AFT Champion Series, Part I: Briar Bauman and the Minnesota Miracle

The Oxford English dictionary defines the noun ‘champion’ thusly: a person who has defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition, especially in sports.

After 18 rounds of the 2019 American Flat Track AFT Twins presented by Vance & Hines championship, there is no doubt that Indian Motorcycle factory pilot Briar Bauman has surpassed all rivals in his sport of choice.

Bauman amassed the most points during the 2019 AFT Twins campaign and was the division’s most consistent podium finisher, standing atop one of the three rostrum steps fifteen times during the season – something season runner-up and twice-reigning AFT Twins champion Jared Mees (who won all six Miles this year) was only able to do 11 times. Despite notching five wins to Mees’ eight, Bauman’s consistent performances week in and week out allowed him to wrap up the championship at the penultimate round at the Minnesota Mile, a week before the season-ending finale at the New Jersey Meadowlands.

BB14 at the Meadowlands Mile a week after clinching his first-ever Grand National Championship. Scott Cavalari photo.

But it almost didn’t happen. In fact, it looked to many like total disaster for the 24-year-old. In a wild, second-lap cluster crash in the opening stages of the Minnesota Mile’s main event that had bikes and bodies – Bauman’s included – cartwheeling into the turn-one/two AirFence, it seemed certain that Bauman was done for the night and possibly the season. And if he survived the melee would have to wait until the following weekend’s Meadowlands Mile to try to fend off Mees – who could cut the points deficit between he and Bauman to just ten points instead of 35 with a win at Minnesota – for his first Grand National Championship.

The crash, and the minutes following, were surreal, and hazy; was Bauman involved, and was anyone hurt? It was difficult to know. Finally, once the dust settled, yes, he was down, and if you were a fan sitting in the stands or watching on, or a crew or friend or family member standing nervously in the paddock, you just could not believe it was happening. It was the worst possible scenario for Bauman, who had only to finish fourth to take the title in the case of a Mees win. And you just knew Mees was going to win, as he’d won all five Miles thus far and was fast qualifier that evening.

In the aftermath of the melee, which collected brother Bronson, AFT Twins rookie Brandon Price, Sammy Halbert and Stephen Vanderkuur, Bauman’s bike appeared to be a write-off, its radiator hanging raggedly off the side of the engine and the front end and handlebar bent badly. Corner workers and AFT staff on the scene didn’t even retrieve it, thinking it was damaged too seriously to be repaired in time. Back at start/finish Bauman told his crew what was bent and broken, and after seeing how long the AirFence repairs were taking, headed back to collect the bike…just in case.

Before the Minnesota Mile Main-event melee, things were reasonably normal. Briar, Bronson and Brad Baker signing autographs, Michelle Disalvo (left) making sure things are running smoothly (she never stops working), etc. But then all hell broke loose.... Scott Hunter photo.

Meanwhile, crewmembers Michelle Disalvo, Dave Zanotti and Bronson Bauman tech Clayton Gatewood sprinted back to the truck to steal the needed assemblies from BB’s backup bike, and dragged everything back to start/finish … and that’s when things got crazy. What followed was a rapid-fire, multi-minute thrash that mesmerized the crowd on hand as well as the live-steam audience. The radiator was replaced, and while Disalvo worked on replacing the throttle assembly, Gatewood yanked off the bent front end and replaced it with a straight and true one, all under the watchful eye of AFT officials.

Somehow, they got it done before the re-start, and Bauman lined up on the back row, where anyone involved in a red flag-causing crash must go. The handlebar wasn’t quite right, but he’d have to make do. Of course, fate intervened again with a second crash and red flag, which allowed the team to adjust the bar to BB’s liking once he rolled back to start/finish. A local noise curfew forced a 10-lap reduction to the Main, which meant Bauman would only have 15 laps to figure out his newly built machine as he jammed his way (hopefully) to the front. And he did just that, riding a high line out in the loose stuff and carrying enough momentum to carry him to the fight for second place up front where he mixed it up with Bryan Smith and Jeffrey Carver Jr. – eventually ending up third behind Smith and just in front of Carver Jr.

Briar, riding the high line out in the loose stuff during the curfew-shortened Minnesota Mile Main event on a bike that had seemed 'unridable' just 20 minutes earlier. From a back-row start he clawed his way to the front, eventually settling for third after a tussle with Bryan Smith. It was enough. Scott Hunter photo.

“That was truly a miracle,” Disalvo told us later. “Briar had told us the radiator needed replacing, so we took parts from the spare bike and ran them out to the track. The bike hadn’t been brought back to the mechanics’ area yet so we were ready when it arrived. We noticed the forks were bent and again had to run and steal parts from the spare bike. In the end we replaced the radiator, throttle and front end just in time to start the race. From there, Briar did the rest. For him to finish on the podium and win the championship after all that? I could never have predicted it.”

The teamwork and dedication shown by Bauman’s team on the evening of September 21 will undoubtedly go down in flat track history. And it’s something Bauman will mention the instant you ask him about the championship and the effort it took to achieve it.

In one of the classiest moves of the season, race-winner Jared Mees gave newly-crowned champ Bauman a victory lap in Minnesota ... and the tears were already coming. Scott Hunter photo.

“Honestly, I couldn’t have better team,” Bauman told us. “Between Michelle and Dave…wow. Not many would have sacrificed as they have this year, and for three years now, really. The two of them basically picked up and moved to [S&S headquarters in] Wisconsin in January of this year to be part of this; they sacrificed a lot. Three feet of snow and minus 20 degrees. I sometimes took it for granted during all the craziness of the season, but when I think about it, I’m so truly grateful to them. They moved their lives around for me! That means more to me than anything. We started three years ago, and we’ve been together since. I still look forward to seeing them on race day, which is a great thing!”

Mees (middle), Smith (left) and Bauman celebrate on the Canterbury Park rostrum. Guess who's happiest? Scott Hunter photo.

Going into Minnesota, with his first major championship on the line, Bauman was pretty relaxed mentally – which seemed a bit of a surprise even to him.

“Actually, it’s the calmest I’ve been all season,” he told us just a day or two after his win at Williams Grove. “Williams Grove was crucial; we wanted to win there, as we’d been struggling a little on clay, and we did. Overall, this has been a dream season for me to this point. Seems we’re on the box every race, which gives you confidence. Gotta keep the dream alive, you know? [Laughs] We ran out of gas in Minnesota last year, so we’re hoping to win it this year, which would be my first Mile win. If I can do that the rest will sorta fall into place.

Bauman's Williams Grove Half-Mile win the weekend before Minnesota was key, giving him the points cushion he needed to wrap things up a week before the Meadowlands Mile finale. Scott Hunter photo.

“I’m thinking I’ll probably be a little nervous on Friday,” he added, “but this season has been a blessing. I say this to Shay [girlfriend Shayna Texter] all the time … It’s like, ‘If I don’t win the title, it’s not the worst thing that could happen!’ I mean, I’ve had the best year of my life. I’ve watched my brother do so well; I’ve watched Cory [Texter] do well; the money is good; and it’s been a good year all the way around. I’ve got all my friends around me every weekend. Losing the title is not gonna break me. I’m still young, and have plenty of years left. Maybe I should be stressing, but ya gotta take things with a grain of salt. I’m a motorcycle racer, and I’m racing well. I’m really happy right now.”

Did Bauman feel he could contest for the title in 2019 given how good he was toward the latter part of 2018 – and how dominant teammate Mees had been over the last few years?

“To be honest, probably not this well,” he told us. “I felt we could contest for wins. But to be in the hunt for the championship? Shayna thought we could, but I wasn’t so sure. Maybe top three. That’s probably why the pressure has been off. We’ve accomplished so much; we have such a great group, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Last year we ended the season on such a high note. Dave, Michelle… we had a good feeling coming in.”

Bauman’s mellow mental approach carried over to his and his crew’s physical preparation for Minnesota. “I’ve mellowed out there, too,” he told us. “I can over-train and wear myself down a little if I don’t pay attention. I want to be sharp and ready to fire on Saturday, not beaten down, so I’m taking it easy. I feel like, at this point in my career, I know when to push a little extra. I wanna do what we weren’t able to do last year. At home I’ve been prepping for deer season; I love hunting, setting up my bow and all my gear. It’s a good mental getaway for me. In terms of bike prep for the weekend we’ll do things the way we always do them. Our crew – Dave, Michelle, Dean, Paul, all the others who help – is so good. Everyone will do their job, just like always.”

In the end, Briar Bauman and his team did their jobs… and then some. Bauman joked after being presented the #1 plate by the AMA’s Joe Bromley that he was ticked off at his brother for putting him into the fence, and that he wasn’t all that fond of Canterbury Park since he’d had trouble here two years in a row. But he had to be happy with third place after he and Bryan Smith tangled briefly exiting turn four on the final lap.

“We were battling and banging bars,” Smith said on the rostrum, “and I thought, ‘here comes the champ Briar around the outside of me…damn, he’s not gonna let me have this second place! But I knew he’d have the title with a third, and I needed that second place. We need some motivation for next year!”

“Once they got that bike fixed I knew he’d be up there,” said twice-reigning champion Jared Mees, who in maybe the classiest gesture of the year took Bauman on his victory lap after the race’s end. “He’s been riding so well all year. It’s hard to lose the #1 plate, but this year it went to the best guy.”

Bauman himself was understandably emotional on the podium. “I’ve dreamed of this my whole life,” he said, unable to hold back the tears. “I used to have posters of Bryan and Jared hanging in my room growing up. And to win it…I can’t even put it into words. My team is incredible. I don’t even know what to say.”

Mom and Dad were equally happy to see their son – sons, really – do so well and achieve so much. “My heart stopped when the crash happened in Minnesota,” Briar’s mom Lisa told us, “and it was such a relief to know they were both ok. The team was amazing, putting that bike back together; no tension, just quick and quality work. At the end I didn’t know third was good enough for the title, but when Michelle [Disalvo] came up and hugged me with a huge grin, I figured it out! So happy for Briar and the team….they worked hard for it!”

“I’d never seen them crash together,” father Barry said, “and we were worried at first. But seeing your son fulfill a lifelong dream? Well, it’s pretty amazing. We’re all on cloud nine at this point! We’re just as excited for Bronson, too, who did a great job finishing third on the season. He should be a factor in next year’s championship. Lisa and I attended every race this year, and the pressure was high. Sometimes I felt like we’d ridden an entire season! After Minnesota it was like air being let out of balloon….the pressure was off. But boy was it exciting!”

Post-race in Minnesota was truly a family and friends affair for the Bauman clan. Mom and Dad, brother Bronson, Shayna and Cory Texter (2019's Production Twins champion, doncha know), Dave Zanotti and Michelle Disalvo, Max Whale, Chad Cose, Ryan Wells, a host of family members and of course the hastily repaired motorcycle that helped make it all possible. Scott Hunter photo.

Bauman summed it all up nicely on social media in the days following his dramatic championship. “I love this sport more than life itself,” he wrote. “I love the opportunity to compete with my best friends on a weekly basis and get to talk about the stories after. This has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, but the emotion comes from not knowing if this story would ever get written. This season has tested me in more ways than I could have ever imagined, but with the support group I have, we made it through. Thanks you everyone for the texts and messages, you are the reason quitting was never an option. All I can say is WE did it… we are a Grand National Champion.”

Indeed you are, Briar Bauman. Congratulations!