Spectators take in the race. Photo: Dave Hoenig

Q&A: American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock on eve of 2017 season

Leave a comment

One of the new motorsports elements coming to NBCSN later this year is American Flat Track, which kicks off its 64th season this week at Daytona International Speedway as part of Bike Week with the Daytona TT on Thursday night. Coverage of the series begins on NBCSN in July.

As a primer for what to look for in the new season, we caught up with American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock to preview some of the key story lines.

AMA Pro Racing CEO Michael Lock. Photo: Larry Lawrence

MotorSportsTalk: This year has seen a change to Twins vs. Singles for the series. Can you explain the process that went into that change?

Michael Lock: “First off, we’re thrilled that after all the months planning towards this season with these changes, now it’s here.

“What we’ve thought to do is create two distinct classes of races. We’ll have it where the most experienced, fastest guys riding the most technologically advanced, powerful bikes. The singles are for more of the younger up-and-comers who are racing on production, single bikes. You can buy them anywhere whereas the twins are prototypes, and exotic. We’ve created these two distinct classes, compared to what was it like before… and it was a lot more complicated!

“There was Grand National 1. Some tracks they rode twins, and some they rode singles. It depended on how long the circuit was. It’s very difficult to explain that to the outside world, versus just saying it’s the same guy and the same brand every week. We changed the organization and the class structure to make it a lot simpler. The byproduct not only simplifies it for the teams and riders, who can focus on one machine, but also attracts great interest from the manufacturers. So there’s two benefits.”

MST: Having the pending Harley-Davidson versus Indian battle must be big for the series…

ML: “It’s heaven-sent for our sport. Harley-Davidson has supported pro flat track for years. Now to have Indian come along, it’s both key brands from the Midwest since they are in Minnesota and Harley is in Wisconsin. There’s an enormous rich heritage on the street and in racing, going back over 100 years. We’re super excited.

“Harley is an iconic brand. Everyone knows Harley-Davidson whether you ride or not. It’s a lifestyle. To have Indian come along and seek to share some of the limelight will be good for everyone, for the sport, for motorcycles.”

MST: How was the series able to expand to an 18-race calendar this year?

ML: “We’ve put a lot of work into this. We’ve expanded the season to 18 dates. A year ago it was 14, and two years ago it was 11. We’ve grown the reach of the sport, and we’ve done it to become much more national rather than regional. We see these areas online but haven’t been getting them on the calendar until now. There were two new ones we found last year in Oklahoma City in Remington Park, which is a mile-long horse course, and also at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. Both of them sold out in the first year. And we’re going back because they’re so successful.

“We’re also going to Texas Motor Speedway … it’s a fantastic facility on their half mile oval. We’re looking forward to that. And having our finale in Southern California makes sense because that’s our biggest concentration of fans. We end in Perris, California, about an hour out of L.A., towards the mountains.”

Photo: Brian J. Nelson courtesy of AMA Pro Flat Track

MST: As the year progresses, what’s going to be the big challenges for the competitors?

ML: “It’s easier said than done arranging both the actual and TV schedules! A sport like Flat Track is very much up-and-coming and the goal is to increase the awareness to where it eventually becomes top billing. After Daytona, Atlanta and Charlotte is when it gets hectic for us; those three set the tone for the year.

“We go into May with three consecutive tracks. The one-mile tracks see the riders at 130 mph, just hurtling through the corners. If you’ve never seen it before, it’ll stop you breathless. We have Phoenix, Sacramento and Springfield, Ill., the ‘holy grail.’ The Springfield Mile is an incredible experience.

“We have three events in June. We have two in July, three in August, and three in September… so it’s relentless through the summer. The championship’s going to be fascinating to watch down to the finale.”

MST: How is Flat Track trying to attract the youth demographic?

ML: “It’s critical. Not only for us at the sanctioning body level but also for the manufacturers. They’re using sport as a way to market their brand. Motorcycling generally has been a baby boomer sport. It has been, how do we motivate them for potential fans into the sport.

“In a modern digital age where you can get everything immediately, you have to make a compelling argument to get them to the races. Beyond flag-to-flag, what else are you offering? There’s action before the races, in-between the races, with the family entertainment and also improved vendors and fan villages. Either Harley or Indian or both will attend all races with display bikes, and a signup. We’re working very hard on not only enhancing the racing action, but also making it a party within a race.”

MST: What piqued your interest in Flat Track to begin with?

ML: “There’s a number of touch points. Anyone in motorcycling for a while, will know the golden age o 1980s and 1990s in international Grand Prix racing. American riders totally dominated, Kenny Roberts, Kevin Schwantz, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey… I was a kid who grew up in London. And I wondered, ‘Why were the Americans so dominant?’ They learned flat track before they road raced. No one in Europe was flat tracking. They learned a set of skills, corner speed, and how to do it. They dominated MotoGP for two decades, and that’s when I first heard about Flat Track.

“Having been in the U.S. for 20 years, I went Indianapolis for the motorcycle GP… and I was working with Ducati at the time. We went to the fairgrounds and Kenny Roberts turned out there… this was in 2009 after he retired! He threw his leathers on and did a couple laps on the infamous Yamaha bike. Suddenly it all made sense.

“All these elements were brought together. With Jim France, a primary investor in AMA… when he asked me to help him to build American Flat Track, we had to leverage this history and great story telling. We mesh it with the extraordinary action. It’s not until you see it on track, inches apart you see how dynamic it is. We just had to get out of our own way!”

MRTI Preview: Mid-Ohio

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires faces possibly its busiest weekend of the year this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Yet another double header awaits the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires tackles it’s lone triple header of the year.

What’s more, the season is rapidly winding down for all three series. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda only have three race weekends remaining (Mid-Ohio, Gateway Motorsports Park, and Watkins Glen International), while USF2000 has only two (Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen), meaning time is running out for anyone who wants to challenge the championship leaders.

In Indy Lights, the title picture centers around one driver, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 are up for grabs between two pairs of young hard chargers. All told, the final weekends of the year have the makings for intense battles to claim not only the championships in each respective series, but also the Mazda scholarships that enable the drivers to move up.

Below are quick previews for all three series.

INDY LIGHTS

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Kyle Kaiser, 279, 2. Matheus Leist, 228, 3. Colton Herta, 214, 4. Zachary Claman De Melo, 207, 5. Aaron Telitz, 203

    Kyle Kaiser dominated the most recent Indy Lights outing in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Kyle Kaiser swept the weekend at Toronto, dominating Race 1 on Saturday and surviving a crash-filled Race 2 on Sunday. His weekend sweep gives him three victories for the year, and combined with struggles from the likes of Matheus Leist and Colton Herta to give him a sizeable championship lead of 51 points.
  • Zachary Claman de Melo and Aaron Telitz are quietly riding waves of momentum. Claman de Melo’s last four finishes are 1-6-2-3, while Telitz has gone 5-9-5-2 in the same stretch.
  • Though Kaiser has a sizeable championship lead, 39 points separate second from seventh (Leist, Herta, Claman de Melo, Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Nico Jamin).
  • Santi Urrutia swept both Indy Lights races at Mid-Ohio last year.
  • Ryan Norman’s No. 48 entry for Andretti Autosport gets a different look this weekend, with rock band Journey featured on the car.

 

PRO MAZDA

The Pro Mazda championship has been a see-saw battle between Franzoni and Martin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Top 5 in points: 1. Victor Franzoni, 174, 2. Anthony Martin, 167, 3. TJ Fischer, 115, 4. Nikita Lastochkin, 110, 5. Carlos Cunha, 103
  • Through six races, only Franzoni and Martin have won races (three apiece); with Fischer 59 points out of the lead in third, it appears Franzoni and Martin will decide the 2017 Pro Mazda championship.
  • Mid-Ohio represents the lone triple-header of the year for Pro Mazda, with races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • Last year, in a triple-header for USF2000, Anthony Martin swept the weekend, winning all three races.
  • Nico Jamin swept the Pro Mazda weekend at Mid-Ohio last year, winning both races in what was then a double-header.

USF2000

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Oliver Askew, 283, 2. Rinus Veekay, 265, 3. Parker Thompson, 206, 4. Kaylen Frederick, 185, 5. Calvin Ming, 151

    Oliver Askew has struggled lately, allowing Rinus Veekay to close the championship gap. Parker Thompson now sits third. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Askew’s points lead has been trimmed to 18, with finishes of 17th (Road America Race 1, due to suspension problems) and 12th (Toronto Race 2, due to a crash) blighting an otherwise impressive season.
  • To contrast some of Askew’s recent struggles, Veekay has finishes of 1-1-2-3-2 in his last five races, allowing him to dramatically close the gap to Askew.
  • Parker Thompson’s weekend sweep at Toronto vaulted him to third in the championship. At 77 points back of the lead, it will be difficult to mount a title push, but his presence can be a spoiler for Askew and Veekay.
  • Of note: each of USF2000’s Mid-Ohio visits the last two years have seen weekend sweeps. As previously mentioned, Anthony Martin accomplished the feat in 2016, with Nico Jamin doing so in 2015. Conversely, the 2014 outing saw different winners in each race. RC Enerson, Jake Eidson, and Florian Latorre all won in a triple-header weekend that year.

Racing begins on Friday with USF2000 and Pro Mazda running their first races of the weekend. Indy Lights holds its first race of the weekend on Saturday.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

Foyt, Coyne optimistic about Mid-Ohio after testing

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Along with Felix Rosenqvist and Chip Ganassi Racing, two other teams visited the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for testing ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Sunday July 30, 3:00 p.m., CNBC). A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dale Coyne Racing sent their drivers and teams to Mid-Ohio in hopes of getting a leg up on things and building optimism ahead of this weekend.

For Foyt’s team in particular, the optimism is needed. Combined, drivers Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have only three top tens (two for Munoz, one for Daly) across a total of 24 starts, making them desperate for strong results to come their way.

Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz are hopeful that they can turn their seasons around at Mid-Ohio. Photo: IndyCar

Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity for Foyt’s duo to right the ship. Munoz has finishes of fourth, ninth, and third in three starts at the Lexington, Ohio road course, while Daly led late in last year’s race and finished an impressive sixth.

And a productive test last week has both feeling hopeful. “We needed this test to try big steps and different options and I think we gained a lot from where we started to where we finished,” said Munoz, whose best 2017 finish of seventh came at Barber Motorsports Park in April.

Munoz added that, while they are still playing catch up a little, the team gained valuable information that should help them this weekend. “The car was much more competitive from where we started so we closed the gap but we need a little bit more to compete with the top guys. But the information that we gathered will help us to show up stronger than we did at the test so I’m looking forward to going back,” he asserted.

Daly echoed Munoz’s sentiments and added that his near-win last year makes him upbeat ahead of the weekend. “It was a really productive (test) for us. Every day with this car and aero package we are learning more. I feel like I came quite close to winning the race last year so I’m hoping to have another strong result this year,” Daly expressed.

Technical Director Will Phillips added that the knowledge they gained should help them at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway at the end of the season, particularly in terms of maximizing the grip from the tires.

“We certainly believe that the area we made an improvement in will help us at all the road courses to come – we have been slow to extract performance from the tires at times and it was in this area that some changes we made had a very positive response,” Phillips described. “We will keep our feet on the ground but are optimistic that we can carry the gains through for the remainder of the year, not just for Mid-Ohio.”

On the other side, Dale Coyne Racing has been a giant-killer in 2017, winning at St. Petersburg with Sebastien Bourdais and finishing third at the Indianapolis 500 with Ed Jones. James Davison, Tristan Vautier, and Esteban Gutierrez have also impressed in fill-in roles for the injured Bourdais.

Dale Coyne Racing has shown a lot of speed in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

And while the team has also incurred more than it’s fair share of crash damage, they have consistently showcased speed at nearly every event, and the team’s drivers are confident Mid-Ohio will yield more of the same.

“We had a really good test last week at Mid-Ohio. It was very positive and we worked on a lot of things,” said Ed Jones, who has four starts at Mid-Ohio from his days in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with a best finish of sixth. “The car seemed pretty fast compared to others that were there. As we saw at Road America, it’s beneficial to be able to test somewhere before we race there. It can give you an advantage early on and hopefully we can produce another good result because of it.”

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez, making his sixth start for the team this weekend, is more modest of his expectations, but did reveal that a top ten finish could be realistic.

“In terms of objectives for the weekend, I want to keep on learning and it would be nice to reach the top ten. We know that it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for me in IndyCar but we’ve made some progress and hopefully we can make our way into the top ten pretty soon,” Gutierrez detailed.

Of the drivers mentioned here, Jones ranks the highest in the championship standings, currently sitting 12th. Munoz sits 15th, Daly 19th, and Gutierrez 25th in his fill-in role.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Lando Norris also gets confirmed for Hungary test with McLaren

Photo: Lando Norris PR
Leave a comment

McLaren Honda young driver Lando Norris has joined the list of those confirmed for the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test as well.

He’ll run on the second day, Wednesday, of the two-day test with Stoffel Vandoorne running on day one, Tuesday.

The teenaged Brit races for Carlin in the FIA F3 European Championship this season and is one of the most talented prospects in the pipeline, following his karting career and early years in formula cars. This will mark his test debut in an F1 car.

He was announced as part of McLaren’s development program in February.

Norris was confirmed a little more than a week ago for next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona in a United Autosports Ligier JS P217 LMP2 car but this gives him his first go in a proper F1 rocketship.

 

Pirelli review says Raikkonen tire not faulty at Silverstone

Getty Images
Leave a comment

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Formula One tiremaker Pirelli has concluded that Kimi Raikkonen’s tire damage late in the British Grand Prix was likely caused by external contact.

Raikkonen was set for second place in the July 16 race but his tire problem allowed Valtteri Bottas to complete a Mercedes one-two with Lewis Hamilton. The Finnish driver even looked set to lose his podium spot to his own teammate Sebastian Vettel, but in a bizarre twist he ended up third after Vettel’s own tire shredded.

The sight of two Ferraris capitulating within moments of each other led Pirelli to conduct extensive post-race tests on both cars. Raikkonen’s problem, Pirelli said in a statement Wednesday, did not come from the tire itself.

“The possible initial cause of this damage is consistent with contact against an external body, leading to a partial separation of the belt from the carcass in the two affected areas,” Pirelli said. “On no occasion was there any sign of fatigue, detachment or laceration -or even the beginning of such problems – that affected the structure of the tire. In conclusion, Pirelli can confirm that no issues have emerged connected with the tire itself.”

Last week, Pirelli said that Vettel’s shredded tire at Silverstone was caused by a slow puncture.

Vettel appeared to be heading for third place at Silverstone until his front left tire suddenly blew apart two laps from the finish. The four-time F1 champion managed to steer his Ferrari back to the pits for a tire change, and secured seventh place to cling onto his championship lead. Raikkonen’s pit stop to change his tire came just before Vettel’s.

Hamilton won to cut Vettel’s championship lead to one point. Raikkonen, who has three podium finishes this season, is fifth overall.

The championship continues at the Hungarian GP this weekend before a month-long summer break.