2007 Daytona Stunta Report
Story & Photos by: Jeremiah Knupp, MO Contributor - March 2007
Photos by Holly Marcus
We all know the type; baggy jeans and skater shoes, bandanas and race gloves; their bicep tattoos and piercings complimented by fresh scabs on their knees and elbows. Distinctive, even in a biking culture where you can guess a person's ride by looking at their outfit, these guys are pegged way before you see theirn motorcycle. It will be a sport bike. It will be modified with a 12 o'clock bar, smashed-in gas tank, hacked-off muffler and crash cage, the wild paint and fake fur covering the scars of repeated contact with the pavement.
Flashback to 1970. Outlaw bikers are Hollister, Harley choppers and Hell's Angels. You could meet the nicest people riding a Honda, but you don't run into anyone else on two wheels that you'd like to invite to dinner. Fast forward to the late 1990s. The rider on the flashy chopper rumbling beside you at the stoplight is probably an attorney who just traded his suit and tie for a set of leather chaps.
Nowadays, if you want to find motorcycling's outcasts, head to a deserted parking lot after dark. As riding Harleys became more mainstream, stunters became the new black sheep on motorcycles. To non-riders they're the hooligans who pull beside you in interstate traffic and give you a leer before standing on the footpegs and wheeling away into the distance. For those who own motorcycles they represent the worst that riding has to offer; using a bike's performance to break the law, risk life and limb and generally give two wheels a bad name. So how do you explain Christian Pfeiffer? The guy you see wheeling an F800S at a Daytona Bike Week exhibition, is not hanging on the fringes, he's officially sponsored by the straight-laced Bavarian Motorwerks. You would expect that a native-born German would be the one who's most surprised to see a spinning propeller logo on his scraped-up 12 o'clock bar. But to Pfeiffer, BMW's interest in his skills are a natural progression for the stunting scene.
"[The image of] European stunt riders is way ahead [of Americans], because we've always practiced off the street, at least in the safety of a parking lot," Pfeiffer said. "In the last two years [stunting has] become even more professional. We've gone from making a show to becoming a real sport." The welcoming of street stunters to the industry's table after years of being kept outside the house heralds a new approach in the business.
"Motorcycling is like fashion. It comes from the street," noted Laurence Kuykendall, Community and Communications manager for BMW North America. "It's not dictated by the manufacturers. The changes come from the riders."
In the 1990s we went through the whole Easy Rider cruiser phenomenon," he added. "But if you look around at events like Bike Week, most of the riders are over 50. The industry doesn't expect the cruiser fascination to last forever and everyone is looking for new blood, younger riders. It's imperative from a business point of view."
"BMW Motorcycles is a model of motorcycling reinvention."
In the mid-90s they began to update styling, technology and most of all, image. After their own experiment with the American cruiser market -- the R1200C -- wasn't as popular as hoped, the BMW marketing machine saw the future: Performance.
For years only a handful of stunt riders, like Craig Jones, Gary Rothwell and A.C. Farias could garner enough recognition to be full-time professionals. But changes within the stunt world itself are what is garnering the industry's attention. Where sponsored stunters were once merely showman, now they're professional athletes whose skills at lofting a wheel are used in competition. It's the image of competitive performance, as perfectly exhibited by Pfeiffer, that BMW hopes to latch on to.
"It's a change of direction for BMW," Kuykendall admitted. "We plan to keep doing what we do best, building touring bikes and keeping our loyalists. But BMW also has a history of competition and performance. It's part of our past and it will be part of our future."
In a performance driven world, who's a better corporate symbol than Christian Pfeiffer. The 37-year old from Halblech, Germany has been named both European and World Stunt Champion. Beyond the stunt world, he has competed as a trials rider and off-road racer, first winning the infamously torturous Erzberg Rodeo in 1996. Up-close he's the model of public relations. Nothing in his appearance conveys the image that Americans expect in a streetbike stunter. He's clean-cut and well-groomed, with no visible tattoos or piercings, his hard, analytical Teutonic eyes conveying the sense of maestro more than maniac.
"Christian works well with BMW because he's very classy," Kuykendall said. "But more than a performer, he's a genuine competitor. He's the best, objectively. BMW designs the perfect motorcycles to work in less than perfect conditions and Christian definitely uses our machines in less than perfect circumstances." Pfeiffer is just the leading edge of a marketing campaign that includes BMW's HP-series of motorcycles, along with entry into the Moto-ST series, enduro and motocross races and rumored flirtations with Moto-GP. In 2007, BMW will take a K1200S to the Bonneville Salt Flats with plans to push it over 200 miles an hour. Within years, they hope to claim the world land speed record. It's quite a change for a company that once limited their machines to 100 horsepower.
As Pfeiffer's Bike Week exhibition ended, the crowd lingered, the older, traditional BMW enthusiasts mixing with younger, more hip audience members, precisely the riders whose attention the company is vying for. There was much smiling, shaking hands, and procuring of autographed pictures. Everyone was happy to make the acquaintance of a stunter.
Fifteen miles south of Daytona Beach a different scene was unfolding. With the ragged Japanese sportbikes, the tattoos, the insane circle wheelies and speakers blasting Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dog, it was everything you'd expect at a freestyle stunt gathering. Except for one thing. All the wheelies, stoppies and rolling burnouts are taking place within the high fences and concrete barriers of the New Smyrna Speedway. Stunt Fury 2007 was a two-day event that doled out $7,000 in cash prizes. It's certainly not the first time somebody's organized a stunt competition, but this event is a first for Bike Week.
Stunt Fury was organized by Warped Toys, a 5,000 square foot Orlando motorcycle stunt and performance parts store owned by Brad Pugh. An ex-motocross racer turned stunter, Pugh has organized a team of seven riders who travel the country, demonstrating their skills at AMA races and bike rallies. Like BMW, Pugh knows that with a little image adjustment stunting can become a legitimate and viable business.
"Stunters have the image of being troublesome, reckless kids, and that's something we're trying to change," he said. "We make sure our riders are safe, competing off the streets and out of parking lots. We organize events that give riders a place to compete, set rules and have EMS personnel on hand."
Pugh's team is made up of professional athletes. A Warped Toys rider who is caught stunting on the street is kicked off the team. They train five days a week. Most make all or nearly all of their income from stunting.
But there's still a long way to go. The sparse crowd in the speedway stands barely outnumbers the crowd that pressed against the fence at Pfeiffer's downtown venue. At the track entrance by the state road, as a last-minute marketing ploy, a scantily-clad woman draws in a few more spectators with a hastily made sign that promises "Hot Girls, Beer, Stunts."
"It's not bad for a first time event, but of course we'd like to have more," Pugh said.
Even Pfeiffer acknowledges that it's a different climate for stunt riders in the U.S.
"The [image of] American riders has held them back and they've had difficulty finding sponsors," he said. "They have their crash cages and they throw their bikes down at the end of their routine. No manufacturer wants to showcase their motorcycles like that."
"In the world of motorcycles, stunt riders are the gunfighters."
But optimism is high. Warped Toys has secured the New Smyrna Speedway for freestyle stunt competitions during Bike Week and Biketoberfest for the next two years. Pugh sees the sport as continuing to expand rapidly and becoming more main stream. He plans to grow his team to a dozen members, finding stunters from across the country and even overseas to complement his riders and bring different skills into their routine. Pfeiffer also has high hopes for the sport he's the unofficial king of. He recently competed at and won the first international indoor stunt competition in Switzerland and he's involved in efforts to form an international sanctioning body, imperative to standardize the judging criteria of freestyle events. This year, he'll do a freestyle streetbike stunt demonstration at the X-games.
"The X-games would be the next big step," he said "That and a professional agency to govern the sport are what I wish for."
In the world of motorcycles, stunt riders are the gunfighters. Just like twirling an ivory handled Colt .45 doesn't help you clear leather faster, wheeling a motorcycle doesn't get you from point A to point B any quicker. It just shows a proficiency that comes from hours and hours spent with the tools of your trade, a proficiency that will command respect, if not acceptance. And like the gunslinger in an old western movie, the days of lawless street stunting are becoming a thing of the past. The only difference between stunters with a future and those whose days are numbered, is the ability to adapt when faced with change.
Sitting under a canopy in the New Smyrna Speedway infield near his pink and white ZX-6 sits a 25-year-old with spiked blond hair and facial piercings. Brash and cocky, he jokes with his buddies. Pfeiffer's name is mentioned with a sneer. But he won't back up his talk with actions at Stunt Fury. He's saving himself for a public performance later that evening for his latest sponsor, Kawasaki. That's right. The Big Four are making their foray into the stunt scene and Kane Friesen is their newest poster boy.
In many ways Friesen's career mirrors the progression of the freestyle street stunt world. Fascinated with sportbikes from his first ride, he quit his day job nearly three years ago in an attempt to make a living stunting as a professional. The road was not an easy one and Friesen quickly saw that the future of stunting was not on the street.
"There are so many riders who have paid with all the blood, bones, bikes, jail and impounds who finally said, `It's time to stop or to change. It's time to shape up or ship out," Friesen said. "We'd rather be using our skills at a safe spot than getting taken out by a car on the freeway."
A more professional and safer stunting scene got the motorcycling industry's attention.
"Guys have been doing this for over 10 years. I've been doing it for eight, but as far as Kawasaki is concerned, streetbike stunting is two months old," Friesen added. "In the last six months we've gone from nobodies, from the industry seeing us as `squids,' to becoming the superstars of bike nights. In 2002 we begged Arai to give us a helmet. Today, we can take our pick."
Beyond Kawasaki, Friesen also counts traditional road racing companies, like Lockhart-Phillips and Joe Rocket as his sponsors, businesses that are completely changing their marketing approaches to include stunters. A whole new world is opening up for Friesen, who behind his badboy appearance has the realistic business sense of a seasoned pro like Pfeiffer.
"At one time I thought sponsorship by a [motorcycle] manufacturer was like the `holy grail,' Friesen noted. "But now that I have that, I see that there are steps beyond. There are other things on the horizon that I am already working on."
With freestyle motorcross riders earning the support of companies like Toyota and Target, the prospects he alludes to are barely imaginable. But with eight lean years already dedicated to the stunting world, Friesen's front wheel may be in the clouds, but his rear is firmly planted on the asphalt.
"The stunting explosion is really a house of cards and the timing is very delicate," he noted. "It could be the next flatland BMX, but we're enjoying this while it lasts."
His final words were nearly drowned out by the scream of four-cylinder engines being thrashed around the New Smyrna Speedway, machines ridden by stunters who hope to be the next Kane Friesen, their outlaw skills securing a piece of the pie that may become motorcycling's next big thing.