The floodlights along the roof of the grandstand glare down on the horse track, but the illumination is wan deeper in the infield paddock, where Triumph's factory flat track team has set up its pit area. Mikey Martin, the team's rider, is slumped at the very back of the pit, as far from the light – and the track – as he can get. It's the picture you'd expect, of a racer drained by the effort of racing a 25-lap Grand National Championship race.
That's the enduring image I took away from the Triumph team’s Sacramento Mile.
California State Fairground, July 26. The sun’s been down for hours, but it’s still nearly 100º.
What sucks is, Martin wasn't exhausted from the effort of racing, he was dejected. An announcer's voice echoed off the grandstand, amping up the crowd for the Main Event, but far from the lights and building tension, Triumph's small squad was already packing up its bikes and gear in sullen silence.
It was not supposed to end that way.
In 2011, Mikey won the single-cylinder 'Pro' class at the Sacramento Mile. Last year – as an expert – he was the fastest qualifier on the Triumph. And just the night before, he kicked ass and took names at Lodi Cycle Bowl, a crucible of American dirt track talent just up the road.
When I was setting up my trip to Sacramento, Bill Gately, who owns Bonneville Performance and runs the Castrol Triumph team, told me that this year's machine was making lots of power. It was well-suited to the Cal-Expo horse track, which has relatively tight turns and long straights.
Before the first practice, Gately said, "You should've seen him last night," as he described Martin's win over a field packed with National experts. I didn't want to curse the squad by asking him to make a prediction, but an elusive first podium for a Hinckley bike didn't seem out of the question.
Instead, Mikey didn't even make the Main. Neither did Shayna Texter, on the Latus team's Bonneville. So, while Mikey brooded and the team folded its tent, I packed up my notebook and looked for a break in the action, so I could cross the track and get to the grandstand, and a cold beer.
You’d think it’d be easy to build a race bike faster and more reliable than the 40+ year-old, pushrod Harley-Davidson XR750. But there are a lot of reasons why it’s hard to build a competitive Grand National Championship Twins-class motorcycle. For starters, you can’t just rent a track and develop your bike at your own pace like you can (if you have a big enough budget) if you’re building a road racer. You need 20 other guys racing on your dirt, if it’s going to groove up right.
That means that new teams mostly develop their bikes on race days, when the schedule’s already packed and frantic. A whole Grand National Championship race schedule is compressed into about seven hours. Practice and qualifying sessions last less than 10 minutes, and come about 20 minutes apart.
In that context, the XR750 is the devil that dirt track tuners know. It may be expensive and fragile, but thanks to that lopsided ‘potato-potato’ firing order, the Harley hooks up well on dirt. And the paddock’s had 40 years to figure out its idiosyncrasies. That’s why – barring a few years in which Honda fielded a handful of cost-is-no-object RS750 flat track bikes for the likes of Bubba Shobert and Ricky Graham – Harley-Davidson has had a nearly uninterrupted reign over the Grand National Championship.
You’d have to go back to 1979 to find the last GNC win on a Triumph. Brad Hurst won the Castle Rock TT, which was a race with a jump in it. The last time Triumph scored a major flat track win on a track that was actually flat was way back in 1974, when Mike Kidd won the Columbus, Ohio half-mile. Before that, if you want to find anything you’d call a heyday for Triumph in flat track, you’d have to go back almost 50 years, to the championships won by Gary Nixon and Gene Romero.
Bill Gately, who owns Bonneville Performance and runs one of the Castrol Triumph GNC squads, was an impressionable kid in Triumph’s heyday. He grew up in a motorcycle-obsessed family – his grandfather rode an Indian from Tijuana to Washington D.C. in 1926; his dad was a motorcycle cop in D.C.; one of his brothers, Jim, still races AHRMA flat track – but Bill didn’t try to make a career out of bikes.
Maybe motorcycles weren’t dangerous enough; instead, he joined the Marines, served in ‘Nam, and then had a long career as one of the U.S. Customs service’s most effective drug agents. During that time, Triumph closed its Meriden factory and ceased production, then was resurrected by John Bloor, who built a new factory in Hinckley.
Bill retired from U.S. Customs just about the same time the first Hinckley Bonnevilles showed up in the States.
“When I was looking at retirement, the only thing I’d ever wanted to do was go racing, and have a Grand National team,” Bill told me. “My dad’s younger brother was just three years older than I was, and he got me into a lot of trouble growing up! I wanted to pay him back for all the things he’d taught me. He was retiring from the NSA, and I said, ‘How’d you like to go Grand National flat track racing?’ Three years later, I had the first bike ready to race, but within a few months he died of cancer.”
Bill pressed on with the help of another brother, Steve. He developed the race bike and spun off products for Bonneville Performance, a company that he formed to sell hop-up parts and complete street trackers. In 2005, the brothers ran all the half-mile races and beginning in ’06 they contested every event. I took notice of their team in 2010. Shawn Baer was riding; the results weren’t that good but the fit and finish, and presentation, of the team made me think they were going places. And they came to races with a gorgeous street tracker that they put on display.
In 2012, they recruited Mikey Martin, who was fresh off winning the Pro Singles Championship. Mikey made six Main events on the Triumph in 2012, with a best finish of ninth at Sacramento. That got the attention of George Latus – an Oregon Triumph dealer who was fielding the company’s AMA road racing team. Latus contacted Bill Gately wanting a flat tracker for Johnny Lewis. Even better, Mikey’s results got the attention of Triumph Motorcycles USA and Castrol.
Triumph officially backs two flat track teams: Bonneville Performance/Castrol Triumph, and Latus Motors/Castrol Triumph. Lewis finished the 2013 season in 15th place, Mikey Martin was 17th overall. In the off season George Latus hired Shayna Texter to ride for his team. She’s not a token female: she finished fourth overall last year in Pro Singles.
George Latus, who owns motorcycle dealerships in Oregon, has sponsored both Triumph and Harley riders in the GNC. When he saw the success of Gately’s Triumph, he arranged to borrow a bike and got Joe Kopp, a fellow Pacific Northwesterner to try the machine out. Kopp came away impressed, and Latus became one of Gately’s customers, although the two teams set up the bikes a little differently. So far this year, Latus’ principal rider, Shayna Texter, has been plagued by a disconcerting speed wobble.
So, this year, Triumph’s represented by the Latus Motors Castrol Triumph team, which is running Shayna, managed by Joe Kopp. Gately’s committed to Mikey. They started off the season with a bobble, when Mikey broke his ankle at a non-championship race near Daytona.
But until I showed up in their pit in Sacramento, they’d made five of six Main events so far (and Shayna had put the Latus Triumph in the show twice, so there’d actually been at least one of Gately’s motors in every Main.)
I put a curse on them, I guess, by daring to hope that I’d be there to see the first-ever podium scored on a Hinckley bike. The Gately boys’ ‘Mile’ bike was blowing oil, and there was simply no time to diagnose or fix the problem. They travel to races with two bikes that look very similar, but mechanically they’re quite different; they have a 995cc ‘Mile’ motor that’s tuned for big power, and a stock-displacement motor for half-mile races that put a premium on tractability.
With the big bike losing oil and power, Mikey could finish no better than ninth in his heat. In the end, they had no choice but to send him into the Semi on the smaller bike, which had its own problems. To add insult to injury, Shayna didn’t qualify either. Not the night you really want a journalist standing around taking notes, but it was what it was.
A few days later, I traded Facebook messages with Bill, who told me that after leaving Sacramento they stopped at the Triumph dealership in Reno to strip their motor. It was blowing oil as a result of a failure of big-end bearings; that’d allowed the pistons to (barely!) crown out on the heads which had, in turn, caused a ring failure that pressurized the cases.
Argh. If you were looking for a positive, it would be: If Mikey had put the bike in the Main, there’s a good chance that it would’ve suffered a catastrophic failure.
I would’ve struggled to find a way to bring this column to a close, except that 10 days after I left Sacramento, the series traveled to South Dakota for a rare Tuesday race (part of the whole Sturgis deal).
The race itself was washed out, but Joe Kopp got on one of the Latus team’s Triumphs, and was the fifth-fastest qualifier. He came within a few hundredths of being the fastest non-Harley. As Bill Gately noted, he did not look like a guy who’s been retired for four years. It was also a little bit of a vindication of Gately’s chassis and motor.
By the time you read this, the Triumphs will be at Indy, which is another Mile with relatively tight turns and long straights. It should be a pretty good track for them. Was Kopp’s turn in the saddle in South Dakota a warm up for Indy? Can Mikey channel the version of himself that dominated at Lodi a few weeks ago? Will the damned big end bearing hold up in the ‘Mile’ motor?
All unknowns. The only thing that’s certain: busting the Harley cartel is hard. But I wouldn’t count Gately and the Triumphs out.