One year into the unknown—new rules, new class structure, new racetracks, new manufacturers—American Flat Track has a different sort of unknown in 2018. What is known is the sport is continuing its upward trajectory with another 18-round schedule, three new venues, and an improved television package with NBCSN.
AFT has also undergone a shuffling of the deck, so to speak, with several top premier-class riders switching teams. There are further questions surrounding the factory Harley-Davidson effort and the impact the newly available-to-privateers Indian Scout FTR750 will have on the competition.
Here is a breakdown of the riders to watch in AFT’s Twins class, plus a few dark horses.
Number 1: Defending champ Jared Mees is the number-one threat to win the title again. He had a dominant performance in 2017, with 10 wins and 17 podiums. His only blemish was failing to make the main event at the Lima Half-Mile after twice jumping the start in the semi. Mees is known for his consistency, but setting the record for the most podiums in a single season has raised the bar. Only question is, can Mees improve on ’17?
Number 2: Bryan Smith and Mees have finished either first or second for the past four seasons. Smith took the number-one plate from Mees in 2016 in epic fashion: in the fourth and final corner on the last lap of the season finale. Mees responded by leaving Smith and everyone else in the dust. Now it’s Smith’s turn. With two new miles added toward the end of the race calendar, the “Mile Master” may have an edge if he stays in the game.
Number 3: Completing Indian’s sweep of the 2017 AFT point standings, Brad Baker returns as a triple threat. He’s young. He’s fast. He also has no fear, a lot of talent, and a Grand National title on his résumé. On the flipside, he’s made mistakes and suffered injuries. “The Bullet” is only happy winning, but even though he came up short last year in that department, he still scored 11 podiums. This time around, there may be no stopping him.
Number 4: It’s easy to look toward youth for flat track’s heir apparent, but you can never count out a veteran, especially when that rider is Kenny Coolbeth Jr. After a rough year on a factory Harley-Davidson, the three-time Grand National champion is once again reunited with David Atherton. The pair proved to be magic after Coolbeth’s previous split with H-D in 2013. Although this a privateer effort, they’re armed with an Indian FTR750.
Number 5: Coolbeth’s ex-teammate Jake Johnson is another veteran to watch. He has championship credentials—two, to be precise—and, like Coolbeth, he’s reunited with a tuner with whom he enjoyed previous success, Ted McDermitt. Furthermore, Estenson Racing is considered a leading privateer effort. As such, Estenson has given Johnson three bike options: a Yamaha FZ-07, an Indian FTR750, and a Harley-Davidson XR750.
Dark horses: Sammy Halbert helped put Estenson Racing on the map. Like Baker, he didn’t win any races in 2017, but he also gained consistency and finished fourth overall in the championship. Halbert’s efforts finally have landed a factory ride, but questions surrounding Harley-Davidson’s factory team remain. If the Vance & Hines-led squad can close the gap, Halbert is a front-runner, as is his teammate Brandon Robinson.
Briar Bauman is the only rider to win more than one race not named Mees or Smith, and Zanotti Racing, while not factory supported, has earned respect in the paddock. Jeffrey Carver Jr.—the only other rider to win a race in 2017—is another one to watch. He smoked the competition at the Lone Star Half-Mile. Carver and his team are coming into 2018 with Indian FTR750s and additional financial support.