There are too many stories to count (including a bunch I've written) about the early stages of business growth. But what happens next? Expanding a team, leveraging growth, building a sustainable infrastructure, creating the right culture... that's when the leadership and business skill rubber really hits the road.
Or, in this case, the dirt.
Last year I wrote about American Flat Track (AFT), the racing series that involves sliding technologically-advanced motorcycles around on unpaved ovals at speeds that can reach around 140 miles per hour.
After a re-branding three years ago, the sport has grown to include millions of fans -- and, as you'll see from my latest conversation with CEO Michael Lock, partners and sponsors like Caterpillar, Honda, Red Bull, Husqvarna, Ducati, KTM, and NBCSN.
When we last spoke you were deep into planning for 2019. One major change is going from AFT Twins and AFT Singles, and adding a third class.
We had just simplified the structure to make it easier for fans to understand... and then, yes, we decided to add a third class. (Laughs.)
We were naturally reluctant, but ultimately two compelling reasons emerged. One, the fact the sport catapulted into visibility also resulted in a major challenge caused by the introduction of Indian. Their battle with Harley-Davidson was a great story for us and a major factor in the growth in interest. But Indian have done such a good job with their purpose-built flat track bike -- instead of a modified bike -- that they now dominate the Twins class. It's amazing what they've accomplished.
But still: You also have a show to put on.
Absolutely. On one hand, the best bikes and riders should win. On the other hand, great races require a degree of unpredictability for fans and competitors.
The AFT Twins class has reached such a high level that we almost made it a new class, one that nearly took privateer teams, running production-based engines, out of the game.
So we introduced the Production Twins class. The motorcycle has to have an engine that comes from a street bike. That automatically excludes the Indian and the XR-750 Harley, both of which are purpose-built.
That means a production Kawasaki, Yamaha, KTM... the fabric of the sport... have a chance to once again shine.
That's also good for rider development.
The increasing quality, technology, and performance of factory bikes means that if you're a kid in the Singles class, aspiring to run in the Twins, the gulf is nearly too wide. If your education extends to never making the Main, you not only get disheartened, you never get a chance to really prove yourself.
The new class gives the Singles riders a chance to step up.
While we don't run the Production class every single week -- we run it at two-thirds of our events -- it's been a huge success. Bikes have been dusted off that were retired. A number of Singles riders are dipping their toes in the water, starting to speak to sponsors about their teams and their futures.
That's an important issue in a number of industries. Technology can improve, but talent has to improve -- and the availability of talent has to increase as well.
Every business needs new talent. That's what will drive our sport five to seven years from now. We can bring in teams and sponsors, but you also need new riders.
When I was a kid studying history, one of the biggest problems for the British Air Force in World War II was finding Spitfire pilots. They had the planes; the problem was a shortage of skilled pilots.
There's a parallel in our sport. We need top riders for all of the well-funded teams. In the past, the sport didn't produce the volume of talent because there wasn't enough money and focus.
But that's definitely changing.
The other big initiative for 2019, one that was really important to us, was to bring in partners who are not necessarily directly related to the motorcycle industry. We have great partners like Dunlop, Sunoco, K& N, etc., but to become a legitimate pro sports league we need to reach beyond that core.
So we did a lot of work over the winter to bring in companies with broader appeal and resources.
For the broader business community, that's a sign a sport has "arrived."
The first partnership we secured was Caterpillar. Caterpillar is obviously an extremely well-known brand in construction. And while we already used their equipment to prepare and maintain our tracks, still: This lets us, and them, tell a story that's integral to our sport... yet also much broader than our sport.
Tons of people work outdoors: Construction, maintenance, big projects and small. Raising their visibility among that audience, and being seen as a brand that supports the sport... that's good for them and for us.
People have become immune to forced, artificial product marketing. The first question I always ask is, "What's the story?" Tell me why a brand should be there.
In Caterpillar's case, they're a contributor to the sport. Not just a "benefactor." Which means there's a story we can definitely develop.
And once you land one more broadly-based partner... it's a lot easier to land more.
Absolutely. Caterpillar is a door-opener.
Another recent partnership is with Honda. Not Honda motorcycle, but Honda's Powersports division. They've launched a new product line called the Talon, a four-wheel side-by-side. It's a big new play for Honda.
We immediately saw the potential for how the Talon could play a genuine role in the sport. One, as a track prep vehicle: If we want to do some quick dragging or grading, the Talon is perfect. We can whiz it around and prep the track surface in one-fourth the time. That puts Honda's Talon on display in a real-world application.
The second role is to put VIPs in Talons during track downtime, scheduling rides where people can get a firsthand feeling of whipping around a dirt track.
Which is a lot better idea than putting them on the back of a bike.
We love the idea of putting on the back of a bike... but that could also go really, really wrong. (Laughs.)
Honda is very happy with the exposure they've gotten, in the right light, with the role they play in race broadcasts... we're hoping to make this an even bigger partnership going forward.
But to your earlier point, those relationships create springboards that allow us to be in the mix for a number of partnerships that will take us to a wider audience... and help provide the resources for items on our safety, infrastructure, technology, and software wish lists.
For us to say we're wonderful is one thing. Having companies like Caterpillar and Honda put their trust in us... that's the real deal.
Streaming also has good potential for growth.
In 2013, 2014, we had around 5,000 people watching our races on Fanschoice.tv, an outlet we share with NASCAR and IMSA.
Now we have 50,000 people watching our races, and most watch for at least 90 minutes. That's extraordinary engagement for streaming and one that suggests a healthy future.
It also indicates another trend: The growth of international viewers. Countries with good wireless infrastructures like India, Indonesia, and Brazil have leapfrogged our more traditional audiences in western Europe.
That's something else we're considering: Developing commercial income by taking our top riders and holding exhibition races in other countries. That would also be great for race teams in the off-season; they could earn a decent payday while racing in race conditions, but without risking race points... that's a win-win for the teams.
We're keen to go to India, Australia, Japan, Mexico... to take our sport to new places. People outside of the U.S. tend to think of an Indian or a Harley as a big street tourer. The idea that Indian and Harley are also engineering and racing firms as well... that's fascinating to international fans.
Speaking of fans, you work hard to involve them throughout an event.
The only "dead time" we have at an event is the one-hour intermission around sunset... but that's when we open up the paddock for a fan walk. They get to be up close and personal, see the bikes, see the mechanics, see the riders... Sometimes there are four or five thousand people wandering through the paddock to meet our stars.
Our teams are masters of promotion and fan outreach. The way they interact with fans is really smart.
For us, it's all about extending the show. The show is not just flag-to-flag. The show is the paddock, the vendor village, mixing with the stars...
The richer the experience, the better.
Because for our fans, that's really our job: To deliver the kind of experience our fans want and enjoy... and ensures they want to come back.