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.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images

THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.