Youth Meets Experience to Bend Expectations

The Mission AFT SuperTwins class is far from a welcoming arena for newcomers. Not that it should be. It represents the absolute pinnacle of the sport on a global stage, complete with a finite number of grid slots reserved solely for the best of the best.

Furthermore, the elite riders that comprise its ranks tend to not only lock down their positions for a decade or (considerably) longer, but thrive, and even improve, throughout that span. This harsh reality provides precious little space for wannabe premier-class contenders to etch out an existence.

For this reason, there’s been a good deal of excitement surrounding the class of Mission AFT SuperTwins rookies in 2024, a group who have been viewed as top-flight prospects for years.

A heralded trio of Max Whale, Trevor Brunner, and Morgen Mischler stepped up to the top class with factory-backed pedigrees, each having registered top-three Parts Unlimited AFT Singles championship campaigns highlighted by multiple race wins.

Few, if any, would argue they’re anything but prepared for the challenge, ready to prove themself against the greatest riders on the planet.

But it’s not a rookie class of three.

Declan Bender’s story is a bit different. That’s not to suggest the Illinois native comes without some pretty serious natural talent himself, as evidenced by the double-digit national titles and two Bill Werner AMA Fast Brain awards that adorn his glittering amateur résumé.

However, this time one year ago, Bender had yet to even qualify for a Progressive American Flat Track Main Event in any class, let alone contend for Parts Unlimited AFT Singles titles.

Certainly, much has transpired since this time one year ago.

Ironically, Declan – who decided to leap up to the premier ranks after just a single season in Parts Unlimited AFT Singles competition – earlier elected to wait a year before turning pro.

He explained, “We just didn't think I was quite ready, and we were gathering up the funds for the AFT season. We wanted to have a pretty good shot at Rookie of the Year if we were gonna do it. We wanted to really commit to it.”

That commitment was tested early on, as the step up in competition made for a difficult transition despite his amateur success and Rookie of the Year ambitions.

Six races in, Bender had yet to advance to a Main Event. At times because he simply lacked pace, other times he narrowly missed out or suffered from poor luck. But that randomness brought with it its own burden.

“It was a struggle at the beginning. Mentally, it's obviously really tough going six races in a row where it's back and forth, back and forth. If we were seeing progressive improvement, it would have been like, ‘Okay, we're slowly getting better. It's coming soon.’ But we were all over the place, from, 'We're right there,’ to ‘Man, we're not even close.'

“Another huge thing was, leaving Daytona, I was already 22 points down. For a frontrunner who is getting 25 points per race, that may not seem like a whole ton, but when you're fighting just to make it into a Main, that's a really big gap.

“It was getting down to the point where it was like, 'Do we really want to keep doing this?' We questioned if we even wanted to make the trip halfway across the country to Sacramento for Round 7.”

But Declan upheld his commitment to both himself and his goals, and it’s a good thing he did. He advanced directly into the Main Event in Sacramento, the first of ten Main Event qualifications over the season’s final 12 races.

Bender clawed his way back within sight of Rookie of the Year contention thanks to six consecutive finishes of between 12th and 18th. But he still needed to find a completely different level over the final four races to have any chance of actually pulling off the feat.

And that he did. Declan closed out the season in eye-opening fashion, striking with late-year results of seventh, sixth, and seventh to scoop top rookie honors. The double exclamation point was his performance at the Springfield finale, in which he raced alongside the likes of Whale, Brunner, and Mischler, among others, twice finishing less than seven tenths of a second off the victory.

That strong finish served as a launching pad – but not in the way most would have expected. A more conventional career path would have seen Bender come back for his sophomore Parts Unlimited AFT Singles season armed with the experience and confidence required to regularly battle up front.

And that was indeed the plan until he received a most unexpected phone call.

Johnny and Sarah Goad were kind enough to give me a call about potentially bringing me on. We talked with Russ (Briggs) as well.”

Goad is a paddock icon, having competed in the series for decades. Most famous for the central role he played in tuning and managing Ricky Graham’s magical 1993 Grand National Championship – still considered by many as the greatest single season in GNC history – Goad ranks as among the most successful and accomplished crew chiefs Progressive AFT has ever seen.

Asked if he had a prior relationship with Johnny or his wife (and GOMR Team Manager), Sarah, Bender said, “None. I knew who they were. I have a mentor, Darren Carter, who raced as a professional, and I had heard of Johnny through him, but I didn't really know much about them.

“I knew they were in the paddock, but the call really caught me by surprise. To get an opportunity to jump up to the SuperTwins out of the class out of the blue – it struck me completely off guard.”

Bender had to think long and hard about the opportunity. While difficult to turn down, was it too much, too soon, especially having only recently delayed his entrance to Parts Unlimited AFT Singles by a year to make certain he was ready for the challenge?

“There was a lot of going back and forth. They were really patient and kind about it. They knew that after only doing a year in Singles, it was going to be a huge step for sure. A twin is a lot different than a single, and I had been mentally preparing for another year on Singles.”

Complicating factors was the fact that Bender could only assume that difference.

Declan said, “Honestly, I had never ridden a twin or even a framer before that. We went out to Harris Speedway and did a tryout test on a 450 Honda framer. That was the first time I'd even sat on a framer. I'd never touched one before that.”

The same maturity that told him wasn’t ready before told him that he was in this case, particularly with the wealth of experience and knowledge that would be supporting his effort.

“In talking with them, I could tell they are all really good people. So we decided, ‘Let's give this a shot and see what we can do.’ Obviously, they have a lot of experience in the sport. And they told me, ‘Hey, we'll bring you on, teach you what we know, and give you a chance, and you just do everything in your power to give us your best.”

Bender has been doing just that. Just ten months and ten races after earning his first-career Progressive AFT top ten, Declan has already put the GOMR Indian FTR750 into the premier-class top ten on two separate occasions, including during the series’ most recent round at Silver Dollar Speedway.

In fact, if anything, Bender has found himself to be better suited to a big twin than a 450cc racer.

He explained, “The 450 is super finicky, and you have to work on how you ride it and the set-up has to be super close. I've always been more of an adaptive rider, and with the twin, it tends to lean more towards my style with being smoother on the throttle. You can't just whack on the throttle otherwise it'll throw you. So you have to be smoother and be more calculated with your decisions… On what you're going to do and what lines you're going to take and how you're going to ride it. I think it leans more towards my form and natural style of riding. Johnny has helped with that a lot as well.”

However, the step up to Mission AFT SuperTwins is not just about contending with a different caliber of machinery, but rider as well.

Bender came into Parts Unlimited AFT Singles having already competed against a number of its top riders, particularly Chase Saathoff – a fierce rival turned good friend – who he grew up racing with in AMA District 17 (effectively Quantico for aspiring Fast Boys from Illinois).

But now he finds himself going bar-to-bar with the likes of nine-time Grand National Champion Jared Mees, who was winning premier-class races before Bender was even born.

“I'd raced against Chase plenty, and at all the Outlaw races, a lot of the Singles guys are there pretty frequently. So racing all the Pro-Ams and Outlaw races, you get a pretty good feel of where you're at with the Singles guys. I was racing with Trevor and Kody (Kopp) a little bit before I turned pro. So you see a lot of those names, but stepping up to SuperTwins, there are a lot of guys you don’t see as often.

“I really enjoy the challenge. It's super cool – this is the premier class. These are the people when you look at the sport, these are the people you see. The first race or two, it really had me in awe, ‘Holy crap, I'm really doing this. I'm racing Jared and Briar (Bauman) and Brandon (Robinson) and Dallas (Dallas).

“I got that a little at Chico. Lining up on the front row in the heat, I looked over and saw Jared, Brandon, and Trevor and was like, ‘Wow, I'm up here racing with these guys.’

“But over time, that charm starts to fade away a little bit.”

Fortunately, Bender isn’t attempting to take on the elite of the elite by himself. He’s learned on Goad and company heavily during the transition. And he also likes to think he brings something to the equation himself.

“I'm younger and just starting my career. I'm just two years in and they recognize that and are being super patient. It's fun. It's a fun dynamic. We have fun in the pits, and I think I keep them young while they try to teach me everything they can.

“It's a good exchange, and I'm willing to learn as much as I can. That's something they saw in me. I'm all ears all the time and have an open mind. I want to learn as much as possible and they have a lot – a lot – of experience and knowledge to relay.

“I couldn't be more excited. Everyone is always complimenting on the job we're doing together this year and everyone is super stoked to know I've got Johnny Goad and Sarah and Russ in my corner.

“It's pretty much a perfect match.”

A top-ten finish wouldn’t have been an unreasonable goal for his first season in the category considering the depth of the challenge. But with that accomplished twice over already, what’s realistically possible before the year is out?

Declan said, “We just roll with the punches, and I'd say we're doing pretty good so far. I can't complain about a top ten for a rookie season.

“It's a good start for sure, but I'd like more. I'd like a top five and possibly even a podium by the end of the year. Those are pretty lofty goals, but I've set them because I believe if we keep working and keep doing what we're doing, we can achieve those. But those come with work and there's no one slow in the SuperTwins class. So yeah, just keep improving – 1% better every weekend. That's all we can do.”