Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas, eh?

Don't drink and ride. But, like Mitzi here, do what you gotta' do, to get 'em home.
It's been a long time between posts here at Bikewriter. And this is just a Christmas wish, not a real update.

I seem to be on an upswing here the last few months, with traction for my new advertising consultancy, record book sales, and a moto-journalism 'win' in convincing Marc Marquez to invite AMA Pro Racing's flat track champ Brad Baker to the Superprestigio in January.

I'll be attending that event, and I'm sure there will be some interesting posts as a result. I've also got a ton of other stuff I've been meaning to write about, including critical looks at: AMA Pro's ability to market itself; motorcycle websites that seem to have sold out or given up, or sold out and given up; and a cop whose sideline is having hookers administer unneeded oxygen to motorcycle club racers in between events. (Hey, it'll be cold day in hell before I can make up shit half as weird as what's really going on out there.)

Speaking of which, stay warm, eh? And please start checking back again every now and then, because I really will be updating more than once a month again.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Notes: Motorcycles saved my life


I wrote this three years ago. It's one of the essays featured in my new book, On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker.

A couple of weeks ago, on one of the many perfect fall days we've had this year in Kansas City, I went out on my usual bicycle training ride. The ride wasn't a huge deal; on my single-speed, out of my loft and over into the West Bottoms then up the 12th Street viaduct, through downtown, past River Market and down into the East Bottoms, and back. Basically, it was up and over the biggest hills I could find around my house; an hour and a bit in which I try to make up with quality what I lack in quantity. 

Most of the route passed through largely un-, or at least under-used warehouse districts, and the roads, as usual, were pretty empty. The Kansas and Missouri rivers meet here, hence the 'Bottoms' in those neighborhood names, but I only occasionally caught a glimpse of the water. The American Royal, a huge rodeo and stock fair, was on and there were horses hobbled in parking lots, and pastured along the levee.

It was late afternoon. The sun raked in. The sky was a deep, deep blue. Black shadows. Backlit trees in fall colors; as if the the world was created for  cinematographers. I rocked it; if my quads got any more pumped, I'd've been at risk for compartment syndrome. As I approached my turn around point, down in the East Bottoms I came to the long straightaway where I sprinted into a headwind.

The East Bottoms is, well, sort of a weird area. It's mostly industrial, with some run-down residential and a great honky-tonk bar – Knucklehead's – hidden away there, too. I passed a trailer park, and heard the sound of a compressor and a nail gun. The place was was mostly filled with actual trailers like the ones you'd pull on a vacation, as opposed to mobile homes. The nail gun was being used to skirt one of the trailers to keep winter drafts out from beneath it. I thought, The guy should've taken care of that last winter – which was KC's hardest winter in decades. Or, had he just been foreclosed out of some warm home and moved into those new digs?

I turned around, caught the tailwind, and cranked up my cadence, as fast as I could spin. Ripping back down the straight with my head down, for the nth time I felt intense gratitude for such simple pleasures, and for having managed to stay in shape. I spent a few weekends last summer watching Kevin Atherton limp around the Lloyd Brothers Motorsports Ducati at flat track races. While he's resolutely cheerful, it's clear his racing career took a huge toll on him. I've had friends pay far higher prices than that, too, enduring injuries I know I couldn't bear.  

Our sport is dangerous; that's not news. I wasn't one of those riders who thought, It won't happen to me. I thought about danger often. It was never dying that scared me, it was not dying that scared me. I've got some expensive Ti components (and I'm missing some cognitive functions; if you tell me your phone number, I have to write it down one digit at a time) but so far, I've come off lightly.

In fact, I'm able to enjoy simple physical pleasures not in spite of motorcycles and motorcycle racing, but because of it. It's not just that motorcycles haven't killed me (yes, I'm touching wood as I type this.) Motorcycles actually kept me alive.

I've never really told this story in much detail, but 15 or 20 years ago, when I was a club racer up in Canada, I got sick. I had some kind of autoimmune disorder, which depending on which doctor I asked was either lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. You know the expression, 'off the charts'? My white counts were literally off the charts. I got a graphic output after one lab test and the bar graph went off the edge of the page. When I finally got in to see a specialist, after a long wait, he looked up from that lab result and said, “I wouldn't have been surprised to see you come in in a wheelchair.”  

I was lucky that when it came on, I was in outstanding physical condition; I'd been training hard since university. I had a lot to lose before I'd ever be incapacitated. And, typical of people with lupus, I found that while it was painful and utterly exhausting to keep working out, the harder I trained the less I felt the symptoms. Still, I could only slow – not reverse – the course of the disease.

Month by month and year by year, I lost strength and range of motion in virtually every part of my body. It was frustrating because I was club racing and learning to ride better, but I couldn't really capitalize on it. I had to be super-careful not to crash; the drugs I was taking made the risks of injury much higher and besides, just getting out of bed in the morning already hurt like hell. By the time I raced in the TT, in 2002, I was careful not to let my friends see how hard I had to struggle just to get into my leathers or let them know that I'd almost bleed out from a shaving nick. And after that... It was as if my body had been holding out just to let me live out that dream, because in the next year, symptoms took a turn for the worse.

During that year of precipitous physical decline, I found myself wondering, At what point would in not be worth living? My life had, for decades, been defined more by physicality than intellectuality or spirituality. I decided that at the point where I couldn't wipe my own butt, I didn't want to live. Let me tell you, it was seriously depressing and I frequently rehearsed, in my mind, that hunting accident. 

Through that period, I really wanted to finish my memoir, Riding Man, and I was grateful that I could at least type. But the thing that kept me going was that I could still ride motorcycles. Maybe not well, or nearly at the level I once had ridden; getting a leg over the saddle was a real trick. You really don't need Too Much Information on this so I won't go into detail, but even though there days when I wasn't flexible enough to reach my butt, I still put in 1,000 kilometers in the alps, unearthing the story of Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi, the hero of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. 

So I put off the hunting accident.

Before I reached that point, I found a doctor who changed my drug regimen to one that worked way better, at least in the short-to-medium term. The drugs I was taking were literally toxic – one of them is used to kill cancer cells in chemotherapy – but they radically improved my life. Once they really kicked in, I could ride OK. I could cycle and swim and, as before, the harder I trained the better I felt. For the first time in over a decade, I started to feel better and better, not worse and worse.

After a year and half in France, I moved back to North America, to San Diego. I started working at Motorcyclist, had health coverage for a while, and found a new specialist. By that point, I was an expert on lupus and rheumatoid arthritis myself, and we had a long discussion about which of those two diseases affected me. It didn't really matter, since I had a treatment that worked for the time being, and in any case, neither disease is curable. At that point, when I looked at friends my age who weren't sick, they were mostly in such crappy shape that I wouldn't have traded places with them.

Then my cool job fell apart, I got divorced and remarried – poor but happy – and I started to feel... good. My doctor and I developed a plan to wean me off drugs and, for the first time in well over a decade, my blood tests started to look... normal. I don't use the phrase 'miracle,' that would be too strong. But about two years ago, my doctor – a very experienced rheumatologist – got a little teary when he said, “Don't call me again unless you get sick.” That's not something those guys get to say. Their patients don't get better, the job is just to mitigate the symptoms as long as possible.

I know that the thing that got me through to that point, was, there was a part of me that was determined to stay healthy enough to ride motorcycles. The weights, the cycling, swimming, yoga; the glucosamine sulfate, the 30,000 aspirin, the prednisone, the methotrexate... all that stuff wasn't to ward off pain and depression and slow the progress of the disease, it was, This is what you have to do to ride. You know those idiots in the German-inspired half-helmets who wear those “Live to ride, ride to live” patches? Well, for me that was literal truth.

I climbed up out of the East Bottoms through downtown KC, and right up at the top of that hill in the financial district, I was distracted by something I saw on the sidewalk. Two private security guards were sort of wrestling an unconscious street person upright on bus stop bench, and he ended up slumping heavily to the sidewalk. It only took a few seconds for me to process the situation. It wasn't violent and as far as I could tell, they were just getting ready to call the cops or an ambulance which would be doing the guy a favor. He wasn't very warmly dressed, and when the sun went down the temperature would quickly drop into the thirties. One of the guards noticed me noticing them and as I rode past called out, “Good afternoon sir, how are you?” They'd said similar things to me when I'd passed before under normal circumstances, but his question was incongruous when there was someone lying right there at his feet who was clearly not having a good afternoon .

The light turned green and I pedalled away. At the next light I stopped beside a limousine. The passenger window rolled smoothly down. I looked in at the driver, who called out, “Want to trade?” It crossed my mind that his job paid better than motorcycle journalism, but then I remembered that my job allowed me to the freedom to hop on my bicycle and train, or go for a motorcycle ride, on any unseasonably fine day.

I laughed and said, “No.”

“I'd rather be where you are,” he said. “This is the wrong kind of saddle-sore!”

Then, he rolled up the window and the light turned green. 

A few blocks later, one short final sprint, I was home. I locked up my bicycle downstairs, glanced at the Triumph and my '65 Dream, and thought, You deserve to take the elevator today. Before I'd even reached my door, I could smell chili simmering on the stove.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Monday Morning Quarterback, Wednesday edition: Rossi sacks Burgess

Well, Marquez did what he had to do, in order to win the Championship. Whether you should add your own “in spite of the MotoGP stewards throwing out his entire PI result” to that sentence is up to you.

But the story turned out to be Valentino Rossi firing Jeremy Burgess, who had been his crew chief through thick and thin, since his days on a Honda 500 two-stroke.

Rossi’s obviously had a hard, hard time riding the Ducati in 2011 and ‘12. He quickly had to face the fact that Casey Stoner could win on the Duc, but he couldn’t. I suppose he could tell himself that Stoner was a completely unique case -- the one person on earth for whom the Duc was actually a winning machine. It probably helped that Stoner was an odd duck himself and not particularly well understood or liked in paddock or by fans.

Then, Rossi returned to Yamaha, and notwithstanding a couple of flashes of brilliance (Qatar and Assen) he was showed up all season by Jorge Lorenzo. Honestly, there’s no dishonor in that... Marquez won the title this year, but 99, not 93, is the best rider of the current-gen MotoGP machines.

The truth hurts: When Yamaha needed Rossi to finish on the podium, to give his teammate any chance of the title, he was incapable of doing so.

Anyway, back to Burgess’ summary sacking.

My Facebook friend and ex-Bike magazine journalist Simon Hargreaves noted that in order to compete in MotoGP you simply must have a supreme degree of self-confidence. Si essentially excused Rossi’s undignified treatment of Burgess by saying, “Hey, an irrational self confidence is an essential trait of top riders, so it’s not Rossi’s fault that he can’t look in the mirror and spot the problem. Psychologically, he has to find someone else to blame and it can’t be Yamaha, because Lorenzo’s winning on the same machine. Burgess is the only logical target.”

I think Simon’s pretty much on the money there, although what he calls an essential character trait in MotoGP -- that selfishness and unwillingness accept blame or acknowledge the effect of your actions on others like faithful crew chiefs -- would make those guys psychopaths out in the world.

(As an aside, I can guarantee you that Jeremy Burgess is a ruthlessly competitive guy too, yet I am certain that he would never have dumped Rossi for some incoming hotshot rider. Nor do I think he would ever, ever have said, “Hey, the bike I give my rider is every bit as good as the bike Ramón Forcada hands off to Jorge Lorenzo; the only thing I can’t do is change the torque settings on the nut that connects the handlebars to the seat.” Burgess, I am certain, would have stuck by Rossi come what may, and would have been happy to retire when Rossi did, confident in the knowledge that Rossi had been the greatest rider of his era, as Burgess had been the most successful crew chief. Although Burgess was also the most successful chief of the preceding era, as well.)

What’s fascinating to me about the rider confidence that Simon noted is not the rather sad personality traits that come with it when those guys get off the bike. And I don’t excuse their sad personalities off the bike, because I’ve met real sporting gladiators -- guys who put their blood and bones on the line in scary, intense pursuits -- who are thoughtful, introspective, and even gentle people away from their particular arena.

What fascinates me about that confidence -- and makes me jealous of it -- is that it is not only  a trait you need to ride at the top level. It is a trait that actually makes it easier to ride at the top level.

Most people see a rider like Marc Marquez and note his incredible lean angle at mid corner. I see the nearly shocking speed at which he makes the transition from upright to max lean. For us as hack street riders, or track day riders, or club racers, mid-corner speed is the thing that is going to move us from the C group to the B group; it’s the thing that is going to impress your pals in the canyons. But at the top level, everyone’s got mid-corner speed; it’s the transitions that determine your finishing position.

To ride at that level, riders must have the self belief to totally commit to 99%+ of max lean and go there instantly. Mortals would feel their way there. And when they get to max lean they can’t have self doubt, because anything that causes them to tense up on the bike will mask the sensitivity and feel they need, slow their reactions, and prevent them from making the myriad but very, very micro corrections they’re making.

Most of that is happening in their bodies, not their minds. But doubt is the enemy of kinesthetic genius. This year, for the first time in his life Valentino Rossi was flat out dominated by his teammate. 2013 probably brought a few doubts to the surface that he’d been able to compartmentalize -- even at Ducati where he’d been relegated to running mid-pack.

We’ll know next year whether Rossi’s new crew chief brings a return to winning ways. Like Jeremy Burgess, I doubt that will be the case. But if it does, it may not be because Silvano Galbusera actually knows anything that Burgess doesn’t. It may just be because a change -- any change -- has allowed Rossi to pack up any tiny doubts and hide them away.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Why I love Honda: Part 8,736

Anyone who's a regular Backmarker reader knows that while I love a lot of motorcycles, I've got a special place in my heart for Honda.

In spite of the fact that Marc Marquez seems poised to give Honda another MotoGP championship, and Honda did well at the TT this year, I suppose there are still more than a few people who feel that, for example, the CBR1000 lags far behind other bikes in its class. There are old farts (like me) who in their dark moments bemoan a company has not been the same since the death of Soichiro Honda.

Then, Honda does something like this, and restores our faith.

 

When I watched this, I got a little choked up at the thought of how much time, effort, expense -- and yes, love -- went into a beautiful tribute to a guy who who has been dead and gone for 20 years.

Sure, the Italians wear their hearts on their sleeves. But no other company has Honda's profound, soulful passion for racing. So when the company stumbles next, and you hear detractors saying it no longer has what it takes to win, remember this: In racing, come what may, passion will out.

Some of you may hardly remember Ayrton Senna. If you find yourself wondering what this is all about, take a couple of hours and watch this. Keep that box of Kleenex handy.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Don't get me wrong, I love a good brazilian...

I was doing something on the interwebs the other day, and noticed a banner ad for Illinois tourism that was obviously targeting me. (My browser's full of motorcycle cookies, of course, and the modern ad industry is all about micro-targeting.)

Normally, this is manifested in the form of ads for crash helmets or whatever, and I have no trouble ignoring them. But this ad execution by agency JWT Chicago really charmed me. It's part of a wacky campaign JWT calls 'Mini Abe', that provides an idiosyncratic take on the state's old "Land of Lincoln" slogan.

I presume that if I was an avid golfer or fisherman, I would have been presented with executions in which the little Lincoln would have been golfing or fishing. In the banner I saw, though, Abe rides in on a chopper, then is chased out of the frame by two demented albino squirrels on dirt bikes. Finally, a third squirrel on a scooter rides in with the message, Be More Spontaneous this Fall. So, JWT went to the trouble of including something for just about any biker.

I don't know if these ads really will encourage motorcyclists in Illinois or surrounding states to spontaneously schedule a late-season motorcycle trip, but I dig that the state of Illinois thinks enough of us, as a group, to feel that we're worth targeting. It's a refreshing change from the round the clock coverage we were getting of the stunt-biker-vs-Range-Rover debacle in New York.

Of course, it turns out that gang included plenty of cops, including at least one who attacked the Range Rover. So, presumably the slogan 'New York's Finest' is out of date. I hope so, for New York's sake.

Meanwhile in Brazil, a bike-jacking went viral after the victim, who was wearing a helmet cam, uploaded a video of a Brazilian cop jumping out of a car and shooting the would-be thief.


Now, normally there's nothing I like more than a close encounter with a brazilian, but I prefer it to be a wax job, not a gun-wielding nut job. This video does little to encourage tourism to the MotoGP event in Brazil, which is tentatively on the schedule for September 2014. If the Brazilians do get their event firmed up, however, I nominate that cop as director of security.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A 'Hollister' for the new century

I think this group calls itself "Hollywood Stuntz". Rhymes with "Peckerwood C...."

A few days ago, a gang of 'stuntahz' (my word) had the poor judgement to film themselves terrorizing a guy driving through New York, with his wife and kid. Bad judgement was exercised all around--I'm 95% certain that if it had been me in the Range Rover, I would have seen them approaching from behind, pulled to one side to let them pass, then followed at a safe distance to watch their madcap antics. No one--at least, no one in my car--would've been hurt.

Instead, at least one biker was injured, and the driver took a shit-kicking. Still, nothing about this would have made it more than a local news story, except that one of the idiots involved posted a video to YouTube that went viral within hours. I won't bother posting the video because you've all seen it; most of you have made up your minds about it and posted comments on it.

What's interesting to me is not the first wave of reaction to the story, but the second wave. Within a day or two the NBC Nightly News had produced a sensational story with the requisite footage of police describing the phenomenon as a growing threat.


Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



There has never, ever, been a cop that downplayed the potential risk of some new threat trumpeted by sensationalists in the media. Why would they? Any increase in public paranoia translates into increased power and prestige for the cops. Ironically, it doesn't matter whether the populace is afraid of criminals, or afraid of the police. Either one is good for cops.

What does this remind me of? Hollister. On July 4 1947, 4,000 'straight-pipers' rode into Hollister. Their plan was to spend the long weekend partying and watching local, AMA-sanctioned flat track races, but the partying got a little out of control. Even the local police admitted that the bikers "did more harm to themselves than they did to the town" but the press blew the story out of proportion. Police all over the U.S. used those exaggerated stories when pressing for increased budgets and, often, military style weapons and equipment. 

It's hard to believe now, but right after WWII, the Hells Angels were an AMA-sanctioned club that put on events open to all motorcyclists. Then, the L.A. cops framed several members on rape charges so flimsy even the cops' usual co-conspirators--local DAs--threw them out. In the process, though, the cops encouraged the criminalization of the club, helping to turn it into a gang. After all, if you're going to be harassed and charged anyway, why not commit the crimes?

When the Hollister events were dramatized by Hollywood in 'The Wild One', America's image of motorcycling changed for decades, until Honda's "nicest people" TV ads made Americans reevaluate motorcycles and the people who rode them.

If you read Backmarker, you probably have no trouble telling these urban stuntahz apart from serious sport riders. (Hint, if they're just wearing a t-shirt and a cheap Icon back protector, and have a girlfriend perched on the back in short shorts and high heels, they're not serious.) But that distinction is harder to make for the average cager or cop.

AMA: here's a chance to redeem yourself in the eyes of real motorcyclists. Step up here and get ahead of this story, if there's still time. Otherwise, it's a 'Hollister' for the new century. And that's all American motorcycling needs.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hookers love motorcycles

It's been a tiring month or two here at bikewriter.com's sprawling corporate campus, and I have posted very little.

I've got some excuses, of course. (If I've learned anything in the last decade in the U.S., it's that nothing is anyone's fault.) I'm just putting the finishing touches on two books that I want to have available for Christmas, and I finally finished a long promised screenplay for a sci-fi short. Meanwhile, I'm occasionally distracted by several other film projects that are 'in development' as they say. That's movie-business talk for 'looking for money'.

It's not that there hasn't been lots to write about in motorcycle land. The other shoe finally dropped vis-a-vis Laguna Seca losing its MotoGP round; the fact that Dani Pedrosa's Honda was rendered immediately and utterly unrideable after Marc Marquez made incidental contact that disabled the traction control system. Don't get me started on Casey 'Whingebag' Stoner -- who won the championship because he was the first rider to completely trust traction control -- saying he'd return if the bikes made even more power and had no TC.

That rogue gang of stuntahz and the Range Rover guy -- I'd write about them, but everyone else already has. My scooter got stolen -- and I caught the guy but haven't yet recovered the scoot -- there's a whole real-life cops-and-robbers story there. And then there was the guy (another cop!) who sent a press release to Roadracing World, announcing that he was going to start a business in which hot nurses would rehydrate and re-oxygenate club-level motorcycle racers... Well, that one is so crazy that maybe I will revisit it in the coming days.
This guy walks into a motel office. As he's paying for the room, he says to the clerk, "I hope the porn channel's disabled." The clerk says, "No, it's regular porn, you sick fuck."

Anyway, last night, I found myself fondly hearkening back to the days when I worked at Motorcyclist, and spent two or three nights a week in L.A. Fond thoughts about that period of my life aren't common, because with a couple of exceptions, I worked for/with psychopaths and L.A. is one of the world's biggest urban failures. The one good thing -- besides the free motorcycles and OEM-paid travel to exotic destinations like Willow Springs -- about working in L.A. was, it was the only place I've ever lived that had a good place to grab a beer on Monday night.

I don't know what it is about me, but I seem to be inclined to work out, work, stay home and cook; I do boring shit all weekend and never really feel like going out. Then come Monday, I find myself thinking, "I've gotta' get out and do something." Yesterday was one of those Mondays. I actually went the whole day without having a single face-to-face conversation of any kind with another human. But last night, when I would have gone out somewhere, I realized that on a Monday night in Kansas City, there was probably nowhere to kill an hour amongst entertaining strangers.

That wasn't the case when I worked at Motorcyclist. At least not after I found out about that bar.

I have no idea what the bar was called. It was in NoHo -- a neighborhood that actually should'a been called "lotsa' hos" -- and if the bar had a name, it wasn't posted anywhere. It had a street number, and a very large man at the door. And Mondays, it rocked. The place was packed.

It was not for Monday Night Football. Nope. It was packed because the clientele were sex trade workers, and if you're a hooker, Monday is your Saturday.

That un-named bar wasn't the only place I encountered hookers on my Motorcyclist beat.

While I worked in L.A., I lived in San Diego. So my commute, door-to-door was 120 miles. I typically worked one or two days per week on assignment, one or two days per week from home, and a couple of days per week in the Petersen Building on Wilshire Boulevard. My office window looked north across Hollywood; if the smog was not too bad, the sign was visible on the hills. But if you looked south from my floor, you were surveying a vista where, on any given night, someone was being murdered.

Since living in San Diego was my problem, the magazine had no interest in subsidizing my accommodation for a night or two in L.A. And since I was making shit money, I had to find a cheap motel.

There were a couple of candidate hostelries commensurate with my rather stringent budgetary constraints. They were fucking dives yes, south of my office.

The one I settled on was $40 a night.

In central L.A.

Use your imagination.

Go worse; go way worse. The building presented some gay coral-hued stucco facade to the street. To enter the motel, you drove (or in my case, rode) through a sort of portico into an inner "court". I'm using that word very, very loosely. A square of motel rooms, each presenting a single window and door into the court, were numbered from about 1 to 20. They were usually dark, but when a new vehicle entered, there was often a rustle at a few curtains.

In the corner, there was a lighted window, and a sign: Office.

The owners were Chinese, or of that descent anyway. Food smells, and Chinese soap opera soundtracks wafted from the heavy wrought-iron window grille. A crude sign blared the message:

No drugs!
No prostitutes!

Beneath it, there were rates for a week, a night, and an hour. The first time I paid for a room, they actually let me use a credit card. On all subsequent visits they screeched, "Machine broken! Cash only".

You've gotta' understand; at the time, I was riding motorcycles from Motorcyclist's press fleet. It was a selective filter for machines on the sublime-to-ridiculous spectrum. I'd show up on a different new bike ever time; a Ducati 99-whatever it was in 2004, a new Gixxer 1000; once I showed up on a Honda Rune and another time on what was probably the only Rocket III in the country. The manufacturers who'd loaned us those bikes would've shit themselves if they realized where I was leaving them overnight. Although in truth, it wasn't that dangerous; the owners let me park the bikes right by their window. It was open all night, and there was always someone in there watching TV. It would've taken a pretty brazen thief, and it wasn't a place anyone casing high end bikes would ever have entered looking for a high end bike.

Typically, what I'd do is get my room, and walk a block to the nearest 7-11. I'd buy a bag of chips, a beer, a bottle of OJ, and a banana, and walk back to the dump. There was a side-entrance into the courtyard, from that direction. Before going to sleep, I'd drink the beer, eat the chips, and watch whatever passed for TV. It wasn't like they had a full satellite package; it was more like rabbit ears. The next morning I'd get up, eat the banana, drink the juice, and try to shower and dry off without getting some nasty foot fungus, then hightail it to Starbucks.

The thing was, those motorcycles made me cool in there. Hookers love bikes. Well, there was that time I arrived on a brand new Ducati and one girl, after admiring it, went next door to get another girl to come and see it.

"You should see this guy's crotch rocket," she said.

Her friend came out, took one look and said, "Oh. I thought it was going to be a Ninja."

Kawasaki were getting good money out of their Ricky Gadson sponsorship, I guess.

Most of those chicks were pretty hardened, desperate crackheads. (I think it was still crack back then; when I found drug paraphernalia in the room, which happened fairly often, it was usually a crack pipe. But maybe they used the same type of pipe for meth. Whatever.)

Some of the girls, however, were sweet and sad. They were occasionally funny. Once they came to grips with the fact that I was not in the market but didn't hate them, either, we struck up little two-minute friendships.

There was one that I saw often enough that I got to know her name -- though I've long since forgotten it. I recall it being something rural and anachronistic, like Beulah. I'll call her that, anyway, for the rest of this story.

Anyway, one night I was walking back from the 7-11 with my goodie bag, and noticed two things: First, there was a hooker standing out on the street by the main entrance, and she was white. That never happened. Second, there was a tough looking white dude standing mostly out of sight at the corner of the building, near the side entrance. The guy gave me a real what-are-you-looking-at staredown as I approached, and I knew immediately he was a cop. I also knew he had nothing on me and my story checked out, so I gave it back to him.

In the courtyard, Beulah hissed "psst" from a doorway, and whispered that the white girl on the sidewalk was a cop. She said it like she was really worried I might try to tap that thing. I told her, Sweetie, if anybody in here ever gets my money, it'll be you.

That made her smile.

I didn't think much more of it until, at about two o'clock in the morning, there was an enormous fucking ruckus right on the other side of a wall that was probably just wallpaper laid right on 2x4s, with no drywall or anything.

"Police!"
"Freeze!!"
"You're under arrest!!!"

It turned out the female cop was bringing johns back to a room right next to mine. And that happened again at about three o'clock, and four. The fucking LAPD didn't even have the decency to buy the rooms on either side of their sting room. I don't know what saps ever hired that white "hooker"; she and her minder couldn't have looked more like cops if they'd been wearing their uniforms (which, come to think of it, would probably have attracted business up in NoHo, where there was a much kinkier vibe.)

They must've ruined Beulah's business that night. They ruined my night's sleep, that's for sure. My only consolation was that the asshole who'd given my stinkeye never got the satisfaction of cuffing me. And that early the next morning, they were probably watching from some window as I rode out on some brand-new bitchin' bike, looking suspicious as hell.



Friday, September 27, 2013

Now available on Kindle!


On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker is now available for $9.99 at the Amazon Kindle store, here. My friend and ad partner Mark Eimer nailed another awesome cover, eh? The print version of this book is over 400 pages and will be available soon at Amazon for $27. If you're on my mailing list, I'll send you an email offering a signed/inscribed copy with free shipping, as soon as I have the first copies in hand.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Watch the Monsters of the Salt trailer now



UPDATE: OK, so we fell woefully short of our vainglorious budget target. But we're not done yet, by any means. Our immediate goal is to find sponsors who will cover the cost of shooting the first act of the film, in Paris, before the 2014 season on the salt. If you donated money in the first round of our Indiegogo campaign, the money you gave will be used to find the sponsors we need for that first major block of shooting. THANKS! We'll keep you informed.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Moron motorcycle marketing. Oops, I meant 'More on' motorcycle marketing

Forgive me if I rant for a minute, will you?

I followed the Laguna Seca MotoGP round from a distance, lurking on various motorcycle-racing web sites and, of course, getting an extra few pieces of motorcycle spam delivered via email, because it was a race weekend.

MotoGP is a big marketing opportunity and in the course of a few minutes last weekend, I experienced two epic marketing fails. The first came in the form of a photo on one of the popular racing news sites.

The photo was one of the tiresome obligatory images you see every race weekend of umbrella girls, standing around and looking hot. What got me to look at it again was photo's caption...


Honestly, Red Bull girls??? There are at least 20 Monster Energy trademarks or wordmarks visible in this image. Monster's marketing guys must be asking themselves, What would we have to do, in order to not just be slotted into the 'Red Bull' file in the caption-writer's brain? I'd like to think this was a joke, purposely punking Monster, but I doubt that the purveyor of this web site really wants to alienate one of the sport's biggest sponsors.

The thing is, although Monster totally dominates this one photo, the problem that it illustrates is paddock-wide, in the sense that the wild proliferation of logos at events like MotoGP (compare photos from today to photos taken even 20 years ago and you'll see what I mean) has created an environment so cluttered and chaotic that it's possible there isn't anything they can do to be memorable.

When everything's branded, nothing's branded.

Another brand that put a push on at Laguna Seca was Motus. They brought bikes out, which I learned because I got an email from them telling me that they brought bikes to Laguna Seca. It was an email that I opened, because I've been wondering what ever happened to those guys.

Sadly, I wasn't able to glean much from the email. Now, maybe I'm super-critical because I'm a copywriter and companies (admittedly bigger ones than Motus) pay me to write emails like this but I couldn't help but wonder... Who approved this copy?

I mean, come on. You spend what, tens of thousands of dollars going to Laguna Seca, and then you publish this? Read the FAQ section of the email...


Let's go through those questions again, one by one, and translate Motus' answers into plain English:

Q: Where can I see, test ride, and purchase a Motus MST or MST-R?
A: Yes, we have some dealers. But if you can you think of a shop near you that might be willing to take on a Motus franchise, please tell us. Ideally, we'd like you to convince them to take us on.

Q: What are the differences between the MST and the MST-R?
A: We refuse to tell you. Here's a list of ways they are the same. But, you can make them different with lots of options. Call us.

Q: What are the retail prices of the MST and MST-R?
A: MST models start at $30,975. MST-R prices start at... "Look! There goes Valentino Rossi!"

Q: Does Motus have plans for an adventure bike, street fighter, trike, hovercraft, or track car?
A: "Do you believe that Lorenzo and Pedrosa both rode with broken collarbones?"

Q: Can I buy a crate motor?
A: Yes, we're now taking reservations for motors that will be delivered in Spring 2013. (While we may or may not be planning to sell a hovercraft, we've obviously perfected a time machine that will allow us to go back in time at least a month or two, to Spring 2013, when we'll deliver your motor, in the past. So give us your deposit today, and tomorrow you'll open your workshop door to find your build-it-yourself project half-built. Bet you can't wait to see what you're doing with your motor.)

Honestly I wish Motus well. I really do. But what the fuck is the message they're sending with these non-answers? I suppose in Motus' limited defense, they do say that these are Frequently Asked Questions, not frequently answered ones.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Monster of the Salt

Ten years ago, I was in Paris at a vintage bike show. A gaggle of French bikers were gathered around an old Triumph, elbowing each other and pointing at it.

I heard one say, “C’est le monster du lac salé!”

French cartoonist Denis Sire, with bike builder Laurent Romuald in background.
That piqued my curiosity, so I asked the owner–a guy named Laurent Romuald–if the bike was an old Salt Flats racer. “No,” he told me wistfully, “but it’s my dream to run it on the Bonneville Salt Flats.”

Romuald's replica. This bike is known to thousands of French bikers as, Le monstre du lac sale
They say art imitates life, but Laurent’s bike was a case of life imitating art imitating life. His bike was a replica of one that figured in a comic book written and illustrated by Denis Sire. Sire was an avid motorcyclist and a popular ‘bande desinée’ artist in the ’70s and ’80s. His stories were set in Rock ’n Roll-era America–hot rods, flat track, desert racing, Buddy Holly; he loved that stuff.

Denis Sire, in his Paris studio.
This was the photo that Sire used for inspiration. That's '60s drag ace Nira Johnson, on the bike.
One day while he sat in his studio seeking inspiration, he flipped through an old car magazine and found a photo spread, of action on the Bonneville Salt Flats from 1967. A single, grainy, black and white photo of a guy on a Triumph motorcycle, captioned with the name ‘Nira Johnson,’ caught his imagination. With nothing else to go on, he made up a little story about an American racer with that name, and a fast Triumph he dubbed, ‘Le monstre du lac salé’. That translates as, the Salt Lake monster. (Salt Lake and the Salt Flats are a hundred miles apart, something Sire might have known if he’d ever actually been to the United States.)

A spread from Sire's bestselling graphic novel 6T Melodies, with detail of the drawing, based on the old photo of Nira, below...
The story appeared in a comic book called 6T Melodies. It was so popular that Laurent decided to build a replica of the bike in the comic. I was born in 1959,” he told me, “the same year as the Bonneville.” He grew up to become one of the top French experts on British twins, with a beautiful shop on the outskirts of Paris called Machines et Moteurs. He called Denis Sire to tell him his plan.

“Good luck,” Sire told him. Then he explained that he’d made it all up based on a single old photo. “But,” he went on, “I think I still have the magazine, I’ll bring it over.” The two were soon fast friends. They blew up the magazine photo but there wasn’t much detail to be seen there. They also searched for any mention of Nira Johnson in other old magazines, hoping to trace him, but came up empty. So in the same way that Sire had imagined his American stories, Laurent had to imagine the bike.

“I could see it was an early Bonneville motor in a rigid frame,” he told me. “It looked like a drag bike, so as I built it, I asked myself ‘What would an American drag racer have done in the ’60s?’” The French have held America in special regard since the days of Lafayette; deep in their subconscious, they see the American Revolution as the one that worked. I loved the idea of these two French guys creating an in-the-metal version of an imagined bike, ridden by an imagined rider, in an imagined version of the ’States.

I promised them that I’d do what I could do to help them live out their fantasy about bringing their bike over to run it on the Salt Flats. When I got back here, I did my own search for Nira Johnson and also drew a blank. I wrote about Laurent, Denis, and le monstre du lac salé on my blog, and forgot about them for years.

Then, out of the blue, I got an email from a stranger that read, “I’m a friend of Nira Johnson, and I have his old motorcycle. Call me.”

Nira Johnson, at MMP in 2008, with his bike (now in the collection of Rodd Lighthouse.)
I just about crapped. The stranger–a consulting engineer and AHRMA racer from Nevada named Rodd Lighthouse–had grown up with Nira as a family friend. He’d recently convinced Nira to sell him his old bike. He told me that Nira had been quite a successful drag racer in Southern California in the ’60s. “You may not know that he was a black man,” he added.

He gave me Nira’s phone number, and I called him up. He laughed when I told him that he was famous, at least to French motorcyclists, as a white guy.

I finally got the American side of the tale, from Nira Johnson himself, in September, 2008. The occasion was a round of the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association’s road racing championship, held at Miller Motorsports Park, about twenty miles from Salt Lake City, in Utah.

Nira was there, doing a little wrenching for Rodd Lighthouse and his dad, Ken. Since they knew I was coming to the race, they brought along Nira's old bike, which was known to thousands of French bikers as ‘Le monstre du lac salé’.

Nira was born in New York of African-American and Native-American parentage. He went to a vocational-technical high school, and joined the Air Force after graduating. He flew on B-36 strategic bombers.

“That’s when I got into motorcycles,” he told me. “I learned as I went. I threw a primary chain through a case when I had my first BSA. An Air Force buddy had a background with hot rods. He was from California, and probably inspired me move to California when I was discharged.”

In ’58, Nira did just that. He got a job at an aerospace company that became Rockwell International, where he helped make Minuteman missiles, and hold the Russkies at bay. In his spare time, he hung with two bikers who raced a twin-engined Triumph dragster they’d bought from Joe Dudek, a legendary Los Angeles tuner. One day when their rider–a fellow named Bill Johnson–didn’t show, they said, “You’re about the same size as him, why don’t you ride it?”

Johnson only went to Bonneville once. His natural habitat was the SoCal drag scene. Note the exquisite front engine plates. Keepin' it light!
Nira was hooked. He bought his own bike in ’63, from a guy who’d started to build it then lost interest. What he acquired was basically a rigid, pre-unit Triumph frame that had a Cub front end and a tiny, trick fuel tank with no filler cap. He bought a few hot rodding books and built his own 650cc motor. Another famous tuner named Shell Thuett had one of the only dynos around, and Nira did a lot of his tuning in Thuett’s shop.

“I liked to keep things reliable,” he recalled. “The pre-unit Bonnevilles had a three-piece crank, and when they went to unit construction, they put in a better, two-piece one. So I used that. I polished it, and took off some weight. I ported it; lightened and polished the rods… I wanted to put in bigger valves but it was too expensive.”

His bike wasn’t overly powerful; he remembers it making about 56 horsepower, but it was light. He even thinned all the gears in the transmission. And, it was reliable; in six years of racing it almost every weekend, he blew up one motor.

“I ran what they called Class B/Gas. In the beginning I ran in the high 11-second range, with trap speeds around 110 mph. At the end its development, the bike was hitting 116-118 mph. Sometimes, when other guys saw that I was there, they’d just roll their bikes right back onto their trucks and go home!”

The time that Nira was photographed on the Salt Flats was the only time he ever raced there. “I was using Harmon-Collins cams, and they had some they said were ‘too radical for drag racing’ so I got them to grind me some of those. Other than that, I just swapped the rear tire and gearing. My bike ran good, but the record was set by Dudek and Johnson, at speeds that were unattainable on gas–they were either running alcohol or fuel–so they ran in the high 140s, and my best runs were in the 130s.”

Not long afterwards, Nira moved to the East Coast for his job, and he had no time to drag race. Ironically, he traveled to France for work in 1983, when Denis Sire’s comic book was a best seller.

“I had no idea I was a character in a comic book over there, until Rodd clued me in,” he told me, adding–surely an understatement–“I was kinda’ surprised.”

This is why I don’t write fiction. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

The first half of this story was one of the first Backmarker columns that I posted on the old RoadRacerX.com site. Even that part of the story was cool enough that, when I returned to the U.S. from France, I hoped to get a documentary filmmaker sufficiently interested to bring the replica 'monster' to the Bonneville Salt Flat. When the blog post about the replica resulted in my finding the original monster - and Nira - I updated the post and again begged documentary filmmakers to get in touch with me.

Well, after all these years, I'm now working with Tom Guttry, a veteran producer of documentary and reality TV content, to bring Monsters of the Salt to the screen. Tom recruited Kevin Ward, the cinematographer who shot 'Dust to Glory', and the three of us agreed to work on this film for free, in order to ensure that this heartwarming and inspiring story gets told while Nira (who is in his 80s) is still alive. I got back in touch with Nira, Laurent, and Denis to make sure they were all still interested, and still had access to their bikes. They're all game.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Tracing the origins of "The Pass" to the source: Alex Zanardi

So, I note that you can watch the replay of Marquez using the, uh, "extreme inside line" at The Corkscrew, in order to pass Rossi. five years ago, Rossi pulled the same move on Casey Stoner. Marquez obviously knew about Rossi's pass, but probably doesn't know that Rossi had been inspired by a guy who won a gold medal in the London Paralympics.


Ex-F1 and IndyCar driver Alex Zanardi lost his legs in one of the most horrific motorsports incidents ever, but he continues to inspire with his personal strength and courage. As an ex- (and admittedly crap) TT racer, I've dissed plenty of car racers in my time, but not this guy. Legs gone, 'nads apparently fully intact.

Most Backmarker readers remember Rossi's epic pass on Stoner, through the gravel in the Corkscrew in 2008. Photographer Andrew Wheeler certainly does. The expat Englishman lives just up the coast from Monterey and calls Laguna Seca his home track. So, he was perfectly positioned to shoot Rossi's move, and the resulting photos cemented his reputation as one of the top photographers in MotoGP.

 
Rossi-Stoner Laguna Seca 2008 Battle - Images by Andrew Wheeler

Stoner thought Rossi should've been penalized for cutting the course, but Rossi was well aware that Alex Zanardi had gotten away with the same stunt on the last lap of a CART race about 10 years before that.

Check it out here...

 

UPDATE... Monday morning crew chief, Tuesday edition: But wasn't it against the rules? 

All three moves beg the question that Stoner asked in 2008: Wasn't the move illegal? Every racing organization has a rule to the effect that a racer should not gain an advantage by leaving the course. All three of them were all already ahead of their victims when they entered the second part of the Corkscrew (it's usually listed as turn 8A on track maps.) So in one sense, no one “gained an advantage” by leaving the track, they already had the advantage and just maintained it.
That said, look closely at the Corkscrew. It’s a left-right flick over the crest. I haven't raced there since 2001, and haven't tested there since about 2008, but I think I remember it pretty clearly; and if my memory serves, the slowest point through the complex is the left, not the right. You can carry a ton more speed through the first part of the Corkscrew and make your pass there, if you’re prepared to straight-line it across the gravel, inside the apex of the second half of the complex. 
Marquez took Rossi on the outside of the left, and was ahead but not fully past him when Rossi used all the track on the exit line of the first part of the Corkscrew. Unlike Rossi vs. Stoner, Marquez could have argued (if needed) that he’d been pushed wide but that wasn’t really the case, his momentum was simply too great at that point.
Rossi (and Zanardi before him) took the inside line in the left turn. They were fully past their rivals and weren’t forced wide, they were just going too fast to complete the direction change and keep it on the asphalt. Inside or outside, it makes no matter; in all three cases, blowing the right turn was a consequence of intentionally carrying too much speed a second or two earlier. All three racers gained an advantage by leaving the track. If there’d been a wall there, or even deep gravel, they would either not have tried the move, or not have succeeded.
Still, none of them were penalized. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Riding Man, textbook?



I got a couple of cryptic emails and phone messages earlier this summer, from the manager of the Austin College bookstore in Sherman, TX, enquiring about stocking Riding Man. It turns out, my book's on the reading list for course entitled 'The Irish Sea', taught by historian Hunt Tooley. Cool, eh?

Here's a screen cap of the course description (click to enlarge)...


Friday, July 19, 2013

Indian punks Harley with clever launch ad

It's not often that ADWEEK pays attention to the motorcycle business. Why should they? Most motorcycle industry advertising is lame. But ADWEEK perked up this week when it noticed this great teaser ad for Polaris' new Indian.


Indian Motorcycle ~ "Choice Is Coming" from Pagoda Pictures on Vimeo.

This ad was created by Colle&McVoy, an ad agency based in Minneapolis. Ironically, Carmichael Lynch, another Twin Cities agency, produced great Harley advertising for decades. I'm not sure where this ad is running, but I assume it will air quite a bit between now and the worldwide unveiling of Polaris' 2014 Indian Chief, which will take place in Sturgis in the first week of August.

A smart concept and tight execution already distinguish this from most of the dreck advertising in our category. Licensing Willie Nelson also indicates that Polaris is taking the launch seriously. Is Harley?

Monday, July 8, 2013

The motorcycle industry's charitable efforts are full of shit, er, misguided

This is a repost from last spring. I'm putting it back up again, because again, with the recent injury to AFM veteran Dave Stanton, I'm reminded that as motorcycle riders & racers, the one charitable cause we all need to back is spinal injury research.

However, before you read on, there's something I want you to do: go here, and PayPal $10 to Dave Stanton.

Here, then, is what I wrote in April 2012 (which is itself a rehash of one of my old columns from the Road Racer X web site, but I'll keep harping on this until as a group, motorcyclists focus our charitable efforts on something closer to home than Toys for Tots or Pediatric Brain Tumors.

It's been a bleak early season for the World Superbike Championship in terms of injuries. A fellow Canadian, SBK racer Brett McCormick just barely dodged a paralyzing injury at Assen, throwing a huge downer on what had been a fairy-tale story. (McCormick showed up in Europe last fall to ride all the SBK contenders' bikes at a press day, as the representative of a Canadian bike mag. He ended up being recruited by the Effenbert team to ride in the European Superstock championship and was then upgraded to SBK.) Being sidelined for several months so early in the season is a bummer for the Canuck, but at least he'll make a full recovery.

Kawasaki rider Joan Lascorz has been relocated to Institut Guttmann, a Barcelona hospital specializing in the treatment and rehabilitation of spinal cord injuries. It remains to be seen just what degree of recovery Joan will make; Institut Guttmann is a world-class facility, but the hospital's logo, in which the 'G' is formed out of the wheel of a wheelchair, makes it clear that serious spinal injuries are still resistant to treatment.

The so-called 'back protectors' that most of us wear offer some protection from impact, but little or no protection for the sorts of compression, extreme flexion, or hyperextension injuries that result in spinal cord injuries. All they really do is give you a false sense that you've taken a step to protect yourself.

Leatt and Alpinestars, which make neck braces for riders of sit-up-and-beg-type motorcycles are, presumably, working on similar devices for  road racers and sportbike riders. And the increasing availability of 'airbag' racing suits shows that companies are actively working on improved injury prevention strategies.

That's great, as far as it goes. But.

For the foreseeable future, all motorcycle riders and racers will continue to expose themselves to high risk of spinal injury. The only thing we can, collectively, hope for is progress in treating those injuries. And that hope is not forlorn; there's a real chance that spinal lesions that currently cause incurable paralysis will be healed in our lifetime; there's promising research on several fronts.

IF THERE IS ONE CHARITABLE CAUSE WE SHOULD ALL CONTRIBUTE TO, IT'S SPINAL CORD RESEARCH. For most of us, a paralyzing injury is the ultimate downside to our sport; something we fear more than death itself. And yet (or, I suppose, because of that fear) the motorcycle industry seems determined to pretend that there are other causes we should support.

So Kyle Petty's big charity ride collects funds for a sick children's summer camp. And every fall, there's Toys for Tots runs. There are rides to raise money for pediatric cancer research, Bikers Battling Breast Cancer, and a Ride For Autism. (I guess most of the participants in those rides are Harley guys who don't even wear crash helmets; they have less to fear on the paralysis front, since they'll typically be killed by brain injuries.)

Leaving aside the obvious criticism that it should be a ride against autism, not for it, I'll point out for the nth time that sending sick children to camp, gathering toys for poor kids, and defeating cancer or autism are all great causes.

For other people.

Riders for Health is probably the highest-profile charity for the helmet-wearing set. Yes, getting health care delivered to people who need it in Africa is great, too. We should support Riders for Health enthusiastically.

After we've found a cure for spinal cord injuries.

Motorcycle riders and race fans should support spinal cord injury research, and that's all we should support, until technology to heal those injuries is widely available. I'm pretty skeptical of Red Bull generally, but I admire Red Bull founder Dieter Mateschitz for -- almost alone in the world of action sports -- confronting the reality of spinal cord injuries face-to-face.

Red Bull's Wings for Life program collects money for spinal cord research and distributes it to researchers working towards a cure. If someone knows of a better umbrella group specializing in spinal cord research, please let me know. Until then, contribute to Wings for Life here.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why can't American Honda make an ad this good?

ADWEEK recently raved about this brilliant, two minute-long commercial for Honda UK. As far as I know, that spot is running only in Britain (notwithstanding the use of Garrison Keillor for the few words of voiceover.)

This in not an ad for any one product or even any one division of the company. It's a view of the whole brand from 30,000 feet, which pays homage to the ingenuity of Honda's R&D and engineering. It's all about the engineers' imaginations; the background is, literally, a clean sheet of paper.

The spot's running on Channel 4 over there, where Honda is sponsoring a documentary series. The 2-minute length makes it impractical to run on U.S. TV, and frankly I hope that American Honda doesn't adapt it, because I'm sure they'll cut most if not all the motorcycles! But I'd love to see them run the full-length spot in American cinemas.

Anyway, the spot is loaded with stuff motorcyclists and motorsports nuts will appreciate, like the Honda RC143 125cc Grand Prix bike from the '60s, and the snippet of voiceover mentioning John McGuinness.

Enjoy!



Oh, to have a full corporate brand ad here in the U.S. pay such homage to the company's motorcycle roots. The ad does have some indirect American content, in the sense that it was produced by the London office of the U.S. agency Weiden & Kennedy.

Backmarker kudos to Honda UK marketing boss Olivia Dunn, and W&K's highly regarded creative team of Chris Lapham and Aaron McGurk. Apparently the creative team's working on an even longer format piece that will appear online.

I'll try to highlight that, too.

In the meantime, while we're on the subject of great ads, here's two minutes worth wasting, in the form of another Honda long-form ad, also voiced by Garrison Keillor...


And, for those of you who know I'm also a dog lover, a follow up to 'The Cog', in the form of this new spot. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Or is it 'plagiarism'?

Hero, Buell, and Indian traffic: context

It's always a little weird hearing about motorcycle manufacturers, like Hero, that are virtually unknown in the U.S. market, but huge in India, China, or Southeast Asia.

With annual revenues in the $4B range, Hero is almost as large as the Buell brand's previous owner, Harley-Davidson. And, if one considers the two companies' model ranges--most new Heros are under 200cc and retail for about $1,000--it's clear that Hero sells far more units than H-D.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time, in the U.S., when motorcycles outnumbered cars. Then, Henry Ford released the Model T, which was more practical than any motorcycle of its day, and less costly than top-of-the-range bikes. It sold for $851 when introduced. Corrected for inflation, that's about $21,000 today. That was a tipping point for cars in the U.S. market.

It took a lot longer for that to happen in the U.K. Motorcycles provided the only affordable day-to-day transport for working blokes until the '60s. Scooters and motorcycles outnumbered Italian auto registrations into the '70s. But in those markets, too, small affordable cars like the Fiat 500 gradually became the default choice for working-class transportation.

I just saw a chart of vehicle registrations by type for the city of New Delhi. Scooters and motorcycles outnumber private autos by 2:1. (There are about 2.3M cars and 4.6M bikes in that one Indian city!)

What's telling, though, is the rate of growth in registrations. While two-wheeler registrations in the last decade have increased 6.4% on average--good news for Hero, which is the largest Indian motorcycle manufacturer--auto registrations have increased even more; on average, 7.9%.

The Indian auto industry has its sights set squarely on consumers who are now buying scooters and small motorcycles. The Tata Nano, for example, bills itself as 'The people's car' (=volkswagen?). It's powered by a fuel-injected 600cc twin motor and sells for about $3,000.

The Tata Nano is probably easier on the environment, on balance, than a lot of motorbikes. Luckily for Hero, road congestion will probably slow the automotive juggernaut there. The ability of bikes to filter through clogged streets may continue to appeal to a lot of commuters who will in the future be able to afford cars.

Even in India, however, cars will eventually shoulder aside motorbikes.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Hero buys half of Erik Buell's company for $25M

India Today and other Indian financial news sources are reporting that Hero, India's largest motorcycle manufacturer, has just completed a deal to invest $25,000,000 in Erik Buell Racing.



According to India Today...

The country's largest two-wheeler maker Hero MotoCorp on Monday said it has picked up 49.2 per cent stake in US-based Erik Buell Racing (EBR) for USD 25 million (about Rs.148 crore).

The company has incorporated a wholly-owned subsidiary in the US by the name of HMCL (NA), Inc for the purposes of investing in Erik Buell Racing Inc, Hero MotoCorp (HMC) said in a filing to the BSE.

"HMCL(NA) has agreed to invest USD 25 million in EBR for a total stake of 49.2 per cent in the share capital of EBR. The first tranche of USD 15 million has been invested by HMCL (NA) on June 28, 2013," it added.

The second tranche of USD 10 million is proposed to be invested within the next nine months, the company added.

Last year, Hero MotoCorp had entered into technology sourcing pact with EBR as it looks to strengthen presence in the high-end bike segment.

The development is a part of the Indian firm's strategy to enhance technological prowess, post the break-up of the erstwhile joint venture with Honda - Hero Honda.

The idea behind entering into partnership with EBR was a part of HMC's overall strategy to have multiple technology source for different segments and enhance its own R&D capability.

In December 2010, the Hero Group and Honda had agreed to end their 26-year-old relationship, with the Indian partner agreeing to buy out Honda's 26 per cent stake in Hero Honda for Rs.3,841.83 crore.

The two erstwhile partners had, however, signed a new licensing agreement under which Hero will pay Honda 45 billion yen (about Rs.2,450 crore) till 2014.

Shares of HMC were trading at Rs.1,677.55 on the BSE in morning trade, up 0.92 per cent from their previous close.


This makes a lot of sense to me. Hero, like several other Indian companies (Mahindra leaps to mind, too) is making the jump from building Japanese designs under license to creating its own machines from scratch. And despite the fact that there are hundreds if not thousands of small, garage-building operations run by guys who'd claim they're capable of designing a bike for mass production, there are in fact a very small number of guys who can actually do it. More to the point, there's a very, very small number of guys who can say, "I've done that."

Erik's one of them. Hero effectively gets a proven R&D operation, albeit one a long way from its Indian base. I wonder if you can get a decent curry in Wisconsin? (Note to Erik: Don't even try to find a decent brat in India. And forget about their cheese curds.)

$25 million will also give EBR some breathing room. I'm not sure how much mass production that will buy, and how much as a result, EBR will be able to lower prices. But getting more bikes to market, sooner, and at more competitive prices, is obviously a key to that company's long term survival.

I'll shoot Erik a message now, and see if he cares to expound upon what, exactly, this means for EBR. (Besides the fact that the company's July 4 picnic will be damned cheerful.)