Team Crosley Howerton: Reunited, Redesigned and Ready to Rock in 2019
In life, if something fits perfectly, works well or just feels right, you keep it. You wear it. You embrace it.
It happens in racing on occasion. And for Ricky Howerton, Bryan Smith and Bo LeMastus (and techs Ron ‘Dink’ Glidden and Jeff Gordon), being part of the Crosley/Howerton flat track team, and competing on the Kawasaki-powered race bikes Howerton designs and builds, just works.
“Our 2019 crew is pretty much the same group of guys it was in the years leading up to our 2016 Grand National Championship,” says Howerton Motorsports head honcho Ricky Howerton, “Bo, Dink, Jeff and Bryan, and that means a lot. We have a lot of history together and have had a good bit of success, and the chemistry and friendship we’ve built over the years makes all the difference.”
In reality, the team unit Howerton speaks of is fairly similar to how it was constituted over the last two seasons, with he, Smith, Glidden and Gordon working out of the Indian Motorcycle factory team truck alongside fellow factory riders Brad Baker and, during the latter part of the 2018 season, Bronson Bauman.
The differences this year, of course, are the elements that worked so well during 2016 and years prior: Crosley Radio owner LeMastus as the team’s primary sponsor along with a clean-sheet, Kawasaki-powered flat track motorcycle Smith will once again compete on.
“It’s like everyone’s been saying,” says LeMastus with a knowing, almost mischievous grin, “we’ve put the band back together. [Laughs] We’re planning to make a bit of noise this season – and especially once the Miles come into play.”
Team Crosley Howerton celebrates a win at the 2016 Springfield Mile I. Left to right: Ron Glidden, Ricky Howerton and son, Bryan Smith and Jeff Gordon.
Miles. If there’s one thing Bryan Smith excels at it’s Mile racing, and especially so on the Howerton Kawasakis. Of his 18 Grand National wins between 2012 – when he first joined the fledgling Howerton team – and his first-ever Grand National Championship at the end of 2016, Smith notched 14 of them on Mile tracks.
“I guess it’s hard to argue with my Mile results,” says 35-year-old Smith, “so the ‘Mile Master’ nickname is probably pretty appropriate. I’m just better there, I think, and I really do believe that the Howerton Kawasaki is the very best bike out there for Mile racing.”
That first-generation Howerton Kawasaki caused quite a stir when it first appeared on the scene at the Springfield Mile in May of 2012. It was unlike anything else in the flat track world – angular, small, narrow and painted a Vader-esque black, which gave it a truly menacing edge. It featured a hopped-up Kawasaki Ninja 650 engine and a spar frame comprised of sheet-formed and -welded squarish/rectangular frame members, a design not unlike the cage of a first- or second-generation GSX-R750 from the mid and late 1980s.
“That thing made some serious waves at Springfield,” remembers Smith with a laugh. “People saw it and just sh_t their pants! Everyone knew it was special just by looking at it. It was really unique, really out there, and the engineering was so good; it was way beyond the typical flat-track ’framer we’d seen in the paddock for decades. In fact, it was a curiosity all season long; folks never got tired of ogling it. I remember being at the Indy Mile that year. The MotoGP circus was in town, and a lot of the MotoGP riders and crew were there, and they just loved the thing. It’s still a really special motorcycle; heck, Ricky’s got it on display inside his house!”
Ricky Howerton's first-gen flat tracker had everyone curious in 2012, fans and the AFT paddock alike.
The story of that motorcycle, how Smith and Howerton met, and the Crosley-Howerton team’s creation and path to Springfield that May is a heck of a tale, and goes something like this…
“I’d built a couple of street-legal street tracker custom bikes in 2011,” remembers Howerton, “and Jeff Gordon, our crewmember from Speedway Engines in Indianapolis, was in Michigan at Scott Parker’s bar and was telling Bryan Smith all about them. He invited Bryan to come by to take a look, and since Bryan was heading to Indy for the annual distributor show in February, he said he would. When he got there and took a look at what I’d built, his eyes lit up and he asked if he could sit on it, and I said ‘sure.’ He said, ‘Man, this is really neat…it feels like my Rotax 600 dirt tracker… so small, so light-feeling. What are you going to do with it?’ I told him I was gonna ride it to lunch! He said, ‘Are you kidding me? I think I could win a National on this thing.’ He got on and off about 15 times, and asked a whole lot of very intelligent questions, really in-depth ones. I could tell he was really excited about this streetbike I’d built.
“Anyway, Bryan and I went out to dinner and the idea of establishing a race team came up. I had never considered having a team of my own, and told him that I did not have the money to support a real Grand National effort, but that I would make a call to a good friend of mine who was a giant motorcycle racer and fan and who’s company was really taking off at the time. So I called Bo, and within literally a couple minutes of us talking about something we knew nothing about, the Crosley-Howerton team was launched! [Laughs] I remember what he said … ‘I’m all in!’ It was February of 2012, and the first Springfield Mile was just three months away, so we didn’t have much time to turn the streetbikes into racebikes. But we got it done and made the show. And in a big way!”
Crosley Radio owner and CEO Bo LeMastus - race car driver, long-time motorcyclist and big-time Howerton/Smith supporter.
A really big way, actually. In fact, Smith and team Crosley/Howerton came very close to winning that bike’s inaugural race. “I led most of the Main,” Smith remembers, “and on the very last lap I figured the guys behind me were going to set me up and try to blow by me at the flag. So I figured I’d try to gap them a little and break the draft coming off turn four on the last lap so they couldn’t do it. But I went a little low and spun the thing sideways and got passed by two of them to finish third. Rick and the guys were happy to podium, but we all knew I should have won it because I’d led so many laps. I was thinking I had to win the next Mile, in Sacramento, because the bike was good, and that if I couldn’t win on it then I wasn’t nearly talented enough to ride it. There was big pressure, most of it self-imposed. Luckily, we won at Sacto, which was the bike’s first-ever victory.
Team Crosley Howerton at the 2012 Springfield Mile, the team's inaugural race. They nearly won it, too, with a small misstep by Smith on the last lap keeping him from victory. Left to right: Smith, Howerton, Gordon.
“We nearly won Indy, too, which would have been fairytale win for the bike and team as it’s Rick’s hometown and all his friends, family and fans were there. I was leading but we had an electrical short or something, and ended up 14th, I think. Still, we went back the following year and got the Indy Mile win, which was really cool.”
Smith leads Zanotti Racing's Jake Johnson (1) and Johnny Lewis (10) at Springfield.
For the 2014 season Howerton moved to a more traditional, round-tube chrome-moly frame, which offered softer flex characteristics than the squarish-tube (and stiffer) spar design used in ’12 and ’13. “It was an off-the-shelf frame that Rick modified pretty drastically,” remembers Smith. “The bike had a bit more grip and feel with it than the previous version and was a little easier to ride at the limit.”
Smith, again at Springfield, on the second-gen Howerton racer in 2014. He finished second to Jared Mees that year, and then repeated the performance in 2015.
Smith had a phenomenal 2014 season on the second-generation bike, scoring five wins (three of them Miles) and nine podiums on his way to second overall for the season, just three points behind that year’s Grand National Champion Jared Mees. Smith basically repeated that performance in 2015, again scoring five wins (four of them Miles) and six podiums and, once again, finishing a close second to eventual champ Mees.
Smith earned his first Grand National Championship in 2016, beating Mees (1) and Brad Baker (6) aboard the third-gen Howerton racer.
And so the stage was set for 2016, with the championship once again coming down to the final race – a Mile, appropriately – and two riders, Smith and Mees. Brad Baker took the win that afternoon at Santa Rosa, but Smith and Mees put on a battle royale for second and the title, passing and repassing one another right to the checkered flag. Smith got the better of Mees with a dramatic outside/inside pass in turns three and four, grabbing his very first Grand National Championship.
Bryan Smith's Springfield victory in May of 2016 was one of four wins that year.
“I’d been dreaming of that moment since I was a snot-nosed seven-year-old hanging around Scotty Parker’s garage back home in Michigan,” Smith remembers, “so it was an amazing feeling to finally win it.”
Stay tuned for Part II of the Crosley-Howerton story tomorrow, right here on AmericanFlatTrack.com
Four victories and the Championship were sweet indeed for the Crosley Howerton team in 2016. Dave Hoenig photo.