Bryan Smith Strikes Back
No doubt about it. 2018 has been a tough year for 2016 Grand National Champion Bryan Smith. There were crashes – first Texas and then Weedsport – and injuries from each – a broken leg and concussion – and missed races, six in all. Yet whenever Smith was on track, and especially at a Mile, fans looked for him to be there, to win, to re-confirm the ‘Mile Master’ moniker the Michigan native has earned over the course of his career.
But through Sacramento and Springfield I and Kentucky and Oklahoma City this year his non-win-streak continued, reaching all the way back to Springfield I in 2017 – nearly sixteen months ago.
That all ended last weekend when Smith drafted past Indian Motorcycle teammate Jared Mees at the stripe for what had to be one of the most thrilling Mile wins of Smith’s career. After his victory lap he jumped off his FTR750 and climbed the catch fence, acknowledging and honoring the crowd in a way that still gives fans who were there or watching on FansChoice.tv goosebumps.
We caught up with Smith a few days before this weekend’s Williams Grove Half-Mile to talk about his dramatic win and probe what it takes to be fast on the Miles.
Congratulations on your Springfield win. What compelled you to climb that fence after the victory lap?
Well, I’ve done it before. I was just carrying on a tradition. I always thought it was cool when the Indy Car and NASCAR guys would win and climb the fence. And it’s cool because it’s the closest thing to shaking the hands with the fans that you can do. It’s different and cool; I think people are tired of burnouts, so I thought I’d give everybody a fist pump.
You’ve struggled this season with crashes and injuries, and had been winless since Springfield I last year. How did that affect your season, and what motivates you to keep fighting after setbacks like those?
Ironically, the win from last year’s Springfield Mile I and this one played out exactly the same: Mees was ahead out of four and I drafted him for the win. Being one of the veterans, this isn’t my first injury, and it’s not my first rollercoaster season where I’ve had some injuries and had to regroup midseason. Racing is a rollercoaster ride. What makes someone a good racer or a champion is being able to come back from the bad days. This season I’ve had my share of bad days with crashes and broken bones, and I’ve definitely had some bad races. There’s no magic answer, or magic recipe. When the going gets tough the tough get going – you know that old saying. I’ve been around it enough to know that racing is not all fun. There’s a lot of downtime in racing; you just need to be strong enough mentally and physically to come back from it.
Smith, thrilling the next generation of racers and fans at Dixie Speedway earlier this season.
They call you the Master of the Mile. What’s earned you that title and what does it really take to “master” racing on a Mile?
I think they call me that because I’ve been able to outsmart almost all of the current guys on the Miles. I learned a lot from the older guys when I raced with them. I’ve had more Mile wins than any current competitor. So the Miles are kind of like a chess match: you need to think a lot, which I think is hard for some of the other racers to do because at 130 mph it’s hard to think about much else than holding on for dear life sometimes. I think it really comes down to experience, being one of the older guys. I have had more races on the miles. It’s not like you get to go practice during the week on a mile track to get used it. On a Mile you’re in a mix of 18 guys going over a 100 mph within an inch of each other. It’s something that takes time to be able to process in your brain, and being one of the older guys I’ve raced it more times and I’ve won Springfield nine times now, and with that comes experience. I’ve always seemed to do better on the Miles. It requires some thinking: you need to set the guy up, to feel the guy out. You ask, ‘where is he better?’ and ‘where am I better?’ and only go when it counts, not the lap before where you would be showing your hand, and then the other guy can set you up and gain the advantage. A lot of it is experience; there’s always luck involved in racing, but some of it is reacting. With a couple laps to go you could try to make a plan, but a lot of it is reaction, because a lot of the plan for what you’re going to do will change on that last lap. I didn’t plan on being second off turn four, but that’s where I got shuffled around, and I had to have the appropriate reaction to that situation. Having the best reaction at the right time is important, and that comes with experience.
Smith leading Mees (1), Bauman (14) and Carver (hidden) at the Springfield Mile II. An epic battle if there ever was one.
We spoke to Jared Mees yesterday and he discussed the importance of having a drafting strategy as opposed to just getting on the gas and putting distance between those behind you. Do you agree? What do you think makes the biggest difference on a Mile track?
At Springfield I got the holeshot and thought I could maybe break away from everyone if they got racing back there for a second. I led the first eight or nine laps out there by myself, but I screwed up and Jared reeled me in. Luckily, by then it turned into a four-bike race. It’s nice when you only have four guys to worry about and not the whole pack of 18, where if you slip up or make a mistake you can go from first to tenth or something crazy. It’s all strategy and the draft. I mean, the draft makes it so that you can almost pass anybody on the straightaway who’s in front of you, so it’s a matter of if you want to pass them and when you want to pass them. There were times I didn’t pass Jared during the Main even when I could’ve and I'm sure there were times where he could’ve passed me and he didn’t, because you’re waiting for the right time, and not only are you waiting for the right time, but you also want guys to think, ‘OK, I’ve got him covered; he didn’t pass me that lap.’ Or maybe I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Jared didn’t come by me; he’s probably setting me up.’ It’s not like there’s one magic strategy. The whole time it’s kind of like calling the other guy’s bluff and knowing when and how to do it.
Always a fan favorite, Smith greets the crowd before the OKC Mile Main Event.
So, it’s a mind game, not just physics; it’s about getting inside their heads?
Yeah. I mean, that’s one of the biggest things with the Mile. When you make it to your first Springfield Mile Main Event with 18 guys bombing off into Turn 3 at a 130 mph, you can’t think of anything besides how crazy it is and if you're going to make it through there alive, essentially. And then you finally get relaxed enough and realize ‘Ok, I’m gonna draft this guy now.’ And as a racer you may be thinking, ‘Every time I can pass somebody, I will pass somebody,’ but that’s not always the case with the Mile. So once you get used to the 130 mph chaos you start drafting and you kind of get into the chess match at 130 mph, of when to pass, when not to pass, when to lead it if you want to lead off turn 4 to the checkered flag, etc. Once again, it’s all experience; there’s nothing else you can do to simulate that except race the Springfield Mile. That’s why it’s so cool and so hard all at the same time.
Talk about the moment right before the checkered flag when you went for the pass around Jared. What were you thinking? How did you feel when you realized you’d beaten him by a wheel-length?
Well, coming off of turn 4 I didn’t think that was where I needed to be. I was in second, and thought I needed to be leading to win it, and I think that’s probably what Jared thought, too, that he needed to be leading it. I mean, I thought I was a little far back coming off of four, but I knew there was a hell of a headwind coming down the front straightaway, and you don’t always want to try to draft the guy in front of you and win it before the checkered flag, because you don’t necessarily want to pull out of the draft too early and make it a double draft for the guy in third. If that would’ve happened, Carver could’ve gone by both of us and won, so obviously a big strategy is when to go and when not to go. I let Jared have a little bit of a gap off of 4, but it ended up being a little bit more than I was comfortable with. I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m screwed, I don’t think I’ll get to him in time’, and obviously you just stick right onto his rear wheel, and stay as close to him as you can to try to get as much draft as you can, and my bike had a weird wobble to it all day, the way it was set up, and I kind of wobbled on past him and just barely squeaked by. I looked down right as I passed him and thought, ‘Alright, I got it.’ Obviously it’s a huge feeling of relief to get a win this week; I’ve been winless all year. So it was a huge relief to get a win this season. I’ve won at least one race a year since I won my first one in ‘06, so I wanted to keep that streak alive. It is one of the longer streaks for wins over time in flat track right now. It felt good to come back and prove to the guys, and myself, that I could win. My team has been working hard, and to give them the win felt as good for those guys as I felt for myself.
Smith, letting loose during practice at round two at Dixie Speedway in Atlanta.
Jared is obviously a calculated and skilled rider. What do you think it took to get the edge on him in this race?
I think on most Miles I have the edge on him because I’ve beaten him more on the miles than he’s beaten me. Obviously he’s skilled and calculated; you can’t ever count him out of any race. But I would say we were dead even on Sunday, it’s just that I pulled the trigger at the right time. He probably thought he had me figured out, but I was able to sneak one past him. There was no definite edge, I just made the move when it counted.
Talk about your team and how they’ve contributed to your 2018 season –and your big comeback at Springfield?
I have had the same core group of guys behind me for a long time: Ricky Howerton, Ron Glidden and Jeff Gordon. They have been behind me for six years and now we have Brandan Bergen, who has been working his butt off. I was stoked to give him his first-ever victory lap. He was Brad’s mechanic last season and then Brad got hurt this season and didn’t have the chance to give him the victory lap, as much as he wanted to. It was cool to have Brad there and to give his mechanic a victory lap to honor him and tell him we’re thinking about him. It was cool for him to see it.
Williams Grove is this Saturday. How do you take the momentum you just created and channel it into a shorter track?
Really, you just go out there and win. I was one of the faster guys, fast enough to get third at Black Hills, and we just won Springfield. There’s no reason why I can’t go to Williams Grove and be one of the faster guys. I have the confidence and right now the bike is working well and I’m feeling good on it. I just need to go there and not screw up and we’ll be in the hunt for the win.
Smith launches the FTR750 at last year's Buffalo Chip TT.
We have two Miles to go in this season. What are your expectations, and how do you treat these tracks in comparison to Springfield?
The other two Miles sound like they aren’t going be too much of a drafting battle like Springfield because they’re looser-surfaced tracks. There won’t be as much drafting. I love Miles, and I’ve been in contention to win all of the ones we’ve run this year. There’s no reason I can’t win them, so I’ve just got to go in there with same mindset I had at Springfield: that I’m better than the rest of these guys and win it. It’s pretty simple.
You’re currently ninth in points. A couple more wins and you could jump to 4th or 5th. Is that a motivator moving into these final few races?
The points are what they are. Having had such a difficult season, I feel like unless I’m battling for the championship, it really doesn’t matter to me where I am in the points. So whether I end the season 5th or 9th, it doesn’t really matter. As long as I get some more wins before the season is done, I’ll be happy with the year.
Your goals for 2019? What does your next season look like?
My goal is to win the championship. There will be some changes within my team, and that’s all I can really say right now. I think these changes will better my performance and give me what I need to win the championship in 2019.
What do you do to get/stay prepared for the AFT season?
I’ve been training pretty hard for the last three or four seasons; I do not think there is a lot to improve upon physically. What I think I need to improve upon is my TT riding to give Mees a run for his money for the 2019 championship. I plan to spend some time this Winter riding more TT stuff and dialing the bike in for me on the TTs. That’s really the biggest thing. Training-wise, I mountain bike a lot and I have a trainer who I work with a couple days a week while I’m in town and in the gym. I’ll be pumped to start the season healthy and get all the injuries from this year behind me. I’ll be doing what I do and what I did when I won the championship. It’ll be good for me mentally because I know I can do it; I’ve just got to do the same thing I did before. It’s pretty easy.
Mile racing is all about strategy and speed. Smith reviews his plan at Springfield I in May.
Which of your current competitors do you respect the most and why?
Obviously I respect Jared for how strong he is right now in his career. He is doing something performance-wise that has him winning; he is at the top of his game.
I respect a lot of what Kenny Coolbeth has done in his career and this is his last year, and I’ve been able to race with him a couple of times this year. If there’s one guy who I’ve got to battle it out elbow-to-elbow with, I would like it to be Coolbeth. I know he will race me clean, just like I’d race him, and we would both race each other hard. He is obviously a three-time Grand National Champion with a ton of wins. He has also gone about it in a very cool way. He hasn’t had to be a social media poster child or anything; he just went about it, won his races, went home, spent time with his family, trained, did it, and didn’t have to go and tell everybody how good he was. So I look up to him a lot, and am stoked that I was able to have raced with him so much during my career.
I am thankful for everyone that supported me this year through the ups and downs, and to all of my sponsors who have backed me.
Congrats on the win and we look forward to watching you in the coming races!
Smith conferring with Indian Motorcycle's Gary Gray at Daytona earlier this season.