2021 International Motorcycle Show at Sonoma Raceway

Gabe Ets-Hokin
by Gabe Ets-Hokin

Outdoor, racetrack setting makes demo rides king

Despite gloomy reports of a new surge of COVID-19 cases, you can’t shake the feeling that America’s vast and ravenous economy is roaring back to full-tilt boogie. And Northern California’s motorcycle community had a coming-out party of sorts with the Progressive International Motorcycle Show (IMS) at Sonoma Raceway. The show marked the return of the IMS to Northern California after a six-year absence and everyone I talked to involved in the show – attendees and exhibitors alike – seemed to agree with me when I said the show seemed to have a new energy that made me feel a wee glimmer of hope for the future of motorcycling in the USA.

Sonoma Raceway’s pit area had plenty of room for a reduced-scale show. Photo by Alan Lapp

This year’s show, held in the pit areas of Northern California’s star raceway, was compact compared to the giant exhibit halls I remember from decades past, but it had everything you needed – with a few exceptions. Leather-clad Christian bikers checking your gear? Yes. Earplug and anti-fog goop vendors? Of course. Vintage and custom bike show? Check. Live bands, booze, and (pricey) food? Si, si, and si. Demo rides? Oh, yes.

But no Triumph, BMW, Ducati, or Honda factory involvement, showing there’s still doubt about the efficacy of showing your products this way. In general, the list of vendors was shorter than I remember from 10 or 15 years ago, contributing to the event’s smaller, more intimate nature.

For new riders, the reduced size isn’t an issue – they didn’t go to the plus-sized events of decades past. It’s a “great time to be out here on all these bikes,” 23-year old Kevin Pearson told me. He just got his first bike – a Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 – last Halloween and is in that happy time of a rider’s career where he’s soaking up moto-information like a sponge. The IMS provides tons of it at once, allowing Pearson to try on helmets and riding gear, learn about new rider groups and riding activities, and test-ride the bike’s he’s been reading about, all in one weekend. He rode an electric motorcycle for the first time as well as numerous other bikes.

Kevin Pearson represents a lot of the new riders I met at the show. He rides a Husqvarna Vitpilen, even though he “was in love with the retro aspects of motorcycles.”

The demo rides dominated the event. Sonoma’s pit area isn’t that big – maybe a few football fields in size – so the constant coming and goings of demo riders, both in groups and self-guided soloists, was hard to not notice. I rode the Livewire and the Indian FTR in less than 40 minutes, but there was too much wait time for the Pan America. Also, I didn’t want to go on the longer-duration guided rides offered by KTM, Zero, Royal Enfield, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki. That would have taken all weekend, even though the sign-in processes were well-run and efficient and there usually wasn’t a long wait for bikes.

No lines for test rides means there just weren’t huge crowds. I went Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, but I heard it was much busier Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, with the large motorcycle-parking area filling up enough to force some attendees to park in the auto parking atop the hill overlooking the pits (there was shuttle service for us non-walkers). As of press time, the IMS folks have yet to produce attendance figures, but they’re likely a far cry from the good times of 15-20 years ago and dismally less than the modest numbers of 28,000 attendees the IMS reported at the last San Mateo show in 2014.

Demo rides dominated the event. Photo: Progressive IMS Outdoors/Manny Pandya Photography

One of those people coming back from the boom years was 41-year-old Reed Idlewild. Sort of a re-entry rider, Reed’s been riding for 20 years but has been more of a commuting rider for the last eight years. However, when his wife’s bike was wrecked and he started considering getting a new bike for himself, he thought, “do I want to keep doing this…and I said f–k yeah I do!” Interest re-kindled, he arrived at the show “at 8:30 and I’ve been demo riding all day.” He appreciated how the demo rides were right in the middle of the show, so you didn’t have to shuttle back and forth from the crowded, noisy convention halls to the demo ride areas. “I’m sad some of the other manufacturers aren’t here,” he continued. “It’s smaller but I’m having a great time.”

Another key demographic doesn’t ride at all – but wants to. For example, 34-year-old Jackie S. has always wanted to ride: “It’s always been a childhood dream, but because of my family and profession, I’ve put it on the back burner” until now. She came down to Sonoma to check out the new Yamaha R7 and Kawasaki Ninja 650 at the prompting of family friend Nicole, who was gifted a used Yamaha YZF-R6. Both women are signed up to take the CMSP class shortly, and both were giddy with the fun and excitement of the people and products at the show. “This is awesome. Coming in here was like, OMG, yeah! Watching all kinds of people from all over and all the different bikes…it’s like food, the way it brings people together.”

Attendance was light both times the author visited the event. The ironically titled sign is at the halfway point of the motorcycle parking, which was less than 1/4th full on Sunday morning. Photo by Alan Lapp

Packed demo rides (several sources reported they were booked all weekend) make for happy OEMs and happy attendees, but it likely wasn’t as good a time for the vendors, some of whom spent tens of thousands of dollars and drove cross country to make it to the show. Glove pusher, motorcycle educator, and friend-of-MO Lee Parks, a veteran of several decades of these shows, bought the smallest booth he could and was happy to attend and talk up the California Motorcycle Safety Program (which he runs through his total Control Training operation) but no longer sells his DeerSport gloves at the shows.

“I knew we wouldn’t get enough people, and we’d be upside down,” Lee told me. “I only had 10 people ask about gloves – it was not a sales success for vendors who had to sell at the event. Eighty percent of the time it was dead, we weren’t talking to anyone.” Lee pointed out that not only was the event at a new location and time of year than usual, but it was also conflicting with other Nor Cal motorcycle events, including the AHRMA races at Laguna Seca the same weekend. Plus, the MotoAmerica races were also at Laguna the prior weekend. If things were as miserable for small businesses at the event as Lee says, they were, I’d expect the show to be in jeopardy next year for lack of booth sales.

A longing gaze at the classic and custom bikes on display. Photo by Alan Lapp

Still, I appreciated the show and had a good time, and thought it was well run. The disappointing attendance didn’t faze the industry; Lauren Lloyd, who does PR for the IMS told me, “A few execs from OEMs and aftermarket brands that attended remarked, ‘this is exactly what the industry needed,’ so we’re excited for Chicago.” I’m excited for next year.

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Gabe Ets-Hokin
Gabe Ets-Hokin

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2 of 13 comments
  • Motonirvana Motonirvana on Jul 27, 2021

    I have a large dealer nearby where every year I have a chance to try out the latest offerings from Japan as Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki send their demo fleet truck to this particular NYC/NJ dealer each year.

    HONDA never shows up. Now i see that Honda is the only Japanese manufacturer not participating at IMS. For a Honda fan boy, it's becoming more and more frustrating not being able to demo their bikes.

    Glad to see that Triumph will be participating in the PA event in September. Would also love to see KTM.

  • SRMark SRMark on Jul 28, 2021

    Sounds like it would have been a great place for Honda to offer demo rides on the Grom, Cub, Monkey and Trail 125s. You used to meet the nicest people on Hondas...