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Not The Time For Dream Scenarios

The explosion in dirt track specific 'content' is enormous. Countless 'curated' social media feeds, all reposting other people's photos, are at one end of the scale. Then there are live feeds of amateur races, Fanschoice and NBCSN (soon to be Fox Sports) for AFT races, and podcasts made by those right at the heart of sport at the other, with plenty of short film footage in the mix too. The three main dirt track podcasts I listen to are Off The Groove, hosted by Scottie Deubler, AFT's track announcer and a former national number-holding racer; Tank Slappin' with current AFT Production Twins champ Cory Texter and a revolving door of co-hosts, and Chris Carr's Carr On Two Wheels. Each has its own tone and place.

Depending on my mood, and the guest, I listen to all of them, but I currently listen to Carr On Two Wheels most regularly, though I don't agree with everything Carr says, and that's what this post is about. The show's producer and co-host, Chris Carter, brings a recent fan's view to proceedings, and is as enthusiastic about grassroots dirt track racing as anyone you could hope to meet. Perhaps because of Carter's self-confessed lack of history with the sport he doesn't always challenge some of Carr's arguments or points [however, as producer of Off The Groove, On Two Wheels, and, for a time, Tank Slappin' podcasts, Carter is far more knowledgable than he lets on. I'm a huge Carter fan, too].

Seven-time GNC champion and former AFT employee Chris Carr has forgotten more about dirt track that I'll ever know, but Sideburn has always had a geographically-divorced viewpoint of pro flat track, because we're based in the UK, and our time at pro races is very limited. We've never denied that. But this arm's length love affair gives us a different perspective, just like Carter's recent-ish, but rabid conversion to dirt track superfan gives him.

This preamble is to make it clear this post is not a criticism of a particular episode of the podcast, just another viewpoint.

Episode 40 of the Carr On Two Wheels podcast, of 17 December 2021, concentrated on the proposed rule changes for the 2022 AFT SuperTwins and Production Twins classes (this blog covered them here and followed it up with some insiders' feedback here). It wasn't just the rules, as the hosts also the discussed the possible basis of the rule changes. I agree with them that the Production Twins rule changes seem to be tailored for KTM, who have been flirting with Twins classes for a few years. A hooligan spec KTM was present at a recent AFT test in Kentucky, the test event where Shayna Texter-Bauman rode the Indian FTR750 for one of the first times.

The Carr opinions that prompted me to write this post were the following.

Indian made the best bike within the rules

The situation, as I understand is, they did, but they didn't. Indian asked for leeway of two seasons until they could make a production bike to compete. We've covered this a lot, but again, as I understand it, the other teams were consulted and 'allowed' Indian to build a bike outside the direction AFT was heading, so the rules were not changed thus allowing a race-only engine in the series at a time it had been made clear that the sport was heading down the production bike engine route. In 2015/16, the production bike route was being steered towards because the race-only Harley XR750 was finally coming to the end of its useful life, and Harley planned to replace it with the XG750R. With no race-only engines left it was time for an OEM-friendly era of production engine-based racing.

The two-year timescale ties with the development of the FTR road bike, but something, or many things, changed along the way. Indian never built a bike that was suitable for turning into an AFT Twin and the FTR750 embedded itself into the sport. Just like this isn't meant to be a criticism of Carr On Two Wheels, neither is it a dig at Indian. They have done a lot for the sport, both at the pro level and right at the grassroots, sponsoring tracks, amateur events and championships in the US and Europe. Plus, the FTR750 is sublime.

Carr seemed to oppose the rules, that are clearly designed to limit the FTR750's performance, and led him to suggest...

Set rules for 2025 To Encourage Race-Only Engine Development

On the surface and in isolation this might sound like a reasonable idea. But only on the surface. Carr's suggestion is to set rules and parameters for AFT Twins for manufacturers to work towards, to have new bikes for the 2025 season. The hope, as I heard it, would be for manufacturers to make race-only engines that would compete with the unrestricted FTR750. The thinking being: Indian made a great bike, it's up to everyone else to put on their big boy pants on and take the fight to them. My problem with this suggestion is based on how insignificant the sport is in the global motorcycle market.

There have been three race-only 'prototype' engines in the last 50-plus years. Three in 50 years. Indian is the most recent, and it was part of a clever relaunch of an old American brand. It made sense for Indian in a way it doesn't make sense for many, if any, other manufacturers. AFT is a national, not even international, championship, and dirt track is a niche sport even in motorcycle terms. Yes it has gained popularity and awareness outside the US in the last decade, but is still very small scale. And, crucially, the sport doesn't help sell road bikes. Supercross, MX, enduro, MotoGP, World Superbike, heck, even bagger racing can all boast a strong link to showroom bikes. With the exception of the FTR1200, AFT Twins racers cannot, and the class hasn't been able to since the 1970s.

Why would a manufacturer expend huge resources to build a dirt track specific engine, for Carr On Two Wheels' imagined 2025 scenario? They're not going to sell any bikes off the back of it. A Kawasaki engine won the 2016 GNC title, and Kawasaki could have barely cared less. Ducati dipped a toe in the GNC with Lloyd Brothers and Troy Bayliss, but skedaddled after less than a full season, and that was in the pre-Indian days when winning could be considered easier. Triumph, outside of the USA importer office, has barely glanced sideways at dirt track despite seemingly being a good fit for the championship.

New models and new engines are led by the market and marketing. Prototype, race-only dirt track engines do not sell road bikes unless the manufacturer is making a street tracker, and manufacturers have avoided making them, repeatedly telling me they are not considered a viable segment to go into. Harley themselves, who dominated the sport for the best part of 50 years, couldn't make a successful street tracker, and now the sport has lost them as a manufacturer, too. So where exactly is the basis of the hope that manufacturers just need some clear rules to aim towards and they'll be queuing up to build FTR750 beaters?

Indian made it work because it was part of the company's core strategy, dirt track was their thing, like Superbikes were to Ducati in the 1980s and 1990s. A small manufacturer (though Indian are part of a big group) with a very clear idea of how to put themselves on the map using sport as an important part of their marketing strategy.

Roadbike-based AFT Twins make sense for a company like KTM because their whole ethos is Ready To Race and their twin doesn't have any high-profile series it can race in. Winning in AFT would be great for them, hence why I (and the Carr on Two Wheels podcast), believe the newly proposed AFT rules have been designed to be attractive to the orange Austrians. The problem is, the new rules make it a lot less attractive for Royal Enfield, who are already committed to the series.

Also, Carr used the argument that the AFT Singles class works great because there are defined rules that every manufacturer has got behind, using that as an example that his 2025 scenario could work, but that is disingenuous, because the reality is AFT just used what the much bigger MX and SX championships had already set in stone. If you want to compete in the lucrative MX world you build a 450 that complies. You don't make a 400 or a 470. AFT just used the MX/SX template. OE manufacturers don't engineer anything for the AFT Singles class. The dirt track racers and tuners have adapted to make those existing bikes work remarkably well on dirt tracks.

Anyone who thinks AFT has enough clout to make manufacturers start developing unique engines is seeing a very different motorcycle marketing landscape to me. To reiterate, Indian was a perfect storm:

  • American brand

  • Going head-to-head with Harley, that they could see were a fading giant of the sport

  • Keen to show technical superiority

  • Marketing budget to spend

  • Needed to make a big splash in a domestic market and appeal to a 'heartland' buyer

  • Relatively low entry costs to join the series at a competitive level (compared to high-level road racing or MX)

Many of these bullet points make the series attractive to OEMs, but only if they can compete with an existing roadbike engine.

Anyone making a comparison to MotoGP and their successful use of prototype engines doesn't hold water. MotoGP is global. Technology used in MotoGP filters down to road bikes. It can be justified from a technical and marketing viewpoint. Dirt track tech has no appreciable link to road bikes, hence one of the reasons why Indian built a specific engine to compete, and why that engine is so much better at going around dirt ovals than a road bike-based engine of the same cc.

Remember, the creation of a race-only engine for dirt track has happened exactly three times in 50 years. The chances of Triumph, Ducati, Yamaha and whoever else building race-only engines to compete with a field of unrestricted FTR750s in a 2025 scenario is exactly nil, and I don't know how helpful it is for someone as respected and knowledgable as Chris Carr to be talking about dream scenarios. GI


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