The past decade has been somewhat of a perfect storm for the personal watercraft aftermarket. Product from the major OEMs has become faster and arguably better than ever; the demographics of the buyers have shifted toward a middle-aged consumer less likely to modify the craft; and the switch to more advanced four-stroke technology has made it difficult for the little guys to stay in the game. The result is that the aftermarket has slimmed to but a handful of players.
At least, that’s the big-picture perception. Visit the annual Daytona Freeride in January, however, and you just may find yourself privy to a rebirth of sorts. On the water, stand-ups and Yamaha WaveBlasters rule the surf. On shore, a vast sea of sponsor booths hawk everything from steering components to traction mats to engine conversion kits to complete, high-dollar skis custom made to perform in the surf. For those who witnessed the first explosion of PWC growth, it’s like the old days of aftermarket firms Butch’s, Performance Jet Ski and Westcoast. Riders are pushing for newer and better parts to let them perform, and companies have stepped in to fill the need. And participation is on a decidedly uphill trajectory.
Growth of a party
It’s safe to say Freeride organizer Nick Foederer didn’t envision the ride’s current status when he organized the first event in 2002. That ride was meant to be nothing more than a simple beach party. Foederer and his friends invited a few people, told them to bring their PWC for a fun weekend of riding in the surf, and then mentioned the get-together on an Internet chat group. It quickly became an annual tradition, one that began to take on a life of its own. The Freeride became a sponsored charity event in 2006.
Today, it routinely attracts upwards of 500 participants, and even more who follow the weekend’s happenings on various Internet forums, chat groups and websites. On the beach, fans mingle with some of the top freeride and freestyle riders in the world, sharing the good times in a casual, relaxed environment. In the sponsor area, many of those same riders shop for the latest and greatest parts to take their riding to the next level.
“Even after all we have been through, freerides are still about the riders,” Foederer said. “You will see top pros from all over the world, riders you would normally not be able to see ride ripping it up in the surf. That to me is the real draw of this event. When it comes down to it, this event is about progression of the sport, making friends and doing something positive for the community.”
It’s a combination that has proven nearly irresistible for a growing collection of aftermarket companies who cater to the ever-increasing legion of freeride participants and fans. Those backing the event included title sponsor Thrust Innovations, as well as presenting sponsors Hydro-Turf, Extreem Throttle, BlackTip, JetManiac, ProRider magazine, Exotic Signs and the International Jet Sports Boating Association (IJSBA).
The long list of industry sponsors include Optima Racing, SBT, Blowsion, Gorilla, RonnyMac.com, American Watercraft Association (AWA), Soft Deck, Team Xtreme, X-H20.com, Novi-Tec, Fast Elements, Rad Dudes, Jettribe, Bud Productions, Cold Fusion, PF Racing, DK Designs, Liquid Militia, Comfort Inn Lake Placid and WetRacer.com.
“For us, this is beyond the World Finals for the stand-up, freeride industry,” said Brian Vergin of title sponsor Thrust Innovations. “I don’t think there is anywhere in the world to get direct access to our clientele and our consumer. Just the networking alone, I don’t think it’s possible anywhere else.”
According to Vergin, Thrust Innovations, which primarily focuses on building freeride-oriented stand-up craft, has seen its business grow at a rate of 25-30 percent each year.
“And that’s in a bad economy. I can only imagine where we’d be in a better economy. I think it definitely shows the sport is growing. There are more companies, manufacturers and parts resellers coming into this area of the sport every month,” Vergin said.
And that audience is reminiscent of those in racing’s early days — rabid enthusiasts who eat, sleep and breathe personal watercraft.
“I think the people who are in this market are diehards,” Vergin added. “They’ve either been in the sport since the ’80s or they’re people coming in looking at that challenge.”
That’s not to say the bigger aftermarket players are left out. Engine remanufacturer SBT has been involved with the Freeride since nearly the beginning, long sponsoring a popular free lunch for all in attendance and trotting out the latest SBT calendar girl. In recent years, a company that has sprung from the same lineage — Watercraft Superstore — has also seen benefit to being involved. This year, the company gave away a tricked-out WaveBlaster, signing up more than 500 entries in just five hours.
“SBT has been involved since before Watercraft Superstore existed,” said WCSS’s John Salvatore. “It was really just to support the industry. SBT doesn’t even sell anything at the event. They’re just hanging out, talking to people, putting faces to names.”
With the birth of Watercraft Superstore, however, a new opportunity presented itself — the company’s BlackTip brand of traction mats and seat covers was a natural fit for the stand-up/Blaster-focused participants.
“The Freeride was a great vehicle for us to promote that brand,” Salvatore said. “We get a lot of good publicity out of it. We sell a bunch of gear at good deals just to get some buzz in the booth area, but really it’s about supporting a growing segment of our sport.”
As an example of that growth, Salvatore points to the numerous companies on the beach this year that specialized in building pricey, freeride-specific craft. “Granted it’s still niche-y, but the industry has grown to the point where it can support a handful of companies producing new watercraft that are all custom, high-dollar craft,” he said. “None of those guys are building thousands of boats in a year, but the fact there’s a handful of those companies that can survive is pretty cool. A few years ago I don’t think that would have been the case.
“It’s kind of like the old days. For sure, there’s not another place in the country where you’d be able to get in front of more people who are focused on that market.”