Friday, August 14, 2015

UPDATED—Is AMA Pro Racing treating us like dopes?

UPDATED SATURDAY—See below

Over the last few days, I’ve been tracking a story about cheating. In particular, tire doping. In laying it out for you, I’m going cite a lot of anonymous sources. But as you read on, you can assume the story has been corroborated by a number of paddock regulars, including team principals and experienced riders. All those people have legitimate fears that they’d pay a price for talking to a reporter. Honestly, I would not be surprised to pay a price for breaking this story myself. But what the hell; I don’t go to that many races any more anyway. If I never get another Media Pass, it won’t kill me.

Bryan Smith (42) won the race at Du Quoin this year, but current championship leader Jared Mees (1) finished second with a tire that looked very second-hand by race end. That tire ended up being examined by Dunlop and tested for evidence of doping at Blue Ridge Labs, in North Carolina.

Fact: At Du Quoin, GNC1 Championship leader Jared Mees’ Harley finished the race with a rear tire that was visibly, dramatically worn. Mees finished in second place, behind Bryan Smith, whose tire still looked new. Seasoned observers felt that Mees’ Harley looked like it was a “good-handling” bike that night, which is usually consistent with minimal tire wear.

Fact: At the next race, Mees’ tuner Kenny Tolbert turned a tire over to AMA officials, which he informed them was Mees’ Du Quoin main event tire. The tire was visually examined by Dunlop personnel at the track. (It’s currently in Dunlop’s possession in Buffalo, NY. I spoke to Mick Jackson, Dunlop’s Manager of Product Development, and he told me he’s seen it, and “it looks like it overheated.” Jackson also specifically told me he had not seen, nor would he expect to see, any analysis related to tire doping.)

This is where things get interesting: many people have told me that the tire (or, possibly, rubber samples cut from the tire) were sent to Blue Ridge Labs in Lenoir, NC for analysis. Blue Ridge Labs frequently tests tires to see if they’ve been chemically treated in contravention of the rules of motorsports organizations like Nascar. 
This is an example of a test result for a negative test from Blue Ridge Labs. My question is, was the Mees test determined to be inconclusive because there was no chemical evidence of tampering, or because the handling of the tire/evidence was unprofessional and thus, any evidenciary value was compromised?

I believe the test was performed; I believe I spoke to the person who performed it. When I called Blue Ridge Labs, Kim Johnson, a technician there, told me that their confidentiality agreements precluded discussing the results of the test, and that I’d have to contact the person who ordered the test. To be clear, she never said anything to the effect of, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “I can’t remember any motorcycle tires coming through here lately.” It felt, to me, that we were both talking about a test that she acknowledged had taken place, without divulging any specifics about the content thereof.

I’ve spoken to one person who claims to have handled the test report; I’ve spoken to others who claim to have seen it. On balance—although I’m protecting my sources and they’re protecting their sources—the stories I’ve heard are consistent with the notion that someone privy to the test purposely showed it to someone outside AMA Pro Racing’s inner circle. 

More than one GNC stakeholder has alleged the tire “failed” the test, which is to say it had a chemical signature that was inconsistent with manufacturer-supplied samples and which suggested tire doping.

This is where things get really interesting: paddock insiders have told me they believe that, after the Blue Ridge Labs report came back, there was a conversation between AMA Pro Racing head office staff—I presume Michael Lock and Michael Gentry—and AMA Pro’s men on the ground at races, including Ronnie Jones, Steve Morehead and Al Ludington (who is now a contractor and no longer an AMA Pro employee.) I assume that would be a conference call, since some of those guys live and work far from Daytona. I hear that four out of five of those people basically asked, “What’s the penalty [to Mees] going to be?” and that they were told there would be no penalty. Furthermore, there’d be no further discussion of the incident.

The technical term for this would be, sweeping it under the rug. 

Why AMA Pro would sweep it under the rug is an interesting topic for speculation. Jared’s leading the Championship, riding for a high profile team backed by (still) the only manufacturer that’s really committed to the series. The consensus is that Flat Track’s moving in the right direction and it’s easy to imagine AMA Pro Racing doesn’t want a high-profile cheating scandal.

The problem is, great big chunks came off that tire, and you can sweep the incident under the rug, but there’s still some great big lumps in the carpet. People are tripping over them and asking, “What are those lumps?”

I’ve heard from multiple sources that Dunlop personnel at Indy for the MotoGP/MotoAmerica event last weekend openly discussed tire cheating in the GNC, in situations where more than one person could hear them. Team principals have told me that they asked for meetings with AMA Pro senior managers and were turned down. Emails to those senior managers have yielded no response. I left a message with Ronnie Jones, and he did not reply.

Suddenly a run of the mill cheating scandal is being talked about as a cover-up. And I don’t mean, Mark Gardiner’s talking about it like a cover-up. About half the people I spoke to on this story started talking by saying, “I can’t believe it’s taken this long for a journalist to get interested.”

Stakeholders have told me that they are looking into the possibility of pursuing a lawsuit, which would be based on the legal notion of a ‘civil conspiracy’. Such a lawsuit would hinge on proof that the organizers of the GNC conspired to give one team an advantage, and by doing so causing harm to other competitors. In short, people are pissed. And I don’t mean, “Oh what have they done this time?” pissed, I mean, “We’ll sue their asses!” pissed.

Tire Doping 101

Until seven or eight years ago, tire doping was not against the rules. A number of Flat Track teams routinely, openly, treated tires with a variety of chemicals. From what I understand, a common chemical was WD-40. Seriously, eh? You’d hardly think that would increase traction, but tires were soaked and heated (often just left out in the sun) and presumably the slippery components evaporated away. What you were left with was a tire that either heated up faster, or provided better cold grip. Either way, tire doping conferred an advantage, particularly in the first few laps.  

The downside was that in search of an advantage, you often ended up with a tire that suddenly got worse in the late going. So a lot of people experimented and then gave up.

Jared Mees’ tuner, Kenny Tolbert, is a guy whose name comes up when people talk about doing tire doping right. But then, Tolbert’s name comes up whenever people talk about making fast Flat Track motorcycles; he’s the best in the business.

After the AMA instituted rules prohibiting the chemical treatment of tires, it became a relatively common thing, in tech at the end of races, to clip a few rubber samples from top-3 machines and seal them in plastic “evidence bags”. I’m not sure how often those samples were tested, or how often people were caught cheating.

I know of at least one instance in which tire doping likely influenced the outcome of a race. A currently active rider, who won the race in question by a wheel-length, later admitted that he himself had doped that tire.

To be clear, no one that I’ve spoken to feels that Mees or his team have committed some outrageous, scandalous violation of the rules that is deserving of draconian punishment. Everyone agrees that he’s one of the fastest guys, if not the fastest guy, out there, on one of the best-prepared bikes. He’s a deserving champion, and I haven’t heard anyone suggest tire doping has meaningfully impacted results. If anything, most people’s attitude is to shrug and admit that if you’re not cheating, you’re not really trying.  Cheating is part of the culture of motorsport. What people are upset about is that another part of that culture is the idea that, if you’re caught, the rules are applied the same to everyone.

Note that until this year, tires were supplied by Goodyear. Now, they’re made by Dunlop. And, new compounds were introduced partway through the season, with Du Quoin being the first race in which the all-new compound was mandated. So it’s easy to imagine that a tire doping strategy that had worked in the past might suddenly fail in spectacular fashion.

Blue Ridge Labs’ Kim Johnson told me that the standard protocol is for tires or tire samples to arrive in sealed evidence bags. The significance of this is, there’s hardly an unbroken chain of evidence as far as Mees’ tire is concerned.

Ideally, officials would pull a tire off a bike right after it came off the track, bag it, seal it, and have the responsible official and the rider sign across the seal. That’s not what happened in the case of Mees’ Du Quoin tire. The tire disappeared for week, and then it was walked over to AMA Pro Officials and handed off.

There’s no proof it was the same tire, and at least theoretically it could’ve been adulterated after the race, even accidentally. That said, it would be hard to pawn off another tire, considering the unique wear pattern of the tire in question, and it’s not obvious why Tolbert would dope a tire after it had been trashed in the race. So, the tire was handled was not up to ‘criminal trial’ evidence standards and not up to the standards required to prove that an Olympic athlete is a drug cheat, but the team said it was the tire; I believe them.

I’ve spoken to at least one team principal whose feeling is, if the report indicated cheating, it would be up to AMA Pro to penalize the rider and team, and up to the rider and team to appeal. Presumably that appeal would be successful, because the handling of the tire was not up to the strictest evidenciary standard.

Mat Mladin, too, was a guy known for his ability to go very hard in the first lap or two. Ex-tire guru Jim Allen told me that Mladin’s crew chief Pete Doyle experimented with tire doping at a time when it was not specifically against roadracing rules. 


AMA Pro? What are the next steps?

When AMA Pro Racing’s communication department gets a call on this topic, it’s referred directly to Michael Gentry. He did not return my call. The official position of AMA Pro Racing, transmitted to me by Al Ludington, is that the tire was tested, tests were inconclusive, and no further action will be taken. (Al’s statement was, almost to the word, the statement that I got from a team owner who told me, “Let me give you AMA Pro’s talking points...”) 

That said, witnesses tell me that Mees’ team had to submit tire samples, which were properly bagged as evidence, after the heat races in Sturgis—and no one can remember the last time samples were taken after anything but a Main Event. So I suppose it’s safe to say Jared’s “on report”.

At this point, AMA Pro Racing has already disappointed a lot of stakeholders, who feel that the combined weight of evidence and scuttlebutt suggests that one team’s received favorable treatment. It’s going to be tough to un-ring that bell.

However, it behooves AMA Pro Racing to shed some Florida sunshine on this incident. They should release the report, and issue a statement explaining whether the chemical analysis itself was inconclusive (in which case a lot of people are misinformed about the results and it’s time to quash that rumor) or whether it was the less-than-ideal handling of the tire evidence that made it “inconclusive”. 

There’s been some weird stuff coming out of Daytona lately. The ill-considered rules I wrote about last Backmarker are really just part of the story. But in spite of that, I think every participant feels that the GNC1 class is moving in the right direction. 

If AMA Pro Racing doesn’t get out ahead of this story, they’ll set all that back. For decades now, the championship has struggled to shake off the image that it’s a Harley-Davidson playground. Now, a whole bunch of people are grumbling that a Harley-backed team and rider are getting favorable treatment.

If that’s not true, then transparency is urgently needed; AMA Pro should release the report. If it is true, heads should roll.

UPDATE

At about 6 pm Central time on Saturday, I got a call from AMA Pro's Communications Director Gene Crouch. We had a forthright conversation, most of which should remain off the record. Suffice to say, I was not encouraged to retract anything written above, nor did I hear anything that caused me to make any corrections. I will say that he seemed genuinely surprised that my query to AMA Pro Racing was directed to Michael Gentry and not him. I'm ready to accept the fact that another call might well have gone to Mr. Crouch.

Here's AMA Pro's official statement:

“AMA Pro did not have consistent custody of the tire between competition and testing. Without being able to conclusively determine that the chemicals were on the tire during competition, the company cannot proceed with issuing a penalty. The company has taken a series of steps towards implementing rules, policies and procedures to correctly handle situations of this nature moving forward.”

Based on our conversation, I'm ready to believe AMA Pro Racing when they say that they'll be clarifying rules and implementing new procedures that will keep the paddock much better informed about infractions, tests, and who passed and failed them. In the future, I expect to see tire doping test protocols that are more like the current fuel tests.

It's a step in the right direction.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting, Mark: the broom sweeping you have described has the sound of a big, sucking, vacuum. Looking forward to the reveal.

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  2. So the I'll-handling of the tire by the AMA will most likely change the outcome of the series championship. Affecting peoples livelihoods. Well done AMA.

    ReplyDelete