KEVIN’S INSIGHTS: American Flat Track's Inaugural Daytona TT

Opening round at Daytona International Speedway was a one-two Indian finish, but that was just the beginning

Jared Mees Daytona TT race action
Jared MeesCourtesy of American Flat Track

In winning Thursday's night's Daytona TT under the lights at Daytona International Speedway, Jared Mees on one of the new Indian FTR750 flat-track racers found that, as tricky as the course was, it was better to go slow through the difficult parts than bet his position on gassing it.

Right from the beginning, it was more of an obstacle course than a racetrack, with riders fighting to stay upright through a very slippery left/right chicane leading to the required “jump-ette.” And through the tight-radius east turn. And through the somewhat larger-radius west turn. Back ends of bikes were kicking out suddenly in these places, producing falls like the heat-race pile-up that took Brad Baker away injured (he was back later in the evening, okay, save for a hard knock to the head).

Indian's one-two finish with Mees and defending champ Bryan Smith wasn't easy or a foregone conclusion—several very fast and well-ridden Kawasakis saw to that. Attrition ate away at them, leaving this historic result. The main was red-flagged and restarted; Mees had been third but got a better start that he reckoned was key to his win. I'm sure that helped, but there was more to it.

Bryan Smith Daytona TT race action
Bryan SmithCourtesy of American Flat Track

The racing was two drag races per lap, connected by tricky bits. Some riders just couldn’t get past the idea of “solving” these obstacles, but Mees wisely concentrated on the parts where he could be consistent. As soon as Mees stopped pushing in the chicane, his grace and machine control appeared and his evening looked simplified. Main opposition was #20, Jarod Vanderkooi on a powerful Kawasaki Ninja twin that did not shake off. Something bad eventually happened to it with an audible “pop” and he was done.

Smith’s FTR lacked power off the bottom—something that was a recurring theme all evening with other bikes. Is it better to scissor the cams together (shorter overlap, shallower flat spot, better bottom/mid acceleration) and plan on nailing the opposition off the 180-degree turns so hard that they can’t catch you by the end of the straight? Or is it better to scissor them apart (bigger overlap, more top end, but with the flat spot imposing a pause in initial acceleration), hoping to overpower the opponent and dive under to pass into the iffy west 180?

Henry Wiles Daytona TT race action
Henry WilesCourtesy of American Flat Track

No Harley-Davidson XR750s competed, and two-thirds of the field in the main event were on the Kawasakis that have become "power to the people" since their initial pioneering by Bill Werner. The Harleys present were the V&H-prepared XG750R "Revolution X" bikes, based on the liquid-cooled "Street" production model.

I went to see Terry Vance, saying, “I’ve heard Harley didn’t make the Big Decision until January, and that since then you’ve been flat out.”

“That’s pretty much it,” he replied. “We built seven bikes and we’ve learned enough to know we can get a lot more power from these things than an XR. But what’s the point?”

Jake Johnson Daytona TT race action
Jake JohnsonCourtesy of American Flat Track

He was naturally unable to say much but my feeling is that a pen is poised over paper somewhere, pending a decision to definitively overcome the weaknesses that every production bike has. Streetbikes are business, and in business you learn to match materials to the expected duty cycle.

When a metallurgist told roadrace specialist Richard Stanboli that certain production cranks were failing in races because, “Inside, they are pudding,” he knew why—you use expensive vacuum-remelt 4340M steel only when nothing else will do. Pudding is perfectly satisfactory on the street, protected by the production rev-limiter. Raise the limit and the result may very well be cracking and failure.

Which brings us to the proposal—discussed but perhaps not yet adopted—to require in a year or two that engines in the Twins class be based only on production models (as are both the Harley-Davidson XG750 and Kawasaki Ninja 650). Urs Wenger, the Polaris/Swissauto engineer behind the FTR V-twin, joked a year ago about putting a starter on the FTR (because it takes away the high drama of starting engines with a Champ-car-style external Burris starter) but that may turn out to be no joke. When reader comments came in on Cycle World's FTR development stories last year, their common theme was, "What a dynamite light sporty streetbike that thing would make!" And, of course, "tracker-style" is at present a phrase on many lips.

Daytona TT race action
Daytona TT race actionCourtesy of American Flat Track

At present, the FTR has only a four-speed gearbox and was not engineered for the necessary economies of production, so some big changes would be required. Expensive ones.

Werner hailed me, and I asked him, “What is it you’d like people to know about what’s going on?” He replied, “What’s going on is that a have-versus-have-not scene is developing here. The AMA could just push this factory thing—the historic Harley-versus-Indian conflict—and it might work for a time. But if it has the effect of weakening the roots of this kind of racing, if the factories went home one day, there might not be much left.”

It remains to be seen whether factory competition has the oomph to rise out of reach of the several hot Ninjas out there now. And if it did, there’s a precedent. Bill France Sr. did not drive the factories out of NASCAR; he managed them. If the Mopars were lagging, he saw to it that they made the necessary effort. So far, we’ve been told that Kawasaki and the other big makers don’t want to get into a series that still allows oversized production engines.

Daytona TT race action
Daytona TT race actionCourtesy of American Flat Track

The big engines have so far just burned up a lot of tires without useful result, but the Japanese rightly point out that someone could get it right and then where would the 750s be? These questions need to be resolved. When the oversized engines were proposed, they were seen as “power to the people,” but since then, that role has definitively been pre-empted by the Ninja 650. Let’s accept that and go forward.

I noticed a lot of bouncing as bikes accelerated away from the jump, and riders were saying the track was rough. Yet the bouncing I saw was like what I'd seen by short-trackers in the Spanish "Superprestigio" TV feed. These are bikes with so much preload that bouncing on their tires hardly moves the suspension—so there's no damping. When I asked Ohlins tech Jon Cornwell about this, he made a face and said, "Some of these bikes have their swingarm pivots nowhere near their output sprockets. Some of them have as much as 14 degrees of swingarm droop. So, who knew what to expect?"

When the original Harley XR750 arrived in 1972, it was the end of the twin-shock, three-inches-of-travel era, when riders depended on very stiff suspension to kick the back end out. With factory teams now on the scene, I suspect that there could be rapid development of alternatives.

Lots of races to come.

Jared Mees celebrates victory at Daytona TT
Jared Mees celebrates victoryCourtesy of American Flat Track
Daytona TT podium
Daytona TT podiumCourtesy of American Flat Track
Top 3 celebrate on the podium
Top 3 celebrate on the podiumCourtesy of American Flat Track
Daytona TT race action
Daytona TT race actionCourtesy of American Flat Track