Sammy Halbert is off to a flying start in the Harley-Davidson Insurance AMA Pro Grand National Singles class this year, leading defending champion Jake Johnson by eight points.
We got an opportunity to talk to AMA Pro Flat Track favorite Sammy Halbert in between the Salinas and Springfield rounds. Slammin’ Sammy, the 2009 Flat Track Grand National champion, currently holds an eight-point lead over Jake Johnson in this year’s title chase. Halbert recently got his AMA Pro Road Racing license and will be making his professional road racing debut this weekend in the AMA Pro Vance & Hines XR1200 series where he will be competing against another recent flat track convert, Joe Kopp.
We caught Halbert on a busy week where he was honing his racing skills with flat track at Willow Springs followed by sessions at Jason Pridmore’s STAR Riding School. He followed that up by spinning laps on a speedway bike later in the week then topped it off with some motocross over the weekend. Halbert started the flat track season strong with a dominating double at Daytona followed by top-five finishes at both DuQuoin and Salinas. This weekend, though, he will be taking on Infineon onboard the HOG Racing Team XR1200.
Motorcycle USA: What’s it going to take to win the Grand National Championship this year?
Sammy Halbert: I think it’s going to take a lot of what we’ve been doing, staying consistent, winning on our good days and getting top-fives on our bad days. Hopefully we don’t have any mechanicals because that would make it tough. We’ve got a lot of good competition so we need to try to keep it in the top five and every race shoot for a podium.
Who’s your toughest competition this year?
Definitely Jake Johnson. We’re kind of separating ourselves a little bit from the rest of the guys as far as the points go. We’ve both been in the top five every race. He’s got a strong team behind him and he won the GNC championship last year, which speaks a lot in itself. So we’re just going to work hard and try to keep the No. 7 out front.
How’d it feel to get a perfect start to the season at Daytona?
That felt great. I really got that track figured out so it was kind of what I expected of myself to do. But still that makes even more pressure on yourself when you expect yourself to be able to dominate. There was a lot of pressure so I was really relieved after that second race, to finish it off. It gave me a lot of momentum going into the rest of the year so I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I wish we could race that track every weekend (laughs).
What’d you say to brother Jethro after Salinas (Sammy and his brother scrapped it out for the final spot on the podium in the Salinas short track race)?
You didn’t make it easy on me. He was like “You could have handled a fourth today, I wanted that podium.” So, he knows I’m going for a championship but that was really good for him to make the lot. He was giving it all he had and luckily I was able to come out on top in that battle. I wish I would have got a better start, then I think I could have hung with the leaders if I would have got out with them. Coming from the back is a little more of a challenge but it’s always a fun race when you can do that and rewarding when you’re on the podium.
This past week, Halbert got the opportunity to ride former Speedway World Champion Billy Hamill’s speedway bike. We asked him about the experience.
That was cool. Billy Hamill brought out one of his bikes for me and did a little test on ‘em to figure out the technique and everything went pretty smooth. We rode at IMS (Inland Motor Speedway), it’s a little track in San Bernadino.
How does it differ from a flat track bike?
I don’t think it’s completely different. It’s a very light motorcycle and the right foot peg is far down and the left foot peg is up and to the left and it’s just a little nub and you’ve got to stand up on the right peg and keep your left leg straight, which you don’t stand up on a flat track bike. So that’s one of the major differences, standing up, and not having any brakes takes a lot of commitment to go into the turn with the gas on without slowing it down. I figured it out by the end of the day. I was keeping the gas on around the whole track so that was a good feeling.
Halbert recently got his AMA Road Racing License and will be competing in the XR1200 class. We asked:
Are you just entering a couple of races or are you going to do the series?
It should be a battle between Jake Johnson (1) and Sammy Halbert (7) all season long. Johnson is the defending champion but Halbert currently leads the points standings.
Right now I’m just signed up to do Infineon in the XR1200 class group on the HOG Racing Team bike. We’ll just see how it goes and see if anyone else wants to put me on a bike after that. There’s only three more rounds this season I could make in the road racing series. Everything else conflicts with the Flat Track Nationals.
What are your road racing aspirations – to compete in the supersport or superbike classes?
Yeh, I’m just going to take that one step at a time, I’m still trying to learn all the techniques. I’m not like a refined, fast road racer yet so I was able to do the STAR school which helped out a lot, but there’s a lot to learn yet. I don’t have it figured out by any means. I’m going to continue to get out on the track as much as possible and when I have the skill sets developed, hopefully by then road racing is more lucrative than it is right now. But right now my main focus is flat track and kind of learning other things. With the speedway deal, we’re looking into going to England in October to give that a try.
Why do you think flat track racers make good road racers?
I think what it’s all about, you get comfortable with riding a motorcycle and get comfortable with it because you’ve got to do a ton of stuff with it, whether it’s getting sideways, bumping or jumping. So if you can be comfortable pushing it to the limit I think you’ll be able to get yourself to push it to the limit on a road race bike.
Halbert recently spent two days at Jason Pridmore’s STAR Motorcycle School at Chuckwalla. What’d you work on?
One of the main things was trying to look ahead on the racetrack. I think that’s one of those things that will translate over to help me out on flat track also, because I tend to look right in front of my front wheel in the direction I want to be going. So that’s one of the main things and I’m still working on it. It’s not coming too easily for me, and that’s one of those things that’s already conditioned on road racers.
Sammy competed in and indoor event in San Jose not too long ago. We wanted to know what’s it like running on concrete.
Winning a Dash for Cash is fine, but Halbert’s got his eyes on the big prize, the title of 2011 Flat Track Grand National champion.
It’s pretty cool. We do that every year. We go to a few concrete tracks every year and that’s the smallest. So we were very top-three confident and did have to hit marks and try not to get dizzy going around in circles! I think it was 12-second laps, but I don’t even know what the lap times were, they felt like six or seven seconds. The traction is good if you have your set-up good. If you don’t have your set-up good, then you’re not going anywhere. But once you get the tires right and the tire pressure just right then you’re hooked up like glue. You’ve really got to throw it over to get it to turn.
Do you have a favorite track?
Willow Springs, the flat track there is probably my favorite. It’s not on the national circuit, but as far as Grand National Flat Track’s go, it’s a tough call. There’s a lot of goods ones I like, like when we get together at the half-mile at Calistoga or some sketchy mile like Prescott, Arizona, the famous horse track mile.
What type of race do you like best -TT, short track, mile?
Probably the half-mile, for sure. A half-mile with a lot of traction is my favorite track, whether it’s Hagerstown when it rains, then that’s my favorite track. If it doesn’t rain at Hagerstown then it’s really slippery but when it rains, that red clay gets sticky and you can get on the gas and run it harder. That’s what I like to do.
What style of track do you like best?
I like the cushions a lot. I’d say cushions because like I said, whenever it rains and that red clay gets so sticky you can’t even put your foot down, it doesn’t get any better than that.
The next AMA Pro Flat Track races are the Springfield TT on May 28 followed by the first Twins race of the season, the Springfield Mile on May 29. The races will be held at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Illinois.