Remember the days when chrome and billet were strictly the purview of the V-twin crowd? When slammed and stretched came with 45 degrees of rake? When unsprung weight meant nothing?
It's those days no longer, brother.
Oh, it's still a matter of $50,000 customs, fabricators gone wild, fat tires and paint jobs worth more than some cars, but these bikes come with horsepower and a racetrack pedigree. The custom sportbike scene might not yet be taking over where choppers are leaving off, but they're definitely pulling up the rear. And unsprung weight is still mostly irrelevant.
While primarily a phenomenon along the Eastern Seaboard and Deep South, customizing sportbike is a popular enough trend to make such manufacturers as Performance Machine, RC Components, Suzuki and Ducati take notice. National magazines like 2Wheel Tuner and Super Streetbike have sprung up to cater to this growing audience.
The movement has also given birth to an ever-expanding aftermarket industry that allows consumers to start with the myriad of bolt-on chrome available and head toward stretched, single-sided swing arms, 300mm rears, chromed wheels and pricey paint.
And with the Motorcycle Industry Council reporting that sportbike sales were up 18 percent in 2006 — compared to flat cruiser numbers — it seems possible that the next Biker Build Off series could feature a Hayabusa versus a ZX-14.
"What we're seeing now is likely not the next chopper craze but is people playing catch-up to the V-twin market," says Jonathan Reed, owner of Sport Chrome, an Orange County, Calif., shop that specializes in chroming and parts. "It used to be people spending $2,000 to $3,000 on their sportbike was unheard of unless they wanted a show bike. V-twin guys do that before they take them to the street."
Now, Reed says, consumers are shelling out up to $50,000 for a fully tricked-out show-quality sportbike. Déjà vu anybody?
But what does this mean for a dealership? For one it means one more avenue for sales in parts and accessories and work orders for the back shop. A dealer doesn't have to start turning out Grade A customs to enter the market. It can be as simple as stocking the desired P&A or offering a chrome exchange program that allows a consumer to swap out his parts for items already on the shelf.
Reed says he sees the market growing with more and more products hitting the street, especially as sportbike become more popular with athletes and celebrities [insert Ben Roethlisberger comment here].
But in most cases, dealers lack a lot of options for sportbike riders who want something other than an exhaust system. Dealers need to start making the connection between selling a bike and then offering the customer all the bling he might want for it.
"Why send your customers away when you can capture that dollar right in the store?" Reed asks.
Indeed. The custom sportbike market leans heavily on mail order and internet sales so that's a major price consideration for a dealer interested in stocking parts. Shops such as Custom Sportbike Concepts and Patrick's Performance have ushered in the growth of this market with full-page ads selling their proprietary and aftermarket parts.
In fact, such market leaders as Roaring Toyz's Bob Fisher have parlayed their niche success to mainstream notice. Prior to launching the ZX-14 last year, Kawasaki had Fisher customize two preproduction models of the hyber-bike for a special unveiling during Bike Week in Daytona.
Todd Winter of Tupelo Powersports in Tupelo, Miss., says he and his brother got into the customizing biz for entirely selfish reasons — since then they've turned their personal interests into a positive cash flow. "Basically what happened was me and my brother wanted chrome rims on our bikes, and we thought we shouldn't pay what we used to pay," he says with a laugh. The dealership is owned by their parents and operated by the whole family.
Since getting involved, they've expanded the dealership's existing chrome lineup by starting a chrome exchange program. He also stocks complete sets of Hayabusa plastic because of all the work he does on these bikes.
"We're a full-service dealership. We're down here in the South, and everyone has to have the biggest, fastest thing," Winter says. "A guy with a Hayabusa will go out and ding up his bike, walk into the shop and ask to have the plastic repaired and painted."
Up to 40 percent of his business is custom work, with the majority of that falling into the "crash repair" category. The shop's chrome exchange service allows customers to walk in with a handful of parts and exchange them for chrome bits and pieces. Most customers spend $1,500 to $2,500 on average.
"On Saturdays we have a first come, first serve program and there will be three or four 'Busas sitting here when we open," he says.
To keep interest high he keeps two full custom sportbike on his showroom floor and whenever he finishes another customer's bike, he puts it out front. Just about everybody who walks in sees something on the bike that they want, he adds.
Cash for Flash
While the custom bikes might be dressed up in a few more pounds than the Sportbike Creator intended, that doesn't mean that customers still don't want power. Ted Sands, VP of sales and marketing at Performance Machine, says that 50 percent of the company's sales in this market are for liter bikes and the super sports.
It's also customers for these bikes — and not the middleweight class — who are the first to spend money on a new set of wheels, Sands notes.
"What's driving our sportbike market is a lightweight wheel, [but] it's the chrome ones that are really strong sellers," Sands says. "We have some hot pockets of business where we see huge amounts of sales, ... in Florida and New York where they are really hot on customizing sportbike.
"It's kind of like a sportbike guy's approach to what cruisers are doing."
Performance Machine has been in the sportbike market since the mid '80s when it was doing lightweight spun aluminum racing wheels. But it's found a hot pocket of interest with its chromed or polished wheels and custom-chromed radial-mount calipers. The company still makes a race-weight wheel, the Revolution.
Keeping in line with what many other manufacturers recommend, what many dealers actually do but what is not the norm for the industry, PM's reps are getting the wheels into dealership showrooms and onto bikes. And they're selling.
"A lot of dealers are waking up to the fact that if they have one of the hottest models on their sales floor, why let it go out the door for MSRP," Sands says. "We definitely see it as a growth market. Our sales were up double digits for sportbike wheels."
Customs and OEMs
As Sands reports, most of the customers in this market are gunning for liter bikes and the hypers like the 'Busas and ZX-14s. This narrowed interest has allowed the aftermarket to zoom along happily building parts and accessories without the need to redesign and retool.
This also allows shops to stock parts for longer, with the main worry being the fickleness of the public, not obsolescence. This also means good news for the huge number of sportbike already in circulation, promising plentiful parts for owners.
With the big upswing in sportbike sales, this doesn't look to be ending anytime soon. Suzuki reports that last year, it retailed more than 10,400 Hayabusas and a combined 41,000-plus number of all three GSX-R models. That's more than 51,400 bikes from one OEM alone.
In fact, Suzuki spokesman Garrett Kai says that the GSX-R600 is the company's best-selling motorcycle period. And since the 'Busa was introduced in 1999, it's sold more units each model year.
"It's a great bike that has crossed so many boundaries for us," says Kai. "You see it drag racing, in rap videos, on the track, and it's the bike of choice for customizers."
Kai adds that when he's out riding a Hayabusa there are a lot of people who aren't enthusiasts who know exactly that the bike is a 'Busa. And while Suzuki doesn't actively support the custom market, it does appreciate the notice. "The whole customizing thing has taken on a life of its own and we're flattered to see what people do with their motorcycles," he adds.
An OEM that has embraced the custom market — though not in the stretched, chromed and juiced sense — is Ducati. The Italian marque has thrown its factory support behind the Ducati Monster custom scene by sponsoring the Ducati Monster Challenge. The winner of last year's contest took home a new Monster S2R 1000 for his handiwork.
As such, Ducati's best-selling model is the S2R1000, followed by the S2R800.
Ducati's John Paolo Canton says the company courts the custom aftermarket and even produces its own thick catalog of parts and accessories for all its models. The book includes exhaust systems, carbon fiber bits, new fuel injection modules, high-flow air filters, brake systems, wheels, rearsets, you name it.
Canton says that the difference between Ducati and the larger OEMs is the amount of passion its employees have for the product. Of the 10 people at their Cupertino, Calif., headquarters who ride Monsters, most of them have customized them to a degree.
Canton draws a correlation between Duc and Harley-Davidson: "The first thing someone does when they buy one [a Harley] is put thousands of dollars of accessories on it," he says. "There's no reason they shouldn't be doing it with the Monster or anything else."
Ducati hopes to gain further traction in the sportbike market this year with the 1098, which retails for $14,995, a price that Canton says is already attracting younger buyers to the toney brand.