WORDS Chris Nelson IMAGES AMA Flat Track & Rob Williamson
I liked Michael Lock from the moment I met him in fall of 2015 at the Orleans casino in Las Vegas. A month prior, Lock had accepted a new job with AMA Pro Racing, overseeing the revival, rebranding, and sustainable growth of what’s now known as the American Flat Track (AFT) series. Lock and I stood together, watching the “Superpresitigo” exhibition flat track race, when I asked something like, “You really think you can bring this sport out of the shadows?” He smiled, shrugged, and said he thought he could if he found a way for more people to see and experience flat track for themselves.
Lock and I reconnected this past weekend at the AFT race in Calistoga, California, and discussed how the last couple of years have changed him and the sport he’s come to love, as well as his plans for AFT’s future.
Chris Nelson: In 2015, Jim France of NASCAR fame approached you and said he thought you could revitalize flat track, right?
Michael Lock: My god, was it 2015? Yeah, it was. What Jim France said was that he believed in the sport ... that it had been great once. He wanted us to build an American motorcycle racing success story. If we could be trusted by our paddock, if we could be trusted by the OEMs, and we could put all the pieces on the board, could we turn it into something successful? He asked me, “Is it possible?” I said, “The sport does look cool, but beyond that I can't tell you." And he said, "Well, go and have a look at it, embed yourself in it, and come back and tell me if we can do something with it." And like everybody who comes to this paddock, you get bitten. This is the rodeo on two wheels, and you get bitten by it. What I had to do was say, "Okay, can I separate out what I see of being a fan and being a motorcyclist, from being a business guy and say, 'Can I turn this into a business?'" And I looked at it and said, "It has all the raw ingredients, it's just been neglected, it's been allowed to wind down, but the racing here is as good as anything. So how do you build a business around it?” That's what I've been trying to answer for the last couple of years. It’s going well, but it's not without challenges on a daily basis. I never sit back and enjoy the view. I'm not there yet.
CN: If I’m not mistaken, you laid out a five-year plan for AFT, which would roughly put you at the midpoint of said plan. So ... status update?
ML: On some things we're ahead; I thought the OEM engagement would be harder and would take longer. What the OEMs are looking for is a connection with the marketplace. They want their brand to look dialed in and contemporary and relevant. Well, there is an irony to the fact that the oldest form of motorcycle sport is the most contemporary and relevant at the moment.
CN: Why do you think that is?
ML: People are looking for something that's real, because we're surrounded by a lot of things that are not that real ... very manufactured, very polished. You come to this sport and you see guys walking around with hooves on, and dirt, and pop-up tents, and hay bales. They're hurtling around the track at unbelievable speed with no front brake, but it's real. It's real. I think, for a fan, it's an uncomplicated offer. You can come to races, get in the paddock, and chat with Jared Mees or Shayna Texter, and they'll smile and talk to you. You can bring your family, and it doesn't cost you a thousand bucks. I think that we've got something. Keeping it like this, while scaling it, will be the challenge ... a tightrope walk.
CN: When we first met, that was your biggest fear ... that you’d take something cool, scale it up, and the bubble would pop before you even knew it.
ML: Because there are so many examples of that.
CN: You can't stretch thin something genuine and hope it keeps its original form. Consider, for example, the guys who've been doing this all their lives, with little to no recognition or reward. Initially, they were very hesitant about the changes you wanted to make. Have they learned to trust you?
ML: They were definitely skeptical, because I think they'd been promised a lot of stuff for many years by a whole bunch of people they didn't know, and none of it came to fruition. They could be forgiven for being skeptical, even cynical. What I said to the whole paddock was, "Look, I know you've got anxiety and maybe even some doubt about whether this radical change is actually going to move us forward. This is what's going to happen: we're going to get OEM's support, they going to come into the paddock, they're going to provide contingency, which is money directly into your pocket, not mine." Well, then you have to actually deliver that. They need to see you work like them, they need to see you at the track. There at 7:30 in the morning, still there at midnight, caring about what happens on the track and caring about the riders. Not only their economic well-being but also their physical well-being. This is a brutal sport.
CN: Gnarly injuries are nothing new for flat track riders, but now those riders are getting fucked up under your watch. As the sport grows, are you looking to remold the rules for more stringent safety standards?
ML: We're talking to the best motorcycle safety apparel companies in the world who are developing technology for our sport. I believe there are two riders in the paddock who are already riding with airbag suits. It took road racing 30 years to develop that technology, and we will be the beneficiary of that. We've changed all of our standards around what riders have to wear, to some resistance. There are riders who look me in the face and say, "Why are you even telling me to wear gloves, man? It's not your responsibility." Well, I'm sorry, it is. I wish it wasn't, but it is. You want wear gardening gloves? Wear them in the garden. This is a professional motorcycle sport, but people who don't like to be told what to do. I get it. I love the spirit. My challenge is to channel the spirit into things that matter and not dig your heels in just on principle on things that don't matter.
CN: Let’s discuss the Indian FTR, which has irrevocably changed this sport. Last year, when it debuted, a lot of us were thinking, “Are these cash-strapped racers really going to step up and spend fifty grand on a race bike?” They did ... the paddock is full of FTRs.
ML: Indian initially said to us when they were brainstorming the project, "How many do you think we could make and sell?" And we said, "Honestly, we have no idea." "Well, do you have a minimum number we need to make to be eligible?" I looked at the rulebook ... no rule about that. I said, "Look, here's the deal. It's a prototype class, the twins, so you can make what you like. You can make as many or as few as you like, but my advice to you, if you want to be accepted by the community is, 'Don't just race them for yourself, offer them for sale'." They decided to do a production run of whatever it was, 40, to begin with. They got 55 orders and said, "Let's make 55." They made 55, they sold 55. I think if they did another production run, people would buy them. There's a guy I know who said, “I absolutely have to have the last one they ever made. I'll pay anything for it." I know that success story has been noticed by some other OEMs from the paddock. So maybe somebody else comes along with a bike they've made. Let's say they were another American brand, with 400 dealers across the U.S., who would give anything to be dynamic and sporty and appeal to a younger generation. How many would they sell? I don’t know.
CN: More than 55, I’m sure.
ML: Oh, I think there's the potential for more than 55. But this is good. This is good because it's putting profile into our sport, it's putting money into our sport. I know that the riders are better compensated now than any of this current generation has ever been. Suzuki, KTM, Yamaha, Honda, Indian, Harley, Ducati have all stepped up and put money into the paddock ... millions of dollars available to the paddock in contingencies. This year, there's 2.7 million. It's increased tenfold in two years. Why? Because we've simplified the sport for OEMs.
CN: And the lifeblood of the sport, the fans ... how do they feel about all of these changes?
ML: Flat track fans have opinions and they don't mind telling you. They’re not passive. People don't want the current level of failure, but they don't want change. Something's gotta give. We have a rump of people who are suspicious that we don't really understand the sport ... those noises always keep you on edge. But I can tell you that in 2016, we had over 100,000 tickets sold for flat track events for the first time since anyone could remember. It came in the year when the naysayers said that going on NBC would kill our ticket sales. Well, two million people watched us on NBC last year and 100,000 people bought tickets. And so far this year, we're 55% above that, for the first three rounds. And FansChoice live streaming is growing exponentially. It's over 100% up so far this year, and it's global. Our number one country in the world for people following American Flat Track is India. Number two is Brazil. The U.S. is now third. Four is Thailand.
CN: Time for America’s “oldest form of motorcycle sport” to travel around the world, huh?
ML: It starts me thinking of new frontiers. I see a world, not that far off, because I'm already making plans for it, wherein our off-season, where all these kids are scratching around for something to do and something to earn, why don't I put them all on a jet and take them down to Rio and we take over a soccer stadium for three nights and fill it? That would be the coolest thing ever. If we did it in Rio, maybe we can do it in Mexico City, maybe we can do it in London. Success breeds success.
CN: The world aside, how will you continue to expand AFT’s footprint in America?
ML: We're doing our finale at Meadowlands, which no one in my sport believes is actually going to happen. They go, "What do you mean 'We're going there'? What? Right by New York? Right by where the Giants play? No, it's never going to happen." It's going to happen. I want to do a race in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but we haven't found the right opportunity. The other place that's burning a big hole in my head: Pacific Northwest. Seattle, Portland ... I know those markets, there are passionate people up there, and I want to take our sport to them. By 2020, we need to be properly nationwide. And I'm finding progress on that easiest by talking to horse track owners. Because there are horse tracks all over the country, there are not dirt speedways all over the country. Horse track is a baby boomer sport even more than ours is, so I'm finding an opportunity for mutual benefit with horse track guys, getting me to parts of the country that I couldn't get to otherwise and giving them a revenue stream and a younger audience.
CN: It sounds like you don't know where this thing ends up, but you think you’re taking it down the right path. How do you feel about the journey still ahead?
ML: The message about flat track is a great one. I don't want noise to get in the way or bullshit. I want the message to be pure. This is a fun exciting sport, it's a serious sport, you have to take it seriously, but you have to take it seriously to have fun. And the excitement people experience the first time they see three bikes going sideways into a left in perfect harmony, one inch apart ... no one ever forgets that moment. We've got a good bunch of people involved in this. A lot of people who've gone through two or three decades of it being pretty miserable, financially and without recognition. And now they're starting to see a little bit of light. There's one kid in our paddock, one of the best riders who gleefully said to me, last year at our banquet at the end of the season. He said, "I got recognized in my local grocery store." I said, "What?" And he goes, "Someone came up to me and said, 'Hey, you're one of those flat track riders, right?'