Reclaiming the Throne: Mees on the Hunt for Title Number Seven

Prior to the start of the 2017 American Flat Track opener, Jared Mees was already firmly entrenched as a Hall-of-Famer in waiting with just an enshrinement speech required to complete his résumé.

During his decade-and-a-half at the highest level of dirt track racing globally, Mees had amassed a litany of accomplishments, including the 2012, ‘14, and ‘15 Grand National Championships, the 2009 and 2011 GNC1 Twins Championships, the 2012 GNC1 Singles Championship and 20 GNC Main Event victories.

In barely over three seasons since, Mees has effectively assembled a second HoF-worthy career. During his relatively short stint spent as an Indian Motorcycle factory ace, Mees has quickly reeled in two more Grand National Championships and a mind-boggling 30 victories.

Taken together, Mees has entered some truly rarified air. The only riders who still maintain a clear edge on Mees in the record books are the most legendary of the legendary -- Scott Parker and Chris Carr -- whose numbers once seemed untouchable. While Parker’s place as the winningest rider in the history of the sport still seems secure at 94, Carr’s 78 is, if not under threat, at least on notice.

And yet, coming into the 2020 season, Mees found himself pursuing not only the ghosts of Parker and Carr, but a contemporary. His #1 plate had been lifted off his FTR750 and placed on the front of the machine belonging to former informal protégé turned primary rival Briar Bauman.

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

Following an unsuccessful threepeat bid in ‘19, Mees’ offseason was always going to seem long, even in the best of circumstances. As it played out, it was downright torturous.

So no surprise, the ‘20 opener proved exceedingly gratifying as Mees rang up GNC victories #49 and #50 (along with #1 and #2 of the AFT SuperTwins era).

Celebrating double victories at the conclusion of the inaugural Volusia Half-Mile doubleheader.
Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

“We put in the work and were as ready as could be coming into DAYTONA,” Mees said. “Then the whole pandemic thing hit. Never really knowing when or if we were going to get going was the hardest part. Going to bed every night and getting up in the morning and still trying to stay motivated... ‘Man, is there ever going to be a time when we get to race?’

“So it really felt good to go out there and start the year off like that. There was no better way. I'm pretty pumped on that. 50 Grand National wins -- that was very, very rewarding.”

It’s a stark contrast from this point in the season a year ago. While Mees absolutely dominated the 2018 championship -- racking up 10 wins in the first 13 races -- he ended the year winless over the final five rounds. That carried over to the start of ‘19, where that drought was upped to seven before he finally climbed back atop the box. As a result, he spent the remainder of the season in a fruitless attempt to chase down Bauman.

And now -- despite not winning the ‘19 title -- Mees looks to be in just about as commanding a form as he’s ever enjoyed. He’s won seven of the last nine races dating back to the end of last season and stands as the rider with the early title advantage this time around.

“We just kind of had a rough start to the year in 2019. I never really felt like I got any momentum built up. Any time I won something, I'd come back and kinda step right on myself. I was really looking forward to rebounding this year.

“It's funny, you know, you're only as good as your last race. That is such a truth. I had a couple bad races last year and people start grumbling: ‘Oh man, I think he's seen his day.’ Everybody forgets what I've done and what I'm still capable of.”

When asked if he’s taken a moment to reflect on the historic nature of his success in recent seasons, Mees said, “I mean, you think about it. But as I'm still active in the sport, I want more. Yeah, that's cool, but I want this and I want that. I guess, what I'm saying is, I don't know how to reflect on it other than to keep striving forward for more results.”

Typically a rider with his pre-Indian credentials -- again, multiple titles in a decade-plus of competition -- is what he is. A finished product.

That has not been the case with Mees. And it’s not just the addition of a couple more titles and a lot more wins, but an all-around superiority that he hadn’t previously demonstrated. Mees went from a rider with 17 Half-Mile wins, three Miles wins, and zero TT or Short Track wins, to a two-time single-season Grand Slammer and one of the statistically greatest Milers in the history of the sport.

Exactly how did he radically amp up his production seemingly overnight?

“There are a lot of things you can speculate on. I think, one, I was just really entering into my prime. And two, there were a lot of races in past years where we just had some bad breaks or things just didn't go our way.”

The reversal that’s seen things go his way with so much greater regularity is less the case of his factory Indian providing Mees with a significant performance advantage over the field -- especially with so many fast Indians on track these days -- as it is the elimination of any insurmountable disadvantage.

That’s particularly the case on the Miles, where a career three-win tally has been jacked up to 16 -- including a clean sweep a year ago. As a result, he now stands sixth on the all-time order, sandwiched between the likes of Ricky Graham and Jay Springsteen

Mees said, “I was always battling Bryan Smith on the Miles when he was on the Kawasaki and I was on the Harley. I think anybody could really watch and see he had an advantage. Listen, he is by far one of the best Mile racers that has ever lived, and I am not taking anything away from his ability. But, man, there was only so much I could do at some tracks.

Smith and Mees - then teammates - doing battle at the 2018 Springfield Mile II.
Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

“Bryan just flat had a better total package -- rider ability, motorcycle, and experience. At the time, he was pretty unbeatable on the Miles. Hats off to him, he made me a better Mile rider for when I got on the Indian. I think a lot of the wins I have now are because I was taught by him.”

“...Not directly taught,” Mees added with a laugh. “But he beat me so much, I had to learn what he was doing, how he was doing it, and really analyze it. I spent a lot of laps following him and that Kawasaki, and I learned a lot in the process.”

Even as Mees shored up (and then some) his respective Mile, TT, and ST games, he’s further strengthened his area of expertise -- the Half-Miles. In fact, Mees is in line to take down Parker’s all-time record of 35 HM wins, and possibly as early as this season.

“Man, that would be awesome to say I won the most Half-Miles out of everybody. If you were to count the races since the first Grand National Championship race in the ‘50s, I bet the Half-Miles are on the circuit more than anything.”

That’s a fact. To date there have been 446 HMs compared with 345 Miles, 178 TTs, and 125 Short Tracks. And that discrepancy is only going to become more pronounced in 2020 because of the HM-heavy post-COVID-19 schedule revamp.

And yet Mees isn’t necessarily convinced that will play out to his favor.

“I look at Briar Bauman being the best and the hardest guy to beat, obviously. So when we were hearing about things coming on and off the schedule, it seemed like it was day-to-day, week-to-week on whether it was going to favor Briar or me. I think Briar was hoping and praying for TTs and I was hoping and praying for Miles.

“The Half-Miles -- I'll be honest -- at the end of the year, he turned into a better Half-Mile guy than I was. I struggled on a lot of the Half-Miles at race tracks I didn't think we should have.

“So when the schedule came out, I thought it looked pretty even for both of us.”

Even though Bauman’s emergence in 2019 cost Mees the crown, it may actually prove to be a net positive for his career moving forward. At the very least, it certainly eliminated any concerns of Mees growing complacent.

While Mees is more often fiercely dominant on Mile tracks, Bauman kept close at the 2019 Red Mile. 
Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

“Any time you get beat, it's not good. But he stepped it up, and he made me step it up too. He made me go back to the drawing board with the bike and change things. If I come back and beat him and win the championship -- basically outride him and get the job done -- it'll be more rewarding than just clicking them off.

“I could say, ‘All right, the guy came in and took it and was better last year, but hard work, dedication, and heart got it back.’ That would be cool.

“If I'm able to get the job done this year, it will be one of my favorite Grand National Championship wins. Coming in, I think people were kind of favoring him more than me. It’s probably the first time in a long time I came into a season and wasn't viewed as the favorite.”

It was perhaps inevitable that their elevated on-track rivalry bled into their personal lives as well. In an interview with that ran earlier this year, Bauman said, “Jared Mees and I were pretty good friends before last season started. But as we got closer to DAYTONA, I don't know what happened, but that kind of went away a little bit. I already felt like he was putting the target on me. We kind of quit talking a whole lot. So it was one of those deals where I thought maybe that's a sign I'm doing something right, or he's kind of nervous, or something's going on that's okay. I've got a good group of people around me, and I'm fortunate in that, so I didn't get too worked up about it. But I did take it as a compliment.”

Mees felt that relationship strain as well, although colored a bit differently through his own perspective.

“He's young and sometimes I think there's somebody in his ear saying, ‘Hey, just do your own thing and don't worry about him.’ It kinda bums me out, honestly, because we were really tight buddies.

‘And I get it. Hopefully, after it’s all over with, we can come back to being really tight friends again because I do miss having him as a tight buddy like that. I miss calling him up and just joking and laughing and whatever. But you know what, I kinda went through the same thing with Bryan Smith, and lately, we've been as tight as we ever were, if not tighter.

“I try to talk to (Briar) and say what's up. But when I try to make that connection, I can tell... He'll talk to me, he's very respectful, but you can just tell it's like, ‘Yeah, I'll be respectful, but no, I don't want to go hang out again.’

“And it's all good. I definitely don't want it to come across like he's the bad guy. I must put out some sort of vibe that I just don't see that makes my competitors uncomfortable. Because, like I said, the same thing happened with Smith. At the end of the day, you have to take a step back and say maybe I'm the problem.

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

“But maybe no one is the problem. Maybe these guys are like, ‘Hey, there is no problem, it was just a matter of you want to beat me, and I want to beat you, and that’s not the person I want to hang out with all the time. And that's cool too.”

While Bauman holds the #1 plate and is unquestionably the rider Mees considers standing in his way in his quest to get it back, he’s far from the only one with the potential to play a significant role in this title chase.

Mees said, “Brandon Robinson is coming off an injury, but the schedule does seem to want to favor his riding style. He isn't the greatest on the TTs, and he'll admit that, but he's really strong on the slippery Half-Miles.

“Jeffrey (Carver) can pop in some good results. But one thing about Jeffrey, if he's feeling good and he's feeling strong, he's going to go really, really fast. But there are some days he shows up and puts it in seventh or eighth or eleventh, and you go, ‘Man, I know you have more than that in you.’ It's all just going to depend on Jeffrey.

Culminating in controversy, Carver and Mees were  battling all day at the Volusia Half-Mile I, until lap 1, Main Event contact from Mees resulted in a red flag and Carver's back row restart.
Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

“Sammy Halbert could pop in some good results. He already has. Briar's little brother, Bronson, is going to have some results here and there too.

“There's going to be some guys who pick up some wins, but I think consistently, week-in and week-out, Briar is going to be the toughest dude to beat.”

While 2020 is the focus, Mees has plans of winning races and championships for years to come. And with that, he’s already scoping out the future threats as well.

“Dallas Daniels is a very good talent. I think he's got some potential for sure. He has a really good support system around him that will get him to the places he needs to go. His dad is a pretty sharp guy, and I know Johnny Lewis works with him really closely, and Johnny is a good mentor.

“(Dalton) Gauthier definitely has the talent to do something great as well. He just has to prove what kind of heart and drive he has to make the most of it. I don't know what his future is going to look like. He's going to have to make his own decisions along the way. If he makes the smart ones, he's going to be very good.

“Hopefully it goes the right way, because we need guys like Dallas and Dalton in our sport.”

Even if Daniels and/or Gauthier fulfill their potential in the not-too-distant future, they can expect to be confronted by the ultimate gatekeeper standing guard at the pinnacle of the sport.

Mees said, “Just because I'm getting a little older doesn't mean I'm going to slow down any.”

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track