Among the perks of being a motojournalist mogul is preferred parking, and at the Sacramento Mile, it had never been more preferential. We had to wait for practice to end, but then the gate opened and we drove across the back straight and across the huge grass infield (complete with good-sized lake) toward the grandstand as if the old Jaguar were a prairie schooner, finally dropping anchor about 30 feet from Turn 1.
Unlike just about every other horse-track National I’ve been to, there’s no rail along the inside to guide the ponies, so you have a completely unimpeded view from down there in the pits. I walked across the blue groove and looked back down the straight, past the grandstand toward Turn 4. I could barely see it.
What the Mile is, my flat-track racing compadre/translator Mark Cernicky says, is a very long time to hold the throttle wide open on a bike with no front brake. I’d been to quite a few half-miles, but this would be my first Mile. It was Troy Bayliss’s second. The difference between us is, the 45-year old three-time World Superbike champ and MotoGP winner would be riding it, instead of watching with a chilled beverage.
It says Scrambler on his Ducati’s tank, but there’s 1100cc of Ducati in the custom frame, capable of 130 mph by straight’s end. The Lloyd Brothers weren’t planning to race this season at all when the call came in regarding a ride for Ducati’s golden boy Bayliss. The Lloyds were the chosen ones, because they’d already been developing a Ducati flat tracker for a few years. As a matter of fact, Joe Kopp won Ducati’s first-ever Grand National on it back in 2010, breaking Harley-Davidson’s 17-year winning streak.
It’s hard to think of anybody more up to the task than Troy Bayliss, who’s ridden plenty of flat track before in his native Australia, including on his way up to roadracing – and has even won Australian National events. But flat track means different things outside the U.S.
“Had he ever ridden a Mile before Springfield?” I asked a Lloyd Brother. (The Springfield Mile was one week before Sacramento.)
“He’d never even ridden a half mile before.”
More than a few people thought Bayliss would be in for a hairball awakening. Coming into the thing, TB had stated he didn’t intend to just take it easy and be content with qualifying or a top-10 finish: He wanted to win. What other attitude would you expect from a guy who polished off the World Superbike championship in 2006 with a wild-card win at the final MotoGP of that season? That was nine years ago, though, and at the Springfield Mile the week before, the champ had failed to make the 18-rider Main. He did gain speed and confidence.
There wasn’t a lot of time to talk in the Sacramento pits as race hour loomed, but I asked TB how he felt, how was the track? It looks like smooth sailing from Turn 1.
“Yeah, it’s coming good. Mostly smooth, but loose when you least expect it. I just need laps, lots of laps. More seat time. More time on the bike to get a feel for it, more time with the other riders to get a feel for them – and them for me.”
Though the racing line is polished smooth and offers a consistent level of not-much grip, you’ll find differing levels of traction the further you diverge from it, and the darker and damper the night gets – with the other contestants having an even larger say than in pavement racing as to how far off-line you’ll get, thanks to that little complication again re: no front brake. Knowing the other people you’re four inches away from at 130 mph can’t stop either only elevates the need for that special blend of tough love, trust and cutthroat cooperation. While some online pundits suggested Bayliss had no business being out there with an elite pack who’ve ridden together for years, all the other riders seemed impressed by his progress and glad to have such a racing luminary along for the ride – though none of them seemed to feel threatened, either. No one can doubt it’s good for the sport.
Bayliss, if he didn’t seem discouraged after Springfield, also didn’t seem to have anything like the easy, confident aura that generally surrounds three-time World Superbike champions/winners of MotoGPs slumming it in the sticks. Maybe he’s not used to the way business is conducted in American flat track, where the pits are thrown open to the fans right up to race time? Not that there are usually all that many. At the Pomona Half-Mile last year, some of the riders waiting at their tables to sign autograph stock reminded me of guys manning the ROTC recruiting table at a liberal arts college. At Sacramento, the line to have Bayliss sign a poster was strewn all the way out onto the track. He smiled and signed and chatted. Also in attendance was Dominique Cheraki, CEO of Ducati North America.
Bayliss says coming to America to ride five Miles was his own idea, but I either bumped into, or rode to Sacramento in a sealed automobile with, at least three guys who claim it was theirs. Cernicky says at a World Ducati Weekend about four years ago, when he got to ride in a Bayliss school at Misano (and ran the champ off the track, natch), they got to talking, and Cernicky told TB the only thing almost as frightening as the Mile is riding the Isle of Man. It’s not just that the straights are fast; the corners are too: 90-ish. And as you come out of them, says Cernicky (who’s raced Sacramento on a CRF450R Honda in the Singles class), you’re looking right at a thick steel rail fence and a few hay bales.
The inside rail at most tracks means you’re flying blind around the corner; the lack of a rail at Sacramento opens up the riders’ field of vision, which lets them go even faster but also makes it even more intimidating. The key is to put the frog in the pot, then turn up the heat: Cernicky felt Bayliss’ talent couldn’t possibly top the experience of the locals, locals in this case being native Americans (not Native Americans).
“They’ve been doing it since they were little kids,” says Cernicky, “and have internalized lots of things — including gnarly hairy guys leaning against fence posts with beers. Plus, the only thing keeping the sport alive is a bunch of granddads with gearing charts dating back to the Civil War. Like, decades of local knowledge of every track.”
Cernicky claims to have planted the Mile seed, but Bayliss says it was riding with JD Beach at one of his own camps in Australia a couple of years ago that really motivated him. As to how the thing came about, we bumped into former Ducati NA CEO Michael Lock, who’s currently consulting with DMG, which still owns AMA Flat Track among other things:
“Troy had given an interview to somebody at an Australian flat track event, who’d asked him about unfulfilled ambitions, and in it he said one day he’d like to ride all the historic Miles in America. This was about six months ago when I was working for AMA Pro. I was talking about it with some of my colleagues there, and I said, ‘What’s this thing with Bayliss?’ They said, no one at Ducati will return our calls, it’s never going to happen. And I thought, they might return mine.
“So,” Lock continued, “I called Ducati North America and asked, ‘What do you know about this?’ And they said, we don’t know anything about it. So then I called Bologna and spoke to Paolo Ciabatti, head of Ducati Corse; if he didn’t know about it, it wasn’t going to happen. And he said, ‘Ah, yeaaah, Michael! We know about that. What is this flat track? We’re not sure…’ And I said, ‘But does Troy want to do it?’ And he said, ‘We’ll find out.’ And they did, and Troy did want to do it. After that, it was basically just putting the pieces together. Lloyd had the bikes. I called David [Lloyd], a good guy, I knew him from the first time we did some flat-tracking with Larry Pegram back in 2008.”
A private backer was found (thanks to Vicki Smith at Ducati.net) who came up with a large chunk of sponsorship, since Ducati didn’t want to pay at first. Later, the dim light bulb came on in somebody’s head in the marketing department, who remembered they were trying to sell a new Scrambler, and never mind the Lloyd Bros. bike is to that machine as My Little Pony is to Seabiscuit. Guys like Troy Bayliss have to be very careful what they wish for.
It started off nice enough for TB at Sacto; in his first practice, he was within a second (just barely) of Jared Mees’ 39.6-second lap. But then this being flat-track, so were 26 other riders – two of which are women, one of whom is Jared Mees’s wife Nichole, who was fifth fastest and less than two-tenths behind her hubby. In the first qualifying session, Bayliss lopped off a second to get down to a low 39.0 and 27th fastest, but Mrs. Mees threw down a 37.699, fastest in Q1! (Usually, the fastest 48 riders get to move on to three heat races of 16 each, but only 34 GNC1 riders made the trip to Sacramento, so everybody’s in.) In Q2, she fell to fifth, but with a 36.4 to TB’s 37.9.
In his heat race, TB’s 38.43 best lap was only good enough for last place, 17th, against winner Mikey Martin’s 37 flat. Finishing out of the top four sent Bayliss into one of two Semis, from each of which the top three would transfer to the 18-(wo)man Main.
Off the starting line and into Turn 1 in Bayliss’s Semi, Cernicky tells me there was a bump at the rear of the pack, involving (maybe instigated by) Bayliss (I didn’t see it, I was playing photographer), which may have caused an equal and opposite reaction 180 degrees later in Turn 3, on the far side of the track, where there are no witnesses … which wound up with TB sliding into the airfence and emerging with a broken ankle. Game over.
“That’s racing,” said legendary race promoter Steve McLaughlin, whose SMI has been running select flat-track events since last year, as we watched Bayliss’ bike come off the crash truck. Having a three-time World Superbike champ miraculously appear on the program must’ve felt like God repaying a long-forgotten debt to McLaughlin, and now the check had quite literally bounced; Bayliss was out.
“That’s racing,” repeated the man who invented Superbike racing in 1977, “and it could’ve been a lot worse … I was there on the front straight at Daytona when Rusty Bradley died.”
Hmmm, that’s going back a ways – 1971. It’s good to keep things in perspective. It’s good to have the CEO of Ducati at the Sacramento Mile, and in fact things have been looking up ever since the Lloyd Bros. bike broke H-D’s 17-year reign five years ago.
Bryan Smith has won the last five Sacramento Miles, the last four of them on Kawasakis, and this year just barely ahead of Brandon Robinson on a Triumph.
And it’s possible another major player could join the action in 2016. At least one FZ-07-derived flat-tracker’s already made an appearance this year. Two plus two equals…? Will Yamaha launch a factory dirt-track effort? Maybe they’ll get Kenny Roberts out of retirement to ride it now that TB has knocked down the age barrier!?
Word is that Bayliss’ broken ankle is being repaired with a plate in Australia and will take three or four weeks to heal. The next Mile he was scheduled to ride is July 4, DuQuoin, Illinois, and no word from the Champ since the crash. Whether he returns to ride another Mile remains to be seen, but massive, 10-gallon cowboy hats off to Troy Bayliss for giving it his best shot. Flat-track racing has become a helluva lot of unspoiled fun lately for the whole family – including for the ladies racing in the top ten. And anybody who doubts the depth of the talent pool in American flat-track can ask Troy B. what he thinks when he gets back. If he gets back.