DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Following months of build-up, the American Flat Track season opener is at last just days away with the impending arrival of Thursday’s Harley-Davidson TT presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys at Daytona.
The questions this year, and at Daytona specifically, are huge. How will Harley-Davidson race after its inaugural season on the XG750R, and is the XG750R on the road to fulfilling the legacy of the flat track-dominating XR750? Can the Indian Motorcycle factory team – and reigning Grand National Champion Jared Mees – repeat, both at Daytona and during the season? Will this year’s crew of well-funded and super-fast privateers give the factories a run for their money? Can AFT Singles phenoms like 2017 runner-up Brandon Price, newly minted Husqvarna Motorcycles rider Shayna Texter, and a load of ultra-quick young guns displace Kolby Carlile and his consistency?
In just a couple of days, we will know.
Indian Motorcycle may have had things its way last season, but that’s prompted the long-dominant Harley-Davidson Factory Flat Track Team to shake things up. The iconic team has overhauled its rider line-up while further intensifying its development program to unleash the full potential of the XG750R.
Harley-Davidson’s new-look trio includes one holdover, one title-contender in waiting, and one youngster ready to blossom.
The lone returning rider on the squad is Brandon Robinson, who was the highest-placed Harley-Davidson pilot last year. He earned a seventh-place title ranking on the strength of three top fives. Robinson’s a proven race winner, and he’s eager to climb back atop the podium as soon as possible.
Joining him will be Sammy Halbert. Halbert was arguably the sharpest thorn in the side of the Indian-mounted riders last year, pushing them for race wins and ultimately finishing fourth the championship. He scooped up five podiums, including three runner-ups, last year, while adding an X Games Gold Medal on the side. Backed by the might of the Harley-Davidson Factory squad, Halbert could be well primed to take that next step forward.
Rounding out the Harley-Davidson continent is rising star Jarod Vanderkooi. The 2015 Rookie of the Year has finished inside the championship top ten the last two years running and logged a pair of top five race results in ’17. Thursday’s Daytona TT will mark Vanderkooi’s final race as a teenager, underlining just how much room he has yet to grow.
The rider by which all others will be measured this year, of course, is reigning Grand National champion Jared Mees. Mees was the dominant force in 2017, assembling an historic season in which he logged truly ridiculous numbers — 10 wins, 16 top-twos, and 17 podiums in 18 events.
A threat to win in any conditions or on any type of course, Mees comes into the Daytona TT with not only the No. 1 plate on his Scout FTR750 but the title of defending race winner. No matter how heavily revised the circuit, Mees will be widely viewed as the man to beat when the lights are shining down Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Also cast in an odds-on favorite role to contend at the front are Mees’ fellow members of the Indian Wrecking Crew, Bryan Smith and Brad Baker.