Memories of My Career in Motorsports – Part VI
Riding with the HOGS, rental bikes, how I came to own a rare superbike, and a ludicrous idea.
Cycle Barn had been a Harley dealer since 1977, so when I arrived they had a large and very active Harley Owner’s Group chapter. HOG is the largest manufacturer supported enthusiast group in the world. Although I had little experience with Harleys I was eager to learn. HOG chapter rides were usually held on Sundays, when the store (at that time) was closed, so I showed up for my first one with my new First Gear leather jacket, some black leather jeans, and a nearly new Harley.
I introduced myself to the first person I saw and he looked at me disdainfully and said “Are you even a member of HOG?”
I responded that I was a member as a dealer employee, and he shrugged his shoulders and turned around and walked away without a word. Hmmmm – not the best start.
Most people were parking in rows of Harleys where I had parked mine, but a smaller group parked about 50 feet away. I asked what that was about and was told – “Oh, those are the road captains.”
Danger Will Robinson! I’d run into this sort of thing before. Been a member of a Corvette club and a Porsche club when we owned each of those, and a lot of experience with a Miata club and a 4X4 club when I worked for Doug’s Lynnwood Mazda. The same phenomenon recurred each time. You get a group of energetic people together to put on events to share their passion. As time passes and the organization grows, people begin to pick up titles like President or Treasurer or labels to reflect additional training such as Road Captain.
This way lies disaster. People do not do well with such labels. Egos swell, and pretty soon club activities are bogged down by people who know everything, are not welcoming to new members or ideas, and do not want to do the work that earned them their titles. Then comes an inevitable membership revolt, new members take over with sincere pledges to make changes, and the process begins anew. I’d seen this “molting” process before, and would see it again. It is not related to whatever function the club fulfills, as the same phenomenon hits teachers who became members of the WEA Board of Directors. To be fair, I’d even seen it in myself the 2nd year I was the President of the Lake Washington Education Association. When you catch yourself thinking “Who does this person think he is – doesn’t he know who I am?” it is a profound and ugly moment.
For this reason, the clubs that I formed later had no officers at all. With Facebook and e-mail and Twitter and on and on, you don’t need structure for an enthusiast club today. Anarchy run by text and e-mail will allow everyone to have a better time.
In time I got to know many of the active HOG members, and they were and are by and large lovely people. The chapter was pretty much turned upside down with new leadership at least once when I worked there, and I wish them well today.
I did not really understand the appeal of the Harley motorcycles at first, but got educated rapidly. The first clue came when riding a different bike home every night as part of my self-directed “staff development” program. There was a used Harley “Wide Glide” on the floor, complete with a flamed paint job, forward controls, and lots of extra chrome. I was convinced I would hate it. It had relatively little power, could not go around corners, too much chrome and the foot controls had me waving my boots in the air when I left a stop. But…within a block I was having a ball. Harleys are fun to ride, and at the end of the day, isn’t that the point? Then I rode a Fat Boy, which was like the Wide Glide but even less capable, and I liked that one as well. More than I could explain with the engineering side of my brain.
I went off for a Saturday HOG ride on a Road King. The intent was to ride with them in the morning and come back to the store for the afternoon. When I left the group to sprint back to the store on winding back roads, I thrilled to one of my most enjoyable rides ever. A Road Kind has a massive and stiff frame, so the handling is worlds better than the various Heritage models that have a shock hidden under the frame. Those all have a “hinge in the middle,” but a Road King with handling and three disc brakes can be thrown around with abandon, as long as you remain cognizant of the physics of a large and heavy bike with some limitations on cornering angle. I flat loved it.
Later on it got even better. I was asked to write up a business plan for a Harley rental business. Several managers had created rough drafts of different parts, and it was an intriguing mess to sort out and force into a readable document. Once done it was adequately clear and straight forward, but I it did not seem to me that the rental program would be profitable. Of course I was wrong – it was very profitable! That did not affect my earnings, but what did was the need to break-in the rental bikes.
The first year there were 12 brand new Harleys set aside as rentals, and then 24, and then 32, and I think at the peak there were 62. Not all of them were brought out at once, but Harley required them to be current year bikes and they could be sold when they reached a set mileage. In those days the dealership could sell every new Harley they could get pretty easily, but rentals were not counted as part of your allocation. Since the rentals were well maintained and equipped, when they reached the trigger mileage and came up for sale as used bikes they brought almost as much as a new one. Another new rental would be brought out and the process repeated. In sum, the rentals did not actually have to turn a profit in and of themselves as rentals. But they did.
In any case, they needed to be broken in, as Harleys transmission gears are very stout, and air cooled v-twins need some miles for the pistons to cozy up to the cylinder walls. The brake pads are exceptionally hard, as needed to stop a heavy bike. Worse, in a bow to the perceived styling tastes of the customers, some models have only one front brake. I think twin front discs look much better, but I’m not a likely buyer! In my experience, the rentals would need to be ridden about 125 – 135 miles, and at that point you could almost feel the bike shake itself like a big friendly dog. The brakes would begin to work much better, and the engine and transmissions got quieter and smoother. Each year I would break in a couple of them at a time a few times during the year. Then someone at Harley decided that all rentals MUST be ridden for 500 miles by dealer personnel before being rented. There were only a few employees trusted with this task, so I would take a brand new Harley – ride it for 500 miles back and forth to work and to HOG events, etc. and then turn it in and repeat! Since I have a massive ego and a sense of humor, I tried hard to turn each one in with exactly 500 miles, sometimes cruising the streets of the residential areas near the dealership as I approached work so the odometer would click over to 500 miles just as the bike crossed the lot line.
Under this program I eventually rode pretty much every Harley model, and had ridden more Harleys more miles than most of the members of the HOG chapter, not to mention the customers. However, it was best not to mention that. Ever.
As all this was happening, I was still a sport bike person at heart. I owned a ’99 Kawasaki ZRX 1100, sort of a big lardy bus of a naked sport bike that I loved, but much faster than any Harley ever built, with far more cornering clearance and vastly superior brakes. A time or two I forgot what I was riding, which created some interesting and perilous situations.
On the dealership floor were two 1997 Muzzy Raptors. These had been created by Rob Muzzy at his shop in Medford, Oregon to capitalize on his success as the major domo of the Kawasaki road racing efforts – first in this country and later in World Superbike. The Raptor was a 1997 Kawasaki ZX 7R with a lot of mods – racing style bodywork, full titanium Akrapovic exhaust system, Marchesini wheels and Ohlin’s shocks, flat-slide carbs, and more. They were very tasty pieces of kit, and the list price was $14,000 (in 1997), and $18,000 for a full race version. The Muzzy is the only street legal motorcycle to ever podium at an AMA national superbike race. The original plan was that Muzzy would build only 30 of these, and Cycle Barn would purchase all of them and be the sole dealer provider. An article in Cycle World magazine got a lot of attention, and Muzzy chose to build more – 56 if I recall. At that, Cycle Barn backed off and ordered 10.
When I went to work in the spring of 2000 there were two left, sitting on the showroom floor attracting attention but no money. I concocted a rather far fetched plan where Cycle Barn would buy one from itself, and I would ride it on CBSBC rides until a customer or two had to have one, and they would be sold. What actually happened was even better. Cycle Barn sold me one of them for $6,000 over three years of in-house financing, and raised my monthly salary by the amount of the loan. I now had an exclusive superbike for which I needed only to purchase the insurance and some of the fuel. Since this was my 2nd bike and our house and both vehicles were insured by the same firm, the cost was minimal. The deal was that when I sold the bike I would split the profits with Cycle Barn and everyone would be happy. That is sort of how it worked out, but there were a few glitches.
The day we decided to do this someone called from Las Vegas, making an appointment to see the other one the next day. I had Sandy in F&I hurry up on the paperwork a bit, because I was afraid someone would back out of the deal. I rode it home and spent the evening putting about three coats of wax on it, stepping back from time to time to stare in wonder. Then the store called. The Las Vegas fellow wanted to hear a Muzzy run, and the one still on the floor had not been prepped for sale. Could I please ride mine to work tomorrow? Since it was going to rain and mine was now better than perfect, I opted instead to drive to work and bring the gentleman and his wife back to my house to listen to mine in the garage.
We stood back and listened to the engine idle. It was magnificent. We noted the titanium exhaust pipes changing color as they heated. Due to the flat slide carbs, when you blipped the throttle blue flames three feet long shot out of the pipes. Oh wow! We did this many times. Back at the dealership the man purchased the other one, and Cycle Barn was out of Muzzys. When I got home my wife asked me to never do that again, as I had filled the house with the zesty tang fumes of raw fuel.
A second problem was that I could not see to ride it very well! My Shoei helmet had a view port that was too low, and I could not bend my head back far enough. A new Arai Corsair solved that problem. However, it I had anything warm under my jacket it was still painful to crank my head back far enough, so the Muzzy became a warm day bike. Worst of all, riding it was such an intense experience that I was nervous if anyone was within 50 yards of me. And, I could not see anything behind me due to low hands and crap mirrors. The original plan to use it on club rides would not work.
I used it sparingly for about a year, and it was displayed at various shows and Cycle Barn events. It usually won a trophy or ribbon for Best Sport Bike, which I found embarrassing. All of the other competitors were modified bikes with expensive improvements and paint – mine had not been touched and I’d not spent any real money on it!
Eventually it was sold to a fellow with a race shop in Illinois, and it was shipped off and I split the profits with Cycle Barn. Done deal. Or not. The guy in Illinois was ecstatic about the bikes, and then later sued both me and Cycle Barn in a local small claims court, claiming shipping damage in excess of what I had insured it for that he never mentioned when it first got there. Eventually I was forced to fly back to the Midwest and appear in court on this nonsense case, which I won. What I learned – if you ever sell a bike to someone from out of state, make sure you set it up so they take possession before it is shipped.
During all of this time I was “going to school” every week. The owner had a standing arrangement where he would appear at a local restaurant at 7:30am each Saturday morning, and any of the management staff who wished to join him would be treated to a breakfast on him. At first there were several people at these things, but as time passed it got down to just the two of us. As I love ham and cheese omelets and knew nothing about the industry, this turned into a very valuable source of information about all facets of the industry. Jim Boltz has been there and done that and tried more ideas than anyone else. I learned a great deal.
One day I came up with a concept that had him laughing so hard he almost fell out of his chair, literally. When he calmed down and wiped the tears of glee from his eyes he ordered me to write up my concept as a business plan to send to Harley-Davidson. Here is the plan:
What product to all married men HATE to purchase more than any other? Tampons. A wife may say “Honey, after work can you stop by the store and pick up a box of….. “ All of them seem to have similar names, and in the course of the day the details turn to mush. When hubby gets to the store he faces an aisle that is 75 yards long with a myriad of products with similar names, all in boxes of bright pastel colors. He either asks for help (not a strong point for many men) or takes a shot and invariably purchases the wrong product. And has to try again the next day or ask his wife to get the furshlugginer things herself.
What if tampons were sold at Harley dealers? First of all, Harley was the first motorcycle manufacturer to actively pursue women as customers, and is still far ahead of other manufacturers is this – which I think is astonishing. All the tampons would be in orange and black boxes of course, but they would be identified by Harley model names. If asked to drop by the Harley dealer and pick up a box of “Sportsters,” (for her ‘light days’) hubby would remember easily and look forward to the experience. Further, most Harley model names seem to lend themselves to this usage, especially if you have a sense of humor. Consider: Softail, Wide Glide, Night Rider, VRod, Night Rod, Ultra Classic. The list is endless and makes me wonder if a woman’s private parts are the actual source of Harley model names!
By the time the 5 page proposal was completed I realized that it was hilarious, but that it would also be very successful. Harley dealers already sold a bewildering sea of products with their logo – pool ball sets, BBQ kits, underwear, lamps, etc. – why not Tampons?
Alas, Harley executives had less of a sense of humor and were not amused at all, but darn it – I flat KNOW it would have worked!
Next chapter – my radio show
Copyright 2013 David Preston