When Indian Motorcycle returned to American Flat Track racing last year, the team scooped up three national championship riders in Jared Mees, Bryan Smith and Brad Baker, along with some of the best racing crew members in the business.
The end results were jaw-droppingly good. Indian won 14 of the 18 AFT Twins Nationals, earned 37 podiums, posted six podium sweeps and finished one-two-three in the standings. The 2017 manufacturers’ victory tally read: Indian with 14 wins, Kawasaki with three and Harley-Davidson with one.
There’s no doubt about it, 2017 was a seminal year in American Flat Track. Indian Motorcycle was dominant with its new Scout FTR750 racing machine. In the 64-year history of the championship, it’s safe to say there’s never been a new motorcycle come in and dominate quite like Indian’s FTR750.
And then there was the transformation of Jared Mees. Mees winning the title was not all that surprising, last year marked his fifth AFT Twins National Championship, but it was the way Mees did it. He used to be a grinder, a guy who won titles not by winning a ton of races but by being on the podium nearly every weekend. He blew that methodology out of the water by winning the second-most races in a single season.
When a single team houses that much talent, the question arises — how do they keep everyone happy? Do the riders and crew feel they are treated equally and fairly by the factory? Those were the questions we took to some of the key players in American Flat Track.
Ricky Howerton, a longtime fabricator for Verizon IndyCar Series teams, became the hottest builder in Flat Track racing when he and his rider, Bryan Smith, won the American Flat Track Grand Championship while campaigning a Kawasaki in 2016.
Today, Howerton runs the direct Indian factory team with Smith and Baker under his tent. The other factory-backed Indian team is that of defending champion Mees with Kenny Tolbert serving as crew chief. The teams pit side by side at the events, but they are under different tents and there is certainly a rivalry between the two factory-backed squads.
When asked if Indian was successful in keeping both sides happy, Howerton admitted it is a difficult task.
“It’s really hard because you figure Brad and Bryan are on the factory program,” Howerton said. “Jared Mees is kind of a factory program. He gets all the technology and support from those guys, however, he doesn’t run out of our truck, so it’s tough. We’re trying to hold information from him. He’s trying to do the same. As far as in our camp, it really comes down to making riders happy. Between the two guys, they’ve got a lot different style of riding, different personalities, way different ages.
“It’s actually been reasonably easy on that side. They haven’t been overly — I don’t know if picky is the right word,” Howerton continued. “Basically, just trying to get them the best engine package you can get for their riding, which again, they’re a lot different. Chassis are the same. It’s basically listening to those guys and trying to get all your crew guys to integrate well.”
When it comes to updates for Indian’s amazing FTR750 race bike, Howerton says everyone gets them at the same time.
“If it’s something that Indian does come up with, yeah, all three riders get those,” he explained. “We’ve got some stuff that we try to develop on our team away from Indian. Obviously, Jared and Kenny are doing that in their camp. They’ve done a great job at it. The Indian guys are working hard on getting engine updates, trying to get reliability, more power, more tractable power. We kind of have our own little stealth program going. It’s interesting to have Tuesday morning conference calls to see what they think you should be doing and what you think you should be doing.”