Briar Bauman: 2020 AFT SuperTwins Champion

Reigning AFT SuperTwins presented by Vance & Hines Champion Briar Bauman admitted to having jitters as the all-important weekend approached -- one in which he was destined to line up face to face with his equal. Months of preparation led to that moment -- years really.

Once it was all said and done, it proved to be the ultimate way to cap off a year defined by drama -- ups and downs, overwhelming success, and devastating losses.

Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

Of course, we’re referring to his wedding with another of Progressive American Flat Track’s brightest stars -- Shayna Texter -- and not his finale showdown the week prior with another series legend in Jared Mees, although that certainly played a massive role in framing Bauman’s year as well.

A personal 2020 that ended on such a high couldn’t have gotten off to any more of a terrible beginning. After at last emerging through the fog of an extended preseason in which a global pandemic put his title defense in question, Bauman arrived at the season opener in Volusia, Florida, set to brandish the #1 plate in battle to prove that 2019 was no fluke.

However, the day before the series was set to kick off the season in earnest, he learned that one of his closest friends, Jess Garcia, had passed away unexpectedly.

Mentally absent, Bauman mustered the focus and speed to secure a pair of second-place finishes that weekend. Mees, meanwhile, jumped out to an early lead in the AFT SuperTwins championship chase with career wins 49 and 50.

Small touches like this sticker on Bauman's helmet or a small piece of tape on his gas tank served as reminders of Bauman's mission to pay tribute to fallen friend Jess Garcia.

“Volusia was a tough weekend for me,” Bauman said. “I wasn't there at all. All I wanted to do was fly to California -- which I did the next day after the races -- and see his family and all my friends and just be with them. And after I got home, I was like, ‘All right, this season is for Jess.’”

Bauman came back swinging the next time out, finally completing the career Grand Slam with a glorious victory at the Indy Mile. He doubled up the following day, and the fight was on.

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

Bauman and Mees traded the points lead back and forth like haymakers in a Rocky film; the lead alternated following the first four doubleheaders of the season as they each struggled to gain the upper hand.

“With these doubleheaders and certain race tracks, it's give and take. I think to be successful with that you have to understand it and be able to take it in. You have to understand it's not going to always be your perfect weekend. But I had to be as good as I could be on those weekends where Jared was perfect.

“Even when we were down, I just took it in stride and understood things would probably turn back around -- maybe not, maybe he’d go on a roll. But if I could just respect the fact that he had a great weekend and learn how he did it, I'd be able to turn it around and keep charging.

                                    Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

“That was a big thing. Two times he had a double-digit points lead going into a weekend and in two days of racing, I was able to erase it.

“And then one time I was all the way up to a 25-point lead and it was looking like, even to me, ‘He’s broke down.’ But then he came back with three really good races in a row.”

Critically, those three really good races pulled Mees to less than ten points back of Bauman heading into the AFT Finale at DAYTONA. That narrow deficit meant that should Mees pull off his third double of the season -- after previously sweeping the series’ only other stop at a Short Track in 2020 -- he would successfully reclaim his kingdom.

“It was a pretty stressful week, from Charlotte up until DAYTONA,” Bauman admitted. “All of the sudden it went from 25 points to nine. Back to the give and take.”

While he felt confident he would be stronger than Mees at the DAYTONA Short Track, nothing was guaranteed and the very nature of the circuit tends to spring surprises on the field in a hurry.

“I was stressed out. I was definitely really, really nervous. The first day at DAYTONA I was pretty anxious to get out and ride.”

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

That first day went extremely well for Bauman. He racked up 20 points for second while Mees lost ground in fourth. That put the champ in position to repeat with just an eighth-place finish even though that would have been his worst result of the entire season. That fact did little to calm his nerves, especially the way the day ultimately played out. Inclement weather stretched an already long day to tortuous proportions while providing precious little advance warning as to when he might have to compete in one of the most important races of his life.

“I think the second day was even more nerve wracking and stressful than the first day. It was the worst. Obviously, I've only been in a championship-winning scenario twice now in my career. In one of them, I went through the airfence the day I won my championship... I think dealing with the rain was more nerve wracking than going through the airfence.

“What happened on the track in 2019 happened and then we were able to get back going, fortunately. But with this one, it was like -- holy cow -- you'd get excited, ready to go, shut it down. Get excited, ready to go, shut it down.

“And on top of it, we're dealing with the DAYTONA Short Track, where things can go haywire quickly. It's a pretty wild racetrack as it is, and then you throw those variables at it, and it changes everything.

“That three-hour deal -- or however long it was -- we were just watching it rain and watching them work on the track. It'd be really close and everyone would yell, ‘We've got to go, there's more rain coming!’ That was so hectic. My heart rate was completely pegged the whole time.”

Finally on track and well on his way to a championship repeat in third late in the race, Bauman had one last force of nature to contend with; Sammy Halbert stormed up behind him like a tornado, having already roughed up Jeffrey Carver and sent him spiraling down the order in the process.

A similar ordeal for Bauman could have meant a painful end to a year-long title quest, and Halbert was more interested in getting on the box than Bauman’s (or Mees’) big-picture concerns.

For all his memorable overtakes and race wins, Bauman’s signature moment of 2020 may have been easing up and making way for ‘Slammin’ Sammy’ in order to collect his second consecutive Grand National Championship from fourth position.

“I think I made some pretty cool passes this year, but the best move was rolling out of it and letting him come by. I wish that wasn't the case. I wish the championship wasn't on the line and we could have gotten sporty and made a really good show for the fans who stuck it out through the weather. But unfortunately, it was in my best interest to let him go and just kind of roll by and finish it off in fourth.”

“When it was done, I didn't even want to celebrate after the Main. I just wanted to breathe. ‘Okay, it's over. We can breathe again.’ That was a little bit different than last year.”

After the final checkered flag waved, Bauman defeated Mees by just nine points (309-300) and edged him for most wins by a single victory (6-5). While the pressure cooker of the past two seasons has effectively transformed them from great friends into great rivals, the respect shared between the two competitors is undeniable.

Moments after losing out following a year of intense struggle to regain the #1 plate, Mees admitted, “(Briar) rode so phenomenal all season long. He's elevated my game the last couple years. It's been a lot of fun to race with him and also to learn from him.”

When asked about that comment, Bauman said, “Yeah (pause). That's huge. A few years ago, during interviews he would talk about how he was in his prime. I think he's even better now. I think he's riding more aggressively and more on edge now compared to when he won ten races two seasons in a row. I can see it and I can feel it.

“I think Mees is known as the grinder -- the guy who works really, really hard -- which he does. To be better and to out-grind and outwork someone of his caliber, someone who has won that many championships, it's an honor more than anything else.

“And for me to be a guy that's kind of changed the game and taken a dude who's trying to be one of the greatest ever and make him say that I'm making him better... I think it's just good for the sport.

“I love the sport of flat track and I want to see it continue to grow. And heck, if I'm one of the guys that continues to make everyone step up their effort and go outside their comfort zone, then I'll do whatever it takes.”

The night Bauman won his 2019 Grand National Championship, he reflected on his long journey from adolescent superfan and aspiring dirt track hero to its reigning king. He sounded as if he was pinching himself while mentioning the fact that his bedroom was once lined with posters of the likes of Jared Mees and Bryan Smith.

Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

Today there’s a new generation of wannabe future stars out there who look up at night and see Briar Bauman racing on their wall, at once idolizing him and trying to work out a way to eventually topple him from his throne.

“I think about that honestly,” Bauman said. “I like the saying, ‘We're all just a kid from somewhere.’ You know what I mean? No one really cares where that is.

‘When I was ten years old, that didn't mean anything to Jared Mees. Not saying that in a bad way, but we're all just a kid from somewhere. When you're that age you look up to guys like Jared Mees or Jake Johnson or Doug Chandler or Ricky Graham, and you try to mold yourself into what they are. Where do they struggle? How do you be better than them?

“I remember in 2011, when I went pro, I was watching Jake Johnson and Jared Mees. If those two had a kid together, that’s who I wanted to be. I wanted to be the guy who worked like Jared Mees, with that work ethic, drive, and determination, and combine it with the sheer talent and ability of Jake Johnson, and still be me on top of that.

“If someone like Dallas Daniels looks at me and Jared Mees and says, ‘Hey, I want to be what they are combined,’ that's a dream come true for me. It's pretty surreal. I don’t know if kids out there are saying that, but if they are, it’s a proud moment for me.”

That possibility also serves as a warning of even bigger threats on the horizon.

When Valentino Rossi first exploded onto the MotoGP scene, he rendered the established heroes obsolete overnight. However, when the next generation of aces eventually arrived -- snipers like Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, who had Rossi in their sights from the very beginning and developed their styles to combat him -- Rossi found himself the one struggling to keep pace.

And then the next generation after that emerged in the form of Marc Marquez, who revolutionized the sport yet again. That in turn primed the sport for a whole batch of post-MM93 elbow-grinding, front-wheel sliding maniacs Rossi is still attempting to get a handle on to his day.

Bauman understands what’s coming and embraces that challenge.

Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

“That's the coolest part. I hope that's the same case of American Flat Track. Obviously, right now, I still do my homework and watch so much racing. Even guys who I beat during the week, I still watch them and think, 'Man, that was incredible. How can I do that if I need to?'

“I think that's what they did with Valentino Rossi and now Marc Marquez. Marquez has changed roadracing even another step after Rossi and the riding style is completely different as a result.

“(Fabio) Quartararo didn't come up with what he’s doing on his own. He watched enough guys, and he obviously has the ability to do it. I just think it’s about doing your homework and trying to be better every single time you're on the racetrack.

“If we can put that same sort of mentality in every one of these kids that are coming up -- and they continue to have a good time while they're doing it and not overstress themselves -- I think the future of American Flat Track is really, really bright.

“I hope there’s some eight-year-old kid out there right now I have to deal with someday. We're all just a kid from somewhere. I was that kid at one time, and then the stars aligned and I became the guy everyone had to worry about. I love it.”

While to the AFT world at large, 2020 will go down as the year Bauman and Mees squared off during the pandemic, for Bauman it’s the season that started with the loss of a best friend in Jess and ended with the addition of a wife in Shayna.

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

“I wanted the championship just so the week leading up the wedding would go smoother honestly. It's funny, but that's kinda how it was. It was a stressful week before DAYTONA and then another stressful week before the wedding.

“I got to celebrate really, really big with everyone I love, my family and friends. It was great.

“One of my other best friends, Zach Taylor, was in our wedding. He was part of our clan with a few other guys in California -- a group of five or six of us, including Jess and Bronson -- who grew up together. Every chance we got when we were back home, we were basically inseparable. Every second of every day we were either playing Xbox or playing basketball. We were just best friends.

“It’s just one of those deals... As you grow older and move away, you lose contact a little bit. But when you get back home, it's almost like things never change.

“I remember in 2018, after the last round, Jess commented on one of American Flat Track's photos and said, 'I can already tell now, in 2019, we're all going to be tired of Briar Bauman like we are Jared Mees.'

“I loved that. (Losing Jess) was really, really hard. Basically, the whole season was for him.”

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track