The AFT Interview: Henry Wiles
“It was easily the weirdest season of my career,” Henry Wiles says.
Wiles is referring not to his rookie pro season (2004), or even one of his early campaigns, when his streak of Peoria TT wins was far smaller than it is now. It was last year, 2017, and for a top-level American Flat Track veteran it was not a good campaign. He scored just two podiums, one a victory at Peoria, ending the season 10th overall, his worst finish since 2011. He didn’t even make the Main at Charlotte.
“I was to the point,” he adds, “where I’d quit racing if I had to endure another season like that.”
Flash to 2018 and the post-race paddock scene at, say, the Minnesota or Meadowlands Miles, and the story is altogether different – and the smile on Henry Wiles’ face a lot bigger. Wiles proved consistently excellent this year, scoring six podiums on his way to a runner-up series finish behind AFT Twins champion Jared Mees. Wiles recorded a win, two seconds, three thirds, two fourths and five fifths – and top-10 finishes in 17 of 18 rounds. He suffered no crashes or mechanical DNFs, and finished every racing lap the season offered. His lone mulligan? An 11th at the Black Hills Half-Mile. Despite finishing 93 points behind the nearly unbeatable Mees, Wiles bested a very speedy Briar Bauman in terms of season points by 57. His performance was easily the best of his 15-year professional career.
Wiles credits his 2018 turnaround performance to several things, including better machinery and preparation, specifically the dynamic-duo combination of his Kawasaki-based TT Special and Indian’s Scout FTR750, that latter machine he rode for the very first time at Atlanta’s Dixie Speedway in April to a quite-respectable fourth.
Wiles leads AFT Twins champion Jared Mees early in the day at this year's Minnesota Mile, where the Michigan native scored a runner-up finish. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT
But to hear Wiles tell it, it’s the people he surrounded himself with in 2018 that made the biggest difference in the turnaround – a diverse patchwork of friends, family, crew and sponsors from all over the country, each of whom have bought into his version and vision of the one-man traveling motorcycle circus that Wiles has assembled over the years en route to his 30 Grand National victories, 11th all-time.
Smart, dependable and hard-working people form the core of any good race team, of course, but talking to Wiles you get the feeling that 2018 was a little extra special, even if it didn’t start out that way. He did not, for instance, hook up with current crew chief Bryan Bigelow – a very good professional flat tracker himself (ex-national number 11) and a bit of an ice-racing legend in Michigan – until after round two in Atlanta, where Wiles rode a brand-new and box-stock Indian FTR750 to a fourth in the Main without even having correctly sized sprockets. In their first effort together in Round 3 at the tricky and slick Texas Half-Mile at Texas World Speedway, the Wiles/Bigelow duo qualified 6th and finished 5th, and went on to record what ended up being a consistent – and consistently good – season. Something definitely clicked there.
We caught up with the all-time TT-win record holder (19 total, with 14 in a row at Peoria, another record) while he was on a swing through the Western U.S. in December, and asked about his 2018 season, his plans for 2019, his team makeup, his racing M.O. and much more.
Wiles dicing with Briar Bauman (14) and Kenny Coolbeth (2) in the dark, rock-chip loam of this year's Meadowlands Mile. Photo: Scott Cavalari
First off, congratulations on the runner-up finish this season in AFT Twins. You were consistent and fast all year long. What was the difference?
Well, thanks. It was a number of things, really, but having the right people around me, plus having machinery that was both well-designed and well-prepared helped a lot. I didn’t always have that last season, and it showed. I was happy we proved we could ride and compete on the bigger tracks; some of that was the Indian FTR, which is a really amazing motorcycle, even right out of the box. But also that I was confident about my riding and my machine, and knew it was prepped right thanks largely to my crew chief Bryan Bigelow. Same goes for the Kawasaki I ride on the TTs, which is better than it’s ever been thanks to the Michigan crew that helps me with that one. We simply tried to put a team together we thought could win a championship, and just wanted to do the best we could with a small budget. A lot of people helped us get here, and they all played a part. And when you consider what we did this year? I’m pretty stoked! We rode all the laps, too, and didn’t crash or break. I’m proud of that.
Wiles signing shirts and hats for fans at the very chilly Minnesota Mile, while crew chief Bryan Bigelow (background, head down) tries to keep the No. 17 Indian warm.
You seem to have a diverse group of crew, helpers and friends that get you through each race weekend. Tell us about them.
I do, and honestly, I couldn’t do any of this without them. The folks behind my Kawasaki effort – and the so-called TT Special I ride – are the Wilsons, father Dave and son Jake, and also Joe Maney, who had a shop and built one of my PW50 racebikes back when I won a state championship as a kid, and then became a teacher. He did that for 20-some years, worked on some trick XR750s along the way and then got back involved with me over the past year or two, so it’s been a cool reunion of sorts. It’s great to have these guys be part of my TT efforts, and I’m really stoked to be with them. It’s taken time to develop this motorcycle, and all the work and effort has for sure paid off. Problem is, I don’t even know if I’ll be racing it in 2019 due to changing contingency rules on Indian’s part about only riding one motorcycle all year long. If I do things in 2019 like I did them this year, riding the Kawasaki at the TTs and the Indian everywhere else, I won’t make a cent on contingency while riding the Indian, which, for a low-budget team like us, makes things very difficult.
And your Indian crew?
What a blessing it was to hook up with Bryan Bigelow and his wife Brett Ann this year. They’re amazing folks and were a huge factor in our success this year. Funny thing is, when I started the 2018 season, these two were not on my radar. I went to Atlanta with a brand-new and bone stock motorcycle, and a close friend named Matt Heronemus, who's a working colleague. I didn’t even have proper gearing, so we were pretty much on our own. My entire program at the time was a little behind, especially budget-wise. I was doing what I had to do, working a lot – I’m in timber management up in Michigan, where I live, working with Matt – and trying to put the team together. It wasn’t ideal, but we squeaked by with a pretty good effort at Dixie. I’d bought an ice-racing tire from Bryan [Bigelow] during the winter, and we’d chatted a bit. We didn’t really get along before then, both of us being racers and competitive. He was a really good professional dirt tracker years ago, national number 11, and even led the series for a brief while.
Wiles credits Bryan Bigelow - a top-level professional flat tracker himself - with providing much of the technical and preparation support that helped Wiles finish second overall in 2018 - along with Brett Ann, Bryan's ultra-capable wife. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT.
Anyway, I bugged him about helping out, but it wasn’t for him, at least at first. Bryan didn’t need to go racing. Had a shop, was busy, had a nice fishing boat, did fishing tournaments. What did he want with stinky, dirty motorcycles, or driving around the country, when he could be fishing? Most would choose to go fishing. But now he’s back with those stinky, dirty motorcycles. Bryan’s really in tune with things on the motorcycle I don’t know about, and we connect pretty well. We get S%!# done. I probably have his wife Brett Ann to thank for them being involved with me. She got wind of what was on the table and gave the OK, and she’s a true go-getter, a real hustler. No bull$%!# there at all. ‘If we’re gonna do this,’ she said to Bryan, ‘we’re gonna do it right.’ And they did, starting with Texas and going from there. She’s a whirlwind at the races; has everything organized, takes care of things. Bryan’s trained her well! [Laughs] There’s also Nick Nazzisi, helps west coast legend, helps out, and Johnny Olmstead, Tyler Tazioli, and of course Harold Wilson, not related to the other Wilsons. Harold is a decorated D-Day vet who’s old as dirt but helps me a ton.
Tell us about Harold.
He’s the real deal, a WWII vet who braved ugly German fire on the invasion beaches at Normandy. He’s got some crazy wartime stories, and I have ultimate respect for the guy. He loves flat track racing, and has been a huge help to me, personally and as a sponsor. He’s the WILCO you see on my leathers and bike; WILCO is a term meaning ‘will comply’, and has military roots. Harold was instrumental in us getting our two Indians. I think he loves having a horse in the race, and that’s a lot of the motivation for him to help us. He’s been involved in racing for a few years. I won a race on his 450 a few years ago, and we’ve been connected ever since. You have no idea how much I wanted to win the Springfield Mile on Memorial Day and put this guy on the back of that Indian. Wow. It’d been perfect.
WIles' first run on the Indian FTR750 happened at Dixie Speedway in Atlanta, where he finished a very credible fourth. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT
Talk about the Indian FTR.
It’s purpose-built dirt tracker. They did it right. That’s all I can say. They designed it. They tested it. They had budget. And had knowledgeable people involved. They developed an up-to-date, new-school XR750, really. The bike has really helped the privateers. Ya gotta have one. Bryan [Smith] and Ricky [Howerton]? They’re scary. They’re gonna be tough; who knows what they’ll come up with next season with their new Kawasaki? It’s bound to be crazy. But the Indian is the new standard. It’s not perfect, but it’s not far off. When I first rode it, at Atlanta, right after I got it, I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was a lot easier to ride than I thought it would be. I qualified pretty high on it, and it was bone stock. On setup, we’ve sorta gone one way, and then another, during the season. Except for Black Hills, where I couldn’t push the thing at all, it worked out pretty well for us. We have some ideas for 2019 in terms of chassis setup, but without testing it’s hard to know. Lots of guys will be putting up their best efforts, and the bar is pretty high with these guys and teams.
Chasing a chassis setup that actually worked - and failing - caused Wiles' worst finish of the year ... an 11th at Black Hills Speedway. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT
You’ve been a top-10 guy for a long time, but this year you really impressed. Think you finally got some of the respect you’ve deserved all along?
To be honest, I don’t get caught up in that sorta stuff. I’m sure some folks are looking at me a little differently now, after this season. I guess I’m used to it, being labeled by some as a TT-only guy. Personally, I’m pissed I haven’t won more during my career. But I have won my share. People asked me, why no factory ride? I kinda like where I am these days. Satisfying? For sure. I’m glad to get those results, glad to be up front racing. Last year, I wasn’t racing with anyone. This coming year, with a few changes to make the program better, we’re gonna be better. But everyone else is doing the same thing. It’s always tough, you know? We’re doing our best.
Lining up with the cream of the AFT crop at Springfield ... Right to left: Wiles, Carver, Smith, Coolbeth, Mees and Bauman. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT
You’ve won 14 straight Peoria TTs. Just amazing. What’s the secret?
It’s just always been a good place for me. I remember when I first went there, driving down the hill into the valley, and seeing it for the first time, in the flesh, after seeing it on TV all those years as a kid. Wow. This is it! Peoria. Thunder Valley. You’ve no idea how impressive it was. For some reason, I’m just fast there, have always had good speed. Maybe it’s because very few others have been fast there? Dunno. I’ve had some good luck, too. One year, 2013, I think, the bike broke, some electrical thing, and I had to start at the back. It didn’t matter.
Ripping, out front and in control at Peoria, where Wiles scored his record 14th-straight Peoria TT victory. He feels confident he can ring up #15, too. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT.
How confident are you in taking your 15th next year? That’d tie you with Will Davis for 10th all-time, with 31 GNC victories.
Pretty confident, actually. There’s really no reason I shouldn’t win it. For sure, there will be guys that will be challenging, and faster than last year. But I’ll be better, too, and over the years I’ve seen a lot of challengers come and go. The plan is to win more than one next year, I can tell you that!
Wiles enjoying yet another Peoria TT victory lap with crewman Jake Wilson, his son Henry and girlfriend Kristin, who's also an important cog in the Wiles machine. His was a thoroughly impressive performance that weekend. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT.
Tell us more about the Kawasaki TT Special.
That motorcycle has been in development for a long time, and we’ve got it pretty wired at this point. Jake Wilson, who I mentioned earlier, and who’s known as ‘slick willie’, can do anything. Same with his dad, Dave. It started out as a TIG welding project. First the frame. Then the exhaust. Joe, the retired teacher I mentioned, helped with the motor and flow-bench stuff. These guys all live across town from me. Jake’s dad Dave owns Wilson Industries. They’re a major supporter of mine. It’s a family-oriented group; Jake’s got a new kid, a new house. Just great people, all-around nice folks, people you want to be around. We don’t run the motocross plastic on it anymore, but it sure looked good – and there was lots of sponsor area, too! [Laughs] Obviously, the suspension has more travel, and it has a motocross fork and swingarm. It’s all thought out, all integrated. The guys worked really well with me on it, we definitely put our heads together. They were awesome. It’s a phenomenal machine. The Kawasaki engine is a 750, which Jake assembled. It’s a bit of a home-built special, but it works. They’re invested in me, and I’m invested in them. That’s what makes not riding the bike next year so problematic. We’re just not sure what we’re gonna do there.
Wiles with son Henry on the Peoria podium with the TT Special Kawasaki. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT
Any personal significance to your national No. 17? It was Yvon DuHamel’s old number, you know…
Not really. I knew it was DuHamel’s, but there’s no love affair with it or anything. It was the lowest number available at the time I was choosing besides number 13, and 13 means bad luck, right? I’m not superstitious, but… Anyway, since my older number was 27, 17 seemed like a good fit. I like it.
You have a reputation as a bit of a smart ass. Deserved?
Yeah, most of the time it’s deserved. I’m pretty confident person, and I can be pretty witty, and I tend to state my opinions strongly. I’m not looking for approval from others, and I’m not afraid to talk about the elephant in the room, either, so that gets me in trouble at times. Usually I’ll say what everyone in the room is thinking, you know? But it’s not always a formula for winning friends. I have plenty of close friends already, so I don’t worry about having more. I like to have fun, and joke around, and be a bit of an entertainer, but some don’t like it. That’s ok. That’s how life is. Most of the racers have respect for one another even if they don’t particularly like the person. I’m ok with that. Sometimes, the opportunity [to poke fun or make a joke] is too good not to take!
Wiles (71) dicing with Roger Lee Hayden back in the day. Photo: Henry Wiles Archive.
Tell us about your motorcycling roots.
My dad got me started. In Michigan, if you want to ride year around, you do it on ice. I started out in the yard, then went ice racing. It’s what my dad did. Got into motocross, too. Rode the Silverdome as an amateur. Idolized Johnny O’Mara, Damon Bradshaw, Jeff Stanton, Jeff Ward, the mullets, the crazy colors, the ’80s, all of it. Eventually got into dirt track, got some help from Joe Meany the teacher, before he was a teacher, and just progressed from there. Got on bigger bikes. When I was seven or so, growing up, I won a state championship TT race, and Bryan Smith was there…. He got third, think. Anyway, back then, those little PWs went from 35 mph (stock) to 53 mph in modified form. My dad and I knew because he clocked me while driving the truck next to me while I was going wide open! But Bryan Smith’s bike went 65 mph! Not sure how.
Wiles got better on the Miles in 2018. This is Springfield I during a heat race. Photo: Scott Hunter/AFT
How long do you plan to keep racing at this level?
I’d like to keep doing this for a long time. But it’s gotta make sense. I have to be riding well enough to compete, and we’ve got to have the crew and the bikes and the budget to make it all happen, and that isn’t easy, especially on the money side. I sorta knew this year that if I crashed the bike, it wouldn’t be good, that it’d break a good portion of the bank. And the money I won got pushed right back into the effort. That’s the way it is. Driving across country on my own, and eating tuna fish, hey, that’s the way it is sometimes when you have to make the money last. And you have to have people around you that know that going in, that understand how things are, and that are supportive. Until all that goes away, or I start getting tired and can’t ride at this level anymore, I’m in!
Henry Wiles is sponsored by - and would like to thank - Wilco Racing, Bandit Industries, Lakeside Motorsports, Mad Dog Racing, Wilson Industries, J&M Logging, J&J Racing, Talent Hitch, Web Camshafts, Bell Hemlets, Tim Trowbridge and Son Homebuilders, Nick Nazizi, Security Screen Masters, JE Pistons, New Era Caps, Boughner Racing Suspension, Sidi Boots, DPC Racing/Dan Caukins, Schillers Tree Service, Gene and Gail Cummings, Rick’s Drywall, Hoover Drywall, Goon Glass, EKS Goggles, West Coast Hot Shoes, Royal Publishing, Motion Pro, Pro Plates, Wilson Lawncare & TCD Racing.