Backmarker: Deconstructing DuQuoin Tire Controversy

Mark Gardiner | September 25, 2015

Deconstructing AMA Pro’s Cryptic “DuQuoin Tire” Bulletin

For the last couple of months, I’ve been tracking a story that has the AMA Flat Track paddock up in arms, although for most of that time, no one’s been willing to go on the record. That made it hard for media outlets to pick up the story, but you can read the initial, exhaustive report on this debacle on my personal blog, if you’re a sucker for punishment.

Recently, I heard that some aggrieved parties (read: team owners and sponsors) had arranged a meeting with Jim France. They brought in a letter signed by several other team owners. Mr. France basically owns professional flat track, although he’s usually fully occupied with his other business – a car racing series called NASCAR. In spite of the fact that some heavyweight stakeholders were angry, I expected AMA Pro to sweep the story under the rug.

AMA Pro Flat Track DuQuoin Mile

Then, last Thursday, I got a mass email from AMA Pro, linking to a very curious bulletin, in which the series organizer basically admitted to stuff they’ve spent the last couple of months desperately trying to keep out of the public eye.

So yes, AMA Pro’s admitted those rumors were true. But the release leaves out a few pertinent details.

Here’s a fuller account:

July 6: At DuQuoin, for the first time, all competitors used a new Dunlop tire compound. Bryan Smith (Kawasaki) won that race. Like almost all the other competitors, Smith’s back tire basically still looked new at race end. Only Jared Mees (Harley-Davidson, leading the series in points) finished second with a tire that looked severely, dangerously worn. Several people noticed it; people took pictures of it.

After the race, AMA officials told Mees’ team (Rogers Lake Racing) and mechanic (Kenny Tolbert) to hang on to that tire, and that they’d want to examine it. At that point they had legitimate worries about the safety and/or consistency of the new compound. I’ve been told that later that evening, Mees’ team asked them if they wanted the tire, and AMA Pro and/or Dunlop personnel said something to the effect that: “It’s late and we all want to get out of here, hang on to it; we’ll get it next week at Indy.”

July 11: At Indy, Kenny Tolbert walked the tire over to an AMA Pro official, and presented it as the tire Mees ran in the DuQuoin Main. No one had any reason to doubt it was the tire. The tire was, after all, distinctive. At that point in the season, the new compound had only been available at Lima and DuQuoin, and the tires from Lima look totally different (if you know how to look at them).

Over the next few days: That tire was examined by Dunlop personnel, who reported that there were no detectable manufacturing flaws. Rubber samples were also sent to Blue Ridge Labs in Lenoir, NC. Blue Ridge specializes in detecting ‘tire doping’ – that is, chemically treating tires so they’ll provide improved traction.

The lab report confirmed the presence of chemicals commonly associated with tire doping, a practice which is specifically outlawed by AMA Pro rules. As one person who saw the report told me: “It failed with flying colors.”

At this point, a meeting/conference call was arranged between AMA Pro executives Michael Gentry and Michael Locke, and AMA Pro’s men-on-the-ground at the races, including tech guru Al Ludington, and series administrators Ronnie Jones and Steve Morehead.

From the hands-on guys’ perspective, the question was, “What’s the penalty?” After all, although tire doping has been allowed in the past, it’s been against the rules for years.

Instead, they were told there’d be no penalty. Moreover, anyone who discussed the lab report could start looking for a new job. Shortly afterward, AMA Pro gave them talking points, specifically instructing them to say the lab reports were “inconclusive.”

As they say in the Mafia, “Two people can keep a secret, if one of them’s dead.” Well, there were five people in on that conference, and quite a few more interested parties who knew something was up (including at least one team owner with formidable investigative skills!).

People started demanding answers. A problem that started out as sketchy officiating, by early August, was looking more and more like a coverup. Mees’ second-place points from DuQuoin gave the series leader (and by extension, Harley-Davidson) a comfortable position on top of the standings.

When none of the stakeholders involved got any satisfaction from AMA Pro Racing, they went public, by talking to me. But considering that employees had already been threatened for discussing the matter, my sources had to remain anonymous.

Shortly after I put up a blog post on August 14, I got a call from Daytona. I expected it to be cease-and-desist order from AMA Pro’s lawyers, but it was their press liaison saying: “Wow, you’ve got some great sources there.”

He gave me this official statement: “AMA Pro did not have consistent custody of the tire between competition and testing. Without being able to conclusively determine that the chemicals were on the tire during competition, the company cannot proceed with issuing a penalty.” In other words, the lab report was not inconclusive per se, but they’d determined that they could not conclusively prove the tire had been doped for the race. Their doubt implies that Mees’ team might have doped the tire after it had been used, which is a theory that beggars the imagination.

As unsatisfying as that explanation might’ve been, the matter would have died there, but several stakeholders (including both team owners and sponsors) got a meeting with Michael Gentry’s boss, Jim France, in which they laid out the sequence of events to the big cheese. He heard it (at least in detail) for the first time. France then called Gentry and Locke into the meeting, and things got heated.

Basically, the team owners present argued that Mees had been caught cheating; that the chain of evidence issue was a red herring AMA Pro was using to avoid ruling on the matter; and that according to the rulebook, it was incumbent on AMA Pro to issue a penalty. Mees’ team could appeal, if they felt so inclined.

I thought that France would get back to that disgruntled group, but I was pretty surprised when AMA Pro released a mass email painting itself into a corner and saying the matter was closed.

It’s probably not closed. And the latest press release certainly doesn’t tie up any loose ends. For starters, AMA Pro’s unwillingness to name the team involved is weird.

There is a group of stakeholders – a group that is growing, as more, influential, long-term team owners are getting tired (no pun intended) with the way this issue’s been handled. I shouldn’t name them until they give me permission to brand them revolutionaries. But, if you go to the Howerton Motorsports Facebook page you’ll see that Rick Howerton’s come out against the powers-that-be.

That incipient insurgency is ready to try this matter in both the court of public opinion and the real, legal courts if need be. (It would be the flat track equivalent of the recent ‘Deflategate’ case in the NFL, where a final ruling by the league was basically appealed all the way to U.S. District Court.)

There’s nothing in the rulebook that makes chain of evidence an issue. There’s no reason to think that Kenny Tolbert was lying when he handed that tire off to AMA Pro Racing and it’s ridiculous to even speculate that Mees’ team doped it after the race. Seriously, why on earth would they ever do that?

Then there’s AMA Pro’s argument that no one protested Mees’ tire, and that the window of opportunity to do so closed 30 minutes after the DuQuoin results were posted, months ago.

When bikes fail post-race inspections, no rival team has to protest in order for penalties to be handed down. That’s not what protests are for; protests are for when one team is sure another team is cheating and the officials haven’t noticed yet. Once the officials asked for the tire, there was no onus on rival teams to protest. Anyway it’s disingenuous at best for AMA Pro to cite that 30-minute protest window when they went to great lengths to keep the lab results a secret for weeks.

The bulletin’s closing point, that AMA Pro will be issuing a protocol for tire testing, like the one for fuel testing, almost implies that, going forward, tire doping will be illegal. But the truth is, it’s been against the rules for years – tire doping has never been legal in the DMG era. And last but not least, any reasonable person would wonder why an infraction that happened in July is only being dealt with – however incompetently – in October.

According to AMA Pro Racing, this matter is closed (although they’ll take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again). Meanwhile, my phone keeps ringing and I’m hearing from people who’ve been involved in, and supported, flat track for years. They’re telling me that I haven’t heard the last of this.

So, probably, neither have you.

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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