By Risa Strobel
Photography by Tchell DePaepe
“What you saw tonight was some exceptional racing,” raved Michael Lock, CEO of American Flat Track, when I ran into him in a Calistoga bar after the races.
I can’t disagree. It was a gorgeous, sunny Cinco de Mayo in Calistoga, not too hot, fantastic weather for racing. The parking area, and indeed the whole town, was full of bikes: the requisite crowd of Harleys, of course, but plenty of riders took the opportunity to bring something special out of the garage. The walk through bike parking felt like a bike show of sorts, something fun everywhere you looked. Once inside the fairgrounds, there was plenty more to see, with the bizarre combination of a traveling circus, a vaguely Mexican Cinco de Mayo Carnival, and, what I actually came for, flat track racing!
Calistoga Speedway is small; you’re right in the action and it’s thrilling. Bring earplugs! The up-close-and-personal nature of the whole event was striking, the entire track easily visible from the stands. The pits opened to spectators between the heats and the semi-finals—seeing children get to shake the hand of their favorite racers, the best in the country, was absolutely charming. And seeing the racers and the crew, fiercely competitive on the track, chatting and joking on the sidelines was heartwarming. “We’re like family,” said veteran racer Gary Ketchum, the oldest pro racer in the series, “you see the same people every weekend.”
Family it may be, but nobody’s playing around. Racers and their crews crowded the fence during practice, intently focused on sizing up the competition. As the track cleared after each session, so did the fence, everyone scurrying back to their pits. Racers for the bigger teams immediately huddled with their mechanics, while the privateers often went back to theirs pits alone, shucked off their leathers and grabbed a wrench. The mood in the afternoon’s closed pits was focused and serious—a marked contrast to the cheerful mob when the pits opened to fans in the evening.
One standout moment was the exhibition laps before the main event, featuring amputee riders. Below-the-knee amputee and AMA Supermoto racer Remington Bloch faced off against below-the-elbow amputee Sherman Lee. Lee rides using a Mert’s Hand, a very cool prosthetic device developed by Sixties and Seventies AMA champion rider (and star of the classic motorcycle movie On Any Sunday) Mert Lawwill to allow amputees to ride.
Speaking of On Any Sunday, the film was screened on the not-so-jumbotron, half before the semi-finals and half after the main event. Riders from the film were on hand during the day, greeting fans and signing autographs.
As was fitting on International Female Ride Day, all anyone could seem to talk about in the stands was Singles rider and the lone woman on the circuit, Shayna Texter. The Husqvarna rider dominated early in the day, consistently throwing up some of the fastest lap times in the Singles class, and earning herself pole position in the finals. Unfortunately, she couldn’t quite turn it into a win, getting off the line in 6th. After picking her way up to second—and making it look like a walk in the park!—Shayna was unable to catch up to Honda rider Ryan Wells, who finished a full 2 and a half seconds in front of her. After a dramatic battle for third, KTM rider Dan Bromley rounded out the singles podium with less than half a second between himself, Morgen Mischler (fourth), Brandon Price (fifth), and current #1 plate holder Kolby Carlile (sixth).
Surprising exactly nobody at all, Indian Motorcycles once again dominated the Twins class, walking out with 7 of the top 10 places, and all of the top five. 2017 champ Jared Mees took home the win, barely edging out Jeffrey Carver Jr. Mees leads the standings after this, the fourth race of the season, despite being disqualified from the Atlanta Short Track Race in April for chemically altered tires. This is the second time in his career Mees has been accused of using altered tires—he was also caught with altered tires in 2015, but ultimately not sanctioned. In distant third, nearly 4 seconds behind Mees, was Kenny Coolbeth Jr.
With the half-mile track being so small, everything about the races felt so close, so immediate. Even with my earplugs, the rattle from Doug Lawrence’s XR750 on the starting line of the main event was obvious. “That guy’s losing his transmission,” said Fish beside me. Yup, sadly a lap and a half later Lawrence rolled into the infield, his race done.
Another Harley rider, Brandon Robinson, spent much of the main event with his rear brake disc glowing red. Walking past his bike after the race, I could feel the heat coming off the disc from three feet away. “Were his brakes stuck on?” “Naw, he just uses the hell out of them.
Overall, I agree with Lock, it was an exceptional day at the races. Close-in, fast, tight competition, accessible, fun. I’m already looking forward to next year, and eagerly awaiting the Sacramento Mile, which will be my first mile race. All day long, people kept telling me that the Twins class really shines on a longer track. I can’t wait to see it!
Full results from the Calistoga Half-Mile are available here.