Cobra Motorcycles president Sean Hilier was on the Rush Limbaugh program yesterday, to discuss the notorious Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) and its devastating effect on his company.

I didn’t hear the show but you can read the transcript here. According to Hillier, Cobra employs fewer than 50 people, but there are about 100 companies around the country that depend on Cobra for business (probably contractors for the manufacturing of various parts.)

Hillier also noted that when similar, game-changing legislation hit the auto industry back in the 1980s the industry had years to react and re-engineer. The CPSIA was passed in August of 2008 and put into law six months later. With catastrophic effects.

This is not the last we have heard about this law. This is another fine example of people who don’t know what their doing, passing a law on a topic they don’t know anything about, with absolutely no consideration for its consequences. This is what happens when government “works”.

arai-xd3motardsilI’ve just returned from my pilgrimage to Indianapolis and the annual Powersports Dealer Expo. There was a lot going on there this year, despite the economy. The biggest news was the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, a law that went into effect last week and summarily killed about 20% of the motorcycle industry in one fell swoop. But I’ll talk about that later.

This post is about helmets and what I learned at the show. The older I get the more interested I am in survival and safety technology. With the recent death of FMX star Jeremy Lusk from a head injury, helmets were high on my list this year. So I made it a point to spend time at the booths of as many major helmet manufacturers as I could — Bell, Shoei, Arai, HJC, and AGV.

These were just a few of the helmets on display. Every major vendor of apparel had at least one rack of helmets, and there were even a few new brands I never heard of before. Mike Metzger, the “godfather” of FMX, was at the show pushing his new line of Kali helmets and apparel.

Here’s a basic rule of thumb — style, color, and trendy design are not the most important consideration when looking for a helmet. Neither is ventilation or how many visor/shield configurations you offer. In my mind, neither is the margin offered to the dealer. But those seemed to be the only things anyone wanted to talk about. Except for Arai.

When I stepped into the Arai booth I was greeted with a wall covered in raw shell castings, cut-away shells, cut-away helmets showing various EPS liner configurations, and a bevy of crash-damaged helmets. I asked the first person I saw to tell me about Arai helmets and what made them different. (This was the first question I asked in every booth.) Immediately the salesman walked me over to the wall and began pointing out the raw fiberglass shell and talking about how helmet technology has evolved.

The salesman was an older gentleman, and in the course of his conversation he mentioned that his son had worked for Arai for 23 years. He took the older, single-layer fiberglass helmet casting (typical of 1980s-era helmets,) placed it on its side on the floor, and stood on it bouncing up and down. Then he explained, using photos and graphics on the wall, the 27–step process Arai uses to hand mold every modern, multi-layer Arai shell and explained the function of the various materials

He showed me the unique, dual-density, one-piece EPS liner that all Arai helmets use. He showed me the emergency cheek pad removal system. Then he began showing me the crash-tested helmets on display.

He noted that every rider had walked away without significant head injury. Some of the helmets were not just damaged, but destroyed. That the rider had survived was astonishing. But the helmet did its job.

After his demonstration I walked over to the shelf of new helmets and found a new XD3 Supermoto/Adventure helmet. I love this helmet — the look, the feel, the fit, the balance. Even though it is noticeably heavier in your hand than a Bell Moto8 or the more-comparable Shoei Hornet-DS, it doesn’t feel heavier on your head. There’s no top-heaviness at all.

As soon as I put the helmet down another salesman walked over and began asking me questions. He also started explaining the differences in Arai construction and pointing out features and considerations that the first gentleman had not gotten to.

In fact, everyone in the Arai booth appeared to be extremely knowledgeable about their product. Moreso than any other helmet vendor I visited. I had a similar, but not quite as thorough, experience last year when I talked with the marketing director at Bell. But everyone else, not so much. They pretty much wanted to show me the new graphics, the new vents, or talk about the margins I make as a dealer. I know that’s important, but it’s not what I asked about.

The AGV rep did talk briefly about the industry-wide discussion over whether Snell is the right standard, and whether Arai helmets are, in fact, too stiff. He mentioned that there was actually a Snell meeting at the show to discuss some of these issues. The AGV helmets are noticeably less stiff than an Arai.

There is a legitimate argument about how to rate and construct helmets, and there is real concern that Snell may not be the right standard. There is significant industry debate over this issue, with competing standards in the US, Europe, and the UK. I wrote about this last year.

In that article I noted that, in an informal survey of several riders, there was general agreement that a $250 helmet was probably 2x better than a $100 helmet, but there was doubt that a $500 helmet was actually 2x better still.

I still don’t know the answer, but I do know this — the Arai folks are fanatical about helmets, and it’s very hard to argue against a company that is so committed to protecting your head. They are not making a fashion statement. They are not bowing to trends and fads if it compromises what they believe a helmet should be. They are 100% dedicated to making the very best helmet they know how to make. And this passion shows in everyone in the company.

I might still say the Bell Moto8 is my favorite off-road helmet, but I’m not sure. I know I love the Arai XD3 and will replace my current street helmet as soon as I can.

lusk-kod-240By now everyone in the dirt bike world knows of the unfortunate death of FMX star Jeremy Lusk. I never met Jeremy but, by all accounts, he was a good guy. He was certainly talented, and the outpouring of public sentiment following his accident is a tribute to his character. It was so great the family is actually providing a live webcast of his memorial service.

What I want to say is that I do not mourn for Jeremy Lusk. Jeremy was an adrenaline junkie. I believe he knew he was risking his life every time he performed. I believe that’s why he did it. He lived for the thrill of cheating death, of doing something few, maybe no one else, would try. And I believe he knew there was always a risk of ending up on the losing side of the equation.

Some will say that racers are the same, but they are not. The difference may be small, and one of degree rather than kind, but it is different. Racers are not explicitly cheating death. They are competing with the track, with their fellow racers, and with themselves. But their challenges come in increments of 100ths of a second as they shave time off lap after lap.

No racer gets into racing with the idea of cheating death. It’s something else that drives them. For this reason I think it’s unfortunate that MX/SX have been packaged and sold as “extreme” sports. FMX riders, and extreme athletes of all kinds, are farther out on the ragged edge, looking for the biggest thrill they can find and willing to accept the consequences of their actions.

FMX riders will ride when no one is watching. They don’t do it for the money, the glory, or anything except the raw thrill of pulling a big stunt and surviving. Day after day, they charge head-first into far more risk than most of us — even racers — would ever knowingly accept. That’s what makes them special.

After base jumping and parachuting, FMX (and other motorized extreme stunting) is probably the most dangerous activity you can pursue. The real tragedy of Jeremy’s death is that it wasn’t a big stunt that killed him. It wasn’t some new, untried trick. It was a trick he had done a hundred times or more. Something he had landed, and even crashed, and survived over and over.

Maybe he was a little tired, or jet-lagged, or just off a bit. Maybe he even knew it, and pushed on anyway. Or maybe it was situational — the surface, the weather, or something else. Whatever it was, it caused enough of a slip to create a crash from which he would never wake up.

The top FMX riders cheat death with a style and grace that defies imagination. They live life in a fast lane that is so far past the normal spectrum most of us can’t even see it. Some people call them crazy, and a few actually are. Some will say they have a death wish. But I think they have an insatiable life wish. I think they want to see and feel and live at the very edge of existence.

Jeremy took one too many chances. He pushed one step too far on a night when he just wasn’t quite up to the challenge. We should mourn his loss because it has extinguished a flame that could light the way for all of us, showing us a fearlessness that can serve us all in our daily lives.

But we should not mourn Jeremy Lusk. We should celebrate his life, and let him live on in the ideals he so embodied. The thirst for life, the drive for going farther, the willingness to do whatever it took to reach his goals. While we may not want to emulate his actions, we would do well to emulate his spirit.

God speed, Jeremy (11/26/1984 to 2/9/2009.)

stewI like James Stewart. Over the past couple of years he has grown as a racer and as a champion. He’s taken on the role of ambassador for the sport, he’s a solid role model for kids entering the sport, and he’s pretty much the epitome of the clean-cut athlete.

I don’t know if he’s “better” than RC or MC, I don’t know if he’s the best there ever was, and I don’t know that such things can ever be determined to any real satisfaction. But he’s really, really good. He’s an innovator, he’s a technician, he’s extraordinarily gifted, incredibly focused and talented, and he’s a fearless competitor. The guy is nothing short of a phenomenon.

The sport needs him. We all need him to stay around a long time. Stewart is a star that can transcend the sport. He’s not quite on par with Tiger Woods, but he’s close in his presence and ability to be a good interview. That he is a black athlete with poise and class that stands in stark contrast to the thug freak shows like Dennis Rodman, Carmello Anthony, and Adam “Pacman” Jones is just a bonus.

Stewart has opened an entirely new group to the fanbase for MX/SX. He has the potential to push the sport forward in ways we haven’t seen before. Almost no one talks about Stewart’s race, but it’s an important part of why he matters so much.

Every school teacher in America knows who Tiger Woods is — even if they’ve never held a golf club in their life. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if every school teacher knew who James Stewart is? There are differences between the media exposure level of golf and MX for sure, but Stewart is the only one who can push our sport across that gap. Unlike any other racer in history, Stewart can become a broad-based cultural icon (if he accepts that role) and can carry MX with him. But to do so, he has to stay around long enough for it to happen. And that’s why he needs to lose.

If Stewart keeps walking off with runaway victories at every race he enters, many times with no significant challenger after the first 1-2 laps, he’s going to leave. And sooner rather than later. Challenge is what keeps competitors on top, it’s what keeps them motivated, it’s what makes them willing to put in the work and the training and keep the disciplined routines that winning requires.

In this Larry Brooks-authored piece in Motocross Action, Brooks says that winning never gets old. It’s an interesting piece, and worth reading. I agree with Brooks. I just believe that Stewart will go on to win somewhere else.

When the challenge goes, the competitor goes with it — on to a newer, bigger challenge that can test their mettle and give them new goals. If Stewart walks away with 10 more wins in SX this season he will be extremely happy, and he will be gracious.

I bet he will also be thinking about what he can do next. It’s clear he’s already thinking about it. I also bet he will have no shortage of offers and opportunities. Car racing (wherever it may be) is a darn site easier than MX/SX. You don’t have to spend every day in the car, doing lap after lap. You don’t have to cycle 100 miles per week. You don’t have to train at the same level all the time. Sure, you need some fitness and the bar has come up a lot in the past 10-15 years. But it’s not MX/SX and everyone knows it.

So I’m rooting for Chad Reed. I’m rooting for Ryan Villopoto to get through his freshman foibles as quickly as possible. I’m rooting for Grant and Millsaps and Ferry. I’m rooting for all of them to find what it takes to give Stewart a meaningful challenge.

It’s not easy. MX/SX is 80% man, 20% machine. The challenge for everyone else is that Stewart is 80% machine. But if you want to keep him around you better root for the other guys too. Not because you don’t like James Stewart, but because you do.