Jeffrey Carver Jr. and the Comfort Factor

It’s Tuesday, May 21st, less than a week before Memorial Day weekend and the Sunday running of the annual Springfield Mile I, and Jeffrey Carver Jr. is driving cross country. Not West to East, as he normally would have done after the Sacramento Mile (postponed by weather), but South to North, from Florida – where he’s been riding and training and staying with friend Johnny Lewis for much of the winter and early spring – to Illinois, where he’s originally from. Specifically, that’d be Alton, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis and a little under 100 miles south of Springfield.

Carver Jr. is ensconced in his high-top camper van, which he calls Big Bertha, comfy, warm and dry despite the rain, wind, hail and nasty, tornado-potential weather currently whipping the South and Midwest as well as Big Bertha’s fenders. It’s the same storm that postponed the Sacramento Mile last weekend, and it’s a doozie. He’s listening to music, a vintage Grateful Dead show from 1977, occasionally at elevated volumes, as he drives North through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, a trip of around 850 miles. He’ll do it in 15 or 16 hours, stopping only for gas and the occasional bathroom, as the toy-hauler rig he pulls with Bertha – which he calls the Wooly Mammoth – is equipped with food, a fridge, a stove and a bed for a quick nap. Again, comfortable and nice.

Carver Jr. heading out for practice at this year's Atlanta Short Track at Dixie Speedway, where he ended up fifth on the night. Photos: Scott Hunter/AFT

Carver Jr. is hoping for comfortable and nice this weekend, too, when he rolls into the Illinois State Fairgrounds, reconnects with his Roof Systems of Dallas/Indian of Metro Milwaukee crew, unpacks his hauler, sets up his pit and straps on his steel shoe for the first practice session of the 101st running of the Springfield Mile.

Comfort is key with racers, especially motorcycle racers and absolutely so with dirt trackers, and we’re not talking butt-cheek/gel-seat comfort here. We’re talking chassis-setup, power-delivery and track-condition comfort, the way a bike goes, stops, handles, slides and communicates to its rider through its handlebar, pegs and throttle what’s going on at those two, tiny contact patches on a wide variety of dirt surfaces. If a bike is set up well for particular track and the rider is comfortable he or she can ride harder and closer to the edge of control and traction. There’s more confidence and mental strength in the mix, too, which allows them to not only explore different lines but actually use the good ones they might find, even if traction or conditions aren’t ideal. Or, to simply blow through a problem and just make it happen. Comfort widens the what’s-possible envelope for a racer.

Conversely, riding a motorcycle that’s uncommunicative or vague – or just not happy – allows little (or none) of this line exploration and/or close-to-the-ragged-edge flexibility, and even the best skills often aren’t enough to overcome it. It’s why a rider can dominate one weekend and struggle for a top-five the next. It’s certainly not as if they forgot how to ride.

The Essential and Elemental Essence of Wizardry, all done up in 100%, non-shrink cotton.

Like most world-class motorcycle racers, Jeffrey Carver Jr. loves being comfortable on the bike. It not only allows him to relax and concentrate and wring maximum speed and performance from his motorcycle, it allows him to be The Wizard – that creative, mental, out-of-the-box racer the flat track community and fans know him to be. Think Texas Half-Mile in 2017 when he shocked everyone by beating the Indians on an XR750. Think Atlanta Short Track last year when he ran up high and down low and bounced up against the wall repeatedly (shaving an inch from his right footpeg) to grab second. And think back to a year ago when he won at Springfield in late May, pulling away from names like Mees, Coolbeth and Smith in the late stages of the race for his first-ever Mile victory.

To get some insight into his up and down 2019 season, his dramatic win at Springfield last year, how’s he’s approaching this weekend and how the mental part of the game – and the Comfort Factor – works for him, we chatted with The Wiz during his trip North on Tuesday. Here’s how it went.

It’s Springfield Mile time again, JC. You have some good history here, and you’re from the area. Excited? Talk about that, and your season so far.

Well, it’s been up and down this year, and a little frustrating at times. We’ve struggled here and there, especially on the Half-Miles, so what we really need this weekend is something to pick us up. We need some luck, a good bike setup, a good rider – that’s on me, of course – and a good finish. We’ve done well here in the past. Especially last year, with the win in May and the close third in September. So coming into Springfield there’s some pressure on me. I mean, a win and a third the year prior will do that to you. It’s expectations, really, from the outside and from myself. I feel like I’ve been putting in the time this year and doing the hard work, so I’m hoping it’ll come good. I’m also happy and ready to be back home. Haven’t been home since February when I left my Dad’s place and headed South to Florida to hang with friends and camp and train and ride. Been staying with Johnny Lewis down there, and stopped to see Rob McLendon and ride at his Pensacola track on the way to Texas. Good stuff, for sure, but it’s good to be home.

Carver Jr. ripped at Springfield in 2018, winning on Memorial Day weekend and grabbing a close third in September when he, Jared Mees, Bryan Smith and Briar Bauman finished in a tight-knit group.

Lots of emotions for me right now. So I have to treat this like any other race, and it isn’t easy at times. We definitely had momentum last year, and we’ve had some this year, too. We were pretty fast in Atlanta back in March until I lost my brakes and faded to sixth. Arizona was a great step in the right direction, my best TT finish since I went to Twins in 2011, but having to use my provisional and finishing 13th at Perris took a lot of wind out of my sails. The Half-Miles have been tough. Our setup has been a little off, and that hasn’t helped my comfort level on the bike. When I’m not comfortable and the setup isn’t right, it’s really difficult to push hard.

Talk about the ‘comfort thing’ if you can. 

Well, any of the riders will probably tell you this, but when you’re comfortable you’re more often than not confident, and when you’re confident you’re also fast – most of the time, anyway. A good setup, along with being comfortable with the racing surface and the way the bike is working and talking to you, goes a long way to being comfortable, and being fast. It also helps you have the mental strength to push through when the going gets difficult, and in this sport things can turn difficult pretty quickly even when things are going well. The track can change a lot in a 25-lap Main, and you can go from being confident to not-so-confident in just a few laps. You just never know.

Smith, Carver Jr. and Mees at Springfield, 2018. As the famed Roxy Rockwood might have said, "You could throw a blanket over them..."

When I got third last year at the second Springfield Mile, my bike was all over the place, bouncing around all erratic, but I had this mental state of mind – which probably came from the confidence built up from May’s Springfield victory – that allowed me to blaze right through it. I was a warrior in battle. I’m not quite there this year. I don’t feel like I have the mental strength to push though when it’s tough. And it’s not like you can just snap your fingers and have that toughness happen, you know? You never wanna push until things are right, but if you’ve got the feel and that confidence, or maybe that warrior spirit, you can pull from your bag of tricks.

Care to talk specifics on bike setup?

Well, for one thing, we went into this year with slightly different approach, and I think that’s hurt us a little. I like a low and long and soft setup to start, typically. I think that comes from years flat tracking a motocross bike in Singles, with all that available suspension and wheel movement. I’m comfortable with that. It’s easy to ride… for me anyway. And it gets me comfortable early in the day. And we can make tweaks from there, hopefully in the right direction. It took a while to get used to Twins when I switched to them from Singles for the 2011 season; it wasn’t an easy transition.

Chassis setup has been a bit of an issue for Team Carver this year, especially on the Half-Miles. Here, Carver Jr. chases Larry Pegram at Perris.

This year I think we’ve tried to jump to that next setup level chassis-wise right off the bat, and we’ve missed the mark a few times. But I feel pretty good about this weekend. We know what works at Springfield. I wanna go in, start off with what we know, soft and long, and see how it goes. If the cards aren’t right, we play it smart. Dad always told me, the race is won in the Main, not in practice. And the results can be ugly if you push at the wrong time. This is a risk-reward sport; we all understand the risks. When you’re not feeling comfortable, that’s when bad stuff happens. And in this sport, that can be lethal. But I’m ready to shake all that off now. And Springfield is the best place to do it.

Tell us about your win at last year’s Springfield I race.

Man, it was magical. I mean, it’s the premier race of the season, or at least one of the two or three. And a lot of friends and family were there, which made it awesome for me. When I won at Texas in 2017, it was just me and Ben [Evans, Carver’s crew chief – Ed.]. And when I won my first Twins Main at Castle Rock back in 2013, it was just Dave and Tommra Kieso, who used to sponsor me [and who run both Springfield Mile races – Ed.] I love those guys and they’re like family, but it was just us. But to have all the family and friends at Springfield last year, and to win and have Dave Despain intereview me from the podium? Wow… that’d never happened before. Before, I’d always won when no one was around!

Carver Jr. gets the Dave Despain Podium treatment, with Mees (left) and Coolbeth Jr. (right) looking on. "It was great winning in front of friends and family," he said later. "My other wins came when no one was around!"

Tell us about your 2019 team.

Things are mostly as they were last year, with Jerry Stinchfield from Roof Systems of Dallas helping out tremendously, and also Indian of Metro Milwaukee, another big supporter. Ben Evans is my crew chief, and we’ve got Brian ‘Slo’ Slominski back again, along with new guys Pat Mooney Jr. and Eric Stach from Indian of Metro Milwaukee. It’s a good group. And it’ll help, too. There have been times over the past couple of years where it was just me and Ben, and when you’re contending with factory guys like Jared [Mees] and Briar [Bauman] and Sammy [Halbert] and Jarod [Vanderkooi], and this year JD [Beach] and Jake [Johnson] on the super-professional Estenson Racing team, having good bodies around helps. I remember coming in from qualifying or practice and having to tear pipes off or yank wheels and change tires without a lot of time, and when you’re rushing around doing that and trying to think about the track and your riding, it’s not good. This year we’ll be able to talk and relax and debrief more before, after and between sessions, and that will help me.

Maybe more than most, Carver Jr. is highly analytical before a race, looking for options that might come into play later in the day. "Flat track racing is never consistent," he says.

Do you feel extra comfortable on any particular sort of track? Miles vs. Half-Miles or Short Tracks?

I always tell people this, and it’s true: I like a racy racetrack, a changing racetrack, a place where you have variable conditions and options, options that give you a way to move around the circuit. Like, Springfield is always changing. Bottom, up high against the hay bales, the whole chess-game aspect. Or Lima. On a track that gives you options, that’s where I usually excel. So for me it’s not Miles vs. Short Tracks vs. Half-Miles. Finding something useful on the racetrack that no one else sees makes me happy. I try to analyze things early in the day; I try to figure out lines and options no one else might think of (or try), so later in the evening the option might be there for me. In the end, flat track racing has very little consistency. It’s always changing, and never really comfortable for the riders. But we do get close on occasion, and that’s when the magic happens.

This weekend at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Carver Jr. is looking to recapture the groove that led him to a dramatic Springfield Mile victory a year ago.

What’s different about the competition this year?

A couple things. For one, going from 18 to 16 riders in the Mains has really made things tough, especially given the unreal level of competition this year, which includes new full-timers JD [Beach] and PJ [Jacobsen] and some of the Singles riders like Brandon Price, who’s going pretty fast. So you’ve not only got a lot of really good Indians out there, you’ve got more really good riders on them. And now the Harleys are better, too, and Sammy and Jarod are really good anyway, so there’s that element. The field is just so stacked now. It’s hard to make the Main. Everyone’s faster, too. Everyone’s riding all season and training and eating better, and it shows. It’s a recipe for hard-core competition, and it’s great for the fans, but man, it’s tougher than ever for us and no one knows what’s gonna happen week to week!

Which upcoming races are you looking forward to the most, and why?

Probably Lima. I’ve always liked that place and it’s always changing. I really just wanna get comfortable and build some momentum for the season. I just need to feel more comfortable. Cause that’s when The Wizard comes out!

Good luck this weekend!