I recently wrote a story for Revzilla’s Common Tread blog, about American Flat Track’s ‘SuperTwins’ FAQ memo. In preparing that story, I interviewed AFT CEO Michael Lock — an interview that took place after a perhaps-contentious meeting between Lock and key AFT team principals, in between the Buffalo Chip TT and the Black Hills Half-Mile race.
As far as I’m concerned, if you are just coming to this SuperTwins controversy, I recommend that you first read my story on the Common Tread website. If, after reading that story, you want to know exactly what Michael Lock said in our interview, read on…
Bikewriter: Were there racing series, or even other sports, that inspired this change?
Michael Lock: We have benchmarks, motorcycle racing series that we deem to be successful. For me [commercial] success is the benchmark; flat track has been through the ringer over the last two, three decades; it’s no secret it had fallen on hard times, financially.
Supercross is a benchmark in terms of its ability to attract fans, OEM participation and sponsorship. MotoGP, which I have to say I’ve followed ever since I was in short trousers. That’s a benchmark in terms of pushing back technical frontiers, emphasis on safety, commercial scaling into a global property.
BW: You say, “the desire of our broadcaster to have a racing class ready for live television”. Has NBCSports expressed any dissatisfaction with the current show?
ML: No, quite the opposite. I was in Connecticut at NBC’s headquarters about six months ago for a motorsports summit. We were the smallest guys in the room, and I was talking to some senior NBC executives who expressed surprise that within two years, we’d managed to grow our audience from zero to 200, 250 thousand viewers per episode.
The surprise was that we were doing it with tape delay. These guys are experts, and said, “No one watches tape delayed sport any more.” The fact that we were able to build viewership with tape delay, particularly as we also stream live, really surprised them. They told me that to break out in the bigger leagues, the difference between tape delay and live would be a multiple of two or three. That would take us to half a million, three-quarters of a million viewers; that puts us with Supercross.
They’re not dissatisfied, but they said, “If you want to get to the next level you’re going to find it extremely hard, following the format you’ve got. Your current format’s already overperforming; you’ve captured all the people who want to watch the race, already knowing what result.”
BW: How can you package Production Twins to not appear as the ‘have-not’ series in this context?
ML: That thought’s been in the back of my mind since the beginning. It could easily be the stepchild. But we have a practical consideration that the step up from the 450 singles class is not only less power and less weight, but they’re adapted motocross bikes, so they’re somewhat of a compromise. The step up from that class to what are effectively prototype twins that are 50% more powerful, 40% heavier, and have different geometry and work in a different way – it’s a bigger step up than, say going from a 600cc Supersports bike to a Superbike.
So how do we help people step up? Production Twins was a logical stepping stone, it was more gentle uptick in terms of equipment and competition. I don’t think you want to be out on a mile track, with Bryar Baumann or Jared Mees on their FTR750s, while you’re still learning.
We needed to craft that class so that it would also attract AFT Twins competitors who were just not in the hunt; who didn’t have $100,000 to buy a couple of Indians. They’d be very good competition for the guys coming up.
It’s really got momentum. Vance & Hines have teamed up with Black Hills Harley-Davidson to put two Harleys in that class; they’re not the same spec as the ones racing in the Twins class, but they’re not far off, and they’ve brought sizzle to the class. We had the first race with those two Harleys at Black Hills, and it was outstanding.
BW: “There will be additional costed services as part of the SuperTeams contract” sounds ominous to teams that are already losing money, or breaking even at best.
ML: If we’re able to go live on TV, it will attract big audiences. And those teams will want to bring in outside sponsorship, which is something most have never really done. Aside from the factory teams, pretty much all the other teams have been self-funded by wealthy guys who love the sport.
That’s great, but it’s not very sustainable. We need a link to the outside world, to companies that want to be involved. We’re going to package it and take it to a bigger audience – that’s our job. Your job is fund it and to bring in sponsors to make it work. We don’t expect you to do it on your own; you’re going to need pitch decks and sponsorship documents, which most of them have never done before, but we have done, at the series level.
We’re going to offer them our design services and content, millions of still photos, video because we shoot everything, we have an in-house video department that produces features – which at the moment we do on behalf of the series but could easily do on behalf of an individual rider or team. We have an enormous database, digital marketing tools.
Up until now we’ve paid for all that and used it primarily for series promotion. We do also contract with individual teams; Vance & Hines, Indian, Estenson, and others. But it’s been on an ad hoc basis, on a buy-in basis. What we’re proposing is to make all that available and menu price them, so they can choose at what level they want to go in. All we’re saying is, we expect you to do some minimum level of marketing, so there will be some obligatory costs, but it will be pretty low level. We’re not looking to make money on it. We’re looking to give them the tools, so they can actually stay on the train.
The price [of those assets] is not going to go up, but we’re just saying everyone’s going to use them. At the moment some teams do and some don’t. And guess what? The ones who don’t, are the teams without any sponsors. We’re saying, ‘There’s no way you’re going to have a PR person or a marketing team on Day 1, but guess what? I’ve got a PR team, I’ve got a marketing team, and we can use the infrastructure. You won’t be able to buy it on the open market any cheaper, because we already go to all the races anyway.
I know that some people perceive this as a money grab. We’re not seeking to have the teams fund our sport; we need a truck partner, a beverage partner, a camera partner, a watch partner. I just want to make sure that the teams in the paddock are sophisticated enough to take advantage of that growth
BW: What is meant by the phrase “A set of criteria” when it comes to choosing which teams will be allowed to compete in SuperTwins?
ML: We’re looking for teams to demonstrate financial stability. There have been instances where teams get two-thirds of the way through the season and run out of money. If we’ve been telling their story, and they’re in the hunt for the championship, and now they can’t continue or do it adequately, that’s a big problem for the championship.
Also, what is the intended infrastructure. Some teams have one part-time mechanic, and oops, he doesn’t turn up one week; again, just not professional behavior. I can’t legislate that in all three classes, but we’re going to have to do that in the premier class. I want them to commit.
And we’re looking at the experience of the riders. If we’re in an oversold situation, that we’ve got more applications than positions to fill, we’ll look at the riders, to ensure that the best riders are in the mix.
BW: Would the ability to add another manufacturer influence your choice of which teams get a SuperTwins slot?
ML: We’ve made strides attracting manufacturers, but I would love to have BMW in our paddock; I’d love to have Honda in the Twins class. So hypothetically, an application with an OEM backer would be a factor.
BW: There are key team principals who you no doubt want on board: Gary Gray for Indian, Terry Vance for Harley-Davidson, Tim Estenson, Jerry Stinchfield’s Roof Systems team... Have any of those guys told you they’re in?
Well of course they’re all smart, cautious businesspeople and they want to see the contracts. I’ve been talking both on the record and off the record, to senior people in the sport, about this for two years and I anticipate that all those guys you mentioned with be there. I’d be shocked if any of them came to me and said, “You know what Michael, I don’t really fancy it.”
BW: So no key team principals are just now hearing about this?
ML: No! The first time I was live with this in public was at Daytona, during Bike Week, the night before our first race. We had a paddock kickoff meeting; I gave a presentation then to launch it, and all those guys were certainly in attendance. Unofficially I’ve spoken to most of them way before that.
BW: What would you say to lifelong fans, who used to love the drama of regional riders trying to fight their way through qualifying, and heat races, and semis, to see if they could make the Main? Or fans who love the idea of a guy like Willie McCoy, who just a few years ago could drive up from Texas in a van with his own bike, pit all by himself, and win the Springfield Mile? Flat track used to be a blue-collar democracy, but this will make the premier class an elite closed shop.
I’m acutely sensitive to that perspective, and I’m very aware of the rich and independent heritage of this sport. We are not ripping that up, because the Production Twins class, and Singles class aren’t going to be changed. So the plucky amateur or local guy has entry into those two classes.
But the sport has changed at the top, and not because of us. There are teams that have three or four Indians that cost $50,000 each, and they’ve got a smart guy who sits on a laptop, and three guys twirling wrenches like six-guns, and the Willie McCoy, bless him, don’t win anymore; they rarely get into the Main event because the Twins class has naturally elevated to a pro level. So we’re acknowledging that and harnessing it.
The SuperTwins class is the calling card to the outside world, and we need the outside world, because the motorcycle world has shrunk. In the days when there were 700,000 or a million new motorcycles being sold, and there were amateur racers in every small town tinkering on bikes in their garages; that doesn’t happen any more.
Flat track was always an amateur sport with a veneer of professionalism. It worked like that for 60 years, but the motorcycle industry has changed, and that’s reflected at the top of our sport. We haven’t restricted the size of the field, and yet the typical entry count for an AFT Twins race is 22-24 riders. Only 14 riders have done every round this year.
The sport has organically evolved; what we’re seeking to do is encapsulate that in a format that everyone understands, and take it to a new level. But that’s the top of the pyramid. Production Twins is starting to feel to me what AFT Twins felt like a couple of years ago. So the guy who fancies trying to beat James Rispoli on a Vance & Hines-built Harley... he can do that in the Production Twins class.
BW: What will happen to people who’ve bought FTR750s, who either can’t or don’t want to race in SuperTwins? Will there be a way for them to modify those bikes and become eligible for Production Twins?
ML: We had a meeting on Monday in Rapid City, with senior team owners and OEMs, to chew over some of the details of SuperTwins, and they asked the exact same question. One thing they proposed was that we create a sort of wild card system, where they could enter the races on the West Coast, or in the Midwest. We hadn’t thought of that, so we’re having a look now at ways we can allow teams that have the expertise and the hardware, but don’t want to make that commitment, to becoming a fixture on TV every week. I’m confident we can find a solution.
BW: It looks to me as if you want to produce a discrete, free-standing racing product that can be flown to a city anywhere in the world, the same way MotoGP flies in, to put on a show. In your mind, is there a future in which races regularly occur outside the U.S.?
ML: Absolutely! We have a season that starts in March and ends in September, and it’s fast and furious and keeps the teams busy and keeps revenues coming in to them. Then we have six months of the year when nothing happens. The top teams might relocate to Southern California of Florida, but the rest of them really struggle; they do off-championship races where there’s not a lot of safety equipment.
I would like to take all that investment, and put it into a jumbo jet and drop it in London, or Berlin, or Tokyo, and do exhibition races. We’ve spoken with potential sponsors who’ve said, they’d love it. It’s ‘NFL’ – uniquely American, and there’s a curiosity factor all around the world to see these guys.
For what it’s worth, although I don’t think anyone at AFT likes to see my number flash up on their phone, Michael Lock’s a pretty good interview, and I felt that he made a pretty good pitch for his SuperTwins idea. If I was an AFT team owner, I might be skeptical but I would not reject the idea out of hand.
I just feel that, as I explained in Common Tread, we’re giving up a lot of culture and history with this change. So we’d damned well better get something in return.
If you want my two cents’ worth, I think Lock’s SuperTwins plan may work, but that it probably doesn’t go far enough. I think the goal for AFT SuperTwins should be nothing less than an FIM-sanctioned World Championship. Possibly an eight- to 10-race series in which four to five races are held in the U.S. (much the same way MotoGP holds several races in Spain.)
Production Twins could then run as the top national series in (at least) the USA, Australia, Spain, and the UK — all of which could support a reasonable national series. That would give Production Twins a raison d’être.