Jeff Ward is a jack-of-all-trades racer, winning multiple Grand National titles, Supercross titles, AMA Supermoto titles, coming in third at the Indy 500 in his first race at the event, earning Rookie of the Year honors in Lucas Oil Off Road. The list of achievements could go on and on. He’s a Motorcycle Hall of Fame rider who could easily sit back and enjoy the spoils of an illustrious career, but Ward’s not that kind of person. Racing is life and life is racing for Ward, which makes sense considering he’s been at it since he was a boy.
Now, at the age of 57, Ward is taking on a new challenge. He is set to compete in the five TT rounds of the 2019 American Flat Track season aboard a KTM 450 SX-F.
The decision to race came on a bit of a whim, during a trip to Europe for some car racing with Crosley Brands CEO Bo LeMastus.
“We went over there and he has a (KTM X-Bow) GT4 that we ran,” Ward explained. “So I did a couple races over there with him and he said he was going to do flat track again. He was back in it. I was like, ‘That would be cool to maybe do one of the TTs.’ He said, ‘No way!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll look into it.’ Then I came out here because I saw all the guys, Twitch and everybody, riding their bikes out here. I came out and just borrowed bikes. I was riding Carol’s bike. I had a TM I was riding. I did a KTM. It sounded like fun and then I did pretty well at it. So I don’t know if I got talked into it, but just kind of got driven down that road to look into it.”
Even someone as accomplished as Ward has to hit the pavement at that point in order to find some backing and a bike, which is exactly what he did.
I asked Kawasaki for support and couldn’t really get anything there,” he said. “Then KTM has their factory team with Chris Fillmore running it, and Chris and I did supermoto together. We talked to Roger DeCoster and got a deal on the bikes. He was like, ‘Anything you need at the track.’ So it was a good thing to go with that because they’re going to be there. We’ve tested with Chris. He wants me to test some suspension, so I’m sure down the road there’s some stuff there that will help me out along the way. I feel pretty good. I think it will be fun more than anything. I’m looking to have more fun at it, kind of supermoto-wise until it gets real serious. I know it’s already there, already serious. I’m just trying to have fun. That’s the main goal—and not get hurt. I’m looking forward to it.”
The 450 SX-F is a solid machine for Ward too, as it carried Dan Bromley to the AFT Singles title last year.
“They’re great bikes,” Ward said of the 450 SX-F. “I’ve only ridden them a couple times in the motocross form when they first came out and did the 350 and tested some bikes. It was always impressive. I think there’s a reason why that bike’s up front with about anybody that gets on it. It’s a good motor. It’s got great bottom and top. The brakes, these things have really good brakes on them in stock form. I’m not sure what factories run. So I’m really impressed.
“Also, I rode this bike out here. I was the most comfortable on it right away. They’re good bikes. The FMF pipe really helps out. We’ll have some motor work. I don’t think we need a lot of motor work just because I think your wheel’s spinning all the time anyway, just being in a different gear or shifting, short-shifting. Doing all those different, but in a TT you’re going to be shifting. You can find the powerband with less power than somebody that has more power. We’ll see. I have no idea until we get there.”
What Ward does know is that he’s not ready for a full-season deep dive just yet. Even though he’s interested in possibly tackling half-mile and mile contests later on, this first foray into AFT will be on more familiar grounds.
“I’d love to do a half-mile or a mile, just because it looks pretty crazy,” he admitted. “But I just don’t have enough experience. I’ve driven cars enough on ovals and I know you make a mistake and they’re big. They’re costly. I can make mistakes out here (in a TT). I’ve done a couple where I’ve high-sided, and a couple bikes I rode weren’t quite set up properly, so I can walk away. I do that on a mile, you may not walk away without an injury. I’m not in that mood of having to make those mistakes and then bounce up from them. With the TTs, if I go down, it’s not as fast as that would be. I may tweak a wrist. I hurt some fingers out here when I did it, but nothing I’d be scared about. It just depends on how things go if I get talked into it or not.”
As for training, Ward’s been on a bicycle for the better part of the last decade and feels excellent in terms of cardio. He’s also been upping his strength training to help with pain from previous injuries.
“I’m in better shape now than I was when I raced supermoto,” he told us. “I didn’t really do much in supermoto except ride motocross a little bit. Now I’ve been cycling for the last six or seven years and did the Race Across America with the four-man team and just did a 12-hour time trial of 217 miles in 12 hours. I mountain bike or cycle every day, so I’m in better cardio shape. I just wasn’t in riding shape because the arms and my shoulder is kind of messed up, so I’ve been in the gym for a couple months getting it stronger, and then also riding motocross too. So I’m at a point now where I feel almost better than I did when I did supermoto.”
His experience with supermoto is also allowing Ward to get his technique prepared for the races as well.
“This is kind of like supermoto a little bit,” he said. “Yeah, there’s a little more sliding involved, but I’m not doing the oval tracks, so I don’t really have to have that technique to where I can still have my technique like I did in supermoto for the dirt and turning right and the jumps. So it’s a little different because there is a little sliding involved in like Peoria and a couple things that I feel I’m good enough at to not lose time. So if I have my starts down, I should be good.
“I know the tires are not slicks like supermoto, so they do have more grip, which is great because even the corners where we’re sliding you still have way more grip than we did on dirt with the supermoto bike. Front brake comes into play, and I’m good at front brake so that helps me out. I’m in great shape for that because it’s only 15 laps. It won’t even be a 10-minute race, so I’m not too worried about conditioning as much. Arm-pump is one thing and being relaxed, which I’ve kind of broken through that barrier now with the motocross riding I’ve been doing and getting back to being comfortable on the bike. It’s a motorcycle. I know how to ride whatever conditions are thrown at me on a motorcycle. If the track’s slick or tacky or whatever it is, I should be able to adapt to it.”
That confidence is translating to goals we would expect of a rider of Ward’s caliber.
“I’d like to win,” he told us. “That’s why I’m doing it. I think it would be really cool at my age, 57, to win an AMA pro race in any motorcycle forum, whether it’s hill climb or whatever it is. You’re coming to their sandbox, and these guys are good. It’s not like I’m coming in with an advantage or anything because my motocross or supermoto experience. These guys, that’s what they do for a living. So I don’t expect to come in there and be like I’m going to show them something. Hopefully I can just ride the motorcycle to its ability of what the track gives me and get a good start. Then I can be competitive, I think. Sipes won up at Sturgis. I know if we did a supermoto race or whatever I’d be just as quick in a supermoto forum with him on pavement and dirt, or with anybody, really.”
These days Ward has a family to consider when he decides to take on a new project like this, but his track record of tackling impromptu challenges leaves little room to be surprised.
“I’m always doing something,” Ward said. “Just even when I did the Race Across America, that was out of the blue. David Bailey called me and I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ I hadn’t cycled enough miles to do that. So I’m always up for doing something. It doesn’t surprise them that I want to try this out.
“I did that supermoto up at Sturgis last year and hadn’t ridden for two years. We didn’t run the Pro class, but we ran those electric bikes. They were fun. I felt good. So yeah, I can ride a motorcycle, it’s just what I want to lay out on the line for a win. it just depends on the circumstances. I’m not in a position, I don’t think, to risk my body to win a race or get on the podium. But you never know. I just know when I get into a race situation, whether it’s downhill mountain bikes or whatever. It’s afterward where I go, ‘What was I thinking? That was stupid.’ I get the KOM on this thing and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not getting paid. I just almost died.’ But then that’ll be good for a couple weeks and then you’re in a position again to where you just let it go. I know when I’m racing my mentality will be to try to win. Hopefully it all works out.”
Sometimes that approach leads to the best experiences in life, as Ward explained when we asked about his most memorable racing achievement.
“The Indy 500 is just something…” he said. “It’s hard to even explain what it’s like when you go there. The place itself is a spectacle, just walking in it. Then being able to get into a car. It’s probably the most nerve-wracking thing. I grew up racing motocross, or riding since I was four years old, so it was naturally normal to line up and race and line up in a supercross. I felt in place and like I was capable of winning, so it wasn’t a big deal to where you go to Indy… I didn’t start car racing until I was 33. Never driven a go-kart. So to be in that area, in that arena, it was just kind of more overwhelming and nerve-wracking.
“But then once you get in the car and put the helmet on, then everything just kind of goes back to the race mode again. But finishing third my first year, I led like 49 laps. It was pretty overwhelming to even be in that position. That was probably the most memorable thing in my career, and most challenging. To actually learn how to race those cars was pretty difficult. The car doesn’t know who’s driving it, so if it’s not working, it’s not working. To where motocross, if a bump’s too big, then don’t hit the bump. Pick a better line. You can manhandle the bike to win races. The car, if it doesn’t turn, it doesn’t turn. So it was really hard to learn the engineering part of that to figure out what it takes to make that happen and then also not go too far with stuff and not give wrong feedback because that will put you in the wall. So that was a big learning curve to get that. I would say the Indy racing was probably my biggest thing, the Indy 500.”
And as for other racers who have been eyeing a racetrack in dreams of a comeback, Ward has some words of encouragement.
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“It’s still as fun as it was,” he said. “It’s a motorcycle and that’s why people like riding them, and I love it. I don’t know if I recommend coming off the couch to go race a pro supercross race, that’s for sure, or something. But the flat-track stuff is fun because I think anybody can do it at the local level too. That’s why supermoto was cool. You can go out and run a supermoto race and not feel like you’re overwhelmed with having to jump jumps and getting hurt as easy. You can go as fast as you want. This is kind of the same thing out here in the flat track. I think you can go out and do local races and enjoy it.
“But some of the pro guys, I know Reed said he wants to do Sturgis. Villopoto is talking about it. So all these guys are talking about doing something, but so far I’m the only one that’s jumped in to go for it. So it’ll be interesting to see who comes over and tries it out. The sport’s taking off. That’s one of the reasons why I was a flat-tracker when I raced. That’s all I did was TT and flat track. I had leathers and steel shoes until motocross came. I started doing trials, TT, and flat track. There was no motocross when I was a kid. Nobody had a track for kid, so that’s what I did. There was just TTs and stuff. Ken Maily built my shoes. I did Speedway. So now it’s kind of like I can come back and maybe help the sport a little bit and just be a part of it again. It’s kind of like bookends. I started with TT and then hopefully ending it with TT. I don’t see anything else after that. So it’s cool. It’s cool to be back and giving it a go.”