Sept. 6, 2010 – Lessons from the road for the immediate road ahead

So we’re just east of Red Mesa, Ariz., on U.S. 160. The road sign says we are 42 miles from Shiprock, N.M., and Ron’s bike coughs. We both recognize it instantly, and he looks at me with a big “uh-oh” in his eyes. He reaches down and turns the petcock to reserve, and we know we are in trouble. He’s got about 32 miles at best in reserve. My bike will be next, and I might have 30 miles in the bottom of my tank. There’s nothing back in Red Mesa, and nothing between here and Shiprock. We are going to be 10 miles short, but if we act fast, we might have a chance.
Without a word, we both cut our speed to 38 mph and duck down — heads beneath the windstream, elbows and knees in tight. Ron moves ahead of me, I fall in behind and I can feel the wind decrease as it flows around the two of us in one motion rather than each of us bucking it separately. We’ll switch places in 5 minutes.
We both note at the same time that the pavement is smoother in the left wheeltrack, so we drift that way and hear the change in road noise as the tires find the smoother surface. Tachs are down under 2 grand, and the engines are barely pushing as we maintain the 38 mph in 5th gear.
A few minutes go by. Suddenly, there is a downhill grade and both of us slip into neutral and cut the engines. It’s about a 4 percent downhill, and we roll in the quiet for a good minute. Then, we see the 18-wheeler up ahead. He’s moving faster than us, and it will cost us gas to catch him, but it will be worth it. The engines come on, we gradually increase speed and finally fall in behind the big rig. The draft is now pulling us forward, and we back off the throttles.
Ron reaches down and I see him check his choke, making sure that it is full open. I do the same, find that it is just the slightest bit closed, and I push it to full open. Can’t have a rich mixture eating up the precious fuel I have left. First gas is in Shiprock, now 30 miles away. The chance of snagging a passing pickup with gas cans looks slim at best. We’ve got to stretch it out.
The truck driver seems to get what is happening. He knows we are tail-gating, but he hasn’t flashed his brake lights yet to warn us off. The two of us, Ron and I, are riding parallel now, and Ron yells over that maybe the trucker is a rider too, and he’s going to let us have the draft. I’m hoping I topped off the tank back in Moab, because now I’m on reserve too.
It’s tight, but we make it. The trucker’s got a big grin as he waves us off at the gas station in Shiprock. He knew all along exactly what we were doing. And he knew that without his draft, we would be back there sweating it out, 10 miles short of this gas pump on the edge of town.
Dinner that night is in Bloomfield with Ron’s brother David and his wife Gail. We laugh at how close we came to getting stuck, and how knowing just a few tricks made the difference. Fried chicken and fresh corn never tasted so good.
Knowing what to do to stretch that gas made the difference for me and my riding pal Ron on those two Goldwings so many years ago. My numbers show this recession thing started in July of 2008, and we have lost 42 percentage points of market since then in two major dips. It has settled in, for now, at
58 percent of 2006. Nobody knows where this is headed. But what we do know is that it’s going to take all the tricks you have ever learned to get you through this coming winter. There is no primer on how to stretch gas. And there is no guidebook on how to survive prolonged hard times in the motorcycle business.
But you’ve learned a few things over the years, so let me just remind you. Watch the trades. They eat up cash. Make sure you can turn them fast, or floor them if you can’t. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, but start selling down the accessories on the floor, and cut the parts orders to a minimum. Make sure you have the tune-up stuff on hand, but keep the shelf items to a minimum. Don’t let the reps sell you a thing without a hard review by more than one person. The reps want your dollars just as much as you do.
Hammer checks, run contracts, pound AR. Don’t try to play the float, because there is no float. Pay your people, your flooring and your taxes first. You come last. Everything else is in between.
Keep your name out there, but do it in ways that don’t cost. Freshen up your Web site, get big in community events and keep your bikes in the public eye. Were you in your town’s 4th of July parade? What is your plan for Labor Day? A big sale? A customer appreciation ride? Demos at the lake?
There are ways to do things. And we are up against it, just like Ron and I were on those Goldwings rolling across the Arizona desert nearing empty. We had to reach deep, gut it out and use everything we had ever learned. Plus a little more.
We did. And you can too.
Good ridin’. PSB
Hal Ethington has been associated with the powersports industry for more than 30 years. Ethington is a senior analyst at ADP Lightspeed. He can be reached at

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