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AGV Backmarker: North Pole Rumor


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Chris Carter with a '60s-vintage Matchless-the very one that he rode as a youngster, back when Sammy Miller was promoting trials riding and it briefly threatened to become a significant branch of motorcycle sport in North America.
-originally posted on December 11, 2008 on the Road Racer X website.

I presume that Santa Claus still makes most of his presents in-house, up at the North Pole. But I've heard that the elf union's labor costs and the expense of providing retirement health care are forcing Santa to outsource some of his manufacturing.

Few motorcycle race mechanics have been good boys-it seems Santa got quite a few reports from Siebkens' tavern after the last Elkhart Lake round-so the provision of their gifts is no longer considered to be part of Santa's core business. As such, mechanics' gifts are to be outsourced. I'm guessing that Santa will go to the same source mechanics themselves use: Motion Pro.

The company is already familiar to every American motorcycle racer. That makes sense, as it was started by a racer named Chris Carter. Over the last twenty-five years, his business has outgrown two or three warehouses, and his catalog has grown from a hundred replacement cables to a diverse selection of specialty tools, ranging from clever trinkets like a magnetic fingertip to what might be the most accurate-and expensive-tire gauge on the market. Through all that, Carter has stayed true to his motorcycling roots.

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Chris Carter with a '60s-vintage Matchless-the very one that he rode as a youngster, back when Sammy Miller was promoting trials riding and it briefly threatened to become a significant branch of motorcycle sport in North America.

The current Motion Pro warehouse also houses dozens of motorcycles that make up Chris' personal collection. There's an ultra-rare Honda NS750 flat tracker from the early '80s that's worthy of an entire column in itself. That bike, cobbled together out of the plebian shaft-drive CX500 street bike, was a rare Honda factory flop. Honda learned its lesson and reverse-engineered a Harley-Davidson XR750 flat tracker to make the RS750 racer that Bubba Shobert, Ricky Graham, and others used to dominate the Grand National Championship through the mid-'80s. Carter owns not one, but two of those. As cool as they are, he's just as interested in his 1915 Harley. He's in this business because he loves motorcycles, not because he loves money. That's good for our sport; last season, Motion Pro sponsored over 250 racers and race teams, a sponsorship budget that runs well into six figures' worth of tools and cash. It represents a heck of a percentage of revenues.

Carter grew up in Menlo Park, back in the days when kids still rode dirt bikes in the open spaces between subdivisions in California. One of those impromptu "tracks" was near his house, and he pedaled his Sting-Ray bicycle out there and watched kids riding Hodakas and Bonanza minibikes with Briggs & Stratton lawnmower motors. That inspired him to save money from his paper route and buy a Yamaha Twin-Jet, then a Honda 305 scrambler. He had a friend with a big back yard, where they laid out a little oval track under the oak trees. "On that little track, no more than an eighth of a mile," he recalls, "I put 462 miles on that thing."

The 305 was replaced by a Greeves scrambler, then a Bultaco when Carter got a job at Ray Abrams' legendary A&A shop-a racing hotbed. In the late '60s, Sammy Miller was actively promoting trials riding, and Chris caught that bug for a while. Then he moved into scrambles just as it was evolving into motocross here in the U.S.

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Chris Carter with a '60s-vintage Matchless-the very one that he rode as a youngster, back when Sammy Miller was promoting trials riding and it briefly threatened to become a significant branch of motorcycle sport in North America.

A&A had a great relationship with Yamaha, and Chris got one of the first Yamaha motocrossers. "Around that time, Edison Dye, who was the Husqvarna importer, started bringing some of the top European riders-guys like Torsten Hallman and Joel Robert-to the U.S.," Chris says. "I was riding in the support class, [at those Inter-Am races] and watching them, hoping to some day ride at that level. I really got the bug then, before we had an outdoor national [MX] series."

In the early years of the AMA motocross championship, Chris traveled and raced with Gary Jones. But watching riders like Jones and Brad Lackey, he realized that he wasn't destined for motocross stardom. He made a switch to enduros, riding events in Northern California. In the mid-'70s, Chris was a development rider for Yamaha, helping them to convert their motocrossers into the IT-series enduro bikes. He took a prototype IT to the Isle of Man for the 1975 International Six Day Trial, where it was the only Japanese bike to make the finish. "It was pretty cool," he says. "The last day's special test was six miles of the TT course."

The next year, Yamaha fielded a larger ISDT team on the first production ITs. The event was in Austria. Chris won the final special stage (a grass-track motocross) and returned from Europe with a gold medal. At that time, Chris was working for Rocky Cycle (now Tucker Rocky) doing R&D and developing new products. Gradually, as such things have a wont to do, his work displaced his ISDT racing (which, with qualifying, training and preparation, was almost a year-round job in itself).

In the mid-'80s, Chris saw an opportunity. Motorcycle sales had boomed through the '70s and there was a lot of rolling stock out there that was aging enough to need replacement cables. Manufacturers issued new part numbers for cables on new models, even though those cables were functionally identical to existing part numbers. That created a situation in which dealers and distributors had to try to stock hundreds or even thousands of part numbers, when a much-smaller number of cables would have served all their customer needs-if only someone could make sense of the morass of part numbers.

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Chris Carter with a '60s-vintage Matchless-the very one that he rode as a youngster, back when Sammy Miller was promoting trials riding and it briefly threatened to become a significant branch of motorcycle sport in North America.

At the same time, he was approached by a Taiwanese company that had been making cables for its domestic market, and which wanted to expand into the U.S. "It had taken the Japanese companies a long time to get their quality where it was, and most of the Taiwanese production was still lagging," he says. "But this company had new Japanese tooling, and their quality was good. I turned them down, since I'd been with Rocky ten years and was happy there. But then I thought, I'm thirty-three years old, if I'm ever going to start my own business, now's the time."

Chris went back to the Taiwanese and struck a deal to be their only U.S. distributor, and Motion Pro was born. He went to work, laying out all the cables and seeing which ones were interchangeable. The champion? One speedometer cable could be used for sixty-two (!!) different Honda part numbers.

Motion Pro started with about 100 part numbers that applied to a thousand or more popular replacement cables. Chris also eliminated minimum order-quantities. Nowadays, you'd call it a just-in-time, customer-driven solution. Back then, it was just a breath of fresh air.

About six years into that, Chris bought Mike Akatiff's motorcycle-specialty-tool business, when Akatiff decided to concentrate on his growing avionics business. (Akatiff was a good rider but was too big and burly to have much racing success himself. He became the apprentice for legendary tuner Tom Sifton. He started tuning for some top Grand National racers like Jim Rice. Although he ended up in the aircraft electronics business, he's kept a hand in the world of motorcycles. His Ack Attack streamliner, piloted by Rocky Robinson, just set the outright motorcycle land speed record.)

The acquisition of that part of Akatiff's operation put Motion Pro in the tool business. Nowadays, Motion Pro develops its own tools-both tools for independent mechanics and specialized "factory tools" for OEMs. A lot of that R&D is done in-house, but the company also licenses inventions from all kinds of independent tuners, mechanics, and inventors. So, if you've built a great widget for holding the springs down on frammle valves when you're replacing those hard-to-reach fedner rods on your Swagmaster 2000, you should give Chris Carter a call. There could be a few bucks in it for you.

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Chris Carter with a '60s-vintage Matchless-the very one that he rode as a youngster, back when Sammy Miller was promoting trials riding and it briefly threatened to become a significant branch of motorcycle sport in North America.

The first office was about 1,500 square feet. "We moved from that into a 4,000 foot space," Chris says, "and we thought, We'll never outgrow this. Then we moved into a 13,000 foot space that we were really sure we'd never outgrow; in fact, we had minibike races in it!"

Now, they're in 40,000 square feet. "I've always been a junk collector," says Chris about his personal collection of about fifty vintage motorcycles. "Every time I move to a bigger warehouse, I have a little more space and buy a few more bikes." Although, as you'd expect, his acquisitions are skewed toward enduro and MX bikes, he's got an impressive collection of vintage dirt track stuff, and several sweet old Harleys, including sidecar rigs.

The back of the warehouse contains a nice restoration shop, which always has a few projects on the go. There's a loft that's a cross between an impromptu museum and a clubhouse, with an old sofa and coffee table, and walls covered with vintage posters and photos.

In 2009, Motion Pro will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary-recession or not. "I actually started the company at a slow time in the motorcycle business," Chris recalls. "In the early '80s, the manufacturers had a lot of bikes that they had to carry over. But when you're starting a business, you don't think of things like that, you just go and do it."

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Chris Carter with a '60s-vintage Matchless-the very one that he rode as a youngster, back when Sammy Miller was promoting trials riding and it briefly threatened to become a significant branch of motorcycle sport in North America.

It's possible that the recession won't hit Motion Pro that hard anyway. If more people decide to keep old bikes running, rather than just replace them-or if more people decide to work on their own bikes-the business should prove more recession-proof than most.

Since few AGV Backmarker readers are on Santa's list of good boys and girls anyway, there's a good chance that if you're reading this, you should not count on much from the Elf-in-Chief. To ensure you have something under the tree in two weeks, you might want to forward your friends and family a few links to the Motion Pro website. One of the cool things about the site is, although it looks like a conventional e-commerce site, your purchase is actually directed to the nearest dealer who stocks the part or tool you want. So end users get the parts and tools they need quickly, but the system doesn't cannibalize sales by the company's established distributors and dealers.

Building that loyal network of dealers is a key part of Chris' business plan. One of the ways it pays off is by insulating Motion Pro from knock-off artists. Whether you patent new tools or not, there's little that can be done to prevent cheap copies from hitting the market. Ideally, dealers will flat refuse to stock inferior knock-offs; at the very least, they'll help explain that look-alike tools don't necessarily work-alike or last-alike, and they're definitely not backed alike.

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Chris Carter with a '60s-vintage Matchless-the very one that he rode as a youngster, back when Sammy Miller was promoting trials riding and it briefly threatened to become a significant branch of motorcycle sport in North America.

Few motorcycle racers actually emerge from their racing "careers" having made money. So it's nice to see ex-racers use the sport to open doors and build great careers after they hang up their helmets. Chris Carter did that with Motion Pro, and he's continued to build visibility for his products by sponsoring racers. One of the things I love about his approach is that he doesn't only lavish sponsorship on huge, well-funded teams that can afford to buy all the tools they need; he sponsors lots of grassroots racers.

Way to go. And grow.


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