Storied motorcycle racers, particularly in the US, have been few and far between in recent years, but that very likely changed this past weekend as low key but high-speed Tyler O'Hara took on an insanely competitive American Flat Track TT and the MotoAmerica King of the Baggers road race IN THE SAME WEEKEND!
Could there be more diametrically opposed racing disciplines? Maybe, maybe not, but Tyler went out and ran each practice, qualifier, and main with the laser focus they absolutely demanded (more on that later). To keep the challenge level cranked to 11, the tracks were several hours apart and most days he had to be at both.
Naturally, storied-racer status is not achieved without bar banging levels of competition and a particularly compelling narrative (re; Hannah asked to let Brock by, Spencer anytime in the '80s and Robert's on the soon after banned TZ flat track beast). As you might expect, these tales are rarely told of racers doing the status quo, and this particular one gets put in the category not just by virtue of a guy competing in flat track and road racing on the same weekend, but doing each with a very serious twist (on both tracks!).
Professional Flat track presents a brutal level of competition with riders running an oval sideways in each corner, inches apart and pushing triple-digit speeds on dirt that literally changes traction levels as the sun moves across the sky. A daunting level of racing, strategy, and bravado (I would say Balls here, but one of the most aggressive riders in the singles class does not need them, shout out to Shayna Texter Bauman!), as if that were not demanding enough, this past weekend's race was a TT format. For the uninitiated, the TT derivative includes right turns (traditional flat track is left only, and the bikes are set up specifically for it), asphalt (we dare you to pick a tire that excels in both!), and a healthy size jump. This particular track was gnarly enough to attract the attention of perennial danger seeker Travis Pastrana who would be competing as well.
On the road racing side, Tyler would not be running a purpose-built and highly refined machine on the 2.5 miles and twelve turn Road Atlanta track, but rather a converted touring bike weighing in over 600lbs and sporting actual saddlebags (nearly twice the weight and width of the traditional liter size sportbikes that were competing in the premier classes the same weekend). Why you ask? The Gixxer guys asked the same during last October's debut King of the Baggers event; by the main every one of the "premier" teams lined the pit wall, mouths agape as the behemoth touring machines pulled respectable lap times and heart-stopping lean angles in one of the most exciting finishes of the Laguna Seca event. For the enthusiast, it was exciting racing. For those in the know, it was a throwback to the booming melody of the VR1000 and XR1200 series (the latter of which Tyler competed in!) and the last time V-Twins were used in anger on a road racecourse. Is that twist enough? Did we mention none other than Harley-Davidson showed up in Atlanta with a factory-supported team? Dick Mann would likely be tuned in from Moto heaven to watch this one.
Friday would begin at the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, a sprawling facility encompassing 750 acres in the Georgia countryside and a two and a half mile road race course that has been host to IMSA SportsCar Championships, Petit Le Mans, AMA Superbike Championships, Formula Drift, and even the whimsical 24 Hours of LeMons (Google it if you don't already know!). The team set up in the pits, and Tyler got in one late day practice and shakedown of a few new parts on the highly modified Indian Challenger before jumping in a rental van and making the nearly two-hour trek to Atlanta Motor Speedway for several more practice sessions on the freshly constructed TT track and now astride an Indian FTR750.
Saturday would start back at Road Atlanta with a painfully early 8:30am on-track schedule. Lap times continued to drop as Tyler and the rest of the King of the Baggers crew got a feel for the facility. The practice session ended all too soon but did produce solid lap times and the opportunity to see what the competition was up to (the HD factory team was looking competitive, others were struggling).
A mad dash back to the American Flat Track program again saw Tyler on the TT prepped FTR750 pitting with none other than Wrecking Crew alum Jared Mees and Briar Bauman under the Factory Indian program. Both are considered the very best in the AFT roster, and neither will suffer a fool. Can you say pressure?
AFT practice and qualifying for Tyler went well and showed just how adaptable he was. A few sessions in and he was running in the top five and improving each time. The track was a brutal combination of rutted turns and an asphalt transition that was soon covered by traction-reducing dirt. A challenge for even the most talented in the paddock, and more than a few hit the ground. Tyler would be campaigning in the premier Super Twins Class, but there was plenty of action in the Singles as well, with Travis Pastrana proving that even in his forties, he is capable of picking a new race discipline to him and showing up competitive. He and perennial cross-discipline racer Ryan Sipes bet a dollar for the win (Sipes took home the cash, beating Pastrana by one place).
The SuperTwins main struggled with a decaying track, a missing Mees (injured in an MX accident, get well Jared!), but Tyler came out charging and fought hard enough to worry the road race team that would be counting on him the next morning. Endless bobbles, wheel tucks, and slides across the ten-minute Main did not seem to phase Tyler but did cause noticeable anxiety with the Road Race crew in the pits.
Tyler eased back a little towards the end of the main and pulled a respectable 8th on his debut race. It was now after 10pm and he would need to be on the grid for practice by 8:00am at the other track. More mad dashing would ensue. For the record, minivans are not only solid rental cars but are excellent mid highway changing booths.
Now back at Road Atlanta, the sleep-deprived crew had the bike prepped and running by the time Tyler pulled his leathers on. A short ten-minute practice session started with Tyler in front of the pack and, within a lap, saw him trailing Kyle Wyman on the factory Harley. The pit wall conversation looked frantic until the last lap Tyler gave them the "all good" fist pump, and it was clear he pulled back to watch the other riders' lines. Well played, Mr. O'Hara.
The mid-day start time for King of the Baggers could not come soon enough! A surprisingly calm Tyler donned his leathers and rolled the Challenger out of the pits with a knowing confidence. As the bike entered the hot lane, he did the one thing a team dreads, he swung his leg out and looked down, putting his head closer to the engine. If you've ever been involved in any sort of motorcycle racing, you'll recognize this as the move as "something is wrong signal" and the very last place you want to see that is as you line up for the start of a race. A frantic team recognized the misfire but soon resigned themselves to letting it play out as the bikes gridded up. To say the tension was high would be a complete understatement. Six months of prep had come down to this moment, and it looked like it could fall apart before it even started.
As luck would have it, our S&S team manager recognized the issue, shut the bike off, and restarted it, giving critical sensors a warmed-up motor version of the data they would need (a brave move at the starting line!). S&S teams sigh of relief nearly drowned out the open exhaust. Motors now revved for launch, the green light flashed, and the bikes were off. Only to see Tyler's bike hop up and down before pulling away. Clutch problems? Maybe, but at this point we could do nothing but watch. Whatever had caused it appeared to no longer be an issue as Tyler pulled in behind Kyle Wyman on the factory Harley and spent the first four laps putting on a "How to brake deeper in the corner on a 600lb bike" clinic. In spite of sliding the bike into several corners (even the SuperBike guys took notice of this move), he could not seem to make the pass stick. That changed on lap five as Tyler got around Wyman in an epic pass, and the two diced it out for the next four laps. Not far behind them was Challenger mounted Frankie Garcia, and they would finish in that order.
Watch it on the MotoAmerica feed or see the pass on Indian's or tons of other's media (it's that good!). Will Tyler attempt another dual discipline doubleheader in the future? We think he probably will (you should see his eyes light up when he talks about the Indian FTR750!), but until then, look for him and the rest of the King of the Baggers crew to hit Road America in Elkhart Lake on June 11-13th and then Laguna Seca on July 9-11th.