Thursday, June 28, 2012

A note from the Dept. of Cut-and-Paste Press Releases

Uh, you guys... I think it's great that the season will end with a multi-race western swing, and a Pomona finale. But average speeds on the Pomona half-mile are about 60 miles an hour. If anyone's going to hit 130 on those short straights, you'd better double up the Airfence.

And while you're editing that press release, can you maybe come up with a better adverb, to describe racing action, than 'ground pumping'? I mean, seriously. What are they doing out there? Fracking Pomona to extract natural gas?

Look, no one has to crank up the hyperbole machine to convince me that Grand National flat tracking is the most exciting motorcycle sport. It is, with due respect to those XR1200 road racers, the only motorcycle sport that has a hope in hell of tapping the huge majority of Americans for whom 'motorcycle' = V-Twin. It's got more American heritage, a cadre of young riders who embody McQueen-esque cool far more than road racers; the winner's rarely decided by more than a couple of bike lengths, and nowadays it's less and less a foregone conclusion what marque he'll be riding, or even that it will be a he. (Nichole Cheza's time will come!)

With all that's going for it, the question is, why is flat track such a sketchy proposition? If this press release is any evidence, part of the problem's the way the sport's marketed.

This post: poned. Quite a morning for motorcycle news...

 It's already been quite a morning for motorcycle news. I was reading about the Colorado Springs wildfires in the mainstream news, and found myself wondering if it could possibly be wise to run the Pikes Peak race next week.

The Waldo Canyon fire is just north of Pikes Peak, and there are a couple of hot spots that have already jumped south of Highway 24. It's one thing to evacuate a neighborhood, it's another thing altogether to get thousands of fans off a mountain with one winding two-lane road for access. (And, in case you're wondering about abandoning your car up there and getting off Pikes Peak by foot... unless you're an Army Ranger, you can probably forget it.
Then, as soon as I switched from scanning my 'media' feed to scanning my 'motorcycle' feed, I learned that the July 8 event has been postponed.

That only makes sense. Having raced there a couple of times, I know that under the best of circumstances, it takes hours to get thousands of fans off the mountain, since there's only one road (and one slow rail line) up and down. Egress from Laguna Seca is positively free-flowing by comparison.

A fire on the mountain, particularly one that cut off the road, would set up a disaster. While I assume that the feds will do what it takes to protect the Air Force Academy, and bring the immediate fires under control, until there's some rain up on the mountain it doesn't make sense to line the road with thousands of fans who might themselves accidentally start a fire. Lightning strikes are also common up there. The reason Devil's Playground has its name is that there are so many lightning strikes in that particular spot.

When the organizers do reschedule the race, I hope this experience serves as a wakeup call. They need a helicopter SWAT team of firemen on call.

Mike 'Stu' Stuhler dishes on the Brad Baker/Kenny Tolbert 'split'...

Mike Stuhler (who has often supplied me with great photos from his archive, when I've sought to illustrate racing from the '70s and '80s) swapped his camera for a keyboard and posted a very insightful interview with tuning-ace-turned-team-owner Kenny Tolbert, on the subject of his 'split' with the up-and-coming Brad Baker.
If you've never checked out Mike Stuhler's blog, you should. But if you've got work to do today, be warned: there's hours-worth of stuff to pore over here...
Tolbert's always friendly, but I don't know what Mike's trick was to get him to really open up. Kenny never wants to talk that much to me! You should definitely read the whole thing here.

Tolbert really drives home a couple of key points:

  • While you can build a (nearly) competitive Kawasaki for a fraction of the cost of an XR750 Harley, the cost of the bike is only a fraction of the total cost of contesting the season. Kenny said he spent $20k on diesel fuel alone, in his final year as Chris Carr's tuner.
  • While there are a few sponsors chipping in to show their love of the sport, there clearly aren't the sponsors we need, which is to say -- even for a team run by a legendary tuner and fielding one of the hottest young talents on dirt -- we don't have sponsors with deep enough pockets who are drawn to flat track because it will provide a winning return on a sponsorship investment. This is America: flat track can't continue operating on hand-outs. We have to find a way to make it work as a sponsorship-driven business.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Honda production racer I'm drooling over

As early as 2014, Honda will sell you a production-racing variant of its current MotoGP contender, assuming of course that HRC sniffs your butt and wags its tail, and that you've got a check for €1M. 
As initially reported by David Emmett, Honda will be producing a 'production racing' variant of its RC213V MotoGP racer, which it will sell to privateer teams as early as 2014. The price, I read, will be 'under a million euros'. Given my background in advertising, I interpret that to mean, € 999,999.99 (except in Greece, where it will sell for a trillion drachmas.)

I'm not sure whether that price includes some certain number of engines, or exactly how a serial-production race bike fits into the current CRT rules; I don't know if those details have even been sorted out. Emmett quotes FIM President Vito Ippolito as saying that the series needs a bike 'like' the TZ750 that he raced in the '70s and '80s.

I'm in the middle of transcribing a great chat I had with ex-TZ750 ace Rich Schlachter who, again, underlined for me the uniqueness of the four-cylinder Yamaha -- it was an affordable bike that came out of the crate with close to world-class speed. (It could be affordably tuned to deliver truly world-class speed; Schlachter's privateer TZ went through the speed trap at Daytona at 186 mph in 1978 or '9.)

The key word here is 'affordable'. Now, obviously, a contemporary MotoGP bike -- even one dumbed-down with, say, conventional valve springs instead of pneumatic valves -- is two or three orders of magnitude more complex than a TZ750.


Corrected for inflation, the price that Schlachter paid for his TZ works out to under $15,000.

I.E., the privateer's production-racer price tag has gone up two orders of magnitude, too. That makes racing motorcycles the only area of high technology that's not subject to Moore's law.

Of course, the availability of semi-competitive, megabuck privateer MotoGP bikes means squat to me. But there is a Honda production racer that I'm drooling over. It's the track-ready CBR250 that Honda has made available for racers in a Japanese domestic CBR250R Cup series.

I'm not sure what, if any, other markets are destined to get this bike, which is basically a stock CBR250R with race bodywork, a quick shifter, and uprated ECU. What a great idea!

Honda here in the U.S. will, doubtless, fail to see the merit in an affordable track-day bike that won't eat tires. After all, U.S. dealers still routinely advise beginners to start out on 600s. Why would they want to sell anyone a bike like this, that's learner-friendly and will create a safe, avid, expert motorcyclist for life? 

[Author note: That was sarcasm. American Honda, please bring this bike to the U.S. market!]

While I was looking for some other pic of the CBR250R Cup bike -- because every web site and blog on earth has used the same pic (seen above) that was supplied by Honda -- I came across this photo of the racers in a Malaysian CBR250 spec class. It was on the MotoMalaya blog, which is posted in English with the amazing subtitle "News updates and mods about underbone and superbikes." Yes, you read that right, 'underbone'. Now, I don't know what underbone means, but judging from this crowd of teenaged riders, and remembering how excited motorcycles used to make me, I have to admit that in use, this motorcycle probably is under a bone.

After I posted this, H4L's Wes Siler sent me an email explaining that 'underbone' is a term for scooters in southeast Asia. Oh well; I guess I should have known, since I have an underbone. But I still think my definition is better...

Friday, June 22, 2012

At Suzuki, 2 + 2 = 0.2 (percent)

In my normal morning coffee news-prowl, I followed a link to a story on the 24/7 Wall Street site carrying the headline, 10 brands that will disappear in 2013.

Suzuki was on the list, which made me think, "OK, times are hard, but Suzuki's not that close to the edge. Or is it?"

It turned out that the story was about Suzuki's car division, and I think it must really be about the car division here in the U.S. At least, there's no indication in the piece that Suzuki's global car sales are disastrous. Still, for what it's worth, IIRC, after the Bush meltdown, American Suzuki blended the administrations of the car and motorcycle groups to a certain extent. That presumably means that the motorcycle guys are sharing overhead with the car guys, and that if the car guys simply pack up and vanish, the moto guys will have to cover the whole nut.

Suzuki's cars, small SUVs and crossovers have not managed to help its motorcycle successes, uh, cross over into the auto sector.
For what it's worth, here's what they had to say about Suzuki's failure to attract U.S. car buyers...

American Suzuki Motor sold 10,695 cars and light trucks in the first five months of this year. That was down 3.9% compared with the same period in 2011. The sales gave the manufacturer a U.S. market share of just 0.2%. One reason the company has trouble moving its vehicles is the poor reputation of its cars. In the 2012 JD Power survey of U.S. vehicle dependability, Suzuki’s scores in power-trains, body and materials, and features and accessories were below those of almost every other brand. One sign Suzuki is having trouble selling its vehicles is that it currently offers a very aggressive zero-percent financing package for 72 months on all of its 2012 cars, trucks and SUVs. Even with aggressive sales tactics, Suzuki cannot improve its position in the American market. Most of its cars sell for less than $20,000 and its trucks and SUVs for under $25,000.  Almost every other manufacturer with a broad range of vehicles has flooded this end of the market with cheap, fuel-efficient models. Arguably the most successful car company in the U.S. based on growth — Hyundai — does particularly well in this segment.

Read more: 24/7 Wall St. Ten Brands That Will Disappear In 2013 - 24/7 Wall St.

For my money, the ticket to Suzuki's success would have been to fit the now-discontinued Suzuki Aerio with the motor from a Hyabusa. Now that would've been cool. As it is, I still have to continue fantasizing about shoe-horning a 'busa mill into a Smart Car.

Monday, June 18, 2012

UK bike mag editors play musical chairs

I got a cryptic email this morning that suggests editorial changes are afoot at Bauer Media, publisher of the weekly motorcycle tabloid MCN, as well as the monthlies Bike and Classic Bike.

Hugo Wilson, who has been the editor of Classic Bike as long as I've been a columnist there, really transformed the magazine. I used to think that Bike was the best English-language bike mag -- and I still think it's the most influential one -- but in recent years, Classic Bike's overtaken it. In spite of Classic Bike's narrower focus, it consistently puts out the most readable and best-looking book.

In spite of a weak economy and the usual perturbations in the publishing world, Wilson proved that in motorcycle magazines, as in magic baseball stadiums, "If you build it they (readers) will come." Classic Bike's had steadily increasing page counts and readership.

Now, Hugo Wilson's been called to Bike. Ben Miller will take over the reins at Classic Bike.

In Wilson, Bike has a skillful and erudite editor. What remains to be seen is, will Bike take advantage of this change to institute a really modern publishing strategy -- yes, one that acknowledges the Internet as more than a way to occasionally pick up a print subscriber, or simply tease print content. It may still be hard (read: impossible) to meaningfully monetize the web side of a print/web hybrid, but if Bauer waits until it can see a path to profit on the web before it expands its web presence, it will be too late.

Everything I wrote about the web strategy for Cycle World applies to Bike. Now, it's time to adapt or die.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why motorcycles blow

I've been paying only minimal attention to this blog lately, since I've been a little preoccupied with the launch of a new book (very boring, nothing to do with motorcycles.)
OK, motorcyclists. Prove all those acquisition editors who told me, "Motorcyclists won't buy a book; they don't even read" wrong, and push Riding Man sales up to this level for a day!
Anyway, the reality of the daily grind of author PR is that very little of it involves sexy librarians pulling off their glasses and shaking out their hair. Most of it involves sitting at a computer, alone, sending emails and checking your Amazon sales report, like, every seven seconds.

That means I've been home a lot. Ironically, I live next door to a fly-by-night motorcycle repair shop. I mean that literally, they're flying up and down the street late into the night. What is massively irritating about this is, the guy basically uses the street outside my building as a dyno, checking his jetting by revving the shit out of whatever heap he's working on, and doing about a two-block drag run.

It would be bad enough if the shop worked on good bikes, but it seems to specialize in two diametrically opposed genres: Harleys and mopeds.

The only thing both of these types of bikes have in common is that they're paradoxically ear-splittingly loud and slow. I mean, a guy generating 120db on Gixxer 1000 is going 100 miles an hour even if he's just in first gear. So he's only exposing you to the sound, as he passes, for a second or two and then he's gone. Also, hopefully, if he's doing that in an uncontrolled urban setting, he'll soon kill himself.

Harleys and mopeds are both basically machines designed to convert fossil fuel into sound without the dangerous side effects power and speed, and their attendant risks. The fucking bikes these idiots work on are deafening, and I can hear them for what seems like minutes at a time. If a proper bike passed under my office window making that much sound, it would be in Lawrence, Kansas in the amount of time it takes the troglodytes to get to the end of the next block.

Besides that, at least 20 to 40 of the "dyno runs" done each day seem to be on one of the mechanics' own bikes. Seriously, if you haven't got the jetting right in 400 tries, you gotta' go to some shop where they actually have a dyno and, maybe, knowledge. The fucking Harley has yard-high ape hangers; the moron could put a quiet muffler on it, and drag bars, and it would actually go faster. Plus, to the extent allowed by his 'custom' frame, he'd actually have rudimentary control of his steering.

But seriously, folks... Even though I live, basically, in a slum -- there have been four shoot-outs on my block in the last year -- it's still a residential area. If this shit is making me crazy, as motorcycle-friendly as I am, imagine what it's doing to the neighbors. And motorcyclists wonder why people hate them.

OK, gotta' go check my sales...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Once more with the (very, very) old TT riders

Because some people have trouble knowing when I'm serious, this time I'm serious. This really happened...

A few days ago, a man in Seaford, UK was found dead in his home. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be bleeding on the brain. The proximate explanation for the head injury was that, a few days earlier, he'd been up on a ladder getting a mattress out of his attic, when the ladder collapsed, causing him to crack his noggin.

The man went to the hospital with his nephew, was examined, and sent home. Obviously, the examining docs missed any evidence of his bleedin' brain.

OK, why I note this story is that the dead man, Ian Mackenzie Hay, was an ex-TT rider.

And this is the good part... he was 95.

Yes, at 95, he was up on a ladder wrestling a mattress out of the attic. ("Wrestling a mattress out of the attic" almost sounds like a euphemism for something, but I am pretty sure that in this case, it was meant literally.)


More proof that if motorcycles don't kill us, they keep us lively, eh? What's that? Speak up!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

For the (rare) TT racer who reaches retirement age

It's nice to know that the urge to compete never dies -- just the riders. They had me from the opening scene, filmed from the parking lot of the Sulby Glen. One of the scenes in my book, Riding Man, is set in that very spot.

Anyone know who did this?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sidecars? Sidecars!

Once a year, the Isle of Man TT races prove that sidecars -- even if they're congenitally prevented from being cool -- are occasionally worthy of grudging respect.

That is to say that for the remaining 51 weeks of the year, almost all the rest of the motorcycle world looks at sidecars as a good solution for Wallace and Gromit, and that's about it.

But if tattoos, chinstrap beards, and trucker caps have proven anything, it is that the mark of a total loser in one era can become abso-fucking-lutely hip in the next era.

Somehow, of all people, it's the Russians who seem to understand this best. Ural has already gone some ways towards redeeming the sidecar. And then, there's these guys...