Flat Track Rising: American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock Interview

American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock (Photo Courtesy of JMPR Public Relations)

American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock (Photo Courtesy of JMPR Public Relations)

American Flat Track racing has been red-hot. Fueling those flames this year has been the renewed rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle Co., the addition of more venues and new tracks, a new race format, more contingency money, and a TV contract with NBCSN. What better way to understand this resurgence in popularity than to talk to the man at the top, American Flat Track’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Lock. Lock has been instrumental in implementing many of the changes and helping steer the direction of American Flat Track since taking over as CEO November 1, 2015. Here’s what he had to say.

What do you believe are the keys to Flat Track’s recent resurgence?

Lock: I think it’s a number of things. It’s clear that the underlying sport is good sport. Pro flat track’s been around for a long time, it’s the oldest form of motorcycle racing here in the U.S. It’s a great sport, it’s close racing, it’s exciting, so I think that the product is good. But it’s always been good and I think that’s a constant rather than a variable.

The variables are that we’ve managed to gain attention for it. Lots of things have changed in the motorcycle business in the last 10 years and the big catalyst was the recession. The recession halved the sales of motorcycles in the U.S. in about a 12 month period so it was a massive shakeup for the bike business. The sectors of the bike business that were doing particularly well were very high-end, big tourers and very high-tech, high-performance superbikes, those were the high-profile, driving force sectors of the bike business. They both took a real hit when the recession came and sales of new bikes went down.

What happened is instead people scoured the internet and eBay to try and find the bike they wanted and people bought older and older bikes. It turned into a kind of fashion for retro maybe born out of necessity, I don’t know. The whole kind of motorcycles as a basic form of engineering instead of motorcycles as technological masterpieces became what it was about for a few years. And that connected people to simpler motorcycles, less bodywork, less electronics and that’s entirely in line with the sport we have. It’s almost a throwback sport and there became a new following for it from the street upwards as opposed to from manufacturers and big sponsors downwards. It was due partly I suspect as a result of the economic necessities but partly it became like an anti-establishment, let’s take over the sport again kind of thing. It was a perfect storm for flat track.

There’s a kind of basic connection people have with that, and we saw that at AMA Pro Racing, and it reached out to the bike builders and the regional racers and the hooligan class. And it’s a more grass-roots flavor to racing, it’s a long, long way removed from the high-tech road racing that’s been supremely popular for 40 years but is really struggling now and the pendulum’s swung back towards what we’ve got.

We noticed that and really modernized the sport, we’ve taken the sport to new venues. Lexington, Kentucky is a great example. There hadn’t been any pro flat track here for a long, long time. But there was a beautiful mile-long horse track here right in the center of town with great facilities and a beautiful surface where we can bring the most breath-taking form of flat track, the mile racing which makes everybody’s jaws drop when they see it for the first time.

This year we’ve got a whole new narrative in our premiere Twins class because we’ve got Harley-Davidson taking on Indian Motorcycles for the first time since the mid-1950s. So there’s a lot of nostalgia and interest involved in that. Harley has dominated the sport for a long time and have invested in it. You could argue Harley really kept it going as a pro sport during the lean years. But now Indian has come along backed by Polaris and have built a beautiful new bike and recruited great riders and great tuners and so these two brands that everybody knows the names of are going head-to-head on the track every week for the first time in over 50 years.

The revival of the racing rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle Co. has been a big story line for American Flat Track this year. (Photo courtesy of American Flat Track)

How were you able to expand the schedule this year and attract new venues and how do you decide whether a venue is capable of hosting an event?

Lock: It’s partly strategic and it’s partly opportunistic. We’ve got a hit list of big cities all across America that we want to take the sport to and they are big population, big motorcycle riding community, there’s not too much science to that. What we do is we have that hit list and we marry it together with facilities. You can only come to Lexington because there was a great facility already here and I think we’ve learned that today’s fan, today’s new fan, not only wants to come and see the racing but they want a show. They want to be able to park their car, buy food and beverage, they want air conditioning if it gets too hot outside, they want clean bathrooms, etc., etc. They want action going on in between races so if they brought their kids they don’t get bored. We’ve learned that we have to conform to what the public wants from a modern sporting event so we have to come to where the facilities can allow us to do that.

There’s been a change, a big, big change in the last few years. Horse track owners who were historically perhaps a little skeptical about putting motorcycles on their track are now much more into the idea because we set up a few pilot events, one at Remington Park in Oklahoma City and one at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona, beautiful mile-long horse facilities where we’ve run successful events for a couple years and word spreads around. The horse track owner community, they talk to each other, and there’s less prejudice now than there might have been years ago against motorcycles because they see that we bring a big crowd, a good-natured crowd. They spend money, so that’s given us an opportunity to go to venues that maybe a decade or two ago we just couldn’t have considered.

We carefully prepare the track before we come. We often go to a new track, particularly if it is a thoroughbred horse track, and we scrape off the top surface which is what the horses would run on because we want to get down to that tighter packed material underneath. So we scrape it off and the bikes run on the hard-packed material and then they return the topsoil so you wouldn’t even have known there were any bikes there.

The moves must be paying off because so far attendance numbers seem to be up.

Lock: Oh yeah, by some distance. It’s the toughest thing to do, I tell you. You can change everything. You can change your rules, you can change the track surface, you can go to different cities, we can grow our social media and online streaming audiences. Those things are all relatively easy to do because a lot of the variables are under your control. When it comes to increasing the number of physical attendees at a race, that is the hardest thing in the business because you’ll rely on people getting up off the couch, you’re relying on people putting the phone down or not streaming that live broadcast through their TV which would be so easy. To get people to come out to the event, anyone will tell you in any pro sport – golf, basketball, everything, everybody says it’s the hardest thing to do. So we’re delighted. The crowd at Daytona was up substantially. We used to race two consecutive evenings at Daytona on the short track and we got about 6,000 people over two evenings, which wasn’t bad. But we got 9,000 over one evening after moving into the infield of the Speedway instead of the outside. That’s how we started on the season and every race after that, it’s either been a new event and it’s been a sell-out or it’s an existing event where we’ve increased the crowd.

OKC Mile - Brian J. Nelson Photo

Getting horse race track owners to open up to the idea of holding flat track races at their facilities has been instrumental in bringing the sport to an even wider audience. (American Flat Track/Brian J. Nelson Photo)

Whose idea was it to race Twins on all tracks this year?

Lock: We were looking at how you scale the sport meaning how do you bring more revenue into a sport that has been starved of cash for a couple of decades? And the riders are not compensated sufficiently for the entertainment they give. You compare it to any other sport, our guys work hard and are not compensated like the stars they should be. We were trying to work out how to scale the sport.

And I’m coming from the outside, I’m coming from road racing and street bikes and automobiles and I’ve been around motorcycles all my life. One of the first things that occurred to me when I went to the first couple of races was it’s really difficult to work out what’s going on because there’s Jared Mees, who last week I watched wearing a Las Vegas Harley-Davidson race suit riding on a classic XR and this week we see him riding a CRF450 Honda. How does that work? To people outside of the sport of pro flat track that is a barrier, it’s confusing, because what is the image of the guy, what does he represent? It’s also very difficult for the OEMs as well. If you’re Harley-Davidson and you’re supporting a rider all year and then they win the championship riding on a Honda dirt bike, that’s tough when it comes to justifying your return investment. So it seemed to me that what we should do at the outset was simplify the sport, make it easier for people to follow and understand.

I put a team together from my competition department, from my broadcast department and our sales people and said OK, recount to all of our stakeholders, to the manufacturers, to the paddock, to the sponsors and see if we can find a consensus to simplify the sport so that we can then take it to America through broadcast TV and have it uncomplicated so people can just enjoy the action and get to know the stars. So we spent a year taking soundings and writing basically a new story in the rule book and signed that off last year. Launched this year so that if you ride in the American Flat Track Twins class then your public, your sponsor, your manufacturer and you and your team know you’ll be riding a Twin all year, regardless of circuit, a mile, half-mile, short track or TT. And we did the same with the Singles and the windfall with the Singles class was these are production bikes. There is nothing the manufacturers like better than to pit their production bike against the production bikes of everybody else. Why? Because the fans follow it and they can buy that motorcycle in the showroom. This is a very straight line for the OEMs.

How are riders responding to the new knockout race format?

Lock: Haha, they hate it! They don’t all hate it. I tell you what, the guys who are up-and-coming riders or the guys who are traditionally out of the limelight, they like it because it gives them a shot. It’s really clear what they have to do. And we’ve had some surprising guys win the heats, and win semis, and suddenly get a profile that they wouldn’t have seen before because in contrast to last year when the semi was really a last, last chance qualifier, this year the stars are in the semi. Everybody’s watching that race which means that the guys that aren’t normally in the limelight are being watched as well. So the up-and-coming riders and the privateer riders, they like the new format. The guys who don’t like the new format were the ones who used to race in a relatively easy heat right at the start of the evening and then sit in their RV for the rest of the evening until the final. So they don’t like it but they understand it. They understand that this is about building the sport. The knockout format firstly puts the stars on the track more. Secondly, I can tell you that no one’s seen this yet because it’s not broadcast until next month but the knockout format works really well for our NBC broadcast. That one-hour program, you can tell the story of the start, the middle and the end. The show is much better.

Lastly, we were curious about safety. What more can be done?

Lock: There’s a whole heap that can be done in so many different areas of the sport, from the physical factors of the race track itself meaning track preparation, you can always do more there. Getting the race program in the evening to flow in a way that you can create gaps for maintenance, that’s a second thing. The better the track and the more consistent the track surface then the less stressed the riders are, so that’s one thing.

The other thing is, what happens when they fall off, because they’re going to fall off. We deploy air fences at all of our rounds and we’ve increased that by over 50% in the last year. So to give you an example, on the mile we used to deploy somewhere between 42 and 44 pieces of air fence through the corners which are the high-risk zones. We’re up to anywhere between 64 and 68 pieces now. So logistically we’ve had to change things around because you have to carry this air fence all around the country, you have to deploy it, it’s a big project but we’ve increased that by 50%. What we’ve also done is on tracks that are ordinarily thoroughbred horse tracks which have horse-style guard rails, which are perfect for horses but less perfect for motorcycles, is now this year starting in Arizona and then at Sacramento and other horse tracks we’re now deploying boards on the transition zone between the corner and the straightaway where again riders are changing direction getting on the gas. We’re increasing that and the provision of hay bales as well, so the coverage around the track is night and day improved to what it was a few years ago.

Then we’re looking at rider safety equipment. So you mentioned the airbag suits, yes we have Dainese as a technical partner this year. They are supplying the Indian team, so all three riders on the Indian team are riding in Dainese now and Dainese is doing a whole bunch of research including sensors in the suits, electronic sensors so Dainese can start working out how the pro flat tracker moves on the bike compared to a road racer. We’re also looking at the design of helmets. AGV is looking at the helmets to see how we can improve air flow because all these riders wear road race helmets, but the difference between road racing and flat track is dust which you obviously want to keep out of the rider’s eyes. So there was some different technical requirements there.

There are other aspects like how do we educate and progress riders up through the ranks because most of these riders started as kids in amateur racing in AMA districts all around the country. What we want to do is reach out to them earlier in their career and talk to them about education of how to learn and how to ride defensively and how to act professionally, how to carry yourself, how to train for events. All of this is a work in progress because the sport is now showing these signs of really exploding.

The change to separate the racing class so that we have a clearly identified, unique class where the motorcycles are not only more powerful but heavier, and a more junior class where the motorcycles have lower power and are light and easy to manage. And the progression through those I think is helping. We also raised the minimum age for competitors to be able to get licensed in the Twins class, we’ve raised that from 16 to 18. It gives the riders, even the really talented riders, an opportunity to learn their craft a little bit longer before they get put in with the most experienced riders.