To say Indian Motorcycle Racing has exceeded expectations so far in the 2017 American Flat Track season is an understatement. Two races, two wins. Five out six podium positions. Be it TT or short track, the FTR750 has been a dominant force so far regardless of what type of track it’s competing on.
As the season begins its first swing to the longer half-mile and mile-long tracks, we caught up with Indian Motorcycle Co.’s Product Director Gary Gray to talk about the team’s early success and the keys to that success.
AIM: Based on what you’ve seen in the first two races, why do you think the FTR750 has done so well?
Gary Gray: I think our riders. Luckily we’ve got Bryan, Brad and Jared who when they found out we were working on the new bike they came to us and said hey, we want to help, we want to do something new and exciting for the sport and bring some energy to the sport and we were more than excited to get those guys.
Yeah, I think they’re a big part of it and I think the development that we’ve put in, the time that’s being put in to not just build a bike but go out and test it and make it better. We’ve tested at Atlanta, we’ve tested at Charlotte where we’re going to be next week. Obviously we couldn’t test at the TT track (Daytona TT was still being smoothed out day of the race) but we did TT testing before Daytona. So Ricky Howerton and Kenny Tolbert, they’re the best in the business. Kenny’s won year after year and Ricky, in my opinion, is the only guy that’s taken a non-Harley engine and done great things with it. There’s a lot of people trying with other motors and it’s tough but Ricky figured it out with the Kawi and he’s helping us out with the Indian. So it’s good, and the bike’s pretty good. We built the bike but it had to beat an XR on the short track and a Ninja on a mile, so we’ll see what happens on the half-miles and miles.
AIM: In your wildest dreams did you expect you’d win 5 out of 6 podium positions right out of the gate?
Gray: No. No way. I mean, everybody here, the goal is to win a championship at some point. I didn’t think it would be possible in the first year. I set my expectations, my realistic expectations were that we would get on the podium this year. I mean, there’s 18 races, so some time in those 18 races we would get on the podium. And we’d place top five in points somewhere. You look at Bryan last year who won the championship, he only won four races all last year. Flat track is not like pro sports where the New England Patriots win 75-80% of their games. There’s 40 guys that want to beat you. You don’t podium every week, but you’ve got to get points almost every week and that leads to championships. My honest opinion was maybe sometime this year we would podium and we would do well in points because we’d have three really reliable bikes and three really great riders. Top three, top five in points by the end of the year but no, not what’s going on right now. It’s crazy.
AIM: Especially considering the bike itself is what, a little over a year old?
Gray: Yeah, it’s a year-and-a-half that we started and the bike started running less than a year ago.
AIM: When did the wheels start churning as far as Indian contemplating returning to flat track?
Gray: It would have been two Septembers ago we started talking about it. In October of 2015, we kicked the program off and serious design on the engine started in December of 2015. And then spring of last year we were still designing the chassis and had running bikes by June of last year.
AIM: Did American Flat Tracks decision to run the Twins on all the tracks factor in to the decision to return?
Gray: Yeah, it was critical. Michael Lock at American Flat Track is doing a great job of improving the sport and making it make sense for the manufacturers and making it make sense for customers. It was kind of weird honestly before when one race Brad Baker’s riding a Twin from one brand and the next race he’s riding a Single from another brand. It’s like, what is going on? People still want to follow Brad but there’s some people that want to follow a team and a bike, like NASCAR, Chevy vs Ford vs Toyota or whatever. It’d be kind of weird if they were jumping from brand to brand and type of car. He straightened that out and had it make sense to the fans and it’s showing. Attendance is up and people are excited. We were pretty adamant that if we’re coming back, that’s gotta be the way it is and Michael got it done.
We wanted to give something back to the sport. We bought the brand, Indian Motorcycle, in April of 2011 and came out with bikes in 2013 and have a decent lineup of bikes and things are going well and we’re growing year-over-year. And we said, we’ve got our feet on the ground, let’s give something back to the sport. What better place to do that when our heritage is based on racing with Hendee and Hedstrom actually meeting at a racetrack. They were racers and founded America’s first motorcycle company and so what better way to give back to the sport than do something that would make our founders proud and come back and race. And flat track is a big part of our history and we hope what we’re doing gets people excited and gets people back in the stands and gets them excited about racing and gets people excited about motorcycles.
AIM: The big three. Did you ever think that you’d land all three considering their past successes with different brands?
Gray: No. Jared, when we started working on the bike, Jared found out and called Michael Lock who put him through to us. He talked to us about his history, which we’re pretty familiar with before us (big laughs) and yeah, we signed him up to test and then signed him for this year. A few years his contract is. And then Ricky, Ricky Howerton, Michael Lock also sent his contact information. Ricky was calling Michael about what we were up to. He was curious so I called Ricky and we started talking and like I said, there’s a lot of great people out there, but he’s the one guy who took something non-Harley and made it work. I think well, we probably need someone like that to balance out Jared and Kenny and so he came on and brought Bryan, which was amazing. It was also amazing that we wouldn’t have to race those guys as well. Or Jared.
We never, never in a million years, we wanted Brad of course, but didn’t even call him because we’re like, who would leave the factory job, the number one ride at the time, nobody’s going to leave that job. There’s no way. And Ricky said, hey have you ever thought about Brad? Well, yeah, but he’s not going to leave. He’s like, well let me talk to him. And he was going to talk to him on Saturday and that Wednesday, Brad called us and said hey, you know what, I heard what you guys are doing and I’m interested. So honestly, all three called us. We wrote out a list of who we would want but were like well we’re not getting these guys, and then all three of them called us and we’re like hell yeah, we would love for you to be a part of it. They just wanted to be a part of it. They said we’re great at what we do, obviously, and we can help you and we’re like we need all the help we can get trying to bring a bike from zero to something. Yeah, it’s awesome. All three of those guys are amazing, their crew chiefs are amazing. Just like the 1-2-3 finish, we wrote it down on paper and thought this will never happen, but it happened.
AIM: So I saw you up there on the podium with Mees and Smith at the Daytona TT? How were you feeling at that moment?
Gray: Probably one of the top three happiest moments of my life. It’s kind of funny. I’m a pretty calm guy, I’m pretty mellow. I don’t jump around and yell and scream and my team knows me as that. Well, I guess there’s some things that can get me jumping around and that was one of them. It was unbelievable. Half-way through that race, I mean three-quarters of the way when Vanderkoi popped I literally just put my face in hands and said I can’t believe this is happening, I can’t believe this is happening. 1-2, this is unbelievable. And then watching Atlanta, this is crazy. When Sammy went down, did that just really happen? Come on guys, you gotta get a good race start, and they did, they got a good race start. Bryan fended off the number four guy and history was made.
AIM: How do you think the FTR750 is going to fare on the bigger tracks seeing how we’re headed to the Charlotte Half-Mile followed by the Arizona Mile?
Gray: I think OK. Half-mile, for sure, it should be really, really strong. Last year at Santa Rosa on the mile, couldn’t be happier. I mean, Joe Kopp was wheelieing down the back stretch in the lead in the main, so that looked pretty good. So, I don’t know, the competitors make a lot of horsepower so I guess you never know. I’m nervous, but honestly I was more nervous about the TT and the short track. I wasn’t sure whether we’d do really well in those races and we did really well. So who knows. Knock on wood, I might have the opposite problem when we get to the half-mile and mile. I hope all goes well.
Our competitors aren’t going to lay down and if you sit still between two races you’re going to go slower. A lot can happen but I feel better about those than the short stuff and the short stuff worked out well so we’ll keep knocking on wood and hope it keeps going well.