Michael Lock recalibrates American Flat Track for the 21st century

American Flat Track Lock
American Flat Track

American Flat Track (AFT) is one of the oldest, and arguably one of the most extreme, forms of motorsports in the United States and for the past six years the series has looked to create a perfect competitive mixture of multiple riding disciplines with Michael Lock at the helm.

The series formally dates back to 1954, but its roots are firmly established decades before with motorcycle racers barnstorming across the country. And as with most major sports, AFT is continuously challenged with remaining on the cutting edge of relevance.

A combination of motocross, road racing, and dirt track racing skill is required to win the championship as AFT competes on half-mile and 1-mile dirt ovals and hybrid tracks known as TTs featuring both left and right hand turns. The series competes on tracks often associated with much heavier sprints, midgets and stock cars that rely on a cushion of dirt to help them slide around the corners. It’s challenging with four wheels – and much more so on two.

While the riders look to achieve equilibrium on their bikes, Lock is tasked with finding a perfect balance for the series.

“We have elements of everything,'” Lock told NBC Sports. “It’s one of the interesting factors around American Flat Track, that you can relate it to a wide variety of other motorsports, both two and four-wheeled. One of the interesting things about it is that it sits almost completely in the middle of motocross and road racing. It’s almost road racing on dirt.

“I’ve looked back at the history of American Flat Track, and in the 1970s the legion of world class and famous American road racers that went on to dominate in MotoGP all the way through the 1980s all came out of Flat Track. They all learned their skills on dirt first and then translated it into road racing.

“Then you fast forward to the rise of motocross and supercross in the ’80s and ’90s and you can see that crossover there as well. What we’ve been doing for the last couple of years is trying to complete that circle and put back into Flat Track some of the things that left it between the 70s and the 90s. We have famous names for motocross and supercross that have come raced in our series. We have famous names from road racing who are racing in our series. Blending all of that together is a real advantage for us.”

Think of it as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole while squeezing a triangle in there as well.

After meeting Jim France at Daytona Bike Week in the 1990s, the two developed a relationship that ultimately led Lock to helm AFT.

As his brother Bill France, Jr. shepherded NASCAR to its pinnacle, Jim was guiding AMA Pro Racing. After that fateful day in Daytona, Lock and France went their separate ways with France eventually taking on increased responsibility at NASCAR and Lock working with such marquee brands a Triumph and Ducati motorcycles and Lamborghini.

American Flat Track Lock
Michael Lock surveys the TT course on the infield of Atlanta Motor Speedway, a track that combined left and right turns, jumps, and incorporated the paved front straightaway as the finish line. (American Flat Track)

“(France) asked me to come down and help him innovate and modernize AMA pro racing, which is the sanctioning body for  American Flat Track and various other disciplines,” Lock said. “That was back in 2015. I came to Florida to take a look at the business and write a strategic proposal on how to develop the sport. He liked it and offered me the job to come and do it.”

Two years later, AFT signed a major deal with NBC to broadcast their events and the championship was revamped to its current iteration.

The synergy between AMA Pro Racing and NASCAR has paid huge dividends.

“We explore the crossover (between NASCAR and AMA) all the time to try and determine what the value is,” Lock said. “But I can tell you in the last two or three years the biggest value for us with our association with NASCAR is tapping into their expertise. The number of bridges that they’ve crossed over the last 40 or 50 years.

“The number of things they’ve learned that are real nuggets of intelligence, because where we’re at with Flat Track is: We’re taking a very traditional motorcycle sport, the oldest form of motorcycle sport, and we’re trying to calibrate it for the 21st century so it’s not only relevant to the legion of fans who love it, who could be easily characterized as baby boomers, and try to pivot that sport and make it relevant and exciting to new generations.

“That has been top of the agenda for NASCAR for quite some time. So it’s been really useful for us to understand some of the things they’ve done and tried to translate them into our sport.”

Jared Mees enters the finale with four consecutive wins, including a doubleheader sweep of the Illinois State Fairgrounds Mile. (American Flat Track)

It’s worked.

This year AFT enters their season finale on the half-mile, clay Charlotte Motor Speedway Dirt Track the same week that NASCAR takes on the Roval. Austin Dillon will be the Grand Marshal for the AFT’s season finale as they look to build even more connections with the stock car series.

And Dillon and the fans will witness one of the tightest battles in AFT history. Four points separate two title contenders in the premiere Mission AFT Twins division, making this essentially a winner-take-all event.

Jared Mees and Briar Bauman have dominated the past several years. Mees won the Twins title in 2017 and 2018; Bauman was victorious in 2019 and 2020. This year, they have combined for 10 wins in 15 races. Each rider failed to stand on the podium only twice during the remarkable battle.

Bauman grabbed the points’ lead early as Mees sustained an injury prior to Round 3 and lost significant ground. With a handful of races remaining, Mees turned up the heat and won five of the last six rounds.

“We’re really looking forward to (the finale),” Lock said. “I’ll tell you, we have not had the chance to properly combine our program with a NASCAR program before. We went to Charlotte last year on the NASCAR weekend but we got rained out so we unfortunately could not take advantage of it.”

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing

Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”