Pair of racing series provide niche for UTVs
Tom Kaiser, Senior Editor
April 22, 2013
Filed under Features
More capable side-by-sides bring more entries
With sales of side-by-sides rising and aftermarket options multiplying, the rise in popularity of UTV has brought with it new classes to racing series staples such as the East Coast’s Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) and the West Coast’s World Off-Road Championship Series (WORCS).
Here’s a look at how both are reacting to their ever-growing UTV racing participants.
Western series sees growth
The largest off-road racing series on the West Coast, WORCS began in the late 1990s as a venue for dirt bike and ATV racers, and started including UTVs shortly after the birth of the category. The series has seen a significant growth spurt in side-by-side entries in the last three years and, at its second event of 2013 in Primm, Nev., more than 65 side-by-sides entered to compete in one of four UTV-specific categories.
“I would say the success of the UTV has all been in the suspension,” said Mark Kalpakoff of WORCS media relations. “These things are getting even better — you can just pin [the throttle] and never stop.”
While the vehicles’ relative affordability as a race platform is a boon to racers, Kalpakoff said, he has noticed that the average UTV racer is a little older and more financially comfortable than the typical ATV and dirt bike competitors.
“In our pits, it’s obviously people who have money to burn right now, and that’s established families or persons with a career,” he said. “Let’s face it, the economy’s bad and some people are having a hard enough time paying bills, so it’s definitely a slight increase of the 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds.”
WORCS races are longer than East Coast- and Midwest-style races, often anywhere from 5 to 11 miles, typically run at higher speeds and comparable to the conditions found in Mexico’s Baja 1000 races. To handle such demanding terrain, WORCS racers need to invest in a higher level of componentry to survive the courses. Oftentimes that includes frame and cage gusseting, metal roof panels, lockable side doors and onboard fire extinguishers. In some cases, the more extreme racers rely on local fabrication shops, rather than off-road aftermarket shops.
Kalpakoff said he expects Polaris and Kawasaki to maintain their dominance in UTV racing, but would like to see Honda enter the high-performance side-by-side game. He speculated that sales and racer entries should continue growing for the foreseeable future.
“UTVs have steadily increased, and that’s the cool thing about our business,” he said. “In times like these, we’re seeing the UTVs take the forefront, and they’re a crowd pleaser.”
Cross country racing
With 13 racing events scattered along the East Coast, Ohio River Valley and Appalachia, GNCC races typically traverse tighter, more wooded terrain, have obstacles like creeks and downed trees to dodge, and are shorter than WORCS races.
The series, which began in West Virginia in 1975, is the largest off-road series in the East, and includes dirt bikes, youth to full-size ATVs and UTVs with five specific classes for side-by-sides. Of its total schedule for 2013, six events will include UTV racers.
First added to the roster in 2008, UTV entries spiked in 2010. Today, approximately 50 side-by-sides regularly show up at its events.
“We have found the UTV niche to consist of members of the ATV racing community,” said GNCC event director Dean vanLeeuwen. “Perhaps racers that have since retired from ATV MX or XC racing that still want to be involved in the racing aspect, which presents yet another market of racers.”
Unlike WORCS, youth riders make up the bulk of the GNCC racer population. He said it’s unlikely that UTVs will overtake bikes or ATVs anytime soon, but added that they are steadily growing in interest and there is racing support from manufacturers more so than other vehicles. He attributes that success and financial support to the inherent versatility of the vehicles.
Brice Ginn, DragonFire Racing’s sales and marketing manager who races a Polaris RZR in the WORCS series, said that GNCC racing is a priority for his company, as it’s more production-based racing that’s easier for beginners to start compared with the rigors of West Coast-style racing.
While Polaris has largely led the pack in terms of performance, Ginn said he expects the UTV racing market to eventually mirror what has happened in dirt bikes and sport quads, where the race-focused production models are so close in performance and dimensions that they become nearly indistinguishable. If that happens, he said, racers would only need to make a handful of modifications to compete at a high level.
Keeping up with the factories
When racing UTVs was still new, aftermarket shops did terrific business selling a laundry list of required upgrades from long-travel suspensions, stronger axles, upgraded exhaust and beadlock wheels, among many others. Today, many high-performance vehicles come standard with those accessories straight from the factory, forcing aftermarket shops to adapt their product offerings to sidestep the manufacturers who have built-in advantages being the first point of contact with new side-by-side owners.
“Those were the staple items to bring the cars to the next level and get what people wanted out of them,” Ginn said. “Now, since they come with a lot of that from the get-go, things that are going the extra mile for us are bumpers, cage accessory add-ons … suicide doors, seat belt harnesses, steering wheel kits, accessories like that and creature comforts — the little pieces of the puzzle that the OEs are missing out on is where we fill in the gaps.”
Mark Holz, owner of Holz Racing, echoed a similar mindset on manufacturers doggedly bolstering vehicle capabilities and their in-house accessory upgrades.
“Our friends at Polaris aren’t doing us any justice,” he said. “It seems like their accessory book just keeps getting bigger and bigger. They’re able to offer good margins and good terms to the dealers, so it makes it hard for the small aftermarket companies to get in there.”
Holz likened the rapid shift to what previously happened with the snowmobile market, specifically the more demanding mountain segment that used to be the purview of aftermarket outfits like Holz Racing.
“Everything that we ever did for mountain sleds is now stock, so they’ve kind of taken that whole market away from us — and I see the side-by-side market going the same way.”
In the last six months, Holz has seen a large influx of racing business that has reached 30 to 40 percent of the company’s total business, a substantial increase over the previous year. With the still-growing popularity of side-by-side racing, Holz is shifting its focus toward offering ultra-high-quality racing components as demand has increased. Maintaining relevance, he said, is a matter of differentiating his company’s products from what the OEMs are offering.
While he expects the market to continue growing, and expects Polaris to continue capitalizing on its sizable head start, Holz speculates that Arctic Cat and Can-Am will increase their market share. His worry for the industry is the threat of government or legal interference, and the ever-growing sticker prices.
“The cars are pushing 20 grand now, and when they started out they were 10 or less,” he said. “At some point the market’s going to get smaller and smaller as the cost goes up.”