On Tuesday, just two days before the start of the 2019 season, Bryan Smith's Howerton Motorsports Crosley Kawasaki broke cover. However, if you didn't know the history of the bike, or the architecture of modern Japanese twins inside-out you were unlikely to know it was a Kawasaki.
This is a development of the bike Bryan Smith won the title on in 2016, the last before Indian entered American Flat Track and not only came with a great bike, but also cleverly nullified the competition by employing the top three riders from the top teams in the sport. It was a masterstroke. The reigning champ, Bryan Smith, took the #1 plate to Indian and started the 2017 season strongly, trading wins with Jared Mees, before Mees strung an incredible run of results together to win the title. In 2018 Smith hardly got a look in, in a season hampered by injury, until the back end of the season, where he scored three wins from the final four races. Meanwhile his nemesis, Jared Mees, notched up ten wins throughout the year and had the title wrapped up by the time Smith started winning.
Smith and his long-time team boss, Ricky Howerton, who had also moved to Indian on a two-year contract, started using experimental frames and new exhaust layouts to try gain an advantage, eventually realising being their own team suited them better. Before the end of the 2018 season, news broke they were leaving Indian and resurrecting the Skinny Bike. Fans rejoiced. Whether you're a big Mees fan or not, the sport is better for someone pushing him for the championship, and Smith, on his old bike, had been the most consistent challenger.
Which brings us back to the red Crosley Howerton bike. On 23 January, AFT trumpeted a Kawasaki contingency fund of $424,850. Contingency is sponsorship as prize money. Companies are gambling against the success of their own products. If a Kawasaki doesn't place in the top ten, they don't pay anything. Each time a Kawasaki wins a an AFT twins race, the rider receives a $5000 bonus from Kawasaki ($1500 in the AFT Production Twins class). Securing one of the two twins championships nets the rider an extra $5000, while a Kawasaki rider winning the AFT Singles class would get $10,000 if crowned champion. There are some stipulations to the contingency. Obviously you must use a Kawasaki engine (in the twins classes) or a KX450F in singles, but 'Kawasaki Lime Green must be the dominant color on the machine in order to qualify.'
For a rider like Smith, who scored nine podiums in 2017, and eight in 2016, it sounds like easy money, but if you're a serious privateer team looking to take the fight to Indian and all the other increasingly well-financed teams, you want proper sponsorship to enable a cohesive, structured budget for your year, rather than hoping for, or even expecting, extra 'walking around money' if you have a good race day.
We requested a comment from team boss Ricky Howerton about the decision to run in red, rather than green of the 2016, but hadn't heard back before we posted this blog. However, from the outside looking in and this is pruely my opinion, not that of the team sponsors or rider, the scarlet bodywork and lack of Kawasaki logos seems to be a very obvious and visible 'Screw You, and screw your contingency too'.
Being conservative, with three wins out of 18, four podiums and four middling top tens, the contingency would add up with $35,000. In modern motorsport terms, it's chicken feed. Have a Mees kind of season and it's closer $60K. But is it anything like enough for a team that has put well over $100,000 into their bike, is paying one of the top riders in the sport, and is committing to an 18-race season? $60K gets you a small logo on Rossi's helmet, if you're lucky. It reminds me just how manufacturers, with a few notable exceptions, currently view pro flat track. And it's not great.
An earlier Crosley Kawasaki Skinny Bike was featured in SIdeburn 23.