March 13, 2006 – Easing to the starting line

While ATVs continue to gain in performance, many major manufacturers still shy away from using the “r” words — “race ready” — to describe their machines. Whether this represents a new niche within the ATV segment remains open to debate.
Even after the 1998 expiration of a 10-year consent decree with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which stopped production of three-wheel models, mandated large warning stickers on ATVs and required dealers to offer training incentives, manufacturers remain reluctant to openly tout the high-performance features of their most-powerful machines, which can be raced with few or no modifications.
Suzuki has broken that taboo with the recent introduction of the QuadRacer LT-R450, billed in product information as “not only race-ready, it’s also designed to shatter the myth that high performance has to be high priced.”
The company’s entry in the high-performance ATV market follows the introduction more than two years ago of the Yamaha YFZ440 and 450 models and the Honda TRX450R six months later. Polaris has the Predator 500.
Cannondale offered a race-ready ATV for two years before filing for bankruptcy in 2003, says Doug Morris, director of the All-Terrain Vehicle Association, based in Pickerington, Ohio.
“They turned the lights off on us,” Morris says of manufacturers, “but we’re still racing.”
The Yamaha and Honda models aren’t as wide as the Suzuki ATV, but Morris says that each of these models is ready for the racing circuit.
Honda’s top sellers among ATVs remain utility models with racks and automatic transmissions in either 350cc or 400cc, says Ray Conway, off-road product coordinator. “(High-performance models are) an important piece of business that we’ll continue to pursue, but I don’t see it gaining on the No. 1 seller anytime soon.”
Conway stresses that Honda has no factory ATV race teams, but that the company provides monetary incentives and support parts to select racers.
Based on the inventory mix on the showroom floor at Alba Action Sports, one would be hard-pressed to think the move toward high-performance wasn’t anything but a strong trend.
“Out of the 200 quads we have on the floor, only four or five are utility ATVs,” says Chris Conrady, marketing manager at the San Diego-based retailer. “While it’s definitely true that manufacturers toned back (in the wake of the ’88 CPSC consent decree), they’re tip-toeing back into the arena.”
Rod Lopusnak, ATV operations manager for Suzuki, says the QuadRacer LT-R450 fills an important niche. “Over the last five years, manufacturers have been building products that are closer and closer to race ready,” Lopusnak says. “Suzuki has taken a giant step to give consumers what they want.”
Steve Nessl, Yamaha ATV and side-by-side vehicle manager, says the YFZ450 is being marketed to “the competitive enthusiast.”
“Liability is definitely a concern and is at the front of our minds,” Nessl says, “but the industry has done a good job letting buyers know how these machines should be used.”
He notes the average ATV buyer is influenced by what he sees on the sport circuit, which explains the growing popularity of high-performance machines. Still, he says those buyers represent a small part of the overall market.
“Racers help elevate the status of machines … to help get the message out and set trends,” Nessl says.
That message certainly is reaching customers at Alba Action Sports. Conrady admits his market may be unusual, and the retailer does have its own race team, but the average buyer returns a few months after buying an ATV to customize it further for his needs. The former ATV racer terms the current products “pretty good for most riders.”
“Manufacturers are now duking it out (in the high-performance segment),” he says, “and for consumers, it’s great because it forces everyone to step up.” psb

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