Through the Briar Patch

New narratives have a tendency to flood in, take hold, and become the status quo with prodigious speed. That’s true across pretty much all aspects of our modern society, including the world of Progressive American Flat Track.

The story of this season was written at the moment the previous one concluded; ‘24 was destined to be viewed as the sequel to a magnificent 2023 title fight in which an all-time great was pushed to the upper limits of his skill and experience by an aspiring future legend.

As such, this year’s spotlight has been effectively promised to reigning Mission SuperTwins king Jared Mees – in search of an unprecedented tenth Grand National Championship – and Dallas Daniels, determined to fulfill his destiny by securing his first.

And yet, it’s wise to remember there is another.

Nearly a decade younger than Mees and with two Grand National Championships to his name already, Briar Bauman has earned his place as a historic figure in the sport with both the talent and runway to someday be included among the upper echelons of its pantheons.

Following four years spent jousting with Mees over every available point while splitting championship honors from 2019-2022, Briar took a temporary, quarter-step back from the front lines of the championship wars (a void immediately filled by Daniels) as he looked to foster a brighter future for both himself and the Progressive AFT at large.

As part of that ambitious plan, Bauman helped usher Rick Ware Racing – a large-scale, multi-series motorsports operation familiar to fans of NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA, and other prominent racing series – into the paddock, while simultaneously promising to take Austrian manufacturer KTM to heights it had never previously attained in the premier class.

Even a passing glance beyond the Mees vs Daniels spectacle at the top of the ‘23 points standings made obvious the stunning success Bauman enjoyed in those combined pursuits. In collaboration with long-time crew chief Dave Zanotti and mechanic Michelle Disalvo, Bauman put the early-in-development Duke platform on the podium in his very first attempt at Daytona, mere days after first laying eyes on the bike.

That promising start set the stage for a ridiculously prosperous campaign in which he earned nine podiums in all, including a history-making victory: KTM’s first twin-cylinder win at the pinnacle of the sport.

The season concluded in heroic fashion. Firing a warning shot ahead of the widely expected ‘24 follow-up, Briar registered his strongest weekend of the year, one that saw him wave the checkered flag following the Springfield Mile II to place an exclamation point at the end of a memorable 2023.

However, beyond successful, prosperous, and memorable, 2023 also proved incredibly tumultuous and emotionally taxing.

Every weekend was a rollercoaster ride as the team navigated an unpredictable development arc. Time after time, Bauman and company endeavored upon a rescue operation to salvage a decent-to-better-than-decent result from the jaws of disaster, all the while taking a mounting toll on his soul.

Tested as a competitor like never before – both at and away from the racetrack – Bauman was also coping as a human, piecing together a world shattered by the devastating loss of his mother.

It was a lot.

“When I look back at last year, I almost think that – even over my championships – it's the year that defines me as a racer and as a person. I don't want to sound cliche and the whole ‘never give up thing,’ but there were so many reasons to think it's just not meant to be right now.

“And obviously a lot of people didn't really see what was going on in the background, but it was just one of those years where everything that could go wrong, would go wrong. That's not a negative on the overall; we had a great year. But myself and the team had a lot of stuff go haywire, and we'd still show up on the weekends and be there to race and win.

“It was really good for me to be able to get through something like that mentally. A new team, a brand-new motorcycle after being with Indian for four years, obviously, losing my mom and trying to teach my dad how to get through life without his wife, which is kinda crazy to even think about... It was just a lot of stuff that I wasn't expecting to come along with every scenario that we either chose to take on or got forced into in life last year.”

Throughout the season, there was rarely a moment to catch a breath in the struggle to remain relevant, let alone competitive. This was a difficult reality for Briar to wrap his mind around after having grown accustomed in the preceding season as viewing second place as a disappointment and third place as bordering on catastrophe.

“There was never a day that was smooth sailing,” Bauman said. “Honestly, the best weekend was the last one. I never felt in control the whole year until Springfield where I felt like I was in charge of my own destiny. 99% of the season, whether we podiumed or even won, I was going, 'oh shoot, I don't know what's going to happen today.'

“But at Springfield, both days, qualifying was easy. There was never a lot of stress. I knew where we were at.”

Springfield, indeed, seemed to be an ominous sign for the competition, signaling a 2024 season in which Briar was bound to return to the championship hunt in full.

And yet, the required path to get to that point impacted Bauman profoundly. And in review, 2023 proved to be just a simple refresh when he found himself in need of a complete reboot.

Rather than take the two steps forward in ‘24 as the reward for his ‘23 trials, he elected instead to take another step back in search of a future quantum leap forward. That meant the drastic step of severing ties with Zanotti despite the overwhelming litany of achievements the pairing had garnered together over the years.

Bauman hooked up with Zanotti following his debut Mission SuperTwins season and the two had been together ever since (with Disalvo serving as the team’s mechanic for the vast majority of that time as well). Altogether, they scored the aforementioned back-to-back Grand National Championships, along with 20 victories across three makes of equipment and 62 total podiums.

Briar said, “It was honestly the hardest decision I've ever made in my life. It was the culmination of the entire year. The relationship with Dave and Michele was not bad – there was nothing negative I could say about them and there was nothing to hold against them. We went to Springfield as if everything was brand new and normal, and we went 2-1 to finish out our time together perfectly.

“But I was getting to the point where I needed something fresh. I needed a change of scenery. I was personally getting stale, which is hard to explain to someone when you end the year winning after having, really, a good year on an all-new motorcycle and package. 'Hey, we had a crazy amount of success, let's just go ahead and change everything.'

“But it was something that I was looking for in my whole life. I got to the point where we were too comfortable – where I was too comfortable with my surroundings. It's so weird. I still talk to Dave on the phone on occasion and Michele. I think I caught them off guard a little bit, but at the end of the day, I think they understood my position. It really was about me, and I think they got that, especially with everything in life that's been going down.”

In practice, that meant while Bauman would remain on a Rick Ware Racing KTM, his inner circle would shift to consist of Kenny Coolbeth with additional support from Jake Johnson (coincidentally, a pair of fellow multi-time Grand National Champions who previously rode for Zanotti), while wife Shayna Texter-Bauman would expand upon the team management role she first delved into in earnest in 2023.

At the same time, Zanotti and Disalvo took advantage of their own opportunity to start anew as well, drafting promising rookie Trevor Brunner up to the premier ranks and placing him in position to capitalize on the developmental progress that was accomplished in ‘23.

“I know they've made some chassis adjustments, but other than those little adjustments, (Brunner’s) basically stepping into where we were last year. To be honest, I think he stepped himself into the best case scenario as far as the KTMs go, because we used Jamie (Ellis) at Twist Development and between Dave, Michele, and myself, we came up with some pretty good stuff.

“Even Bronson (Bauman) is struggling pretty bad just to find a good base. That's the biggest thing with the KTM. Brunner getting to step into there and having a decent enough base, it's hard to put a price on that. That’s especially true with the KTM, which in my personal opinion is a really difficult bike to get working to perfectly suit flat track.”

That tricky development curve is one Briar is negotiating all over again on a substantially new race bike featuring a chassis crafted by Grand National Championship-winning crew chief and engineer Ricky Howerton

“The new bike is a lot different,” Bauman said. “It's funny because a lot of people say that it's cool that I’m on the KTM for the second year. And it is good – I know the motor characteristics and we've tried to improve some of that – but really, other than the motor, it couldn't be more foreign to me. It's taken a little bit of time to get some things sorted.

“Things I didn't really take into account… When Dave Zanotti built me a frame, and we've worked together for the last seven years, he knew a lot of the pieces that I liked and had all the notes on geometry and stuff. Coming onto a new chassis and a new frame builder in Ricky Howerton – there's stuff I have to either adjust myself to or have adjustments made in the chassis department.”

But even at this early stage, Bauman is starting to get a sense of what will soon be possible – an optimism that’s already being borne out in lap times and race results. “I think we have everything in a good spot. We've done quite a bit of testing, and I think when it comes to the frame, as long as you hit a few certain numbers – steering neck angle, swingarm pivot stuff – if you get some of that in the ballpark, from there it's the motor package and the suspension that you can come up with.”

“I think we have a lot of potential. I feel better right now than I did at this point last year, and having a whole year on the motor helps with that. I take that into consideration, but Ricky and Jeff Gordon really did a good job with the throttle body stuff and the motor configuration and the exhaust, and other pieces making it easy on me.”

Bauman and Zanotti are not alone in recognizing the basic platform’s potential. Their combined success from a year ago encouraged a wide-spread proliferation of orange and black on the grid with multiple frontrunning efforts coming armed with their own incarnations of the 790 Duke in 2024.

But the inherent variability of the street-derived platform discourages the emergence of a ‘strength in numbers’-style development cadre in the way that helped shape the Indian FTR750 tino an even more formidable force during its rise to dominance.

“Honestly, that's the thing that's crazy. The average person might look at it and see they are all KTMs. But through electronics and mechanics and chassis, any two racebikes could be polar opposites – both with KTM engines in them but otherwise light years apart. It's not a shared platform like it was with the Indian.

“Bronson and I help each other out a little bit, but the thing is with the electronics and the motor package stuff, you can't really adjust stuff like that on race day because I have a different exhaust system than him or whatever else that makes it a little bit tricky. It's funny because even my bike, with just the electronics, a mapping switch can make the bike feel like an entirely different brand.”

The decision to effectively restart that development process has had the trickle-down effect of further amplifying Shayna’s management load even as she attempts to juggle it with her own record-setting racing career.

Briar explained, “Every second of her day is just fricken’ slammed. She's essentially running the RWR flat track team, at least on our side. She takes care of ordering parts, travel, budgets – everything. And then on top of that, she's still racing as well. She's full-time really, between the training and the management stuff. It was unfortunate, last year with the team being brand-new, she didn't get to take the training as seriously as she would have liked. She did what she could to the best of her ability, but with having a lot of motor issues and just a really rough year on her side. She just didn't have as much time as she hoped.

“And now with Kenny and her building the twins this year with Ricky Howerton – she took care of all the parts orders and everything that needed to be done. She was still slammed but had a much better offseason this year. And I felt like she rode really good at Daytona and in Georgia. We've had a good couple weeks back home since, but yeah, she's wearing many hats this year and she did last year as well.

“I think she's even more slammed this year with me changing everything up on her. But she's doing a better job than ever.”

Asked if the management gig was something Texter-Bauman had been actively seeking or was forced into by the situation at hand, Bauman said, “A little bit of both. She's always said she's wanted to step into some sort of team management role. It was something she really wanted to do, but once she got into that positon while still trying to race, she was like, 'whoa, this is way more than I had signed up for.'

“But someone had to do it. I try to help to the best of my ability, but really, I'm just a laborer. Like, I can change a wheel, but as far as booking travel for Kenny or making sure the gas card is working, making sure tires and fuel is ordered through AFT – she's locked in on that.

“It's cool, but it's a lot.”

Despite any and all changes in terms of personnel, equipment, and logistics, ultimately, the determining factor in whether it was all worth it can only be found inside Bauman himself. Will the change in scenery and a fresh outlook allow him to better mine his immense natural ability and extract every last ounce of his talent? Will it allow him to find his way back to where he belongs – which is, in his estimation, not alongside Mees and Daniels, but rather in front of them – and do so on his terms?

“Dave and Michele were so confident in me and so cool with me, they weren't really holding me accountable anymore. That's not a bad thing – that means we're best friends and had a great time together.

“But I’ve enjoyed the first couple of rounds I've done now with Kenny (Coolbeth), where I feel like he is. Where he's like, 'Hey man, you're the best dude out there, let's see it. You have to do it.' It's been good to have that.

“I'm more than aware that I’m the one that put myself in the position to ride the KTM. I had an opportunity to stay on the Indian, and I chose to go a different path and I chose the KTM.

“But it is difficult when – I'll be open and honest about it – I'm riding a lot better than either of those two. I know that. I can feel it. I know what I felt when I won races and championships on the Indian. We're reaching really deep into my ability and diving deep into the pool of knowledge of Kenny and Jake. Ideally we wouldn't have to do that, but it's the bed I made, and I'm in it now.

“It is mentally taxing. But I feel like we're getting close to finding something that won't require quite as much effort to compete. But that's what it's taking. I know I can beat those guys nine times out of ten, and hopefully if we get things cleaned up, we can show that.”

But just how immediately can he show that? What’s realistically possible as early as this season?

“I want to say the championship. I work for a championship. That's the mental state. Is it actually there? I don't know. Unfortunately, I don't know if we have the infrastructure and time – you can't buy time – and we're in the swing of things.

“But I have to give everything I can to Shayna and Kenny and Jake – the group that we have, we probably shouldn't be where we are anyway. But because we have people who will never say die, we're still in this thing. When I see how hard they work and how many hours they put into the day, I have to give them everything I have.

“Doing this has shown me a different level of where I can go. It's right there.

“But at the same time – as a competitor that's been 'there' I know how far away 'right there' is as well. Right now, I want to go to Texas and I want to win and see if we can't get into a rhythm. Find a place on the bike where we can fight for the podium every single race.

“Sometimes I get too confident in myself and don't give them enough credit, but Jared and Dallas are incredible racers with incredible equipment. Jared is going down as one of the best ever who has been on the same bike the past seven years and Dallas is incredible as well on a really good motorcycle they've been developing for years.

“If I can be with them and race with them every weekend, we're still doing a pretty darn good job. If we can get to that point, knock off a few wins and just be with them consistently this year – I'll be happy.”