There is a very disturbing letter in the upcoming (November 26, 2008, Issue #47) edition of Cycle News from AMA member Jerry Fouts. Jerry is the ATV Congressman for District 36 and attended the 2008 Congress.

I have long wondered just how effective the AMA Congress really is at effecting change in the organization. Here’s what I wrote in August of last year:

  1. Can ~5% of the financial power of the motorcycle industry exert any meaningful economic influence over the other 95%?
  2. Can ~5% of the financial power in the motorcycle industry exert any significant bargaining power politically, economically, or socially?
  3. When the AMA must decide whether or not to take an action that will benefit rider-members but will significantly anger the 6-member motorcycle oligopoly – who control $150 billion of capital and 80%-90% of the market – will the rider-members prevail?

If you answer yes to any of those questions you live in a very different, and vastly more naive, world than I do. Like it or not it’s all about the money. The AMA cannot represent the riders and the motorcycle industry at the same time because we, the riders, are not equal to the industry. Our interests and needs are not going to align perfectly with the industry. And we are stupid if we think our paltry membership (250,000 members is about $10 million in dues) is going to get us equal footing in a conflict.

Fouts’ letter specifically addresses the sale (or transfer) of western region AMA Hare Scrambles racing to WORCS, and the summary dismissal of the many hard-working Districts that have put on events for years (in some cases for decades.) His issue is more the secretive, unilateral way the transfer was handled than with the transfer itself, although he has some fairly strong criticism of the transfer’s consequences.

As Fouts states, AMA President Dingman is intent on taking the AMA from a club-based entity to a big-time corporation. This is a natural consequence of the AMA’s nature as a servant of the motorcycle industry.

You see, it takes the big to serve the big. This is an unalterable rule of oligopolies. Fouts notes that the Districts have historically delivered the majority of AMA members. This is probably true, but they have not delivered enough. The Districts have delivered the enthusiast member, the member who joins AMA to race, specifically offroad racing.

In 2006 off-road motorcycle sales accounted for only 25% of total motorcycle unit sales. As dirt bikes usually sell for less than street bikes, we can assume they account for even less than 25% of total revenues. Add to that the sale of offroad bikes continues to decline and we can see that there are not a lot of net new members to be brought into the AMA fold through this channel.

This makes the offroad market quite a bit less important in a long-term growth strategy for the AMA. This view is consistent with the AMA’s past history. Fouts notes that, while the AMA joins in on land use issues, it is the Districts that carry the banner forward and do all the hard work. Other organizations, such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition, actually do most of the heavy lifting on offroad issues at the national level.

Dingman has made it clear that he wants the AMA to become like AAA — a national corporation that serves millions of drivers, not racers. He’s also made it clear that professional racing in any form is not a part of the AMA’s future. Fouts’ interpretation of the AMA’s most recent action is that Dingman also has little regard for the current Districts’ role.

Taken at face value, this means that we, as offroad riders, will be left with little if any meaningful representation in the AMA. Over time the organization will grow more and more to suit the greater majority of street riders. We will be fed the company line from the motorcycle oligopoly regarding what is and is not important to dirt riders. Whatever they want us to know, we will know. What they don’t, we’ll have to find out on our own.

Professional racing has been handed to NASCAR, with all the consequences (both good and bad) that entails. Professional racing is a business endeavor. There is little we can do to affect that. But offroad riding is a passion, and one that deserves protection.

The AMA has long ignored this subset of the motorcycle community. It seems that now this stance is being codified into the corporate structure of the organization. So where does that leave us?

There is no real equivalent to the SCCA for offroad riders. What organizations exist are fractionalized and often work poorly together. Our political representation is weak, and likely to grow weaker as the AMA de-emphasizes offroad riding.

This is a problem we will have to solve ourselves, and doing that will not be easy. We are not a cooperative group. We are highly individualistic and prone to going off to do it our own way rather than sacrifice some of our personal desires in order to further the greater good of a group. But we will have to get past this if we are to survive.

We will have to find it in ourselves to quiet our more outspoken tendencies and learn to work with offroad riders of all persuasions. We need a new organization that can effectively represent all offroad riders, without the industry baggage and politics that have always plagued the AMA.

I don’t know if this is possible. The motorcycle oligopoly rules the market with an iron fist, and too many riders are all too happy to do whatever the oligopoly wants as long as they get a little eye candy every year with bold new graphics. But it’s imperative for our survival. Will someone step up with a compelling vision of what a new, national, offroad riders group should look like?