And we need to promote it. And that's why we're going to Yamaha, and Suzuki, Kawasaki and saying, "Guys, will you get behind us? Will you join us, like you have in motocross, and made a great success of it? You can do it in flat track."

GNC1 racers Jared Mees on a Harley-Davidson XR750; Cory Texter on a Kawasaki Ninja 650; and Briar Bauman on a Kawasaki Ninja 650
GNC1 racers Jared Mees (No. 1), on a Harley-Davidson XR750; Cory Texter (No. 65), on a Kawasaki Ninja 650; and Briar Bauman (No. 14), on a Kawasaki Ninja 650, compete at the Law Tigers Arizona Mile in Phoenix, AZ on May 14, 2016.©Motorcyclist

Then we think about the race events, which historically have taken five to seven hours, with a lot of down time. They finish at 10:30, 11, 11:30 at night, and attracted a very male crowd. Crowds dwindled, because the event is stuck in time. So we’re looking at it and saying, “Can we speed the show up? Can we shorten the gap between races? Can we change the race format so it’s snappy?” Of course we can. “Can we entertain the crowd when we do have gaps between the races?” Yeah, let’s bring a jumbotron in. (Gene Crouch, CMO of AMA Pro Flat Track, and) his team are organizing a broadcast, turning it into a TV show for the crowd in the grandstand, that’s to educate and inform them of what’s going on.

“Why can’t we start it earlier in the day?” If you start it earlier in the day, you finish it earlier. If you finish at 6 p.m., 7 p.m., or 8 p.m., can people bring their families? Yes. If you finish at 11:30 p.m., can people bring their families? No. So we’re modernizing the show, and making it more accessible. At the core, the racing is actually really good. The racing is the only thing that is not the problem. It’s all the barriers we’ve put around the racing designed to keep people out. If we remove all of those, people can come and say “Oh, my god. Here’s this incredible breadth of racing machinery.”

(At the Arizona Mile), our junior class was won by a kid racing a homemade rotax BMW twin. First time BMW have ever won a Pro Flat Track race. The senior class was won on a Kawasaki that was making its debut, built by a bunch of guys whose day jobs are working in Indy car in Indianapolis, and have the most exquisite engineering facility. They built this beautiful bike, which won on its debut by 12 seconds. Twelve seconds in a flat track race is like a week. We've got this diversity of machinery and all these stories going on. We just need to remove all the barriers, let people in, and it'll be awesome.

GNC1 racer Cody Johncox
GNC1 racer Cody Johncox’s No. 96 Yamaha Tenure 750 in the pits at the Harley-Davidson Lone Star Half-Mile at Circuit of The Americas on April 9, 2016.©Motorcyclist
MC: What has been your biggest challenge in breaking down these barriers?

ML: The biggest challenge we've got is getting revenue into the sport. Because, you can have great plans for building this extraordinary entertaining show, but you need to make an investment to do it. You can't expect the people to come first, make a profit out of them and then invest. You have to invest first. That's tricky on the back of a sport that hasn't made any money for anybody for the last 10 years. So you put your hand up and say, "We need to invest here, here, here, and here," and it's tough. And it is the kind of old cliché of "Build it, and they will come," except that, okay, build it, but who's paying for it? So, we're trying to get all the stakeholders around this sport: the manufacturers, the team owners, the riders, the promoters, our sanctioning body, to say "I've got confidence in it, let's make an investment." And the investment might take three years on the back of not making any money for a decade. That's tough, that's hard. So I've got to do a lot of fast talking, a I've got to build a lot of confidence in a lot of people, and keep all the plates spinning, and we will make some moves forward. And if you make enough moves forward, you get momentum.

I think flat track's greatest asset is also its Achilles' heel. It's the original American motorcycle sport; it's invented here, and it's got incredible lineage. That's what makes it unique. But also everybody takes it for granted and it sits in the background. "Oh, flat track, yeah they've been doing that for years. Yeah, bunch of dudes out on dusty tracks out somewhere in the Midwest." It's easy to be written off. So we've got to challenge that and amplify all the cool stuff about it, all the unbelievable stories. In the '50s it was Indian and Harley. Then in the '60s it was Harley against all the Brits: BSA came, Triumph came to try and topple Harley-Davidson in their own backyard. Then in the '70s, the Japanese turned up.

Flat track racers Cameron Brewer and Dimitri Coste
Cameron Brewer (No. 24) and Dimitri Coste (No. 47) compete on Indian Scouts in the SuperHooligans class at Circuit of The Americas on April 9, 2016.©Motorcyclist

Kenny Roberts rode a bike that tried to kill him on every corner: the TZ750, and it was a 750 two stroke. And if you speak to Kenny, he will tell you in no uncertain terms, the bike tried to kill him in every corner. But he mastered the bike, he won the championship, and the rest is history. He goes on to become the Grand Prix champion. And he heralds in a whole generation of Americans, the golden generation of GP all learned to ride flat track first. It's where they beat all the Europeans at Grand Prix, because they learned to back bikes into a corner, which no one else in the world knew how to do. So, there's that whole story of the '70s and the '80s. And then there's the 1980s when Honda came along in flat track and toppled Harley-Davidson, and built a purpose built flat track bike: the RS750. Kicked Harley's butt, really did, in typical Honda fashion, and then were legislated out of existence, so left. So there's all this drama, all this history culminating in where we are now. That's the central part of the project: making it relevant, for what I would call the general motorcyclist.

Kenny Coolbeth, Jr.
Kenny Coolbeth, Jr. (No. 2), on his Harley-Davidson XR750 leads the way through a turn, with Briar Bauman (No. 14), on his Kawasaki Ninja 650, and Jared Mees (No. 1), on his Harley-Davidson XR750, at the Harley-Davidson Lone Star Half-Mile at Circuit of The Americas on April 9, 2016.©Motorcyclist
MC: How is flat track relevant for street bike riders and road racing fans?

ML: With dirt bikes you're spending half your time not on the ground. 'Not on the ground' is something you never want to hear in road racing. So they're both two-wheel sports, but they're very different from each other. Flat track is related to both. It's like a calling card into the other world from [street riding]. If you look at the bikes, they resemble street bikes, but they're not street bikes. I've only ever been interested in street bikes all my life. I wouldn't ride a motocross bike if somebody paid me. I remember when I first walked around the flat track paddock, around the pits, I looked in all the tents and I was fascinated. You see engines that are familiar, you see suspension that's familiar, you see a riding position that's familiar. It's intriguing the way the bikes are tuned for power and torque more like a street bike than a dirt bike.

Jared Mees pit crew
Jared Mees' pit crew works on one of his Harley-Davidson XR750s at the Law Tigers Arizona Mile in Phoenix, AZ on May 14, 2016.©Motorcyclist

All these frame builders, all these cool bike shows, like the Handbuilt show in Austin, and The One show, springing up all across the country. I look at the bikes they’re building, and I see flat track bikes in there. I don’t see motocross bikes. I don’t see road race bikes. Not really. I see café racers, I see scramblers, and I see flat track bikes. We’re in a period where this is in ascendency. So that’s a window of opportunity for flat track to say, “Hey! Relevant, modern, we’ve got something cool over here! Come and have a look.”

We’ve done a lot of work in the last year with Roland Sands. Roland has built his Super Hooligans kind of circus troupe. But that kind of merry band is more entertainment than sport. But that’s cool. We’ve invited them to showcase what they do at our events. So at Austin, at Daytona, and other events, we’ve partnered up with them. We raced during Sturgis week in the Black Hills, which was super cool. That’s a whole different world, but that strong Harley culture relates to flat track. That was an interesting intersection, because in the paddock there were more people hanging out, checking out the Indians and the Harleys than there were the pro race bikes. Because they were easy to relate to. Y’know an Indian Scout tuned and lightened, taking that street bike with a long wheelbase and turning it into something that can turn a wheel on dirt, is fun. Motorcycling should always be fun, but often isn’t. Everybody takes it way too seriously. But really, if we actually looked at motorcycling really seriously, we’d all stop doing it. So I think we have to not look at it seriously. We have to look at it as an escape, as an experience and some of what they’re doing with the Super Hooligans speaks to that.

[As for road racing], Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, that golden generation of the 80s when America dominated international road racing, they all came from flat track. It was a period where the US dominated. And the whole rest of the world was like, “Wow.” I remember being a kid and going to Donington Park in England. And the Americans were like Martians. Their machinery was better, they were taller, they were slimmer, they were fitter, and they won everything. Watching Freddie spencer get smoke off the front tire of a GP bike, I’d never seen anything like it. Sliding the front! What, is he just about to fall off? No, he seems to know what he’s doing. He does that every lap. So [these racers] learned skills that were really, really useful.

It’s more relevant now than it has been for a generation, because of this plethora of new machines coming into the midweight market. Ducati just launched a replica of their pro flat track bike, and Triumph have put out a modified scrambler, that is their flat track pro version. The bikes that Troy Bayliss and Jonny Lewis rode in our series last year, you can now buy them. So there’s attention coming in here to what makes a flat track bike. What is it about the head angle, and what is it about how you ride it? That doesn’t come along very often in motorcycling. Motorcycling is kinda’ glacial in how it moves. So (when) something comes along that challenges your expectations, I think it’s interesting.

There’s a number of things we’re doing as an organization to be able to reach out from being a sanctioning body to actually affect how people perceive things. We’re launching a new company that will promote races. Alongside all the independent promoters we work with on existing events, if a new event comes up, I want us to promote it, because that’s the customer experience. Y’know when you go to a race, what you perceive as AMA Pro is actually mostly done by a promoter. That can be good, or not, that we move beyond governing the sport into executing the sport. Things like Supercamps where people get their first ever experience of riding those bikes, could be presented in a way where you not only learn the technical skills, but actually get the whole experience. You understand flat track. Why the bikes are the way they are, why they’re not another way. We’re gonna run more [Supercamps], and there’s a possibility that we will actually build it as a concept and brand it and make it something that’s ours.

MC: On a personal note, what was your first bike; and, what do you ride now?

ML: I started riding when I was 15. In England you have to be 16, and I really couldn't wait. My parents forbade me from having a bike, of course, so I worked a whole summer waiting tables, while I was at high school. And that got money to buy a bike. So I bought a bike, parked it at my friend's house. Went home and told my parents I had a bike, but they'd never have to see it or me. It was a Yamaha, not one you could buy in the US. It was called a FS1e, basically a 50cc café racer. Clip on bars, rectangular tank, little bucket seat, wire spoke wheels, two stroke, air cooled, single cylinder, expansion chamber so you could annoy the neighbors from a hundred yards. And me and all my friends rode them at school. Some rode Hondas, some rode Yamahas, some rode Suzukis. There was a whole culture in England of these little two strokes.

Now, I’ve got five bikes, but four of them are basically unrideable. Well the one that’s rideable, I have a Monster 1100, the last air-cooled one, which is a great bike. The only one I ever really ride, because I can. All the others are varying degrees of backaches, and all single-seaters.

If you would like to learn more about AMA Pro Flat Track, check their website for upcoming events in your area (amaproracing.com/flat-track).