Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Indians are coming! Bajaj (through KTM) to acquire Husky

MCN is reporting that KTM is about to acquire the Husqvarna brand from BMW. The deal's not signed, but apparently multiple sources have confirmed -- off the record -- that it's imminent.

KTM's a great, but small, company. It's easy to see the impending purchase of Husqvarna for what it is, another move by the big Indian motorcycle company, Bajaj -- which already owns a big piece of KTM -- to diversify it's portfolio of brands, manufacturing capability, and design talent.

India is the next destination for Husky, a brand that began in Sweden before being acquired by MV Agusta and moved to Italy, then bought by Germans. Phew! What a trip.

There was a time, back around the release of On Any Sunday and when Steve McQueen rode the iconic Husky two-stroke onto the cover of SI, that they were they baddest bikes in the desert (and my imagination.) That time's long gone, and the current line up has, overall, left me pretty cold. That said, BMW put a lot of money into Husky's R&D and production capabilities, and it will be an impressive 'add' for India's Bajaj Auto group.

This news comes a day or so after I got an email from EBR confirming that it will again race with sponsorship from the Indian 'Hero' brand.

As we've endlessly discussed, while the motorcycle business is moribund in the developed world, it's growing fast in markets like India and Indonesia. Foreign investment rules in India ensure that virtually any company that wants access to the Indian market must take on an Indian corporate partner. That's been true for decades, so Indian companies are familiar and comfortable with these kinds of joint ventures.

A few years ago, I wrote that "China is the new Japan" in the context of rising quality, originality, and sophistication of the bikes being made in China. It remains true that Chinese design and R&D is improving, and the bikes produced there are less likely to be straight ripoffs of previous-gen Japanese bikes. But over the last few years, as Indian companies have forged ties with design-savvy firms like EBR and now Husqvarna, it's become clear that there's more to India then the old Royal Enfield factory...


H4L did a little digging and came up with a quote suggesting the KTM-to-buy-Husky deal is actually between Stefan Pierer (KTM's CEO) and BMW, and may not involve Bajaj (directly) at all. We'll know more in a week or two...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ash(es) to ashes in South Africa, the 'Gardiner Rule', and a belated round up...

I scanned my Facebook page this morning, and saw posting by my fellow-Canuck, Costa Mouzouris, who was obviously attending one of BMW's famous R1200GS launches in South Africa.
Costa had good timing, as Eastern Canada, where he lives, is enduring a brutal cold snap right now. But as I kept scanning my morning news feed, I saw a story from the Telegraph newspaper, in England, explaining that their motorcycle correspondent, Kevin Ash (also a columnist at MCN) had been killed at a motorcycle launch in South Africa.

BMW seems to favor South Africa for launches; reliable weather in the middle of winter, great scenery offset mind-blowing travel costs for the assembled corps of motorcycle journalists. Judging from the photo above, they've gone with the luxury safari theme. Don't be fooled by the tents' exteriors, such digs are very chichi and more expensive than most world capitals' luxury hotel rooms. Getting invited on one of these trips is the ultimate motorcycle journalist perk.

But, if I recall correctly, BMW has bad luck at these things. Isn't Ash the second motojournalist killed at a GS launch in South Africa?

A lot of people want to get a motorcycle writing gig. When I was getting invited to launches, I was barraged by bikers telling me, "I'd pay to do your job." The truth is, a lot of us were doing it almost for free, and the job wasn't as easy as it looked. I can remember times that I flew half-way around the world, landed jet-lagged, and went straight to a track I'd never seen, jumped on a bike I'd never touched, rolling on unfamiliar tires. Then we might have had a couple of hours track time to form a coherent impression of the bike and return with suitably-dramatic riding photos. It's a lot of pressure. And while manufacturers eat the cost of crashed bikes, freelancers like me did it without any medical coverage.

The track stuff was intense, but it was nothing compared to some of the open road rides. I remember doing a Pirelli gig in Sicily, where Pirelli's test riders -- who are based there -- led us out of town, from a hotel in downtown Salerno at rush hour one morning. Even the Italians on the trip warned me that Sicilian drivers were completely crazy. I shit you not, we had to lane-split on the centerline of main streets in a big city, with traffic going the opposite direction on our left side, and other lane-splitting motorcyclists coming the other way. Chicken.

Every now and then, the job really bites someone, but there will always be a line forming at the right, for people willing to take it. I'm sure the Telegraph's already getting resumes...

It's over for this falcon, sadly.

Stephen Pate, of Restoration Werks, passed through Kansas City on the way home to his shop in Louisville KY (the state, not the lube).

Stephen spent a good chunk of the last few years building the Vincent motor that was installed in Falcon Motorcycles' last creation, 'The Black'. He's since had a falling-out with Falcon (especially with the female half of the partnership, Amaryllis Knight.)

That, from what I've heard, is a pretty common theme. Falcon brings in expert craftsmen, then alienates them. The difference, in this case, is that unlike other disgruntled suppliers, Stephen never signed Falcon's draconian non-disclosure agreement.

After their relationship soured, Falcon went to some lengths to claim that Pate's motor had to be extensively re-rebuilt. Amaryllis' posts, appearing on places like Vincent message boards, came close to slandering Pate. Thus far, he's avoided getting into much public he-said-she-said recrimination.

As an outsider looking in, the impression I have is that Falcon's done, anyway. After its initial splash at Pebble Beach, it's emerged that all the bikes look about the same. This is not to take anything away from Ian's impressive skills as a designer and stylist, but it's the same trick. I've heard stories that the bikes don't work, sometimes failing in spectacular and dangerous ways. I've heard that the prices they command are far lower than the values originally rumored. And that Falcon's burning out the few craftsmen capable of actually doing such admittedly-fine work.

Sitting over my kitchen table with Stephen, we debated the merits of getting into a slanging match with people who are, obviously, media-savvy. Then, he said something that really grabbed my attention:

I've thought about just challenging them; we'd each build a bike, then take them to Bonneville and race them. If we limited the budget, say to $5,000, it would be a test of what they can really build.

What a great idea! A biker build-off ending in our version of a duel. Bike vs. bike on the salt.

Of course, the challenge would only be meaningful if each participant did all the work themselves. That's how Stephen always works -- he does virtually everything at Restoration Werks, except for the occasional piece of specialized machining. But insiders at Falcon have told me that they're really designers and publicists, who do little if any hands-on mechanical work. (An impression that is furthered by those non-disclosure agreements with suppliers, who've been alienated when their contributions are played down.)

That's when I proposed The Gardiner Rule. On arrival at the Salt, both bikes will be completely torn down, and must be reassembled by the competitor alone.

Will Restoration Werks' Stephen Pate be the one who finally calls out Falcon? Watch this space for details.

I got a cryptic phone call a few weeks ago, from a long-time sponsor and racing paddock insider. The call came after AMA Pro Racing issued a press release saying it had installed Michael Gentry as Chief Operating Officer.
You didn't have to read too far between the lines, to get the impression that Roadracing World -- probably the smartest and best-informed independent news source about AMA Pro Racing -- is worried.
That COO position, along with the still-vacant position of President, was previously held by David Atlas, who stepped down while remaining on the Managing Board of AMA Pro Racing.

My caller asked, archly, whether Gentry -- a guy who'd risen up through the ranks of the holding company while running the concession business -- was a smart choice as the guy who'd run all the day to day operations of national motorcycle series, including our premier road race and flat track series.

I don't know the answer to that question, but I can certainly understand why it was asked.

Mick Kirkness (left) with Brad Baker and Jake Johnson. Get used to racing with guys like this, and there's no one in Australia who's going to give you much trouble in a short track race.
While some may question what's going on behind the scenes at AMA Pro, the flat track championship's honor was recently upheld as Mick Kirkness handily won the first Troy Bayliss invitational short track race way down in Australia.

Both Mick and Troy are Aussies, of course. But Mick's flat track edge has been honed up here in the U.S.. Fans loved Bayliss' event, which he promises will become an annual thing. To win it, Kirkness dispatched a star studded field, including GP heroes like Chris Vermulen and Randy de Puniet. Down in Australia, the media reports were, like, "Of course he won it, he's been racing in the American Grand National Championship." It's as if he was a pit bull in a poodle fight.

Kirkness' GNC results haven't quite been as good as he probably deserves; he's been plagued by unlucky injuries. But, I hope he'll be back for 2013.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Lance Armstrong debacle could matter to motorcycle racers

UPDATE FEB. 23 I note that the Federal government has, in fact, attached itself to a civil "whistleblower" suit filed by Floyd Landis. Floyd Landis probably does deserve a settlement from Armstrong, who vilified him for telling the truth. USPS wanting their $30 million back? That's preposterous. As Armstrong's lawyers point out (with apparent irony) Armstrong's cheating dramatically increased the ROI on their sponsorship. If, long after the fact, sponsors are to come after athletes who fall from favor, the whole economics of sponsor-funded sport is called into question.
If the posts that show up on my Facebook feed are any indication, most motorcyclists are also bicyclists. In fact, ex-racers in particular seem to put in as many human-powered miles as they do gasoline-powered ones. I know I do.

I suppose that could make them pay attention to Lance Armstrong's mea culpa with Oprah.

So far, the best post I've seen about Lance Armstrong comes from my friend Steve Hodgson, who may be confused about exactly what kind of drugs Armstrong was using. Steve's story is, I believe, true.  The canal was in Amsterdam, IIRC, and you can draw your own conclusions about the drugs involved...
I won't detail my own position on Armstrong's sporting ethics. Suffice to say, I'm pretty certain that his drug use was approximately enough to level the field. That's not an excuse; I don't like him, and I don't mind seeing him punished -- not for his drug use, per se, but for his vehement, holier-than-thou denials and the pattern of bullying and intimidation that he used to silence his critics and would-be whistleblowers for so long.

But here's why this story is more than marginally related to motorsports...

Several of Armstrong's sponsors are now threatening to sue him, to recoup money they paid him in sponsorship fees and performance bonuses, dating back several years.

That's utter bullshit. For starters, cheating was(is?) rampant because of the money pumped into the sport by sponsors, generally. And Armstrong's incredible win streak, which would have been impossible without cheating, is what turned him from a niche-sport athlete who would have been known only to fellow bicyclists into a mainstream figure who greatly multiplied the value of his sponsors' investments, specifically.

I doubt these suits have merit. Surely, any judge should demand to see evidence that, now that Armstrong's admitted that he cheated, the brands that sponsored him have been harmed. Will the United States Postal Service really go to court and argue that there are customers who've just switched to UPS for deliveries, because the USPS sponsored a cheater ten years ago? These lawsuits are just cheap tricks by sponsors desperate for any publicity they can get -- even this tainted shit -- and they should be thrown out.

But, as the old joke goes...
Question: What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 50? 
Answer: Your honor.

Imagine that Armstrong's sponsors do successfully sue him. The consequences for other sponsorship-driven sports like motorcycle racing would be terrible. You think cheating's rampant in bicycle racing? Not any more so than it is in our sport, where for years its been assumed that if you're not cheating, you're not really trying.

Racers and teams would have to carry a liability for years. The same sponsors who put huge pressure on them to win -- and who reap the benefits of brand exposure when they do win -- would sue to get their money back if they'd been found to be cheating even years later. At the very least, teams would have to insure themselves against that risk.

While it's hard to really imagine a cyclist being doped without his knowledge (they're not former East-bloc weightlifters, after all) the team principal of a big motorsport team might not even know if cheating was taking place.

How might that happen?..

Rossi returns to Yamaha this year, at a time when Dorna is acutely aware that MotoGP's attendance is falling. Bridgestone's made a huge investment in its MotoGP program, and it obviously knows that if Rossi returns to winning form, MotoGP exposure will increase, as will every stakeholder's ROI. It's easy to imagine Bridgestone giving Rossi tires that are slightly better than everyone else's (but, of course, visually identical.)

Years later, when some Bridgestone race shop chemist makes a deathbed confession, Monster comes back and says, "Return our money."

Every sponsorship contract has 'morality' clauses that allow sponsors to terminate agreements if athletes or teams behave disreputably. That's reasonable. Allowing sponsors to plead ignorance and launch faux-indignant holier-than-thou lawsuits long after the fact is ridiculous.

Cheating in bicycle racing? The horror! The disingenuous faux-outrage of sponsors like USPS, now threatening to sue over Armstrong's admission of cheating long ago poses a larger threat to all sponsorship-driven sport. What's next? Will Monster want money back when some sponsored motorcycle fails a post-race technical inspection?