By Glenn Hansen
Call it social marketing if you like. Sport bike manufacturers and dealers have realized the race track is the place to be. And not just with the fans watching professional racers, but with sport bike enthusiasts circling the track on their own machines.
Track days are one of the hottest forms of social marketing.
“Ducati is making the most of a social environment built around a hard-core sport bike experience,” said Michael Lock, CEO of Ducati North America. “Harley Davidson has done something similar for years on the street around its cruisers. Ducati does this now to get people closer to the pure essence of Ducati — that’s racing and high-performance.”
Lock describes with enthusiasm the company’s increasing marketing activity at track days and racing events nationwide. “It’s unmistakably a trend,” he said. “At Ducati, we’ve been sponsoring track-day activities, and we have co-op money available for Ducati dealers who sponsor Ducati-exclusive track day events. It’s unmistakeably a trend right now. And it makes so much sense for Ducati and Ducati dealers.”
The Italian manufacturer is not alone in the use of race tracks as marketing venues. Yamaha Motor Corp. has revved up its support of track days during the past few years, mostly through a partnership with the Northeast Sport Bike Association (NESBA). The geographical reference is misleading: Yamaha’s track day marketing alliance with NESBA includes activity at tracks in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions, as well as Oregon and Washington state, Virginia, Georgia, West Virginia and the Northeast.
“We want to give Yamaha owners a place to ride these bikes and see what the performance is all about,” said Kevin Foley, media relations manager for Yamaha Motor Corp. Foley describes the multi-year agreement with NESBA as just part of Yamaha’s overall efforts to promote its sport bikes through on-track activities. The manufacturer gives its district sales managers freedom to work with individual track promoters and nearby dealers for creative and high-performance promotions.
“This is not just Yamaha sponsoring some track days,” said Bob Blandford, NESBA president. “This is two companies in a relationship — not just a sponsorship — beneficial to both.” The NESBA Web site refers to it as the “Yamaha Alliance.” Blandford says his organization helps Yamaha by giving sport bike owners a safe and exciting opportunity to make the most of their high-performance purchase. And NESBA gets the association and allegiance of a major manufacturer.
Through Yamaha’s relationship with NESBA, buyers of Yamaha sport bikes nationwide receive one free NESBA-promoted track day, plus a year-long membership to the Northeast-based coalition.
“I started to see an increased interest in track days beginning about five years ago,” said Blandford. Sport bike owners began to realize, he says, that they could use the race track to safely ride their bikes near the limit, and still not have to be in an official race situation. Blandford sees this education coming from a lot of sources, including the motorcycling media, as well as word-of-mouth from track-day enthusiasts. Now in its third year, the Yamaha-NESBA alliance also is partly responsible for the growing popularity of track days, according to Blandford. “It’s like golf for sport bike owners,” said Blandford. “It’s a social event.”
Blandford also acknowledges the addictive nature of track-day riding. “Sport bike owners can get hooked fast,” he said.
Some motorcycle dealers know that addiction well, and have made high-performance sport-bike activity a part of their mission, with track-day marketing as standard operating procedure. “Performance is our passion,” said Mike Tobin, general manager of Eastside MotoSports in Bellevue, Wash. “That’s our mission statement. It’s the niche we’ve turned into a successful business.”
Eastside MotoSports sells Suzuki, Yamaha and Ducati. Sport bikes and high-performance marketing is important to all these manufacturers, and Tobin makes sure his customers know that — even though each OEM takes a different position on marketing via track days.
Tobin’s Yamaha buyers get an additional track day on top of the one given through the NESBA relationship. If you buy a Ducati, Tobin allots four track days for your enjoyment. Potential buyers can even take on track demo rides of a Ducati, Suzuki or Yamaha sport bike.
“We do this mainly as an instructional and educational tool,” said Tobin. “We like to focus on the rookie track-day riders, teaching that track days are your friend. We group one track instructor for every four riders, and prove the track is not just for hard-core racers.” While that sounds like a nice community service to build enthusiasm for track days and encourage safe riding, Tobin sees a strong return on his investment of time and money.
Tobin points out three reasons for his dealership’s track focus that lead to an actual return on investment. “First, the track shows the real potential and performance of these bikes,” he said. “Second, our activity delivers on our promise of living with high-performance motorcycling passion. Third, we help people live the same performance motorcycling lifestyle.”
His track-day marketing is like planting a tree, he says. The tree grows and its branches and leaves spread out, providing shade and dropping seeds throughout the motorcycling community. He regularly counts these “branches and leaves” walking into Eastside MotoSports to buy tires or get performance-guided suspension adjustments in the service shop.
“You have to go where your customers go,” said Commonwealth Motorcycles Sales Manager Steve Miles. And since more and more owners are using track days to get the most out of their sport bikes, Miles and Commonwealth go to the track, sponsoring between four and seven track days per year.
Like Tobin at Eastside MotoSports, Miles counts the reasons for his track-day marketing activity. “First,” he said, “it gets our customers out to enjoy a ride and learn sport bike skills in a controlled atmosphere.” Miles adds that track days expose customers to new bikes, whether seeing other riders on different and newer product, or simply viewing the hardware Miles has on display. Finally, it attracts new customers to our store. “It’s advertising,” he said.
The return on investment
Miles will rent a track for the private Commonwealth track day, often using southern Indiana’s Putnam Park, not far from his Louisville, Ky., dealership. He sells about 60 track day entries at a lower price than would normally be charged for a track day. “We don’t do these events to make a profit on the track-day entry itself,” he said. “We do this to sell motorcycles.” And he estimates that Commonwealth will sell at least three motorcycles for every track day event they organize.
Monte Lutz has been promoting and managing track days for nearly 10 years. As co-owner of Sportbike Track Time, Lutz has been on the leading edge of track days as marketing for a number of years. “We had a relationship with Aprilia back in 2001, helping show and demo their sport bikes at track day events.”
Lutz reminds dealers that track-day marketing does not need to be an expensive or time-consuming endeavor. “We promote track days, dealers sell motorcycles,” said Lutz. “Dealers don’t have to worry about renting the entire track, getting each session out of time or stocking coolers with Gatorade,” said Lutz, “if they let a professional track day promoter organize their event. Dealers need to be interacting with customers, and handling the hospitality of the event.”
In this way, said Lutz, track days can be “conquest opportunities” for dealers and manufacturers. He references BMW’s current marketing of its new S 1000 RR sport bike. “BMW is showing this bike to track day enthusiasts, and especially at events currently dominated by owners of (Suzuki) GSX-R1000s.”
“Depending on the event,” Miles said, “we will get some support from one of our manufacturer partners.” He notes Triumph has been very progressive in response to Commonwealth’s track-day marketing. The dealership represented the Triumph brand at the recent MotoGP race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The dealership’s “go where your customers go” mentality extends beyond the race track. Commonwealth also supports street rides for customers not interested in high-speed track outings.
Sometimes partnering with Commonwealth on track day events, Ducati Indianapolis is a Ducati-only dealer that enthusiastically shares the passion for track day riding and the value of these events as marketing. “We get a lot of service business from track days,” said owner Bill Carr. “I’m sure we’ve sold some bikes, too, but it’s harder for us to track that directly to the track day.”
Carr also points to his shop’s single-line Ducati image. “Ducati has such a strong racing heritage,” he said, “and track days give our customers that powerful racing feeling but with safety and control.”
“If you sell medicine,” said Lutz, “you go where the sick people are. Dealers, come to track days. There are a whole lot of sick motorcyclists out here eager for some of your sport bike medicine.”