Red Mile trades the casual pace of its trotting horses for the full-throttle speed of motorcycle racing next month.
The American Flat Track series comes to Red Mile on June 3.
Featuring two classes of motorcycles, both reaching speeds more than 100 miles per hour, American Flat Track has gone under a few names in its 85-year history, but its brand of racing has remained consistent.
“It is fast-paced, handlebar-to-handlebar and throwing those bikes into the turns. It’s pretty cool to watch,” said Chris Putman, AFT spokesman.
Coming to Red Mile is part of American Flat Track’s new strategy to reformat, rebrand and expand the sport. The series raced at only 14 sites last year, but has widened it to 18 this season, targeting larger markets like Lexington with facilities like Red Mile.
“I’m excited. I love going to new venues and new places,” said Jared Mees, a three-time series champion who is tied for first after four races in the AFT Twins class. “With the expansion of the races, I think it’s awesome.”
Red Mile will be the seventh event on the circuit, which began in March in front of an estimated 9,500 fans at Daytona International Speedway on a special course built into the famed NASCAR track’s tri-oval.
Red Mile’s event will include practices, heats and finals in both the AFT Singles and AFT Twins series.
Each class typically has 30 to 40 entrants, divided into three heats as riders vie for each class’s 18 spots in the finals. The Singles finals is a 15-lap dash. The Twins finals goes 25 laps. Gates open when practice begins at 2 p.m. race day and attractions will include a vendor midway and family activities. And, of course, there will be a fireworks show when racing concludes about 9:45 p.m.
“It’s a unique form of racing,” Putman said. “These are not, obviously, street bikes that you see on the road racing circuit. They’re purpose-built bikes out there running on a common surface, dirt. You see a lot of dirt track racing in different forms. I don’t think people realize there is still a lot of motorcycle racing on dirt around the country, as well.”
Singles features 450cc single-cylinder motorcycles by various manufacturers and more up-and-coming riders trying to break into the sport. After four races, veteran female rider Shayna Texter, 26, one of only a few women on the circuit, leads the Singles points standings. She won the May 13 Arizona Mile at Turf Paradise in Phoenix.
The Twins feature more powerful 750cc twin-cylinder motorcycles and include manufacturer-backed teams of riders. The Twins have been bolstered this year by the entrance of Indian Motorcycles to the series. A rivalry between Indian and fellow American maker Harley-Davidson dates almost to the vehicle’s invention. But Indian disappeared from the American landscape for decades until its latest ownership group took command in 2011.
“Indian came back into the series in a big way this year,” Putman said.
Mees tested the Indian prototype last year and joined the three-rider Indian team for its inaugural season. Mees won the first two races this season. Teammate Bryan Smith won the next two.
“I wanted to be part of the history in the making,” Mees said.
Another boost to the series will come in July when NBC Sports Network will begin airing one-hour tape delayed telecasts of every race on the circuit, including Red Mile. While the prime-time showcase doesn’t begin until the middle of the AFT season, hardcore fans can watch live races on FansChoice.tv. Off circuit, flat track racing has also been a featured X Games event in recent years.
A risky sport
When the gates open on race day, it will be the first time any of the riders have taken laps on Red Mile’s red clay, but all are well-versed on getting around horse racing tracks, which make up the bulk of the AFT circuit.
“The dirt feels different everywhere you go,” Putman said. “The dirt has different grip levels. Different tracks have different bankings. Some will have red clay, some have more of a rock base to it. Each presents a different set of challenges to the rider as far as the grip and the setup to the back and how to overcome those.”
AFT brings in air barriers and hay bales in potential high-impact areas at each of its tracks, but the sport still poses great risks to its riders. Two young riders were killed in separate incidents in the Singles class at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in California last September. That track was removed from the circuit this season.
Another young Singles rider died from injuries sustained after losing control of his bike at the Charlotte, N.C., race last month.
“Obviously, we’re still investigating those accidents,” Putman said. “This year, we made a switch … in previous years, riders were allowed to wear motocross style suits. This year every rider is required to have full racing leathers on. That, plus evolving helmet technology, you hope that all that works to lessen the impact on some of these accidents.”
While the AFT series is new to Red Mile, it is not new to Kentucky. Earlier incarnations of AFT ran at Louisville Downs from 1983 to 1991 until Churchill Downs converted the harness racing venue into a training facility. It made an appearance in 2002 in Prestonsburg and in 2004 in Union, both smaller, half-mile dirt tracks.
Discussions about bringing AFT to Red Mile began in January 2016, said Mary White, Red Mile director of marketing. While the track couldn’t work out a date to join the series last year, talks continued.
Red Mile has been consumed with its renovations over the past few years, White said. But with those complete, Red Mile saw American Flat Track as a perfect fit, especially given its track record with other harness racing facilities across the nation.
“Here we are, we’ve made all these changes and really updated our infrastructure and we can bring in these types of events. It’s huge,” White said. “We’re pumped. This is where we see us going as a multi-faceted entertainment destination. To be able to offer Lexington something unique and exciting gets us jazzed for what’s to come.”
Putman said American Flat Track aims to make Red Mile a mainstay on its circuit, despite its long time away from the state.
“Everyone feels this is going to be a good competitive facility,” Putman said. “It is a great family event and great competition, and I know the people of Kentucky understand great competition.”
American Flat Track, Round 7
Where: Red Mile
When: June 3
Schedule: Gates open as practice begins at 2 p.m.; Rider autographs at 4:30 p.m.; Opening ceremonies at 6 p.m.; Heats begin at 6:30 p.m.