It’s July 2015. From the minute Brad Baker’s giant, red F350 arrives at the track in tiny Rainier, WA, the kids start flocking. It’s immediately clear this is the place to see Brad in his element. Brad and I shake hands and get acquainted as he dives into the work of setting up his pit. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Indy or Rainier; this is my job. I treat my job the same,” he says as he crouches down to spin tire warmers on his bike. Over the course of the day about the only time I notice him stop moving is when he sits to eat a homemade sandwich.
Before racing, Brad discovers an oil leak on his backup bike. He immediately sets about fixing it and in short order his brother, Scott Baker, arrives to help. Scott is also an AMA Pro flat track racer, and he is here to race today too. Scott and Brad’s original Pro numbers were 11 and 12 (Brad later earned the lifetime right to a single-digit number by winning the GNC championship and he now runs #6). The oil leak proves unfixable with the tools the Bakers have on hand and the short timeframe. This bothers Brad, even though it’s just a backup bike; he blames himself. “There’s no reason to have a motorcycle here if it isn’t running,” he says.
Eventually it’s time for Brad and Scott to line up for their (separate) heat races, where they each finish first. Always looking to improve, Brad remarks, “I didn’t get the greatest of starts, but it worked out.” Next up is the dash for cash race. There’s $150 for the winner, but you’d think it was $15k as Brad battles with fellow AMA Pro Brandon Robinson right down to the last turn of the last lap. The evening wears into late night and, after a series of crashes and a rain delay, the main event finally arrives.
It is a crash-heavy affair, eventually is red-flagged, and Brad restarts second-to-last (having lost ground in one of the crashes). Even on the tiny track he manages to pass countless riders and ends up with a respectable fifth place finish. Back at their pit, Brad and Scott change out of their gear and plan their evening. I can tell Brad is happy to finally be able to relax for the day. It’s 11:30PM.
Little do any of us know that two weeks later at his next AMA Pro race, Brad will suffer a broken leg. A rock thrown from another rider’s bike hits him just above his boot, punching a hole in his leg and snapping his tibia. This effectively ends his 2015 season.
Six months pass before I see Brad again. A few weeks after his 2015 Superprestigio win over Mark Marquez, I visit with Brad at his Eatonville, WA home. It’s a cozy place, on a small piece of wooded land. Stepping inside is like entering a race museum.
Brad’s framer racebike sits front and center, surrounded by trophies, plaques, medals and other honors. His Rookie Of The Year award from 2011, the checkered flag from his first Grand National win, and, of course, the newly-won #1 plaque from the 2015 Superprestigio. “That one’s still got champagne on it!” Baker laughs, pointing out the streaks.
“The Superprestigio is dirt track against the world—everybody wants to see an American win,” Brad says. “It’s televised in 10 countries and the crowd in the stadium is electric,” he continues. “The fans over there in Spain seem really intrigued; they’re just more into racing period. There are more two-wheeled vehicles in Barcelona on a normal day than Bike Week in Daytona,” he says. After his 2015 Superprestigio win, it seems 2016 will be full of possibilities for Brad. But as it turns out, the Superprestigio win will be Brad’s last major victory until the end of 2016. His 2016 season with the Harley-Davidson factory team is marred with one disappointing mechanical incident after another.
Redemption comes in the last race of 2016 when Brad handily wins the Santa Rosa Mile. He is the only rider able (or willing) to take the high-line, running wide into the turns at the ragged, hay bale-lined edge of the track. As The Mile unfolded, I thought of a story Brad told me about one of his mentors, Kevin Atherton, a Harley factory racer for 14 years: “Kevin taught me the mental aspect of racing; how to be a madman on a motorcycle. He always said to me, ‘Brad, not too many people will ride high, wide, and handsome clipping the hay bales. But, when the race is done, do you want to eat hamburger or steak?’”
Coming off the Santa Rosa victory, the 2016 season comes full circle for Brad as he again heads to Spain for the Superprestigio. Brad tells me the Superprestigio is “the race that I hear about the most when I talk to fans,” and this is reflected in his approach to it. He flies to Spain six weeks before the race, part ambassador for the sport, part competitor.
It’s a time for training but also for nurturing friendships. He rides for days on end with Spanish dirt track champion, Ferran Cardús. This is the first year Spain has even had a dirt track championship, and it’s intrinsically entwined with Brad—he’s raced in the series and regards Ferran as both a good friend and a serious competitive threat. Brad is a master at this friend/competitor balance. He pops over from Spain to Valentino Rossi’s famous “Ranch” flat track training ground in Tavullia, Italy for a weekend of riding with the Doctor. Two weeks later, he is back in Spain training with Marquez and cultivating that relationship.
When this year’s Superprestigio finally arrives Brad is less successful as a competitor than he has been as ambassador. He delivers a third place finish, with Marquez taking a solid victory. It’s clear Brad loved the race, but felt pressure as the only American in it: “The pressure to win and to produce for [American] Flat Track, it gets more intense every single year, everybody else gets better,” he says after the race. But, typical Brad, he takes an all-boats-rise philosophy, “I’m just thankful to be a part of that and that Flat Track is here and the Superprestigio is getting bigger and everyone else is growing with it,” he says.
This is one of the qualities that defines Brad; he thinks more about the good of the sport than of his own raceday result. At Brad’s house, I’d asked where he saw flat track in five years. “I see it with 20-25 Nationals on the schedule. I’d like to see it not be a surprise when ten- to fifteen-thousand people come to every race. And I’d like to see more manufacturers on the grid,” he responded. I then asked him where he saw himself in five years. “Basically doing what I’m doing now, only with a couple more championships hopefully,” he smiled. One thing is certain; you would be hard-pressed to find a rider with more heart and potential.