Max Whale: From Stranded in the States to Singles Second Place

When the 2020 Progressive American Flat Track season finally revved into action on a mid-July evening at Volusia Speedway Park, months of anticipation and prediction were replaced by actual results.

That opener provided an initial -- if not entirely accurate -- insight into how a handful of closely tracked storylines might actually play out.

The early returns suggested that the AFT Singles class’ ex-premier class invaders, Henry Wiles, Mikey Rush and Chad Cose, were indeed well positioned to upend a class more often thought of as a springboard for up and comers (spoiler alert -- while all three were factors in ‘20, they failed to steamroll the competition as some had feared).

The evening also provided mixed evidence regarding the bet that a reshuffled TT-less calendar would at last provide the class’ all-time winningest rider, Shayna Texter, a realistic pathway to her first championship (it didn’t).

It also created some major worries that the much-hyped Dallas Daniels would take a step back after impressing so mightily in his abbreviated ‘19 rookie campaign (he most certainly did not).

But the story of that opening evening was Max Whale, a perennial “star of the future,” who emphatically scrubbed away that “of the future” disclaimer with an all-day, out-and-out drubbing of his rivals en route to a maiden AFT victory.

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

As the season took its final shape, Daniels grabbed back the spotlight. He rebounded from his opening night disaster to ultimately reign over the class in a commanding, eight-win title fight blowout.

However, the continued rise of Whale was arguably the category’s B plot. His ascension since first arriving on the scene has been truly meteoric. The 19-year-old Australian turned a 14th-ranked 2018 rookie campaign into a ninth-ranked, one-podium 2019 sophomore season. He made an even bigger leap in 2020, securing championship runner-up status on the strength of five podiums highlighted by the aforementioned victory.

                                       Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

“This season was a dream come true,” Whale said. “It went perfect, pretty much -- I was consistent. Five podiums was my goal coming into the year, and I did it. I'm pumped on that. And to finish second in the championship was crazy. It was awesome. I am still lost for words... It's hard to explain.

“Getting that first win on the opening night was incredible. It was honestly hard to believe. It took a couple days for it to sink in. The whole day was perfect. I think I qualified second, I won the Semi, and then won the Main. It was awesome.

“I just wish my parents were here to see it.”

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

That wish went deeper than simply wishing they could have shared in his breakthrough success.

While the pandemic was (and very much remains) catastrophically disruptive for everyone, Whale was presented with even greater challenges than the average dirt track pro as a result.

The teenager was stripped of the support system he’d relied on his entire professional career when he was forced to live and travel and compete while effectively trapped on his own inside the United States with his father, Brett Whale, on the outside looking in from Australia.

Previously, the two had travelled the country together in a used RV and trailer that served as their living quarters and workshop. His absence robbed Max of both emotional support and very practical help.

“In past years, my dad was with me for the whole season. Leading in I knew it was going to be tough with him going back home due to COVID. And you know, I didn’t realize just how much he did -- from prepping my bikes, driving and servicing the RV, cooking and cleaning -- until he was gone.

“He went home in March and then DAYTONA got cancelled. I had to stay here by myself. It was a big reality check.”

Thrown into the deep end, Whale, appropriately enough, swam rather than sunk.

He was taken under the wing of the larger Pennsylvania-based AFT community and, with their help, he thrived.

“You know, I wouldn't change it. It turned out good. When my dad first left, I was in Pennsylvania for a couple of months. And then for the whole year, PA was kind of my base.

“I had some awesome people who helped me out -- Briar (Bauman) and Shayna (Texter) helped me out a crazy amount. Everyone at Don’s Kawasaki and so many others too. There were just so many awesome people I could turn to. If I needed anything, I could always message them and they helped me out straight away. I'm so lucky to have that and I cannot thank those guys enough.”

Fellow AFT Singles competitor Matthew Guenther aids Whale while waiting in staging.
Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

Whale seen here coached by Barry Bauman, father of Factory Indian Motorcycle teammates Briar and Bronson Bauman.
Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track

It proved to be a relatively painless and seamless adaptation, considering the circumstances. But adapting has been the norm since Whale first turned pro. Dirt track racing is a considerably different beast in Australia compared with America, from types and sizes of tires to brake set-ups to track surfaces and layouts.

While three years of experience as an AFT Singles ace have Whale now feeling even more at home when racing in the States than he does when he returns to his Down Under roots, the 2017 Australian Junior Track Champion claims his meteoric year-on-year rise in Progressive AFT is more down to an improved mental game than any other factor.

Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

“I feel like my improvement is mainly down to confidence. My bikes were better this year than they had been previously, but a lot of it was just confidence. After I got that win in Volusia, it really made me understand  that I could do it. I found myself qualifying better every round -- a lot better than I did last year. I just went in with a different mindset and it ended up paying off.”

Photo: Scott Hunter, American Flat Track

Whale is not ready to confirm his exact 2021 plans just yet with an announcement likely coming early next year. He did admit, however, that he will be back in the AFT Singles class for a fourth attempt at the title.

After going from 14th to 9th to runner-up, only one final landing spot will be considered a continuation of that upward trajectory.

Some might say the bad news on that front is that he’ll have to go through Dallas Daniels to do it, as the dominant champion is set to defend his crown in ‘21.

Whale doesn’t see it that way, preferring to view Daniels as the ultimate measuring stick rather than an impenetrable wall blocking his path.

“That's good news for me. I want to win with everything in it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Photo: Kristen Lassen, American Flat Track