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Linsey Read reflects on her 2019 Monster Jam freestyle victory

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Before the COVID-19 outbreak paused live sports, NBC Sports caught up with one of the top Monster Jam female racers and Linsey Read recounted what was needed to win the 2019 freestyle competition in the Monster Jam Finals. 

When Read arrived at Monster Jam World Finals in Orlando, Florida last year, she had no guarantee of performing in the big show.

The El Paso, Texas native Read was invited to World Finals because of the her performance in the Monster Jam Arena Tour, a tour that features smaller venues across the United States. She had to battle seven drivers with better-known names, competing in larger tours, simply to get the 24th starting spot in the freestyle competition.

In 2019, for the first time, drivers lined up at the top of grandstands and made their initial run down into the stadium. They entered the track virtually blind.

On any given weekend, Read takes a track walk to familiarize herself with the course. She usually has a family member in tow. That reconnaissance walk proved to be incredibly important.

“My husband always goes out and walks the track with me,” Read told NBC Sports. “He gave me all the words of encouragement that he could. Having (the family) there by my side, cheering me on, definitely helps me. I would say they are my biggest supporters.

“So I went into the competition and they gave me their good luck and good blessings. We went at it and every single turn, every move that we made ended up being flawless. It was the most amazing experience ever, I couldn’t ask for better luck that whole day.”

Read won the last chance showdown. That qualified her for the feature as the 24th driver. The driver of the Scooby-Doo truck wowed the crowd. It was not without drama. As the second driver on the track in the finals, she rocketed to the top of the leaderboard.

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“I was super excited for it,” Read said. “That’s my style of racing.

“I knew going into it that I just had to calm myself and get my nerves down so I could do exactly what I know how to do. I went to Monster Jam University and trained so hard before becoming a driver. I just needed to take all of those skills and put them into one run to put the best show possible for everyone. Really when you go out there you cannot let your nerves get the best of you. I just took a deep breath, got in my truck, looked out at the competition and knew that I could do it.

“I had the confidence to go out there and do it.”

Then the waiting game began.

Twenty-two drivers still had to take to the course. There was the risk that any one of them might perform a better freestyle. Drivers with bigger names and larger fan bases knocked out great runs, bringing their unique flair and bags of new tricks.

But every time, they fell short of Read’s initial run. Read knows, because she nervously stood and watched every run.

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“So many of them have already won the World Finals and so many others were doing great on their tour that year.” Read reflected on watching the competition. “On one hand, I was their biggest fan ever because before I started driving I was already the biggest Monster Jam fan. I watched them all the time. So I’m sitting there cheering for them and thinking ‘oh my gosh, I’m cheering and they’re doing such a great job. Are they going to take it from me?’ And every single time they kept saying that I was in the lead.”

Calm and collected when sitting behind the wheel of five tons of metal, Read was more nervous while watching and waiting for the final results.

“My nerves were shot by the end of it.” Read said, but she had the best companion to calm her. “I was holding my daughter in my arms and seeing how excited she was watching the trucks and everything was calming. Something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida