Monday, August 20, 2012

Trying to Find a Manufacturer I Don't Hate

Work with what you've invested in while you've still got it!
With the latest trial of one of my favorites, Ben Spies, by Yamaha, I looked back and tried to find a motorcycle factory that hasn't made a decision that pissed me off and it was difficult.  First about Spies, if you haven't heard, Yamaha has been apparently prodding him to give 100% or "don't show up".  Essentially saying, "on your way out the door this year, we're actually going to try and ruin your day by badgering you constantly, and our motorcycles will innocently fail under you (yet miraculously not for your teammate) so try not to take it personally -now go out and do a super job today!"  So I tried to find a team to be a fan of in MotoGP and here's how it went.

Honda: what's not to love, they win everything and have for decades!  I'll look like a genius supporting this team!  Except for the time their American rider, Nicky Hayden, accidentally won the championship (2006) and the following year they accidentally put the entire team effort (and bike) into his diminutive team mate.  To this day, at Laguna Seca GP, there are still fans who wear t-shirts that say "Dani Sucks!".  So out goes Honda.

Ducati: yeah! They've got moxy, lots of fans and an American rider (well, saved from the back-burner at the last minute when our Italian darling suffered his first career failure and bolted for Yamaha.  That brings my memory back to the 2007 USGP at Laguna Seca, I stood in line for an hour or so to get Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi's autograph.  When it was my turn, Casey was obviously happy in his championship form, but Loris was off.  I found out that they had sacked him just that day -ouch; "now be a good fella and go sign some autographs won't you, my good man?"  So scratch Ducati.

Ok, Aprilia?  No, they took their bike to WSBK (and kicked ass with one of the MotoGP 'outcasts', Max Biaggi).  Kawasaki?  No, outcast and winning poles (and a race) w/ the amazingly looking-exactly-like Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Sykes.  Suzuki?  Nope (although I have an unbelievable fantasy of Suzuki coming back with Kevin Schwantz at the helm, Ben Spies riding lead, and Cal Crutchlow lending Euro cred to the deal -if it happens, I dreamed it here first!).  That leaves the CRT's, which Colin Edwards has declared slow, so they're out.

Now to be more fair, if we asked an old timer, he'd probably remember the time that MZ was betrayed by an opportunisitic Suzuki and will never touch one again; everyone is competing -but you don't have to be a jerk, I suppose that's my point.  Not that I hold a grudge or anything.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Grand Prix Poster That Isn’t Lame

I’m not often accused of theft, but when a race is in town, especially a marquee event like Laguna Seca, temptation becomes overwhelming.   I do remember many occasions where a group of us guys would see a poster in something like a grocery store and we would create elaborate plans with a diversion, backup diversion and a Leatherman tool to remove posters from public places.  The biggest problem, however, wasn’t people actually caring that we were taking down advertising, but that they typically stuck it up there with large hunks of double-sided tape so the only way to take it down was to completely destroy it.  This is the power of souvenir hunters on a grand prix weekend in that the currency of memory is, temporarily anyway, more valuable than long standing morals.
Sample of some of the greats from a long gone era
The problem with the posters is that very few of them are actually worth paying for.  They’ve evolved from some of graphic design’s greatest hits into something that looks like a high schooler would photoshop together (so sorry if I offend, but you may see my point to some degree).  Now to be fair, the medium of printed poster has utterly lost its former power due to a multitude of reasons (automobiles want billboards, internet wants movies instead of stills, etc.).  But a wildly refreshing poster has appeared on the horizon in the form of an anime-esque poster for the Japanese Grand Prix on the 14th of October. 
I am so lucky to have a friend from Japan who can translate all of this for me and has discovered that the artist is (English Translation, but still google-able) Ranka Fujiwara, who has also apparently done design for the late and revered Daijiro Kato.  There are currently no plans for major production of the image except in a small set of promotional materials.  However, at Asphalt & Rubber there is a conversation going on about how to buy the poster and even bold promises of “I will pay handsomely!” being made.  This poster, if ever produced as such, will go down as the first major contribution to the art of the poster since who knows when.  I’d love to buy one and I’ll bet many others would too.  Fujiwara! Please print it!!!  

I’ll post more info here if it develops!!  Please post a comment and I'll have my friend send this request to Japan!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Most Important Motorcycle in the World or How to Become Very Old Instantly

In a recent Bike (UK) issue, they wondered aloud in a Suzuki GSX-R600 review, “is this the bike to save the supersport class?”  Imparting a message of sanguine desperation at the loss of something indescribable, but felt by many –maybe the passing of youth.  The underlying theme though is men lolling about lamenting the loss of the good old days.  The most egregious was a downright depressing Kevin Cameron article on the topic a few years back, mostly involving bikes’ diminishing ‘character’ and other slosh.  It reminds me of a labor dispute I once heard of, before the economy fell, about how the employees were preparing to strike because their ‘morale’ was low.  Legal and HR found the argument unsupportable and unquantifiable, mostly because you’re personally responsible for your own damn happiness –but I digress.

The super duper uber FX 600ss of Josh Hayes in 2008 at Miller Motorsports Park
The supersport era, whether it is now stalled or closed, was easily the most profitable (my guess) and sensational for the Japanese manufacturers in the United States.  With a current market share of around 66% in the U.S., Harley Davidson ensured that the lions share of the sport bike market would always reside elsewhere like Spain or Italy, but with the advent of lighter frames one year, fuel injection the next, and so on, the effects unrolled before us.  Magazines began to sell month after month of analysis on rumors, spy photos, and relentless (and mostly moot) testing of bikes with 599cc engines.  A fascinating life breathed into the tired old AMA series that led to television coverage with ads other than funeral insurance.  Old school test tracks, like Willow Springs, became known (and re-paved) again. And bikes sold like hotcakes.  I still remember in the early 2000s someone trying to sell a steel framed CBR from 1998 for an unreasonably high price, when the aluminum framed models had been out for at least two years –I tried to argue down the price but the owner still winced at the bath he took buying new from the dealer.  Now the recommendation is to buy used because they haven’t changed in five years; amazing change.

So what is the most important motorcycle in the world today?  If we asked the CEO of Honda, Japan, I think the answer would be something like, “now how did you get past security again?”  To break it gently to the supersport revivalist/survivalist group, manufacturers are in business to make money and I imagine the 600SS phenomenon was never looked at as more than a wildly successful speed bump in the road of the company history and development. 
Where are we now?  Look at it this way, remember when maxi-scooters first came out and how we laughed?  They’re slowly growing market share in Europe.  Remember when the BMW GS 1150 was purchased by your neighbor with the tweed jacket?  He’s COOL now!  Remember when Harley Davidson had a 66% market share (they’ll say)?  What happens when all the baby boomers die and/or the air-cooled atavism dies with it?  While the sport bike market atrophies and diminishes –never to die, mind you, just try to think of an instance in the history of motorcycles where there wasn’t someone trying to enhance performance or race the thing- we’ll stodgily become the next generation of geezers that insist on riding 40 year old bikes and meeting up regularly to give dirty looks to kids riding by on their horribly sacrilegious new fangled two wheelers.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nicky Hayden -WSBK?

As the Factory Ducati MotoGP squad 'quietly' let their option on Nicky Hayden pass this weekend, there has been plenty of speculation on who will fill his seat (Redding, Crutchlow?) -but little discussion on where the Kentucky Kid will go. (Italian, do a google translate) has speculated, and I love this idea, that he will go to a revival of the Ducati World Superbike factory team and the introduction of the Panigale into the competition limelight.  There are rumors that Carlos Checa (the current Ducati WSBK darling) does not like the Panigale and is looking elsewhere for a ride.  My favorite part about this is the last time Nicky convincingly rode to many victories was at the bars of the very similar-to-Panigale Honda RC-51 with the AMA Superbike championship in 2002 (the same year our favorite son, Colin Edwards used the same bike to win WSBK).  It would be nice to see Nicky in a competetive ride since Honda pulled the rug out from under him with its shrimp-favoring 2007 dwarfish-MotoGP bike and saying, "thanks for the championship Nicky, now hold still why we kick you in the nuts!"  -Go Nicky!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Vast Opportunity for Motorcycle Industry to Come Up With Something Completely New

    the global motorcycle industry...[had] a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 0 % between 2006 and 2010.

    increasing market consumption... Market performance is projected to increase in 2010-2015 with a CAGR of 6% [by] 2015.*
As we slowly and hopefully emerge from a period where there was zero growth, stagnating design (quiz: when did the CBR600RR actually look different than it does today?), but still longing looks at cycletrader for bankruptcy sales in distant states, the motorcycle industry has an enormous opportunity to remake the environment in its own image (if it has the vision and desire to do so). 

During the gloom of the past few years, there has been much written about the future.  Speaking for myself, I’m a future hater.  As a librarian, for about ten years there, you could get a grant or be published if your project/article had future in the title.  The worst was a presentation on said future in 2010 and the egregious presenters had a citation list a mile long on how hellish life would be in the future for the unprepared –all references from 1999 or earlier.  The motorcycle industry had similar awkward changes with the death of the old AMA Superbike model, MotoGP lamented the loss of two strokes and now the shift from prototypes to CRT’s.  A highlight is the TT Zero which seems to grasp at the old days of innocence and wonder in racing; I watched the Motocycyz (did I spell that right, because I sure ain’t pronouncing it) at Laguna last year and the race was quite a spectacle –but I digress.  Bike Magazine (UK) did a depressing issue last year about the last (Imperial) gallon of fuel and what you would do with it.  Is it all downhill from here?  And as Lycra-Dude (complete with carbon fiber bike at his side) cuts in front of me in line at the local shop, I sigh to myself, “is this really where we’re headed?”
On the product line, in attempting to divine the future, Ducati has taken an interesting tack upmarket with the fabulous, but rather expensive Panigale, while MV Agusta has taken a page from the book of Ducati’s past and made an accessibly priced, but still sexy, F3.  Which way boys?  Honda, at least in Europe, is coming out with a new body for the old VFR engine every six months (CrossRunner/Tour) a pretty cool CBR250, and a mysteriously different engined NC700s.   Those are the future bikes, but in the recent past, the 600 supersport era was, I’m guessing, a once in a lifetime moment where the bikes were constantly making dramatic improvements and were very desirable, accessible and popular unto themselves.  Is the future of motorcycling to be hung on a make-or-break model?  I don’t think so.

Apart from the models themselves, the media and marketing has changed, maybe dramatically, since we last saw a strong economy.  Most importantly, in my mind, is the undermining of traditional media (television (even cable), print magazines) and the rise of new global media that is a la cart ( streaming race broadcasts) or even free ( shows whole races a few days after they’ve run on YouTube).  If I could download a WSBK race or MotoGP race the day after it had broadcast to watch it on my kindle fire, I’d be happy to pay a buck or two for the privilege –but more importantly, I’d be very pleased to see advertising on it as well.  It may spell the death of local adverts, but I do want to support the industry.  How many iPads, Microsoft and Google Tablets will it take before this happens anyway?  Totally crazy idea, but make the local official Honda dealer be the wireless download location for MotoGP races.  I’m already visiting the shop a few times a year anyway, why not give us an excuse to go more often?  Harley-Davidson has had success with this in the not too distant past with their ‘lifestyle marketing’.  People go in there just to visit and they end up buying official tooth brushes and toasters that make a ‘screamin’ eagle’ noise when the toast pops up.  Ok, I made that up, but did you know that KTM has a toaster? ( )  I’d buy a Ducati toaster, give me the excuse to go to the shop!
These nice folks like to watch races and buy motorcycle crap that proves it and then talk about it together -help us do this! (Corkscrew viewers at the 2007 MotoGP event)

I guess my point, after all, is that motorcycles are fun, but they’re more fun when you can share the experience.  People don’t buy KTM toasters because they’re introverts and hope nobody notices their officially branded Austrian toast –they want people to be over at their (condemned) apartment saying, ‘dude! Where’d you get that toaster!’  The World Ducati Week folks have the right idea with the social gathering as a marketing tool and I hope that the new economy, even if it is shaky, can foster more KTM toaster, Ducati and motorcycles talk on the local level. 

*"Global Motorcycles." Motorcycles Industry Profile: Global (2011): 1-40. Web. 28 June 2012.
Quiz answer: 2006 was the last year of the previous ‘MotoGP’ inspired design for the Honda CBR600RR.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Most Important Research on Motorcycles Since 2000

In the past decade, we all seem to have a grasp on what has been written about motorcycling in the popular press. I’d wager it was in this order of impact: aluminum frames, fuel injection, and better quality/higher performance via computer aided design & manufacturing.  On the sheer number of articles written on the other hand, 600 supersports have probably killed more trees than the deforestation of Brazil -but what about scholarship?  In an academic library finding the most significant works in a field of study used to be held in the expertise of subject-specific librarians who were familiar with the research.  Since the turn of the century, (I love saying that), much has been born digital and is easily cross-referenced and indexed so let us take a look deep into the millions of scholarly works with a mind for research.

Steve Martin's (no not that one) Ducati 998 from the
2003 WSBK races at Laguna Seca in 2003
First, a word about the past.  Before 2000, the primary subject of motorcycle related articles was injury, drunkenness/being high as a kite, and other safety-related matters. However, one should temper safety craze with the idea that in the 1990s, the auto industry was heavily into marketing safety features that the government made them implement anyway (like side-impact structures in 1996).  But let’s move on to the 21st century.
There are several resources to discover your academic article’s impact (value, really), but none of them are perfect so I’ve picked the database called Scopus.  A tool readily used in academic circles to determine the performance of published articles, primarily judging by how many times your article has been cited by others.  Cheeringly, the number 1 article (I searched for motorcycl* in the ‘title field’ only), was

Sharp, R. S., S. Evangelou, and D.J.N. Limebeer. "Advances in the Modelling of
     Motorcycle Dynamics." Multibody System Dynamics 12.3 (2004): 251-83.
     Scopus. Web. 27 June 2012.  
It was cited in 87 scholarly articles since the date of publication!! That's like publishing an article and having many many PhD's saying "good job, dude" -really!  Why was it cited?  Here’s a quote:  results show the predictions of the model to be in general agreement with observations of motorcycle behaviour from the field and they suggest that frame flexibility remains an important design and analysis area…
Frame flexibility?  I’m guessing Rossi wishes Ducati had read this last year as he was reported to have suffered from the stiffness of the carbon fiber bits on the bike.

How did the top ten shake out?  Here's the grossly over simplified results:

4 of the top ten were about motorcycle dynamics modeling and understanding how all the pieces work together

3 were on the effect of helmet laws (Italy and Taiwan, in particular)

2 on injuries modeling related to motorcycles (whee!!)

and a couple of outliers (HD branding and hydrocarbon emissions, depending on which database you pick.  I also double-checked Google Scholar and Web of Science for consistency)

The takeaway from this is that safety is still a popular topic, but here's a summary: If you wear a helmet, you’ll be in better shape in an accident (pun intended for all you dark humor types).  The fascinating bit, however, is the new motorcycle dynamics modeling trend.  My favorite moment was reading an excerpt in one of these articles that stated (paraphrased): the rider still counts for quite a bit of what happens on a bike.  Bascially, a scholarly article that goes a long way to explain what we feel in our gut when riding, but still stepping back, like the rest of us, when Casey Stoner melts a tire going around a corner on that Honda.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Ohlins Effect

What the Ducati M750 looked like in 2001
I have finally conceded a loss to the recession.  I had been looking for a replacement for my 2000 Ducati Monster (750, no snickering, please; power isn't everything, bitches) and had even tossed an offer toward a dealer on a lovely used, but "new generation" Monster and later a Triumph Daytona 675 demo model.  I don't have the money for serious offers so neither went far, but then the wife and I have a chat and we peacefully come to an accord to wait it out for a while.  After the swelling went down, but still waiting for my left testicle to re-descend, I carefully considered my options.  

Rebuilt Ohlins shock with remote reservoir
Now thankfully I had been saving for a while so I wasn't lost at sea, yet.  But if you had $1000 sitting in what was probably one of those evil banks responsible for all this trouble, what do you do?  Some new gear would be fantastic, but why get a new leather suit when I'd plonk back down on old bessie?  So gear was out.  My suspension was 20 years old and from the budget Ducati "Dark" line, that might be the ticket.  I began to ask around and cruised ebay for suspension ideas.  Many of them were unreliable, exotically expensive, or little worth the trouble of the labor costs.  Through a chance posting on a sport-bike bulletin board (USBA) I found sometime Paris-Dakar KTM mechanice and Western United States Ducati God, Matt Spencer and gave him a call asking what my money was worth.  "Oh, I'm an Ohlins rep. now and I have a used shock that I'll rebuild and put on your bike for a reasonable fee, and you can get Ducati SuperSport forks off of Ebay and I'll rebuild those too; so when can I pick up your bike?..." "Hello?"  -oh yes, thank you indeed, my testicle suddenly just descended and I was distracted for a moment. So about six months ago, near Christmas time, the bike left for the clinic.  Now the thing about hiring a God of any make or model, is that everyone else is struggling to have an audience too, so it was a long wait. When it arrived at a Miller Motorsports Track Day, I felt like the parent of a kid who is suddenly found after being lost.  I was filled with anger that I was still chained to this engineering atavism, and I wanted to hug it at the same time.

Now I've heard said that an aftermarket suspension revamp is the best money spent before any other choice -and recently parted with all of my money I was ready to find out.  I set out on a hot day to hit the local canyon and everything felt remarkably not different than when my wallet was full.  Ah well, I thought, at least now I can buy an Ohlins sticker and lord it over folks after I take 15 minutes to explain why they should be impressed; being a sporting motorcycle enthusiast in the United States can be tiring at times.  Then suddenly, I had a first gear right-hand corner that opened onto a highway.  There was a yellow light so I hustled a little bit and at the moment of transitioning from brake to throttle and in mid-lean, I felt from the pit of my stomach a very distinct and indescribable feeling that I could easily have doubled and maybe tripled my speed through the corner.  And now I'll be cursed for the rest of my life trying to explain why this feeling is worth a thousand dollars or more.