The Big Interview: Michael Lock
Sideburn’s editor, Gary Inman, interviewed Michael Lock, the CEO of AMA Pro Racing/American Flat Track. The 75-minute interview was too long to include in Sideburn 27 in its entirety, but we reckon it should be fascinating and potentially important to anyone with a real interest or love of pro flat track, so we’ve published the full interview here.
It would be great to hear your thoughts about Michael Lock's answers and thoughts on the future of the sport. There are details on how to comment at the bottom of the piece.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without Sideburn's written consent, but feel free to share
Illustration: Ryan Quickfall
Sideburn’s editor, Gary Inman, interviewed Michael Lock, the CEO of American Flat Track, about his plans for fixing pro flat track. The interview lasted nearly 90 minutes, and was way too long to fit in Sideburn 27, but too good to leave on the shelf, so we decided to publish the full thing here. It will be of interest to anyone with a love
of, or investment in, flat track.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without Sideburn’s written permission, but feel free to link to it.
Illustration: Ryan Quickfall
SB: You’ve been very successful in past roles what attracted you to the role of running flat track for AMA Pro Racing?
ML:The first reason was I’d had a long-standing relationship with Jim France [vice-president of NASCAR, son of co-founder of NASCAR]. Not close, but he’d been very welcoming when I arrived in America with Triumph in the mid-’90s. When he contacted me to come and assist him with flat track my instinct was that I’d like to because I wanted to work with him. When I got down to Daytona to see the sport and the people involved, not only in the company, but in the paddock, and to look at the racing action, I thought it had massive potential.
The more I looked at the history I realised it had previously occupied a pretty unique place in US motorcycle sport and that had somehow gone off the boil. I thought it was possible to restore flat track to the centre of motorcycle racing in the US. I did feel it was a unique property, unlike road racing or motocross, which are very international sports. Pro flat track felt very American the first time I encountered it.
How big can flat track become with American Flat Track (AFT) in charge?
Under the current  set-up there are almost two sports, in 2017 we are adjusting and modifying the class structures. We have a premier class and a junior class, but it’s somewhat confused because both classes used the same machinery. This goes contrary to what a lot of motorcycle race fans understand. [They expect that the] most senior riders race the most high-tech, fastest and most challenging machinery and the junior riders race something less challenging. We didn’t have that, but we will in 2017, with twins for the premier class and 450 singles for the [support class]. Once we do that it unlocks an enormous amount of opportunity.
The twins have a special appeal. These are specialist racing bikes, not out of a showroom. It’s a prototype class and there’s an allure to that.
I’d like to start promoting the singles class as something we can scale and not just in the US. I look at the numbers of kids who ride motocross at regional level and that sport is enormous in the US and our sport is tiny. I would like to see if we can bridge that gap. The second part of that is the link to the outside world, to Europe, Asia and Australia, via the 450s, because there is already interest in flat track with the 450s. The twins class is exotic and can become more exotic. You can see there are real factory resources going into that class. I think you’ll see a response from the rest of the industry to what Indian has done. Clarification of the class structure liberates both classes.
As far as manufacturers are concerned it seems only Harley-Davidson and now Indian properly engage with the sport. Can you see that changing?
I don’t think there’s any doubt that will change. I think the other manufacturers fall into one of two camps. The ones at the heavyweight end [of motorcycling], so clearly Indian and H-D make heavyweight motorcycles, but also Ducati, Triumph, BMW, KTM. These are high-end, niche manufacturers. I spoke to all of them this summer, and at least two of them will be involved in pro flat track next year in a way they haven’t been in the past, and I expect all of them to be involved in the next three years. The battle between Indian and Harley is going to catch people’s imaginations. Other brands, smart as they are, realise this will give them access to an audience they find very difficult to get any other way. So I think, in the twins class, we will really get a who’s who of the big manufacturers.
Now, by making the 450 class a much simpler proposition, ie, every week the kids are going to ride the same bikes, production-based 450s, that gives us the opportunity to have a dialogue with the manufacturers which wasn’t possible in the past. Manufacturers want to own territory and repeat a message time after time. That’s very difficult if a kid coming through the sport, challenging for the GNC2 championship, is riding a Kawasaki 650 twin with a homemade frame and next week they’re racing a Honda CRF. We’ve gone to [the manufacturers] this year, explained what we’re doing and all of the Japanese and KTM and Husqvarna have said, ‘Now we’re interested’.
In 2017 you will see an enormous rise in contingency payments. This is a toe in the water for OEMs, because if Honda says, for example, ‘We’re going to offer $150,000 in contingency payments over the season,’ then wow, if you’re a kid looking to get involved in the singles championship next year and you fancy your chances in finishing in the top five or six every race, you can start working out how much you can earn.
So if Honda does that, Yamaha has to. If Yamaha does, Kawasaki has to. Then it gets interesting for KTM and Husqvarna, who say, ‘Hey, now we can take this to another battleground, beyond motocross and supercross.’ So we start to suck money in and we start to get a distinctive and sustainable sport.
Are you disappointed by the knee-jerk reactions to AFT’s new proposals?
We kind of expected that. Change is never easy. Everybody wants change to start with the next guy. Ultimately, where we make changes, we need to make improvements. If we don’t, they were bad changes. We formed an advisory group where we asked the complete paddock to nominate who should be on the committee. We wanted four representatives of active riders, four representatives of teams and crew, and a ninth who was the guy who got the next most votes.
We ended up with Bryan Smith, Brad Baker, Jared Mees and Corey Texter. Then Dick Weirbach, Johnny Goad, Mike Hacker the Harley crew chief… They are our early warning system of the reaction that we might hear from the paddock at large.
We will be judged on if we achieve our goals or not, but there are people who don’t agree with our goals, people who don’t want pro flat track to become big. They like that it’s grassroots and tight-knit and they’re not held to a higher standard about how they dress or how well they build their bikes. I get that, but this is a time of change.
Photo: AMA Pro Racing
What is holding flat track back?
Plenty of things, first and foremost, the difficulty in attracting resources. Everything is easier with experienced people and money. This sport has bravely soldiered on for the last decade or so with very little or no money coming in. It’s the teams who have kept the sport going, people who have been successful in other walks of life, who love pro flat track and have ploughed money in without any hope of return. Without that hard core of people this would have disappeared as a pro sport. But you can’t build safety, glamour and communication to the outside world on that generosity. So attracting resources into all areas of the sport is chicken and egg.
The TV deal is a perfect example. If you get on national TV in the US suddenly you’re interesting enough to sponsors and partners who are willing to put money into the sport, but how do you get on TV when no one knows who you are? You buy your way on. Yes, we’ve bought our way on, but in a clever way, because it would cost us $1 million to have all 17 rounds on the NBC Sports Network next year, which we couldn’t afford or justify. The way we’ve managed to do it is because we already have Fanschoice.tv. We livestream every race, we have a broadcast trailer, we’ve built up experience over three years and brought talent in, and that’s what attracted NBC. There’s no way we could have done this deal without NASCAR behind us. NASCAR’s broad-brush project for fanschoice.tv, which extended to all the properties belonging to the France family, enabled us to get into the broadcast game without having the resources.
NBC don’t care about livestreaming. They want to take it to a much wider audience, so we can still livestream for the hard core. [NBC said], You give us the content and we’ll put it on TV. If they had to take their own broadcast truck and staff it would be $50-$75,000 for every round, before they’d even done anything.
We will have an hour-long programme through the summer and autumn of 2017 and we’ll take it to an audience that NBC estimates will be 250,000 on a bad night and 500-600,000 on a good night. To put that in context, there may have been 120,000 tickets sold for all 15 rounds, coast-to-coast this year. It elevates our sport to another level.
Outside of Jared Mees, Bryan Smith and Brad Baker, and perhaps one or two others, no one is earning the kind of money you’d expect a professional athlete to earn. TV changes all of that. When you’re on TV, suddenly big companies are willing to talk to you about sponsorship and partnering. All this money feeds its way back into the infrastructure and we can increase the purse to the riders.
We need new young talent to come in at the bottom of the sport and percolate up through the sport. Indian signed three of the top riders for 2017, taking three of the top riders out of the talent pool. You know the Motor Company will respond, so the top five or six guys in the sport might be retained riders for the two factory teams. Then you have a black hole, everyone shuffles up, but we need to get new riders in at the bottom. TV gives me a stronger hand to do that. There might be a 17-year-old rider who is very talented, he could go into flat track or motocross, motocross is on TV, it has more money in it, why on earth would he go into flat track? In 2016, a broadcast TV deal shouldn’t be this important, but it is.
How innovative is the coverage going to be?
Fanschoice.tv is a free of charge streaming service that brings racing to fans all over the world in real time. It’s not trying to be broadcast standard. When this goes live you will see an NBC programme featuring pro flat track. The raw footage we shoot will be taken by them. The raw footage we shoot will take direction from them, so we will have more camera positions and we will have a TV director, not a streaming director. The post-production, adding features and background, will turn the raw content into a television programme, what you’d expect from NBC show.
What racing series inspires you and what details about them can AFT copy?
There are two series that spring to mind that I try to learn from. One is MotoGP, because it’s the pinnacle, the production values, the story telling the insight given to aspects of the sport, MotoGP represents the high water mark. I watch every race and all the pre-shows to see how expectations [of the audience] are being set.
I’m also very impressed by the sustainability of British Superbike (BSB). I know that the superbike motorcycle market around the world has collapsed, including the UK. If you look at other road racing around the world they are all facing enormous challenges. In the US the standard of racing is very good, but the revenue has completely collapsed. World Superbike is going through real challenges, then I look at BSB and think those guys have got a real energy around it, and they communicate it very well.
Photo: AMA Pro Racing
How do you plan to attract younger fans?
We have a huge challenge, in motorcycling generally, and in pro flat track. The diversity of our fans is a real challenge. The upside is, when I look at the people who follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the people who are watching fanschoice, [they] are much younger.
If I compare the data, I see two completely different sports. I see under-30s online and huge spikes in Brazil, Thailand and India, countries where people have good access to wifi and use motorcycles as their primary transport. The US is the fourth biggest follower of pro flat track online, after those three countries. Then I look at our ticket buyers. I see almost exclusive baby-boomers who have kept us in business for 40 years, which is great, but they’re not going to keep us in business for the next 40 years and they don’t seem to be bringing their children. Our promoters need
people to buy tickets or that side of the business is going to struggle. We're doing a number of things. We’ve set up our own promotion company, American Flat Track Events. We will run eight events, nearly half the series next year. We’ve done it for two reasons: number one, to get to geographic market places, with big metropolitan cities, where there is no pro flat track.
Over the past ten, 20 years you’d find that pro flat track races were predominantly held in small towns, or even outside of small towns, which perfectly fitted the demographics, but people have been moving south and west to big cities in this country for the last 30 years and pro flat track didn’t follow that trend. So were going to Phoenix, Arizona; Oklahoma City; Southern California; Denver. We’re looking to go to Seattle. We’re going to go to cities, rather than expect the cities to come to us.
When you have a huge active fanbase, you can ask them to travel three hours out of the city to a race, but if you’re trying to build a fanbase, you have to go to them.
The second part of starting the promotions company was to affect the show. Many of our independent promoters work on the basis that the fans are coming to see the racing, so they organise a show that is completely centred around the racing, which is great for the fan who has been coming 30 years and watches timed practice and six hours of racing, but the new fan needs more of a justification to come, because they can watch it on TV. They need to be entertained between the races, before the races, much more explanation, maybe more access to the teams and riders. So, by setting up our own promotions company we can choreograph the show and experiment with ideas that most of the promoters wouldn’t do, even if we asked them. We can do them at our own cost and see what works.
Having the GNC run in the same town as a MotoGP is happening seems a no-brainer, so why doesn’t it happen every year?
We went to Circuit of the Americas and took the GNC there and went back for the X Games and we would like to do that going forward. The challenge with the facility at COTA is that we had to construct a flat track facility in the middle of a field without a lot of permanent infrastructure. Building the track is much tougher, you need the right kind of soil, drainage, safety barriers. You need a professional paddock facility. Both times we’ve been to COTA we’ve had challenges with weather, not on the day, but the month preceding. It rained a lot, and it rains everywhere, but where we’ve got permanent facilities, with permanent investment, the drainage and standing structures are all designed for that. If you have lots of rain before COTA it’s not only difficult for track prep, it’s difficult for preparing a paddock. We had that both years, so we’re now in discussions with them because it sounds like they’re developing a strategy to have a long-term future with MotoGP. If that’s the case we would love to partner with MotoGP every year, but [someone] would have to build a permanent structure there, not dig up a field and try to turn it into a track, it’s not sufficient for our pro sport. But who would build it? Who else would use it to justify that investment?
I’ve also talked with Wayne Rainey to see if there’s anything we can do with Laguna Seca when World Superbikes and MotoAmerica goes there, to bring pro flat track to that region so we can have a true festival of motorcycling in the Bay Area every year.
Does AFT need a Rossi?
I think every motorcycle series in the world needs a Rossi!
Ok, could AFT pull out the stops to get Nicky Hayden back in the GNC?
It’s no secret that Nicky and the rest of the Hayden boys are flat track aficionados. I’ve known Nicky from the time he rode for Ducati Corse in MotoGP because I was involved in his signing. He was a huge asset for Ducati in the US, getting the hearts and minds of fans in the US to follow Ducati and MotoGP, so I understand the background to this well. Someone like Nicky would be a huge talisman for our sport, but I think he’s pretty busy doing something else at the moment. Do we need someone of that stature to take us to the next level? It would sure make it easier. Once we’re on TV I know the phone will be ringing. I’ve got meetings in Europe around the time of the Superprestigio with people who didn’t know we were a year ago. I think opportunities are going to present themselves over this winter that will help answer your question better.
Photo: Barry Hathaway
There has been animosity to the inclusion of hooligan racing at some pro race events. What’s your take on the hooligans?
It’s a fad and a fashion, but sometimes fads turn into something sustainable and sometimes they come and go and you don’t really know until afterwards [which they’re going to be]. But there is a real appeal in the motorcycle culture, at least in the US, a kind of digging 1970s and ’80s bikes off eBay, digging them out of barns and celebrating an era of bikes that were more mechanical than electronic. It’s a real grassroots, coast-to-coast thing in the US. Look at all these customs shows and the rise in value of what are now considered vintage bikes from the ’70s and ’80s and how that has all happened. I think that has created an environment for this romantic run-what-you-brung, don’t take it too seriously, take street bikes on the dirt scene, and it has become very popular, very quickly.
If there is a reaction against it, it’s from people who [race flat track] professionally and take it very seriously. I feel they think it’s almost mocking professional sport, or undermining it. I think if you put hooligan racing on the same bill as pro racing you’re bound to get some friction, and that’s what we did this year. We did that this year and we were testing the acceptance. These two audiences I was talking about, the under-30s, electronically savvy, socially mobile that we have online, and the more traditional baby boomer audience we have in the stands, I think it’s almost a clash of those two audiences as well. I think it’s incumbent on us as the organising body to say that we not only run the sport for today and yesterday, but we also have to run the sport for tomorrow.
So how do we include all these worlds? One way of testing that is to put the hooligan racing on the bill of a couple of races. Going forwards, I am still interested in the attention hooligan racing attracts to our sport, but what we’re mindful of is not to put the hooligans on the pro bill, during the show, but we can achieve all our goals if we move from a single night’s racing into a weekend of racing, and maybe we run a whole bunch of warm-up and diversionary kind of racing on one evening and pro racing on the other evening, so you have one vibe one evening and another vibe another evening. The manufacturers are all really interested in the hooligan racing because of the audience it brings, and [the manufacturers are] very encouraging of us to find a way to make it work.
At the end of season banquet, in Santa Rosa, you mentioned taking the series to Europe, what’s the likelihood?
In the short term we are working quite closely with Dennis Noyes and the pro league he [and the Noyes family] has started in Spain. I’m going over to Europe in December for Superprestigio week to see what is possible in the long term. I have a dream of running pro flat track exhibition weekends in Europe, bringing the cream of the AFT paddock to London or Berlin or Milan for a weekend of running Friday and Saturday races for a big purse, with a big sponsor - introducing our sport to the Europeans as run by the best in the world. I think it’s doable. I don’t think it’s that radical a proposal. I’ve looked at how NFL has been cultivating a following for American pro football by hosting games at Wembley. It’s been interesting that they’ve carefully curated that with a long-term plan to cultivate a franchise in London.
Go to a big stadium, where we could build something between a short track and a half-mile, to bring the top racers over, and work with local partners to really publicise the event and see what we can do.
Photo: RPM Racing
The Superprestigio of the Americas was a disappointment, what went wrong from your point of view?
We partnered with Steve McLaughlin to bring our final round of the GNC to that at [the end of 2015] to marry together what he was doing, an international idea with a national idea. My take, with hindsight, is, to recreate the Barcelona Superprestigio anywhere in the world, the essential ingredient is [you must] have those glamour, celeb motorcycle racers involved. That’s what grabs the attention. Barcelona is built around the persona of Marquez and his enthusiasm for it, and participation not only of him, but of HRC as well. That gives it legitimacy and a sizzle factor that would attract the attention of any motorcycle fan.
I wonder how much hindsight is needed to see that. I knew it needed that. I was surprised by the lack of names.
You’d have to speak to Steve about that. I don't think he’d thank me for speaking on his behalf.
We wanted to support his event and we thought the best way was with this Friday and Saturday arrangement. We liked the idea.
But you know the Superprestigio of the Americas’ failure reflects badly on the sport and you as the governers of the sport…
I agree you need successful events like that to gain fans and trust of partners, but we had three debut events in 2016. We went to Phoenix, Arizona for the first time, we went to Remington Park in Oklahoma City and Rolling Wheels, in New York, and all three sold out. Arizona has a capacity of 7000, Remington Park has a capacity of 7500; Rolling Wheels, 3500.
Phoenix and Remington Park are horse tracks where the majority of the capacity are inside, in air-conditioning, so they’re high dollar tickets compared to sitting in an open grandstand at a speedway. It’s a higher quality experience, but it isn’t capacity scalable. You go to Springfield, where in September I think they had 8000 people, their best crowd for a decade, but they could [take] 12 or 14,000. And it’s a lower price ticket versus to somewhere like Phoenix, in the glass-fronted grandstands.
The point I’m making is pro flat track hadn’t been to Phoenix for 30 years, there’s not existing audience for flat track there.
The deaths at Santa Rosa (of Charlotte Kainz and Kyle McGrane) caused a massive backlash against AMA Pro Racing and AFT, and the new proposals. Was it justified?
I think there was a timing issue and I can’t go into a lot of detail talking about the accidents, I hope you can understand that, but we’re in this time of change, really looking forward and questioning a lot of the established ways of doing things, in order to deliver a better future. I think if you have a tragedy happen at the same time as you’re talking about change then people are going to react to that. That’s human nature.
Do you think your organisation was at fault?
No, I don’t think so, but I can’t get into an analysis of it for a number of reasons. We’re running an internal investigation to make sure all the processes with the rules of our sport… bear in mind that it’s the promoter that runs the race. We’re the sanctioning body, but it’s the promoter who runs the event, which might sound like splitting hairs, but ultimately, we sanction the sport, they run the show. We’re running an investigation on that to make sure all due process was run. It’s not wise to conclude on it at the moment, but there’s no evidence to show that anything was out of the ordinary or contrary to the normal process.
But there is a crossover of the promoter’s event and your staff seemingly running it on the day.
It’s a partnership to run the event. There are things I can’t discuss now. I’m not trying to be evasive. Clearly, when there are fatalities in any sport there has to be a full investigation. It’s motorcycle racing, it is dangerous, that’s not an excuse. We have to make sure, as a sanctioning body, that we have safety measures and processes in place that are fair, reasonable, defensible and acceptable to our community.
A lot of the criticism was pointing to things that could have been done differently at Santa Rosa, but moving on, Santa Rosa was on the 2017 schedule and now it isn’t.
Santa Rosa was on the schedule we announced at the banquet [on the day of the final race of 2016]. One of the two promoters who ran it as a partnership this year was going to run it next year, but in the aftermath [of the deaths of the two riders] he said he was not comfortable confirming it on the schedule, so I think it’s been agreed we’re not going there in 2017.
Could a second Daytona round to coincide with Biketoberfest replace that?
Not in 2017. It’s a great idea, and I’d love to do it in the future, but we can’t do it in 2017. We’re looking for replacement for Santa Rosa, because the flow and the logic of our schedule.
The paddock understand we should go to new venues in big cities, but [say] ‘Please don’t make us go all the way to the west coast for one round’. The idea was to go to Santa Rosa, then end at Perris in Orange County, which the paddock thought was acceptable. Now Santa Rosa is out, that leaves one race and that’s not acceptable, so we’re looking for an alternative to Santa Rosa. We’re looking at two alternatives.
[Neither has come to fruition, so far. The 2017 schedule was announced with Ft Worth, Texas on 23 Sept and Perris on 7 October].
There was a lot of good news delivered after the last round, overshadowed by grief and anger, is there more good news to come?
There certainly is. We announced the headlines at the banquet, the follow-up stories of who, what, when, how, are still to be told and we will be telling those in closed season, up until the curtain-raiser at Daytona in Bike Week, where flat track goes inside the stadium for the first time which is a huge thing. That is the curtain raiser, where you’ll see the new Indian team take on the new Harley team.
We’ve come from running the Daytona short track outside the stadium on two consecutive nights. We’ve changed that to one round inside the stadium. We had 2200 people buy tickets for each night of Daytona, a total of 4400 tickets. I think if we grow that by 25-50% in the first year, I would consider that a success. Long term, if the event is promoted correctly and the product is good, I’m going to see the number of people that come to supercross the weekend before, and say, Why the hell can’t we attract the same crowds as that? Which is, I think, in excess of 25,000. The interesting thing is the crowd that come to the supercross are not really drawn from the people who come to Bike Week. They promote to Jacksonville, an hour north, Orlando, an hour south, and Tampa, two hours west.
The proposition for flat track has always been, we have to promote to the bikers, well we will do, especially with the Indian and Harley thing going on, because that will prick their ears up even if they nothing about motorcycle sport, they’re just bikers, it will grab their attention. In year one, I’m intending to take our promotion down to the beach, down to the bars and engage lots of partnerships. That’s going to be one area we’re going to look at, but another thing is to look at what the supercross guys have done and it’s go to Jacksonville and say, Hey, maybe we can do a double ticket promotion with supercross. If we got north of 7000, 8000, maybe 9000 I think we’ve made a good start.
That was the end of the interview. In the intervening time, seven-time pro flat track champion, Chris Carr has been announced as AFT’s Chief Competition Officer. The official press release described his role thus… ‘With respect for the past and an eye on the future, Carr will leverage his passion and intimate knowledge to guide the sporting aspects of American Flat Track into the modern age.’
I'm not sure what that translates to, but he’s a great man to have on board.
NOW YOUR SAY… It would be good to hear your feedback on this interview. So leave a comment below, to start or continue the discussion.