The start of the Springfield Mile was imminent. A slew of Indian, Kawasaki, Harley-Davidson and Yamaha machines were propped on the hip of their respective crewchiefs, waiting for the signal to roll out onto the clay and dirt surface, for pre-race photos and rider introductions in front of the assembled crowd of spectators.
The mood differed depending on the job. Crewchiefs laughed and talked among themselves, most of them veterans of the series–they have worked with riders every day for years, or decades, and most don’t internalize rider drama. Their job is to make the bike fast and fix problems that the rider sees or imagines. When the bike is on the grid, basically their job is done.
If he hadn’t been wearing leathers, you’d have almost thought Jared Mees was a crewchief. His mood was lighter than any other rider on site. Mees was jovial, talking to rival crewchief Rick Howerton about the trials and tribulations that Howerton’s rider, Bryan Smith, was encountering on the track. Mees tried to help, asking where on the track Howerton’s bike was doing this skip-catch-skip that the rider could not ride around, which was keeping him from going much faster. Is your bike doing that there?, Howerton seemed to ask Mees. Mees shook his head; no, it wasn’t.
AFT officials lined everybody up on the front straight and made them presentable for television or internet TV. Crewchiefs, team owners and mechanics fist-bumped basically anybody who came near them. Good luck buddy–remember the first corner is a left, Haw! the usual bad dad jokes were repeated to riders or their friends or fellow mechanics.
Riders though, looked like they were waiting outside an emergency room after a family member had been maimed in a car accident. They avoided eye contact with other riders, cautiously zipped and unzipped leathers, listened to the bad dad jokes, feigned a smile and immediately went back into their own private world. Eyes down, ears wide open, listening to the announcers say that the track prep crew were going to make one more run–no three–around the track, spray water where the sun was beating down relentlessly, then run the surface over with dump trucks to pack the moisture. One after another the dump trucks sped around the facility. One rider looked at another and said, “Don’t they know they aren’t helping at all?” Shrugged shoulders and more staring at the ground were all he found in response.
After the rider introductions took place, and the dump trucks and watering machines stopped doing laps, the entire track surface on the front straight was opened up for the bikes and riders to walk on.
Finally! Relief! Riders stepped beyond their own private worlds and began walking on the track, their steel shoes not making much noise; instead their hips did an odd swivel every few steps on the surface. Think of a man grinding the life out of a cigarette butt, that’s what many riders did as they walked the Springfield surface, trying to get an indication of the traction available from the dirt and clay. Initially heels did not slip, much, but nearly all of the riders knew that one test wasn’t going to yield complete info so they continued to do the odd ankle swivel every few steps. And at the same time intently examined the surface for any visual indication that they’d found a space of dirt which had generous traction or generous slip. None of them spoke. They shared no info among themselves. They gave nothing away.
Jared Mees walked past the whole group of riders looking like they were trying to snuff out imaginary butts in the racing surface, never paying them any mind. He walked normally, eyes looking down track to turn one. He took his spot at the top of the line and decided what Jared Mees needed right now was a good stretching session. So he sat down, spread his legs in a perverted gynecological position and held his feet in the air. What about the mysteries of this Springfield clay surface his fellow riders were concerned with? No, thanks, Mees illustrated, right now I need to make sure my inner thighs are malleable. He never once looked at the Springfield surface that was the focus of so many of his rivals. Not once.
Underneath Mees’ buttocks, Deep below the front straight at Springfield is a WWII-era tunnel which connects the infield with the outside world. It is old and narrow, so narrow that two wide-shouldered men who meet in the tunnel almost have to invade each others personal space in order to slip past one another. A concert venue during the Illinois State Fair, many of the bands that have played to the Springfield Mile grandstand have signed a concrete block wall on the infield side of the tunnel.
Mees sat on the track with his legs spread. He’d pull one knee in, then release it and then pull the other one in. This was all done in a very causal way. As he did so he spoke to his crew, joked with his AFT people and kept the mood light. Someone said said it was time to pick start positions and Mees got up, grabbed the spot inside on the front row, but at the last second moved the bike slightly to his left. Done. Everyone else followed suit, lining up on the front row, however they did so while looking pensively at the earth below their rear tire. Was there going to be enough traction? Moisture content? They peered and examined the dirt like they were master gardeners.
Mees looked fluid and loose until it was time for the sighting lap. Then and only then did he seem to tense up, started to stick his chest out and give the 1000 yard stare. This did not go unnoticed by his fellow riders who only tried to mask their worry as the seconds ticked down.
Green light. Mees dropped the hammer and stormed to turn one, flicked it in and got in line. Local rider Jeffery Carver Jr was the only rider able to stay with Mees and the pair of them quickly began to pull away from the AFT field. Each time the pair passed over the start/finish line and the tunnel under the track Mees led by a small margin. Finally, to the roar of the crowd, Carver passed Mees and tried to make a break in front of friends and family. The crowd went bananas. Carver has beaten Mees previously but he could not contain Mees in this race. Mees passed him back for the lead and even an all-out dive bomb move on the final lap by Carver didn’t work. Mees easily took the win. After the race said he’d actually let Carver by, just to see what he could do. Which is something Mees would say, and that his rivals didn’t want to hear.
Mees did a victory lap with legendary tuner Kenny Tolbert on the back of his Indian and the crowd applauded as he went past them. Meanwhile Carver pulled his bike into the victory circle area, pulled off his helmet and got off. The assembled Illinois crowd applauded his efforts and in response, with just enough dramatic flair, almost as elegant as a Spanish bullfighter, Carver bowed to them, seemingly saying ‘I did my best. I tried. Next time.’
After the race everyone else looked like they had just endured 45 minutes of pure pain. Yet, Carver and Mees were not even breathing heavily.
Mees smiled for the cameras, said all the right things and went back to his life. It was almost like the bands that have played Springfield in the past: fly in, play, get paid, thank the crowd, fly out. But not before you sign the block wall underneath the Springfield Mile.
Maybe Jared Mees should sign that block wall?