Round four of the American Flat Track series, the Calistoga Half-Mile, needs no introduction, this thing is 2444 words long already, and so without further adieu

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Being there is almost as fun as getting there, ’cause Calistoga’s up there north of San Francisco in the beautiful hilly, green, winiest part of California’s Napa Valley where no freeway penetrates. My boy Ryan and I took it upon ourselves selflessly to not only cover the races, but to also road test the new Honda Goldwing alongside the BMW K1600B there and back over an extended working weekend. No need to thank us, it’s all in four days’ work.

The President of Race Tire Service Inc. has been around the block a time or two. His company brings fresh Dunlops to 135 races a year (14 of which are American Flat Track events), and serves up tens of thousands of fresh rubber donuts a year. Luckily in flat track, the typical rider can get through a whole Saturday on one pair of tires – though the top guys might go through a couple of rears.

JB: What’s all this about chemical treatments and cheating, Steve. Does that even work?

SB: Ahhh, well, they’ve all got their beliefs about what works and doesn’t. Some racers have games they like to play, they all have their ideas and even superstitions, they want you to think it’s magic, they want the competition to think it’s magic. Here, we’re offering an R5 soft rear compound or an R8 medium. The chemicals people sometimes use are to make the tire softer. If a softer tire worked, of course, we would probably make one, it’s kind of Dunlop’s business.

If we don’t make one, maybe it’s for good reasons. As for putting chemicals in a motorcycle tire you’re going to be doing 130 mph on, and possibly compromising the tire’s integrity – I don’t know if that’s a good idea. But I guess people do it. Nobody knows when the officials will decide to check, that’s a random thing that costs money… but the rules are clear.

JB: Why does everybody have tubes inside, even in wheels that don’t require them?

SB: They want the extra weight. Unlike most other forms of racing, in flat track more weight in the wheels and more gyroscopic effect means more stability and faster lap times. A tube puts a pound-and-a-half out there at the outer circumference of the wheel where it does the most good. There’s actually a maximum allowable weight for wheel/tire assemblies, and I bet every motorcycle out here is right on it.

Dennis Pearson has been dishing the dirt for nearly 40 years. When he showed up at Calistoga four or five days before the event, “the whole track was covered in grass and weeds from top to bottom, it looked like a football field.”

“First we watered (and by we he means he), then we got a 615 scraper, and bladed it up in windrows, then used a self-loading scraper paddle wheel to get all the grass off. That took a day. Then we watered for a day, then we went ripping on the motor grader… After the moisture was there, we bladed it off, then used a small roto-tiller to break up all the clods, then just kept rototilling it top to bottom, bottom to top, till it was all broken up and we had a really smooth bottom – that smooth bottom is what it’s all about.

“Once that base was there, I just spent two days just floating it back and forth, wheel-rolling it. Here, it’s a nice clay adobe. After this I go straight to Phoenix. There, it’s like trying to build a track on a beach.

“My favorite? That’d be a cushion. Unfortunately we don’t run on any of those horse tracks anymore. The Lima, Ohio, Half-Mile has that surface, but I don’t prep that one. It’s kind of a crushed granite they race sulkys on. For motorcycles, it forms into a little cushion to back the tire onto, gives them great traction to fling dirt up into the air old-school style. Most of the horse tracks we go to don’t use that surface anymore though.

“Twelve hours a day? If it takes 20 hours I’m out there, I do what I need to do. I don’t really keep track of the hours. The dirt tells me what it needs and I do it. I get good feedback from a lot of riders, and negative feedback sometimes too, there are four or five guys I talk to at every event.

“By now I know what they want, mostly. There aren’t usually any catastrophic failures. The worst thing that can happen is rain, really. Then all bets are off!”

Let’s face it, dirt track is a dangerous sport, and the most important things its organizers can provide to make it as safe as it can be is track prep, and proper placement of air fence (which AFT shares with MotoAmerica) and hay bales: air fence at corner entries and most of the way round to absorb direct impacts, hay bales at corner exits to absorb indirect ones without bouncing rider and bike back onto the track. Dirt track is a family sport, everybody’s mom is here. Nobody wants to see anybody’s child get hurt.

The dirt Zamboni gets to work, flinging the dirt marbles off the track to open up more lines.

Hanging on the fence watching practice, who should I look over to see next to me checking live timing on his iPhone than the great AMA Hall of Famer Bill Werner. The winningest flat track tuner of all time mechaniced and counseled Gary Scott, Jay Springsteen and Scott Parker to a total of 13 AMA GNC titles, beginning in 1975.

He might’ve been on his way to a couple more with his Kawasaki 650 Twin concoction and a kid from Salinas, California, named Briar Bauman, when Indian came barging into the class two years ago and suddenly made life more difficult.

Briar Bauman #14 chases Mees in Texas. Photo by: AmericanFlatTrack.com.

Not that that’s keeping Bill and Bauman from trying. At Calistoga, he was the first non-Indian in the Main, in sixth place and 1.7 seconds back. At Texas the weekend prior, only his pal Mees beat Bauman, who finished in second 1.3 seconds back. BB sits third in championship points now, the lone Ninja in a sea of Indian FTR750s.

I wanted to ask Bill Werner if it’s more fun to be David or Goliath? But every time I wandered by his pit, he was knee deep in somebody or other’s Kawasaki, and I never quite got the chance.

Well, you’re never too old to make an ass of yourself. “Have you been flat-track racing long?,” I asked Ronnie Jones, who’s in the AMA Hall of Fame for: 10 AMA Grand National Championship wins, 32 podium finishes between 1980 and 1995, finishing in the top 10 in 11 consecutive seasons and scoring Grand National points in 21 consecutive seasons.

It all started to come back to me as Ronnie mentioned racing Hondas with Bubba Shobert and Kenny Roberts back in the day (RJ won his first national when he beat KR at the Houston Astrodome in 1980 at 19 years old). Ronnie wasn’t even angry, he just gave a big smile and said he was happy I was there. That’s the Oklahoma talking.

Ronnie still dabbles at 57 years old, and came out to ride Estenson Racing’s spare Indian FTR750. He got fifth in his heat race, with a best lap of 24.893 seconds. Swapping the rear shock to try to get rid of some chatter got him down to 24.58 in Semi 1 – not quite enough to make the Main – whose winner ran a 23.494.

“I don’t want to do it every weekend anymore,” says Ronnie, “but it’s still a lot of fun.” For 57, the man appears to be in pretty good physical condition. How does he do it? Bicycling.

According to AFT, attendance numbers were up 76% from 2016 to 2017, TV viewership is up a bunch (even though the races are still delayed one week on NBCSN), and FansChoice.tv live streaming was way up last year. There are now more factory riders than at any time in the last 20 years (thanks to the rekindling of the Harley-Indian wars), 27 new riders have entered the Singles class, and there are double the number of sponsors.

This year, Shayna Texter is enjoying Husqvarna factory backing in the Singles class. In 2019, KTM will enter the Twins fray with its new Duke 790, bringing Red Bull sponsorship. Where Red Bull goes, will Rock Star and Monster follow? The holy grail is live Saturday night TV coverage. Could it happen? Please, God, don’t let this turn into Supercross.

Imported from his home in Georgia to serve as grand marshal, living legend Dave Aldana was on hand to pass out trophies and cool drinks from his bottomless well of stories, most of which are unprintable. Riding Mick Doohan’s NSR500 on a trip to Suzuka is an excellent one, though (David and Mike Baldwin won the 8-Hour for Honda there in 1981). “All the other p****y journalists were riding it down the straight, buh, reee, bup buh… So I decided to just hold it open brrreeeEEEEEEEEEEEE!! It was like the Star Wars spaceship going into warp speed, I got tunnel vision, and I got to the end of the straight before I knew I was there – I was sure I was gonna crash it. But my fingers grabbed those carbon brakes and it stopped just as hard as it accelerated.”

Now Dave’s started doing vintage flat track racing. Matter of fact, he’s now AHRMA Vintage Dirt Track Director. Drag out your decrepit Bultaco and show him a wheel. Contact info is here.

Why do you need two FTRs I asked Kenny Coolbeth? Actually I have three, he replied.

In addition to its in-house wrecking crew – Mees, Baker and Smith – a bunch of privateers have apparently decided the FTR750 is the only way to fly, including Kenny Coolbeth, Chad Cose, Henry Wiles… of the 27 riders who showed up to race AFT Twins at Calistoga, ten were on Indians, nine on Kawasaki 650s, four on H-D XG750Rs (three of them factory riders) and four on Yamaha FZ-07-based bikes.

An FTR750 is $50,000, but a privateer has a legitimate shot at winning with one. Seven of the top eight bikes in the main were Indians (Briar Bauman’s Bill Werner-tuned Kawasaki got sixth, with a fastest lap just 0.22-second slower than winner Mees’s fastest 0:23.494).

Jeffrey Carver, the privateer in the man bun, made it a thrilling Main, closing on winner Mees in the final laps to finish 0.11-second behind him.

Meanwhile, Harley is struggling with its streetbike-based XG750R. Sammy Halbert’s factory H-D struggled to ninth in the main, 0.6 seconds per lap down on Mees’s Indian, Brandon Robinson’s H-D got lapped, and Jason Vanderkooi’s third factory bike DNF Semi 2.

Not a fun night for Jason Vanderkooi.

The factory guys will usually find a way to win, though. When legendary tuner Kenny Tolbert swapped one set of pipes for another one on Mees’s FTR (in about five minutes), I asked, “what’s the difference?” “Not much,” he winked.

Meanwhile, these are not happy, carefree times in the H-D garage.

You have to hand it to Harley for hanging in there after a couple of tough seasons. We hope they find the missing ingredient soon. Indian vs. Harley vs. KTM could be a great thing to watch next year.

Being deprived of his points and winnings two races ago in Atlanta for allegedly chemically altering a tire only seems to have made Mees want it even more than he wanted it before, which was very much. After the Atlanta rubber imbroglio, he roared back to win in Dallas, then again here at Calistoga. That’s three wins in four starts so far in 2018 and the points lead.

Jeffrey Carver had closed right up on Mees on the last lap, but Aldana and Chris Carr (AFT’s Chief Operating Officer) agreed that another lap or two probably wouldn’t have done Carver any good, since catching Mees and passing Mees are two entirely different things. “Mees will break your arm for fifty dollars,” one of them said, I think only half-jokingly.

He’s a nice enough guy, apparently, but at the race track Mees is all business, and not everybody has nice things to say.

A big part of that, Carr says, is jealousy. Everybody can’t be a four-time champion and number one Indian factory rider, now tied with Kenny Roberts for seventh on the all-time wins list at 33. Anyway, it’s always kind of fun to have an overdog Mees, or a Mat Mladin or Marc Marquez to root against. Not that I ever personally would. Except Marquez.

With apologies to all the up-and-comers in AFT Singles, including defending champ Kolby “the Flying Tomato” Carlile and her own brother, Cory, how can you not love the Cinderella story that is Shayna Texter? Now that she’s been mixing it up with the men professionally since 2011, it feels like she’s not just here to be the token girl, but because she’s the eye-of-the-tigress real deal and not at all afraid. Talk about your role models.

Shayna had to settle for second again in Calistoga behind Ryan Wells, but she was the fastest qualifier. Her five race wins last year were more than any other AFT Singles rider, and gave her the lead in all-time class wins with 11. That she’s not just out there, but racing hammer-and-tongs for wins is part of what makes flat track such an interesting racing discipline to watch: Like roadracing in the rain, dirt is the great equalizer. Having the best equipment and the most money definitely helps, but having the most skills is often, if not always, what it comes down to. Being 95 pounds probably doesn’t hurt either.

Go Shayna. Go AFT! Photo by: AmericanFlatTrack.com.

American Flat Track