American Flat Track hosted its end of season awards night in New York last night and the big news announcement was that Bryan Smith will be back on a Kawasaki for the 2019 season.
The 2016 champion sewed up his one and only championship win on the Howerton Motorsports Kawasaki at the final race of the old AMA Pro Racing era, before it was rebranded as AFT. He narrowly beat Jared Mees (who, at the time, was racing a Harley XR750) at the Santa Rosa Mile after the pair went into the 2016 final round split by just one point. The same night Indian announced their 'Wrecking Crew' of Smith, Mees and Brad Baker, all former or current Grand National Champions.
In his first season on the FTR750 Smith looked like he had the beating of Mees, up until race six of 18. Both riders had been on the podium at every race, but Smith had four wins to Mees' two, but the tide turned and Mees scored another eight wins, while Smith failed to win again all season. They finished 1-2, with Mees as champion.
The 2017 has been a mirror-image. Mees looked unbeatable for the first two-thirds of the season, while Smith appeared uncomfortable and started testing alternative chassis and exhaust layouts during race days to try break his losing run. After a mid-season injury, Smith ended the season strongly with three wins out of the last four races, finishing an uncharacteristic fifth in the title race, the first time he hasn't been first or second in the title race since 2012.
Rick Howerton is the team boss and motorsports development engineer who was the brains behind Smith's title challenges. Howerton moved with Smith to the new Indian team to oversee the running of the Smith and Baker racing efforts. Mees was always at arm's length, working with his long time crew, headed up by Kenny Tolbert. Few doubt Tolbert's tuning experience has given the Mees' FTR750 a slight advantage. This means that Indian will be looking for a new crew chief to replace Howerton.
As yet we don't know if Kawasaki is backing the 2019 Smith-Howerton effort. They seemed reluctant to be a major backer of the team when it had a run of impressive championship finishes that read:
2013 - 2nd
2014 - 2nd
2015 - 2nd
2016 - 1st
Just as Smith's great results encouraged privateers to run Kawasaki engines in their twin framers, going back to his days with the trendsetting Bill Werner Kawasaki 650, the Indian FTR750's podium sweeps have encouraged most of the same privateers to ditch Kawasaki power in favour of new FTRs. Now that FTR production seems to have ended and all the bikes are on the track or in collections, will we see a swing back to Kawasaki's twin?
At the final round of the 2016 season, Smith's Kawasaki championship year, there were 16 Kawasaki Ninja 650-powered bikes in the 31-strong Twins class entry, and ten of them made the Twins main. At the final round of the 2018 season, at Meadowlands, NY on Saturday night, only seven of the 30 entries were on Kawasakis and not one of them made the main.
AFT boss Michael Lock's vision of bringing an increased amount of manufacturers into the sport has taken a blow in the light of Indian's dominance, so this will be viewed favourably by fans. KTM had already announced a Singles class team for 2019, though it seems likely they'll follow up with a twin powered by their 790 Duke parallel twin, if their decision makers like what they see of AFT. No other manufacturers seem to have had a sniff at the Twins class, and who can blame them, in light of Indian's entry with a purpose-built racer? It doesn't fit many other company's marketing strategy to build something of that level for the purely American sport. Except for Harley, and we'll talk about them in the near future...
We're already excited about the 2019 American Flat Track season.
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