The Mile Master's Farewell Tour
No matter how it played out, nothing was going to tarnish the legacy of Bryan Smith and his magnificent Progressive American Flat Track career.
He was always going to go down as the man who ended Harley-Davidson’s near two-decade stranglehold on the throne when he was crowned 2016 Grand National Champion. He was always going to be the 2012 and 2013 GNC1 Twins champ, and of course, he was always going to be the “Mile Master.”
So what if a late career gamble at greatness didn’t pay off in three different but thematic identical attempts to undue Indian Motorcycle’s current stranglehold on the throne?
When one considers all-time greats across sports -- the Babe Ruths, Michael Jordans, Jerry Rices, Gordie Howes, and Valentino Rossis -- no one really cares about quiet conclusions with the Braves, Wizards, Seahawks, Whalers, or Petronas Yamaha SRT.
That’s the beauty of attaining legend status -- you get to live on forever in your prime in the collective memory of the fanbase.
And yet, if they can help it, no one who has achieved greatness really wants to go out with a whimper either.
Smith’s grand plan after leaving the Indian factory team in 2018 was the exact opposite of that, in fact. While the FTR750 was obviously a wonderful racebike, it was a little more wonderful for others than it was for Smith. So he spent the next three seasons taking big swings in hopes of finding a way to take it down.
His first attempt was to get the band back together with the ‘16 title-winning combination of Howerton Motorsports Crosley Kawasaki.
Smith explained, “The Indian production bike is a bigger flat track bike, and I'm a smaller flat track racer. I struggled being 100% comfortable on it even when I did have success on it. Yeah, I could ride it on the Miles and win, but to hustle it on smaller tracks, I felt uncomfortable on it. So it kinda led to us doing the Kawasaki thing again because I always felt so much better on it, and obviously we had won the last time we rode it.
“So, the Crosley company stepped up and said, ‘Yeah, let's do it again on the Kawasaki.’ Obviously, the results speak for themselves. It was a lot harder of a road than we had imagined. When you're on the Indian you don’t realize how good it is, as compared to when you’re losing to it. We found out firsthand that the Indian was the real deal trying to beat it with our old Kawasaki package.
“You know, it's funny. It was kinda a depressing season but we learned more on bike set-up and made the bike better throughout the year to the point where in the last two races of the year I finished second. When you struggle, you either quit or figure out why you're struggling. It was frustrating and a bummer, but obviously, we did make some headway and kind of got our head above water. ‘Okay, we're not totally hopeless.’ We planned on having a good 2020 on the Kawasaki and then the Harley deal came along.”
The aforementioned second attempt saw Smith and Ricky Howerton join forces with Vance & Hines and Harley-Davidson in a ‘70s prog rock-worthy super group effort to battle against the might of the factory Indian effort.
Unfortunately, it proved to be more of the same, albeit starting over again from scratch -- or at least close to it.
“It was a lot of the same struggles,” Smith said. ”All the stuff we learned on the Kawasaki... well, some of it transferred over to the Harley. But with COVID and the engineers with Harley kind of switching around and maybe not having all the resources that I thought we'd had…
“Maybe their hands were tied a little bit at Vance & Hines. It took longer to kind of get... I guess we never really did get going. We never had the resources to do what we needed to do even though we thought we had some answers for some of it. Once again, it was just a tough row to hoe going up against that Indian. I think I got one podium and that's it. That was pretty depressing for myself with all the races that I've won.
“So it was definitely a bummer. And obviously, we were trying to get the sport to have another damn brand win. I felt like if I could do that it would better the whole sport, not just be a feather in my cap.”
The third and final attempt was the biggest moon shot of all. In search of the best of both worlds, Smith threw his leg over a custom framed racebike Howerton built to Smith’s dimensions with an Indian motor slotted inside of it.
“There are still a lot of benefits to doing it that way, but at the end of the day it just didn't get a hold of the racetrack and it didn't run down the straightaway like the dyno said it should. For whatever reason, it didn't work, long story short.”
While in the midst of a difficult 2021 campaign, Smith made the announcement that this would be his last season as a professional racer. And when he did so, he had four races left in which to go out in an appropriate fashion -- doubleheaders at the Springfield Mile doubleheader and the Sacramento Mile.
As quiet as his ‘21 had been to that point, there were still high hopes for a big finish, especially considering his prior heroics at both venues, which included nine previous victories in Springfield and a seven-race win streak in Sacramento.
The opening paragraphs to that hoped for storybook finish didn’t exactly go to script: 16th at the Springfield Mile I, 12th at the Springfield Mile II, and 12th at the Sacramento Mile I.
“It was frustrating,” Smith said. “It would have been real easy to write it off if I knew I couldn't win anymore. Or if when I went play riding with my buddies or whatever, that I couldn't keep up or couldn't beat 'em anymore. But I could and I was. I knew I hadn't forgotten how to ride.
“Man, I'm not a spring chicken anymore, but surely, I still know how to go fast and turn left. I proved it to myself during the week, riding 450s with Sammy Halbert down in Florida or whatever. We'd mix it up every lap, all day long. And then we'd get to the races and he's a half second faster. I'm like, ‘Huh? Just two days ago we were the same pace.’ It was still really frustrating because I was searching and trying and riding over my head just to try to keep up.
“I had to tell myself to just forget about it and just go on to the next one. That was the hardest part. That's what determines a champion and the rest, being able to deal with the bad days and move forward to the next race and not dwell on how bad you suck sometimes. It's easy to celebrate when you're winning. But when you lose and have a bad weekend, picking up the pieces and focusing on the next one, that's the harder part of being a racer and a champion.”
So that left just the Sacramento Mile II to remind the world he was still the “Mile Master” Bryan Smith before he hung up his helmet.
“I scratched my head more than before any other race saying, ‘Should we even show up? This is pretty embarrassing.' Ricky Howerton was the one that gave me the idea. He said, 'Dude, you deserve better than this.' We didn't know what the problem was, and we had tried a lot of different stuff on the custom frame and none of it was working, engine-wise or suspension-wise. So he said, ‘See if anyone has a spare bike.’
At that point, Smith’s three year quest to beat the Indian FTR750 was put to rest. If you can’t beat ‘em...
“Jared (Mees) said, ‘Let me do some checking, I think we've got a third bike on the truck.’ That led me to getting back on old faithful, the production Indian.”
That evening the borrowed FTR750 was as much a time machine as a flat track bike, allowing Smith to tap into his vintage form. He ultimately battled his way to an inspiring runner-up swansong performance.
“It was a bit of a bummer to have to do it that way, but I was certainly happy to finish on the podium for the final race of my career. Obviously, it's easy to say after the fact that I should have just rode a stock bike all year. But, going back to my and Ricky's success on the Kawasaki and what we've done with him creating bikes and me testing them, it's always worked out for the better. If you looked at the percentage of the times we've built something and outsmarted everybody and won -- of course we were going to ride our own bike. But, this time it didn't work.
“Long story short, it meant a lot to me to go out on a bike that I knew was capable and the result spoke for itself.”
And that result made for a much more pleasant way to say goodbye than the alternative that had stared Smith in the face a day earlier.
“I've joked around saying, ‘Thank god Jared let me ride the bike because he kept me out of AA.’ That's where it was headed. It's easy to go, ‘Oh the accomplishments are this or that,’ to fall back on. But to have the last season be a total flop? Thank god he and his whole crew let me borrow that bike -- I owe them all a big thank you.”
He provided a bigger thank you than they could have possibly dared to ask for by substantially strengthening Mees’ (ultimately successful) bid for the 2021 Grand National Championship when he finished between Mees and his fierce title rival, Briar Bauman.
Smith said, “A lot of people think (Mees) lent me the bike because he was just trying to help out his championship situation with Briar. But me and Jared were friends, then we became rivals and not really cool with one another, and then the last couple years we've become better friends again.
“It was just him looking out for his buddy. Like he's told me and many other people, he knows I can ride. I taught him a lot on the racetrack, just from beating him. So I think he knew I still had it in me.”
As appreciative as he is -- and as close as they’ve become once again -- Smith still speaks with the humor of an ex-rival when discussing Mees.
“He honestly did it out of the goodness of his heart -- I never thought I'd say that about Jared Mees. But he did it just to help his buddy. Of course, if there's a way for Jared to get lucky, he usually does. And me beating Briar and not him -- that's exactly what happened: Jared's luck. He's had a lot of good luck, but you can't take it away from him or the offer he made to me to ride that thing. For sure, thankful.
“It's funny, me and him traveled the country in a van and had a lot of experiences growing up as rookie-type racers on to becoming champions. We battled tooth and nail.
“I was talking with some friends the other day about it. Jared's such a good competitor that it's hard to remain friends with him because he's so tough. You don't want to give him an inch. You don't even want to tell him what you had for breakfast because he's going to find some way to take it apart and make you feel bad about having eggs and toast. At some point, you almost have to separate yourself from the competition because he's so damn good and frustrates you.
“It just got to the point where he wasn't doing anything wrong and I wasn't doing anything wrong, but for me to be a better racer, I had to not worry about what Jared Mees was doing and not let him know what I was doing. That's just how dealt with it at the time.”
And now Mees appears to be engaged in that same dance with two-time Grand National Champion Bauman, his present day nemesis.
“Yeah. It's crazy. When we were going at it for the championship tooth and nail, Briar was staying at his house in Michigan and Jared kind of took him under his wing. He was helping him come up through the ranks, giving him some guidance, and maybe helping him train a little bit.
“And now me and Jared are training together and mountain biking and doing whatever we do, and he and Briar are going at it in the championship, and they're bitter rivals.”
Smith laughed. “I was like, ‘This sounds familiar. There's one common denominator here, Jared.’”
A runner-up finish in Sacramento made for a fine way to end things, but it could have also been viewed as a compelling invitation to continue forward. Did that race prompt Smith to reconsider retirement?
“It did for a split second,” he admitted. “That showed me I would have had a chance at winning if I had rode it all year. I thought about it for a minute, and it gave me second thoughts.
“But twenty years of racing -- it's time to move on. I've had plenty of success in the sport, more than I'd ever dreamed of accomplishing. You get lucky only so many times, and I'm thankful for what I had. You get older and you start thinking more about what could go wrong instead of making something go right.
“It's time for me, mentally and physically. My wrist has been broken and repaired so many times, it's literally worn out. In my head it all makes sense, but for a split second I did think, ‘Maybe I can race one more…’”
A tribute video honoring Smith was shown at the season-ending banquet when he was honored with a life-time achievement award. That made the end feel real, while adding some much welcome perspective.
“I knew they were going to do something at the banquet for me since I announced my retirement. My buddy Thunder said he was working on a video, but I didn't realize it was going to be that in depth. It was pretty cool to hear what some of the guys had to say, Jared included. Yeah, when you race them they tell you good job or whatever, but to hear them say it front and center, what they see me as a racer, and more importantly, as a cool or nice guy in real life... That meant more to me than the racing accomplishments.
“I was pretty stoked to see that, and for AFT to honor me with the lifetime achievement. I've dedicated my life to it, so I'm glad that they appreciated it as much as I have.”
And now what? There’s no worry about him getting bored. Smith has been fixing up, flipping, and renting properties since he was 21, and he continues to expand in that arena. But it seems likely he won’t be disappearing from the flat track scene altogether either.
He said, “I know flat track racing more than anything else in my life, and I know it more than a lot of other people. I’d like to still be involved in flat track in some fashion.”