Listen to the Dirtbike Guru


LEE THEIS IS A DIRT MAN. He builds dirtbike tracks, and he promotes dirtbike racing in several classes throughout the Midwest. A former racer, Theis has been involved in dirtbike racing for more than 20 years. He's a man worth listening to when he talks about the reasons for the slide in the retail sales of dirtbikes — even though there is continuing interest in the sport among riders.

Theis owns and operates several related companies, the most visible being, the motorsports promotions company based in suburban Minneapolis that hosted more than 90 events last year. His events draw about 15,000 entries for races and practices annually and are viewed by close to 35,000 spectators.

Motokazie promotes events for motocross, Supercross, pit bikes, supermoto and special ATVs. Theis also builds tracks through his Motokazie Motocross Track Builders company ( Theis' team builds about two dozen private dirtbike tracks and 20 commercial Supercross tracks each year. Over the last decade, he's built more than 200 tracks in the U.S.

Theis' business obviously is tied closely to dirtbikes, and he's not happy about what he's been seeing over the last several years. His revenues and the number of riders participating in his events are down about 20 percent since 2003, his peak year.

The decline that Theis is seeing is much less than the one reported by the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) — one reason for optimism. In 2005, MIC member companies reported dirtbike sales of just under 277,000 units, off about 13,000 units or 4 percent from the previous year. The decline continued in 2006 when sales slipped another 9 percent (25,000 units) and 2007 when sales dropped a whopping 17 percent to about 209,000 units.

In the first quarter this year, the sharp drop continued. Retail sales through March this year were off 17 percent (41,000 units sold), down from the 50,000 units sold in during Q1 2007.


Theis says his numbers remain stronger than the retail sales figures reported by the MIC because his riders don't buy a new bike every year, so his business is declining at a slower rate than retail sales figures.

"My guys can ride an older bike," he says. "That's why my numbers are better than the MIC. My guys can ride five-year-old bikes if they can't afford a new one."

There might be reason for some optimism hidden among the gloomy figures reported by the MIC. Theis believes that dirtbike riders haven't abandoned the sport; they simply don't have the disposable income to support it right now.

"It's not that they don't like (the sport) any more," says Theis, "They can't afford it. Most of the [drop off] in dirtbike sales has to do with economic reasons. There are a lot of people who want to ride, but they just can't afford it."

Theis ticks off three factors that have knocked his riders off the track:

  • Dirtbike riders, especially the ones who participate in events promoted by Theis, tend to be blue-collar workers. These are the people most affected by the economic slowdown and housing slump. "They're just running low on disposable income," he says.
  • Increased fuel costs really hurt racers and dirt bike riders who have to drive long distances to find open space on which to ride.
  • The shift to four-strokes from two-strokes. "[Bikes] cost more to buy and more to maintain," he points out. The former racer says he used to buy a 250cc bike for $4,000; today, a comparable model costs about $6,500. Drivetrains today cost $1,600, perhaps four times what they used to cost.

Sound is a problem. Thies would like OEMs to reduce noise levels by several decibels — to about 96 dB. "Overall, it would be good for our sport," he says. A 3dB drop is easy to do and would mean a reduction of only about 1.5 hp, he notes.

The availability of riding areas also is declining, he agrees, a situation that won't improve on its own. "Today, [in Minnesota] you have to go three or four hours to find open riding or trail riding."

Noise and riding areas: We've heard those complaints before. But perhaps if we make changes in these two areas, we'll be ready to meet increased consumer demand when the economy turns around.

Joe Delmont can be reached at or 952-893-6876.