Top Motorcycle Industry Stories of 2009

January 7, 2010
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

The final year of the “aughts”, or whatever posterity deems the past decade, saw many big stories in the news. There’s the cratered economy, a new president, vitriolic health care debate, perpetual war. And, of course, the really important stuff, like American Idol, Hannah Montana and the Jon & Kate Plus 8 divorce. Watching all that news wash by in slow-motion
Ben Spies
Ben Spies was a big story in 2009, winning the 2009 World Superbike title as a rookie before heading to MotoGP.

montages during the New Year’s specials got me thinking: What were the top stories in the motorcycle industry for 2009? Here’s one editorial opinion:

Motorcycle Sales Down… Way Down

Hate to kick the last gasps of air out of the economic woes dead horse, but, sorry, the economy’s tumble defined the final year of the decade. Almost every American has felt the sting on a personal level, and the motorcycle industry took it square in the teeth too.

The current recession, generally considered the worst in living memory for many, meted out double-digit unemployment and cut most consumers’ disposable income. Credit dried up as well with the banking crisis at the end of 2008. Add to the mix the little fact that buying a new bike falls firmly into the “wants” rather than “needs” column and it doesn’t bode well for sales.

New Motorcycle Sales in US
2009 – ?                                     2004 – 1,063,000
2008 – 1,104,000                     2003 – 1,001,000
2007 – 1,124,000                     2002 – 936,000
2006 – 1,190,000                     2001 – 850,000
2005 – 1,149,000                     2000 – 710,000

So what’s the damage?

Figures aren’t final, but estimates of new sales through the first three quarters of 2009 are grim. MIC data through September approximate 40% losses compared to the previous year. With total sales for 2008 estimated by the MIC at 1.1 million, if the 40% trend holds, total ’09 sales figure to be less than 700,000. If true, it would end a six-year streak of million-unit annual sales in the US. Not only that, it could very well make 2009 the lowest-selling year of the entire decade.

The positive news? While new bike sales are down, a recent study from J.D. Power reports motorcycle customer satisfaction and product quality has never been higher. There is also hope that while some riders may not have bought all-new models, perhaps they sprung for more modest upgrades of their existing rides with aftermarket products. Stay tuned for a more in depth analysis when full 2009 sales figures are finally released.

Craig Jones punishing Pirelli rubber.
Buell up in smoke for 2009, with rides like the new 1125CR no more. Founder Erik Buell has moved on to Erik Buell Racing, supporting the 1125R in its 2010 racing efforts.
You can thank this guy right here for the new 1125CR. Thanks Erik!

Buell Motorcycles Gone, H-D Circles the Wagons

The October 15th news Buell Motorcycles was going under came as a surprise, with parent company Harley-Davidson discontinuing the brand and looking to sell its other sportbike acquisition, MV Agusta. The last year of Buell had its share of strange moments, with controversy in the AMA roadracing series (see below). And anyone else remember the strange 2010 crushing Buell Blast promotion? Anyway, Buell built the last of its total 136,923 motorcycles on November 19. Erik Buell then resurfaced a day later with the independent Erik Buell Racing, a race shop which will continue to campaign the now-defunct marque’s 1125R in 2010 racing.

There are still plenty of unanswered questions to the story. Why didn’t H-D sell Buell, like they plan to sell MV Agusta, rather than kill it off entirely? Any truth to the rumors other brands, most notably Can-Am, showed any interest? Will Erik Buell continue his American sportbike dream somewhere else? Is Buell Motorcycles dead as in, ashes-to-ashes dead, or will it come back?

Buell was a big story in 2009. Maybe it will be a big story in 2010 too.

CPSC Lead Ban Outlaws Child OHVs

In 2008 a glut of recalls for lead-contaminated toys from China outraged the public and spurred the government into action. Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 with a near unanimous vote. Enter the Consumer Product Safety Commission, tasked with enforcing consumer laws, including the new CPSIA. The CPSC broadly interpreted the new legislation to include not just toys, but all products for children, including youth off-road vehicles.

The CPSC lead ban hand-tied the entire kid’s OHV industry for three months in 2009.

Many parts on motorcycle and ATVs exceed the stringent limits for lead in the CPSIA and it was unfeasible to meet a CPSC February deadline for compliance. So sales of youth OHV were outlawed, violators subject to stiff fines. A general outcry from the industry and riders followed, including a high-profile protest by off-road icon and dealership owner, Malcolm Smith. Even the CPSC itself acknowledged the ruling may actually be counterproductive, as outlawing youth OHV would only encourage the same kids to ride larger-displacement and more dangerous machinery.

It wasn’t until April 3, that the CPSC passed a 12-month stay of enforcement. Still, the CPSC feels it is hamstrung by the law’s wording and denied an industry petition to exclude OHV from the law. One month later, however, it did vote to extend the stay of enforcement until May 1, 2011.

In other words, the CPSC lead ban issue remains unresolved. Until legislative action gets a permanent fix, an entire off-road segment floats in legal limbo.

DMG/AMA Racing Opera

Again, beating the dead horses… The DMG/AMA roadracing drama never seemed to end throughout the year. Trouble started brewing right from the get-go, when the Daytona Motorsports Group took over the AMA racing promotion at the end of the 2008 season. Proposed rule changes and plans for a new premier class, Daytona SportBike, made up of 600cc Inline-Fours as well as the Buell 1125R Twin, raised ire in the paddock as the season wound down. Controversy at the end of the year, with the disqualification of Mat Mladin for technical violations, only exacerbated the Aussie’s cool reception to the new DMG plans.

The Buell 1125R (above) in Daytona Sportbike was just one of the controversies following the AMA Pro Road Racing series Roger Edmondson presided over.Eslick

After a couple rules’ revisions, including adding American Superbike as a dual premier class alongside Daytona SportBike, the 2009 season got under way at Daytona. Running under the lights at night for the first time, the prestigious Daytona 200 was marred with technical problems, including a botched restart. The season plodded on, however, with Mladin dominating American Superbike and Danny Eslick doing the same in the new SportBike class aboard the Buell. With nearly double the displacement of its rivals, the Buell’s inclusion in the SportBike series was a controversy that never went away, even when Eslick’s dominance faded as the season progressed – though he still narrowly won the title by five points.

The DMG story bottomed out at Laguna Seca, when the unpopular insistence of a pace car met with a near catastrophe. (For more info check out MCUSA’s editorial Delusional Motorsports Group) Amidst a confusing procession of restarts in the Superbike race, a pace car was left stationary on a hot racetrack full of riders. While disaster was averted, the eventual race winner, seven-time AMA champion Mladin, echoed the general distaste in the Laguna pace car matter. Later Mladin, along with fellow veteran Jamie Hacking, would simply walk away from the Topeka round, refusing to participate due to what they felt were unsafe track conditions. In the end, having collected his final AMA title, Mladin retired from the sport entirely rather than face another season in the DMG AMA.

With its biggest rider gone in Mladin (following the loss of Ben Spies to World Superbike its first year), the DMG approaches 2010 having dramatically slashed racing purses – along with news that Kawasaki joins Honda with no official factory support of the series. One final act in 2009 came when it was announced Roger Edmondson, the figurehead of the DMG push for AMA Racing, will step down as President and CEO of AMA Racing due to health issues.
What the future holds for AMA Racing, who knows? But the DMG series can’t figure to sink much lower in 2010. 

So those are my picks for the most notable industry news stories of 2009. The new year is certain to bring more interesting things to write about. Until then, Happy New Year.

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