How the OEMs Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Custom Crowd

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What was once a flirty relationship has turned into a full-blown love affair. At least it has with the OEMs and the custom sportbike market. After all, when you're in business to sell a lot of motorcycles to a lot of people, it's hard to ignore the growing base of sportbike riders who choose slammed and stretched over quick and agile. So the major manufacturers are showing enthusiasm (albeit qualified) for the underground regional trend that has now gone mainstream.

Kawasaki, suzuki and Yamaha are the key supporters, which means they cooperate with builders to customize their motorcycles. They don't endorse the builders, but they will support them. "What these guys are able to do is take something that is very ordinary and make it extraordinary," says Kawasaki product manager Karl edmondson. "The aftermarket builders are able to do all the things the OEMs wish we could do [but cannot] for legal or cost reasons. They're able to take it to another level."

Custom builders and the aftermarket show current and potential sportbike owners what they can do to their bikes. The OEMs may not recommend mods like stretched swing arms or tank-mounted video screens, but what a coincidence — they sell race bikes that are suited for such modifications!

Suzuki communications honcho Glenn Hansen says the company has long encouraged its dealers to preaccessorize motorcycles. The OEM pushes its own branded P&A, but knows that the aftermarket is essential to the growth of the brand. "We know that when we come out with a new GSX-R or a new boulevard, the customers are interested in buying it," hansen says, "but they ask, 'I wonder what kind of accessories are ready for it?'"

Derek brooks, motorcycle product manager at Yamaha, says he sees a great deal of crossover from the custom cruiser crowd. Yamaha research indicates that many riders who made their way to cruisers via sportbikes are now going back to sportbikes, drawn by their new aesthetic look. "The custom sportbike trend gives them a new outlet, maybe a new way to be creative," brooks says. "I think there's a lot of people who feel that the ability to be creative is beginning to be somewhat limited in the cruiser area."

Yamaha has built custom rides with Mccoy Motorsports of Pikeville, Ky., and has suppled bikes to roland sands as he develops parts for Performance Machine and roland sands Design. Yamaha also features customized bikes in its sportbike brochures and includes a customer gallery of rides on its Web site. "It's almost impossible to ignore this trend now," brooks says.

Of course, not all OEMs evangelize custom modifications. Honda sticks with a we-don'tsupport-it-but-if-you're-gonna-do-it-thenwe-make-a great-bike approach. Ducati? Well, it makes race bikes, and why on earth would you want to do that to a race bike? (but the italian marque is not completely opposed to customizing, for it supports the Monster challenge and recently worked with sands to customize a hypermotard.)

Then there is buell, which considers itself a factory custom and has been a huge backer of the custom crowd. After all, it was erik buell who twisted Milwaukee iron into his own vision. not only does buell make its parts interchangeable between models, it also occasionally offers custom OEM motorcycles (kept to a limited run). As a result, buell has a customer base filled with trick rides.

"I think we've done a pretty good job in allowing customers the flexibility to swap parts and make the bikes their own," says Greg heichelbeck, director of platform marketing at buell. The company encourages both U.s. And european dealers to customize showroom models, "not only through paint, but [by using] carbon fiber and swapping the body panels into different configurations."

STUNTING'S BENEFITS

The stunting crowd is a niche market within custom sportbikes. Here, the OEMs are offering support, albeit grudgingly. Kawasaki, for example, recently signed a factory deal with Jason britton and supplies a bike and support to Kane friesen. Edmondson says the OEM can't ignore the crowds that stunt celebrities like britton and friesen attract, even if their activities have long been frowned upon by motorcycling's mainstream.

As britton and other stunters continue to professionalize the sport and move it to a controlled environment, Kawasaki wants to offer support — it's just good business. "I don't think it's anything that we can ignore," Edmondson says. "Those guys actually do help sell motorcycles."

Stunting, as with custom sportbikes, appeals to a demographic much sought after by the motorcycle industry, a demographic not exactly understood by the boomer-heavy crowd that fills out much of the industry's upper management. And custom sportbikes offer Japanese OEMs a movement closer to their heart than the cruiser market they chased for years.

"We all know we have to figure out new ways we're going to attract new people," Edmondson adds. "There's so many places for people to spend their money. I think the exact same thing that brought us into it will bring them into it. We just have to figure out how to reach them."