The X Games. Big air, big tricks, and some of the best extreme athletes in the world. This year, Harley-Davidson got flat track riders recognized as being amongst this group of select athletes as flat track racing was declared a medal sport for the first time ever.
But it would take a monumental effort to make it happen. The week before Austin was supposed to host the race torrential storms swept through the region leaving rivers swollen and areas underwater. The racers themselves raced the Sacramento Mile the weekend before the X Games so had three days to transport their motorcycles and gear 1700 miles. They would be racing big Twins on a 3/8-mile track more suited to 450s. But as they say, “The show must go on.”
No sooner had we touched down at Austin-Bergstrom International airport then it was off to the track. The diligent X Games grounds crew was bustling trying to get the track ready, steam rollers trying to stamp the dirt into a raceable surface. The front straight had a hump in it midway from the TV cables buried beneath it. The back straight looked equally rough and broken. The corners were tight, and with no rubber laid down yet a groove hadn’t been established. Suspension settings were going to be a premium under these challenging conditions.
Yes, there were grumblings initially about track conditions in the paddock. But everyone also singled out the storm as the culprit and acknowledged the efforts of the X Games crews to whip it into shape. The energy in the pits though was palpable as riders prepared to spin their first laps on the new track, thoughts of taking home the first Harley-Davidson Flat Track gold medal foremost on everyone’s minds. The shot in the arm X Games exposure would bring to their sport added to the excitement, the race being broadcast on ESPN to millions of fans across the globe. If that didn’t get you hyped, better check your pulse.
The paddock was a bevy of the best AMA Pro Flat Track has to offer, from defending GNC1 champ Jared Mees to current point’s leader Kenny Coolbeth, Jr., who would be competing on a Harley loaned to him by fellow racer Willie McCoy. Jake Johnson would be hitching a leg over an older XR750 salvaged from the Texas Tornado Boot Camp run by former World Superbike champ Colin Edwards. Two-time Daytona 200 winner Danny Eslick was ready to rip up some dirt instead of shredding on asphalt, and a little international appeal was thrown into the mix with the addition of Canadian flat track racer Doug Lawrence and Australian sensation Michael Kirkness.
Riders would soon gather at the gates and rip off a few practice laps to lay down some rubber and get their first feel for the surface. Straights were just long enough to unleash a moderate handful of power but corners were tight for the big bikes. From the start riders were really having to work to keep their bikes online, but these riders are accustomed to dealing with less than ideal conditions and were anxious to show the world what flat track racing is all about. Eslick summed it up best after practice with his observation that “It’s the same for everybody.”
Thursday was race day. The paddock was busy making final adjustments based on input from practice. We got an opportunity to talk to the crew chief of Harley-Davidson’s Factory team Craig Lager who gave our group a little Flat Track 101 on the XR750. The motorcycle is based on a handbuilt, hand fabricated frame. The 750 engine is basically the same one they’ve been using for over 30 years, the base kit costing $30,000. Then it’s up to tuners like Lager to work their magic on air/fuel ratios, spent gases, and suspension settings that suit the track and rider. Everything is carefully calculated, down to adjusting intakes for elevation and the amount of humidity in the air. Lager said Baker’s XR750 was pretty dialed to start but a few adjustments to gearing and suspension were made to meet the demands of the X Games choppy 3/8-mile.
When asked about the keys to victory in Thursday’s race, Baker emphasized consistency, stating being smooth and disciplined on the motorcycle were paramount. He also said it’d take patience, the patience not to override the motorcycle or racetrack. He pointed out that a small groove and primarily one race line would make passes difficult.
“Since it’s kind of the biggest race of a lot of our careers to come out here and go for a gold medal in the X Games, it’d mean everything to me. It would definitely probably be the top thing on my resume, to come out of the X Games with a gold medal. The GNC title, that’s obviously the most prestigious one that I have and will ever have just because that’s our heritage of flat track, that’s what everybody wants to win when it comes to flat track. But as far as a new era of sports and extreme sports, winning the X Games is by far puts you on the map more so than any other race,” Baker said.
Competitors would hit the track one-by-one in the seeding session trying to put down the fastest lap. The on-track intensity increased a few notches from the tentative practice laps. When the dust had settled, Mees sat atop the leaderboard, incrementally better than second-fastest Johnny Lewis and third-fastest Baker. But the event really reached a fevered pitch in Heat 1 race. All hell broke loose when the gate dropped, the roar of revved-up Twins filling the air followed by a cloud of dust, bikes bucking as riders jockeyed for position. The way Baker powered to 2.288-second victory made him an early favorite to win the Main. Johnson threw his name into the running as well after ripping off an even faster time in Heat 2.
In the Main event, Mees shot out of the gate and dominated the race for 19 laps. Bad part is, it was a 20 lap race. Mees told Andrea Wilson of Cycle News that “The knockoff that holds the sprocket on came undone and lost the drive.” Powerless, Bryan Smith shot to the front, Sammy Halbert barely missed colliding with Mees while pursuing Smith. Bryan rocketed to the win, his third flat track victory in a row, reveling in the win by showcasing logos from his latest “Bad Ass” sponsor, Kid Rock, who’s dabbling in both beer and a “Made in Detroit” line of clothes. The biggest irony of the night was Harley-Davidson handing over the keys to a new Street 750 motorcycle to a green-clad Kawasaki rider, the motorcycle prized to the winner of the first X Games flat track race. To the victor go the spoils.
Though The Motor Company undoubtedly would rather have awarded a Harley rider the keys to its Street 750, H-D reaped benefits way beyond one motorcycle through its sponsorship of the X Games. Its name is now associated with an official X Games event. The Bar & Shield was visible all around COTA, from the side of the Big Air ramp to the BMX dirt jumps. Young fans of the X Games are potential customers and with numerous Moto X events, plenty of motorcycling fanatics were in attendance. Commercials touting Harley’s current “Roll Your Own” advertising campaign aired about every other commercial break, broadening the scope of Harley’s X Games exposure.
A prime example of Harley’s influence extending into other areas of the X Games came at breakfast Friday morning. There we met freestyle rider Lance Coury and his wife Courtney. Coury has an X Games gold medal to his name in Moto X Speed & Style and was in town to see if he could add another to his resume. Coury was hanging around the Harley Factory flat track truck checking out Baker’s bike the day before. When he’s not launching off moto ramps, Coury can be found ripping up the canyons of SoCal on his 2012 Dyna. Of course, the skills he’s honed as an FMX rider means it’s hard for him to keep the front wheel of his Dyna on the ground at times, albeit at the expense of his scraped-up back fender and frequently busted taillight. And while motorcycles are naturally his passion, his love for his Harley is as deep as his love of dirt bikes.
Before breakfast was over, another X Games gold medalist joined us, skateboarder Greg Lutzka. While Luztka has a couple Street golds to his name, he hypes up when talking about riding his Harley. Despite growing up in Harley’s hometown of Milwaukee, Lutzka never rode. It wasn’t until a few years back that he caught the bug after taking part in H-D’s Taste of Freedom Tour. For that event, Harley invited five people from various backgrounds who had never ridden to take its riding course, the journey starting with H-D Motorcycle Boot Camp in Montreal and culminating with a trip to Milwaukee for Harley’s 110th. Lutzka not only passed the class, he put on 20,000 miles on his bike the first year he owned it. Since then, if he’s not skating, he’s riding. Both Coury and Lutzka shared their passion for motorcycles at Harley’s Jump Start experience at the X Games. Baker also bided his time at the Harley booth giving fans the opportunity to sit on and twist the throttle on H-D’s electric LiveWire as part of Jump Start.
The games would go on, a mix of motorcycles, music, and action sports. The only thing more electric than Harley’s LiveWire was Metallica’s set on the Super Stage Saturday night. While the 2015 X Games is in the books, we know Mees would dearly love to make amends for his misfortune this year. No doubt Baker and Halbert would love to trade bronze and silver for gold, too. With the first Harley-Davidson Flat Track event in the books, we are equally anxious to see who rides away with flat track gold next year.
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- Austin, TX - May 7, 2015 - Circuit of the Americas: Levi Sherwood competing in Moto X QuarterPipe Final during X Games Austin 2015 (Photo by Matt Morning / ESPN Images)