When Polaris Industries announced in the mid-1990s it was going to launch a new breed of American cruisers under the Victory brand, Harley-Davidson – among many others – yawned collectively. After all, how could a homey snowmobile and ATV company be expected to compete with the likes of giants such as The Motor Company and the Japanese Big Four?
Then, after the first Victorys emerged in 1998 as the first all-new American-made motorcycles from a major company in nearly 60 years, their blocky styling and underwhelming performance proved the naysayers correct. The Polaris boys in Minnesota were never going to put a dent in Harley’s flourishing sales with dull bikes like those early models.
However, unlike reborn but now defunct companies such as Excelsior-Henderson and Indian, Polaris had the R&D expertise and distribution network necessary to be content with sluggish initial sales, knowing that more appealing product was ready to make its way through the company pipeline.
The Victory Vegas was introduced in 2003 and it promptly made the industry sit up and take notice. Its unique scalloped tank that flows into the seat and features a spine-like ridge that is carried through the front and rear fenders told even casual observers the Vegas was something special. A new Freedom V-Twin motor now had the cojones to outperform nearly any other air-cooled V-Twin. Polaris stock has more than doubled since.
With regard to the Vegas’ styling, much was made of the involvement of legendary custom builder Arlen Ness – surely the Eskimos up in Minnesota couldn’t make a cruiser look this good.
In fact, the distinctive appearance of the Vegas is almost solely the responsibility of Polaris’ Michael Song, a graduate of the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. Song was previously employed at GK Design International where he worked on Yamaha’s Road Star and VStar. Now in his eighth year at Polaris, the soft-spoken creative force is responsible for the design of everything Victory since the Vegas, including the patented design of the tank that wraps around the forward portion of the seat.
Following the successful Vegas was the flowing-fendered Kingpin in 2004, and in ’05 the fat-tired Hammer provided the hit for Victory.
This rendering shows a direction Victory was looking at prior to the Jackpot. Its lack of a rear seat is highly apparent, but what’s really interesting is what looks to be an aluminum steering head structure instead of the traditional twin-downtube arrangment, using the engine as a stressed member. Would you buy this bike? Tell us in the Talk Back link on page 3.
“It’s a really exciting time to be designing for us,” said Greg Brew, the Director of Polaris’ Industrial Design division. Brew, who spent eight years with BMW’s Designworks and has been with Polaris for two, showed us around the Polaris/Victory design area during a recent media event. It was the first time outsiders were allowed in to the Medina workshop. Although the facility had been carefully stripped of all future product work from our prying eyes, it was clear the five designers working there have an impressive place to dream and scheme.
This was all a prologue to riding Victory’s new offerings. The biggest news from Victory in 2006, the Jackpot, is an attempt by Polaris to bust into what they call the “extreme custom” segment. The Jackpot, according to Steve Smith, Victory’s Product Manager, “is all about the style.”
Smith noted the Jackpot is intended to appeal to the “biker,” while the performance-cruiser Hammer is marketed at former sportbike guys in their 20s and 30s. Basically, the Jackpot consists of a Hammer’s wide rear end with a Vegas front end. Unlike the Hammer’s black-painted frame, the Jackpot’s arrives color-matched, though it’s otherwise identical to the Hammer’s.
Another key difference between Victory’s two fat-assed bikes stems from the Jackpot’s lower seat height of just 25.7 inches. That’s a fair bit lower than the Hammer’s 26.4 inches, made possible by a reduction of rear-wheel travel by nearly an inch to just 3.0 inches. The lowered rear end had a side effect of altering the Jackpot’s steering geometry. Rake extends from 32.9 degrees to 33.5 degrees, balanced by a reduction of trail via triple-clamp offset by 12mm to 130 mm (5.12 inches). Ground clearance on the Jackpot is also slightly reduced.
Brakes and tires are the other dissimilar bits between the two. The 250/40-18 rear tires are one and the same, but the Hammer’s big 130/70-18 front is replaced by a skinny and chopperish 80/90-21 for the Jackpot. Instead of the Hammer’s front dual-disc Brembos, the Jackpot makes do with just one 300mm disc and four-piston caliper.
MCUSA had been invited to Minnesota to sample the 2006 Victory lineup on the bikes’ home turf. Let me tell ya, riding in Minnesota is nothing like my SoCal home. Even though there wasn’t more than a mile or two between houses during the majority of our ride, I’m sure you would pass more nearby dwellings in just five minutes on SoCal’s 405 freeway than I did all day on our Victory ride. It was a rather bucolic setting for such thunderous bikes.
The greenery surrounding Polaris’ Medina facility had become pockmarked with twinges of amber and red in the leaves, and the morning air was crisp as I chose my first mount for the day. I gravitated toward a Kingpin Deluxe, not only for the protection offered by its windscreen (the standard Kingpin is naked) but also because it was the one existing Victory model I’d not yet ridden.
Both the Hammer (left) and Jackpot (right) have identical riverboat-wide rear ends, but fork and brakes up front are quite different, as are the headlights.
For 2006, all Victorys except the Touring Cruisers receive the refined and powerful 100/6 Freedom engine that debuted in the Hammer. With its 100 cubic inches of thrust and six-speed transmission, the 100/6, says Smith, “revamps our core product of the Vegas and Kingpin.”
Indeed, the Kingpin immediately feels more muscular than the 92 cubic-inch Vegas we’d ridden before – credit the bump in displacement from 1507cc to 1634cc. The air- and oil-cooled motor is quieter than before thanks to a new chain-driven oil pump and a quieter helical-cut (instead of straight-cut) primary drive gears. Although the motor is less noisy than previous, the Kingpin I was on exhibited a ticking sound similar to a maladjusted valve. Throttle response was excellent, though I have to wonder why in this day and age a fuel-injected bike needs an enrichener lever for cold starts like the Victorys.
In motion, the Kingpin is a peach. Its steering/chassis geometry is the most neutral in Victory’s lineup, aided by “normal” sized tires, a 180/55-18 out back and the Hammer’s front. The Kingpin also ate up bumps much better than I anticipated, as its 43mm inverted cartridge fork and relatively generous 3.9 inches of travel from the single shock out back kept wheel movement under control.
(After the official press ride, I took a Kingpin Deluxe up to Canada to run it through its paces. My full impressions will be shared in an upcoming bike test.)
Our first stop along the ride was at Polaris’ high-tech New Product Development Center in Wyoming, MN. Costing about $35 million, the new tech center is the single largest investment in company history. Inside you’ll find the latest equipment and technologies being employed to build, test and develop new products, including a dyno cell in which temperatures can be varied from 20-120 degrees F and simulate up to a 90-mph windspeed, computers running finite-element analysis and computational flow analysis, and a chassis post dyno that can simulate 200,000 miles of use in just 19 days of 24/7 abuse.
Suitably impressed and with a belly full of lunch, I select a Hammer for my next riding stint. The idea here was to reacquaint myself with a familiar bike before hopping on the new Jackpot. We like the Hammer for its bad-ass demeanor, in no small part contributed by that nearly 10-inch-wide Dunlop out back.
The addition of the 100/6 engine to the ’06 Kingpin and Vegas families makes a good drivetrain even better. The Kingpin Deluxe pictured here comes equipped with a windshield, saddlebags and backrest.
However, it must be said that tires that wide invariably have some inherent dynamic shortcomings. They are affected greatly by road camber, so riding on uneven pavement is always an adventure, and they (and their wide wheels) are as heavy as several bowling balls, resulting in compromised rear suspension action.
Switching from the Kingpin to the big-bottomed Hammer, I immediately noticed the harsher rear suspension – it’s fine over smaller bumps, but the shock gets overwhelmed by bigger ones. Steering response is much more leisurely than the Kingpin because of that fat rear tire, and the Kingpin also feels livelier under acceleration. Its bars and pegs are a bit of a stretch for smaller riders like me, but overall it’s a bitchin’ machine.
Then it became time to straddle the Jackpot. Compared to the Hammer, its greater rake and taller handlebar distinguish its chopper-style intentions, as does that narrow 21-inch hoop up front. I was a bit surprised the extra rake in the Jackpot didn’t make it steer slower, but the combination of the skinny front tire and a bit less trail help retain its relative quickness. If the standard Jackpot doesn’t steer much heavier than the Hammer, then the Corey Ness signature series with its lighter billet wheels make it an entirely moot point.
Still, that slender front tire has its limitations. It simply doesn’t have as large a contact patch, resulting in less available traction. This was evident when testing the Jackpot’s front brake, a single-disc system that has more than enough clamping force to induce wheel lock-up. The 300mm rotor and Brembo 4-piston caliper actually provide nice feedback through its braided steel lines, so it’s easy to keep the tire howling rather than skidding. In an emergency situation, a Jackpot rider would be wise to keep a toe on the rear brake pedal so that fat meat out back can help get ‘er slowed down in a hurry.
There, now that we’ve satisfied the safety-conscious among you, I’ll add this: That little tire up front also makes smoky burnouts more challenging, as traction from the rear tire easily overwhelms the front tire, and the hooligan rider is soon skating along with the front wheel locked. (We do the testing so you don’t have to!)
As you might expect, the Jackpot’s shortened rear suspension travel exacts a cost in ride quality. With 0.9-inch less travel to work with, Victory had to fit a stiffer rear spring that results in hasher suspension compliance than the Hammer, Kingpin and Vegas. Throw in some curves and the odd steering characteristics and reduced ground clearance might make you wish you were on any other Victory.
Here’s something the crew in Wyoming cooked up, demonstrating their fertile minds. This ultra-custom features a double-A-arm front end, a chopped rear end, and dual nitrous tanks.
However, when you’re motoring down the road, cruising more or less in a straight line, the Jackpot is one cool ride. Minor road imperfections don’t bother the Jack, and its powerful but docile motor plays a sweet, rumbling soundtrack to the experience. Positive engagement from its short-throw tranny does nothing to distract from the riding experience.
There is, of course, a price to pay for this coolness. The Jackpot lists for $17,499 and is therefore Victory’s most expensive bike in the lineup. With the Vegas listing at $15,799, the Jackpot’s steamroller rear end comes at a $1700 premium – some will think it’s worth it, others not.
But let’s say the price tag doesn’t intimidate you, and you might even think it’s a bit of a bargain compared with some boutique chopper brands. If so, the blinged-out Ness Signature Edition Jackpots might fit the bill. In addition to custom paint and signed sidecovers, both the Arlen and Corey Ness versions also come with killah billet wheels, a custom-stitched seat from Danny Gray, billet mirrors, and a slathering of chrome for the swingarm, fork, engine covers and foot controls. Yours for just $21,999.
The seat on the Corey Ness Jackpot I rode is deeper-dished with a more forward-placed pocket than the standard version, and its bars seem a little closer to rider, which didn’t please tall guys like Thunder Press’s Terry Roarda who I rode with. It fit my puny body fine. However, I wasn’t too keen on the cool-looking chrome handgrips that I judged too slippery for practical use. The chrome grips on the Arlen Ness Jackpot at least have circumferential rubber rings for a more secure handhold.
Ten years ago, the idea of a radical fat-tired monster such as the Ness-orized Vegas Jackpot being offered by a large-scale manufacturer must’ve seemed remote at best. But with the industry as a whole looking to tap into the latest niche’s of the marketplace, the idea of a bike like the Jackpot is not crackpot.
Sure, at $22K, the Ness Jackpots are very pricey. But packed full of cool cruiser bling pieces and with the backing of a serious and stable company like Polaris, a case can easily be made for the relative bargain status of their car-like price tags.
The new Jackpot (shown here with optional billet wheels) is a sexy and stylish new offering, and one that will continue to build on Victory’s emerging power in the cruiser marketplace.
Hitting an even broader target, the Vegas and Kingpin models are now even more desirable after the addition of the sweet 100/6 motor for ’06, and their prices continue to be lower than comparable offerings from Harley-Davidson.
The future is looking bright for Victory. Currently, motorcycles account for only 4% of Polaris sales, far behind ATV production that pulls in 66% of consumer dollars. But Victory has seen a massive 29% increase in sales from 2003 to 2004, and its year-to-date retail sales are up 50% over 2004.
“I’ve never seen customer satisfaction levels like I’ve seen from Victory,” says Mark Blackwell, the company’s general manager and a longtime figure in the powersports industry. He confidently anticipates Victory’s share of Polaris sales to leap up to more than 25% in the next several years.
Considering how far Victory has come since its debut in 1998, who are we to doubt him?