Daytona 2018: More Races Than a Wheel Bearing Factory!

Before we got married, I took my wife to the stock car races at El Cajon Speedway, east of San Diego. It was kind of a test. I wanted to be sure she could handle my Southern, inbred hick-ness before signing on. This was back in the 1980s when there were still a lot of Chevelle-bodied cars running on America’s dirt ovals. In fact, it seemed like just about all the cars were Chevy Chevelles that night.
We watched the races, but it turned into a solemn night because one of the corner workers was killed by an out-of-control race car. On the sad ride home my future wife commented on the strangeness of an entire Chevelle-based culture thriving unnoticed by herself or anyone she knew. To her, it was like finding a pre-contact, stone age society thriving deep in the dry desert of Southern California.
That’s kind of how I felt at the 2018 Supercross held at Daytona International Speedway. I was aware of the existence of Supercross but had never attended a meet because I always felt outdoor, natural-terrain, motocross was the only true and honest expression of the dirt-riding art.
It gets crowded at the crown of the big jumps. Amazing there are not more mid-air collisions.
As I entered the Speedway through the Williams Street tunnel, the NASCAR front straight was lit by a fusillade of fireworks exploding to the beat or, less kindly, to the din of over-modulated sound blasting from pole-mounted PA horns. Flame-throwers shot yellow dragon’s breath high into the night sky. It was a hell-kaleidoscope, a heretofore-uncontacted form of motorsport, a riot of tattooed youth, metal-detector wielding ticket takers, and energetic, annoying, teen-spirit.
Anyone bemoaning the lack of young people involved in motorcycling has never attended a Supercross race. The superspeedway infield was full of vehicles, nearly as full as a car race. The stands on both sides of the track were tightly packed with odd haircuts and Red Bull-drinking kids.
Justin Brayton ran away with the Supercross. None of the young guns got close to the 33 year-old.
The track was devised in such a way as to keep the motorcycles airborne nearly equal to the amount of time they were on the ground. This constant bobbing up and down limited the thrust available for forward motion, keeping speeds down to a reasonable level. Two jumps were so huge riders took advantage of the air-time to remove tear-off goggle covers or play a few rounds of what I imagined to be a web-based cell phone game.
Two camera guys in a quad ran back and forth on a smooth section, filming the riders bounding over the mega-whoops with the resulting information broadcast on a several-pixel, jumbo vision screen. Overhead drone footage and close-up shots of the race action interspersed with scenes of a DJ spinning dials on a complex electronic console (yet seeming to have no effect on the screeching audio) kept everyone up to date on the lead riders.
I can’t remember hearing a noisier, yet more blown-out PA system. It was like listening to the assault on Baghdad from inside a 55-gallon drum while going over Niagara Falls.
The 450cc bikes rev-limit stuttered and popped across the undulating landscape. At the head of all the kids is 33 year-old Justin Brayton. If you’ve read this far, you know who I’m rooting for. The old-timer runs away with the thing, never seriously challenged.
The cacophony spilling from punch-drunk speakers rises to deafening levels, the crowd roars approval, and I think to myself: How did this jump-happy festival, this massive human endeavor, happen without my knowledge?
Flat Track racing is within my ken. Before the TT National, Daytona serves up an appetizer at Barberville’s Volusia County half-mile dirt speedway. Forty-something races are held, and to be honest, I kind of lost track of what class was racing or, as the long day wore on, even which state I was in. Previous events had the pits in the infield, which made for an intimate setting. This year the infield was off limits until I name-dropped “I guess it’s okay to go in but don’t come back until I give you the OK.” And with that, I was one of three photographers working the race. I was the only one aiming a Hasbro close-n-play camera into the harsh glare of Barberville’s stadium lights, but still.
Coolbeth followed by Mees and Carver. Mees got around Coolbeth to take his first flat track win at Bike Week.
The racing started early and ran well past dark. It was a blur of heats, semis and mains. I perked up at the final main event: Twins. The big guns. Mees, Coolbeth and Carver, all mounted on the so-far nearly unbeatable Indian FTR750, fired around the oval. With such evenly matched equipment, the top three finished hundredths of a second apart with Mees taking the win. When he gets more time on the Indian, I’m really looking forward to seeing Jeffrey Carver atop the podium frequently in 2018. The guy is a lanky, long-haired, Tom Petty throwback. Right out of the ’70s man, and that’s cool as hell.
Low light wants big lenses. I don’t have that kind of gear so I rely on slow shutter speeds, panning and luck. I don’t know who these guys are I just like the photo.
Barberville was a great warm up for the Big Show: the 2018 Daytona TT. The TT was the first big AMA Flat Track race of the season. The track itself is a strange construction of clear-plastic sheet underlayment followed by four-by-eight, one-half inch oriented strand board, then approximately twelve inches of imported dirt track in a can. The TT layout lives underneath the Supercross track, and excavation of the TT began before the final teenager had left the Supercross.
The tight corners on this track get crowded. All the riders want to be at the same pivot spot exiting turn two.
The track is situated in the narrow space between the start/finish line and the pit wall. North to south dimensions are problematic. It’s not a good spot for an AMA Grand National race to be held. The promoters have tried their best. The TT jump was improved from last year, being both higher and roomier front to back. The east-west turns were widened a bit from last year, but they were still too tight, causing the riders to hang it out, then pivot at the center motocross style rather than drift smoothly like a real flat track course. The dirt, having been hauled in and graded only a few days earlier, lacked the decades of rubber build up and work-hardened consistency of older, finer surfaces, and as a result, formed ruts rapidly.
The apex of turn 5-6 (which would be 3-4 on a non-TT) was particularly bumpy and frequently had motorcycles leaping into the air at the exit. What I’m saying is this track is nothing like a good TT track, and some really fast riders had trouble negotiating the thing. Fans of riders who sucked here shouldn’t despair: Results from this race will have no bearing on future performance.
First to pass Baker was Beach, who did a great job making Mees earn his win. Beach hounded Mees the entire race.
Daytona has a thing called the Fan Walk, it’s kind of like a Perp Walk, but instead of parading recent arrestees, you can go into the pits and pester the racers. So maybe it’s more like the Pester Walk. I stopped by the Vance & Hines garage. They had the latest liquid-cooled Harleys with the updated cylinder heads. A tall thin-ish man wearing a V&H shirt was loitering nearby. “Are you with these guys?” I asked him. He gave a little laugh and said, “Yeah, I’m with them.” I asked if it would be alright if I took a few photos of the new heads. He said, “Yeah, OK, but make it fast.”
I shot a few photos and asked the guy if anything else had been done and why were the H-D’s rear brakes glowing last year? He told me the old version was making too much power and the riders had to drag the brake to keep the rear wheel from spinning. “It was like they were running with a Dynamometer attached,” he said. I asked if they tried different flywheel weights and what about crankshaft throws? “No, the crankshaft is the same but most everything else is new.” Having never raced flat track, I made a few trenchant, insightful suggestions on how to make the new Harley Street-based flat tracker hook up, and concluded my traction-101 dissertation by complimenting him on having Halbert on the team. “He’s a good rider. If he can’t get it done on the XG750 no one can.” The tall, thin-ish man agreed.
In only their first year of racing the Indian has become the dominant flat track racing motorcycle. Now available to privateers, we will continue to see podiums full of the things unless the other manufacturers pony up more development money like Harley-Davidson is doing.
I checked out all the new privateer Indians in the pits along with the Kawasakis and the Yamahas but only saw two XR750s, and they were not racing. Amazing how fast a dominant motorcycle fades from the scene. As I wandered, I started thinking I had seen the tall thinnish man somewhere before. Why did he look familiar? On a hunch, I googled Terry Vance, and a photo of the tall thinnish man popped up on my phone.
After a few laps leading, Baker faded and the main event turned into a battle between National #1 Mees on the Indian and #95 JD Beach on a Yamaha. The Kawasakis seemed to shake their heads landing the jump, and if they didn’t exactly tank-slap, they sure tank-waved-a-threatening-finger. Number 80 broke his swingarm completely in half on the jump. The rear wheel veered left into the infield with bits of swing arm still attached. The new Harleys still weren’t sorted and battled around the track mid-pack.
Steven Bonsey lost his wheel and half of his swingarm landing the jump. He managed to stay upright and the severed wheel earned its first AMA flat track points.
There was good passing to be had on the jump. Mees was nearly perfect over the jump and stayed twenty or thirty feet ahead of Beach except for the few times when Beach stuffed the Yamaha into turn one, showing Mees a wheel in an attempt to rattle the National Champion. Mees doesn’t rattle and took the first win of the flat track season. He will be hard to beat this year.
Mees and Beach went at it. Several times Beach was ahead or poked a tire past Mees. It was great stuff and reminded me why Flat Track is the best racing in America.
The TT and the Supercross have become the major championship-points paying Bike Week races, and the attendance reflects that status. But the reason there’s even a Bike Week at all is the 200-miler. Once one of the crown jewels of road racing, the Daytona 200 was the one every racer wanted to win. All the major factories participated, and GP stars from around the world came to test their mettle against the motorcycle-eating high-speed track.
The bikes they raced were state of the art. Tires shredded, engines blew up, oil spewed onto the track, it was a glorious show. Build a bike that could survive and win Daytona, and the ensuing publicity would move bikes off the showroom floor and into the hands of would-be racers.
In the time it took to walk from the pits to the International Horseshoe the lead pack had broken away. It was an exciting few laps as the lead swapped back and forth.
Unfortunately, Yamaha built a bike so perfect for the Daytona 200 it won the race eight years in a row. The races became predictable so management switched to street bikes and called the class Superbike. This was fun while it lasted, but tire technology wasn’t keeping up with the stresses imposed by a Superbike running the high banks. The factories lost interest. The top riders stopped coming. The final insult was switching to 600cc street bikes. Finally, in 2015, poor decision-making, slipshod management and silly internecine feuds had nearly managed to kill the biggest, most prestigious motorcycle race in the world. Today, the Daytona 200 survives as an American Sportbike Racing Association event.
This year’s qualifying field, topped by Frenchman Valentin Debise, and with Danny Eslick, Michael Barnes and go-fund-me-famous Geoff May, promised to be an interesting contest.
Eslick leads Debise and fabulous-at-fifty Michael Barnes into turn one. This group would lose Barnes to a mechanical and Debise to a parabolic high side on the infield kink. It was all Eslick afterwards.
If you ignore the fact that they’re 600cc street bikes, over the last few years the races have been great. 2018’s 200 started out great until Debise had a spectacularly high highside crash at the infield kink. After racing resumed, Eslick pretty much checked out and finished some 26 seconds ahead of Cory West. Eslick now has enough Daytona-Rolex watches for both wrists and both ankles. The race for third got interesting in the final laps with Roberto Pietri nipping Geoff May on the last lap.
Debise had his Suzuki running well amongst the sea of Yamaha R6s. The Frenchman set the fastest lap in qualifying and started from the pole.
Allow me to get on the soap box here: With the wide variation in lap times and the two-wave start, the front runners start lapping back markers early and often. The swoopy bodywork and overwrought graphics favored by race teams means that the number of the bike can be difficult to read with the bike at a standstill. Toss in a big lean angle or a 150 mile an hour pass, and it’s nearly impossible to tell who is who. You end up using the color of helmet or type of boot to spot your favorite rider. A big, flat, white number plate mounted on the front of the 600s would make identifying race leaders and finishing position much easier. Sure it would slow the bikes down a little, but isn’t that why they went with 600s in the first place?
Eslick had such a big lead the last few laps, he was waving to the bleachers then did burnouts through the infield. After winning his fourth Daytona Eslick will be opening a gently-used Rolex watch Ebay store.
There it is, another Bike Week in the can. I know this report is light on statistics but you can go to the AMA website for the final standings. With so many venues, shows and manufacturer ride-outs, the racing has become a smaller part of the drinking and partying that comprises Bike Week. But there’s still plenty of loving and racing. Indian was gracious enough to loan me a Scout Sixty for the festivities, so I’m not going to betray their trust by getting plastered and bending their shiny bronze motorcycle around a light standard at 2 am. The crowds seemed a bit thinner this year (in number, not girth), but the racing was still great and the part I like best. It’s why I keep showing up at Daytona year after year. One day, I may even convince my wife to come to Bike Week with me.

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