The first time I ever heard of Robert Pandya I was reading an article where he was dual-sporting an Indian Chief across the desert for the Cannon Ball Centennial Ride. I remember thinking, “That’s the kinda guy I could have a beer with…”
For nearly the past two decades, Robert has worked in the motorcycle industry, getting his start at the dealership level before moving up the ranks to work with select brands like Aprilia and Polaris. It was his job to tell the stories of the motorcycles that you find every day on your dealership floor.
As Robert's presence in the industry has grown, his focus has shifted towards getting new riders onto two wheels. For anyone in attendance at the Progressive International Motorcycle Show this year, chances are you saw or maybe even participated in, Discover The Ride. For those of you who are not familiar, Discover the Ride is an experience based program designed to give non-riders their first opportunity to throw a leg over a motorcycle in a safe and controlled environment.
For the upcoming Episode Nine of Season Two of our Highside/Lowside Podcast, we sat down with Robert to talk about motorcycles and what the industry needs to be doing to get people onto two wheels. The following is an excerpt of the discussion, but to catch the full interview when it’s released, type in “RevZilla” on Apple iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and subscribe to our Highside/Lowside podcast.
Spurgeon Dunbar: So how did a photography student from the University of Texas get started working in the motorcycle industry?
Robert Pandya: I was a rider before I was a professional photographer. And I was really broke when I lived in Dallas. I had a little Suzuki GN250. I worked as a projectionist at a movie theater, so my days were free. I ended up hanging out at this Yamaha shop all the time, and I bought a Yamaha Radian from them, which was a really cool bike. They got so sick of me just hanging out that they basically turned me into a part-time salesman and started giving me a commission.
When I got into college, I moved down to Austin. I got a job as a service writer at Woods Cycle Center, which was a big dealership, sort of a precursor to the big-box store. They had all the Japanese brands. I did really well there. I could sell service. I was the top seller of blinker fluid. It was during this time I met the marketing manager for Aprilia while attending Dallas IMS. His name is Bill Stone, a fantastic guy and he gave me a job offer to move out to Atlanta and be the Aprilia PR and events manager even though my degree was in photography.
SD: How did you get from Aprilia to riding an Indian Chief across the desert for the Cannon Ball Centennial Ride?
RP: I met a guy named Derek Scott, who was the marketing manager for Polaris. And he introduced me to Mark Blackwell at Daytona one year. Mark takes me up into the nose of the Victory Motorcycle semi-truck, they had an office set up in there, it was this big NASCAR-looking rig. I sat down and we just had this really pleasant conversation for 30 minutes.
Then a little while later, Derek calls me up. He's like, "Well, you got the job." And I'm like, "Holy crap. I was interviewing for a job?" I just thought I was talking to the guy. I had no idea. I was just chatting with the guy.
After some time with Polaris, I got talking with Don Emde, who you might know from the "Parts Unlimited" magazine along with the fact that he's a Daytona winner. He's the only father-son that were Daytona winners. His dad had won too. So anyway, Don was planning this trip to commemorate Cannon Ball Baker's ride across the country. And I tried like heck to get Indian to sponsor that because Cannon Ball rode an Indian. And they just didn't get it. They didn't see it, and so it didn't work out. And he ended up getting sponsored by Yamaha. And I was like, "Man, I'll be damned if there's not gonna be at least one Indian."
At the time all we had were Indian Chiefs. That was it. The Scout hadn't been released yet and the FTR wasn’t even really a thought. So I got in touch with one of my engineer buddies, and I said, "Hey, do we have any crushers (bikes which are destined to get scrapped)?" He's like, "Yeah."
So they shipped it out to me. We stripped down and cut a bunch of weight out of it. Jeb Scolman who built the Spirit of Munro built a skid plate for me that was pretty much secondary armor for a Sherman tank. And that’s how I rode a bike with five inches of suspension travel all the way across the country through dirt. And we hit every bit of dirt on the route, and it was fantastic. And her name's Elnora. And she may have been the first of the new model Indian Motorcycles to actually ride all the way across the country.
SD: How did you get into riding to begin with? Did you have dirt experience?
RP: Riding for me came soon after high school. My dad was a urologist, and so all he ever knew of motorcycles in the early '80s were guys who came into the doctor's office and then crushed their nuts up against the gas tank on a CBR or a Ninja. That was his extent of knowledge on the world of motorcycling.
He hated the idea of motorcycling, but to me it seemed like an easy way to start getting around. I actually got him to co-sign on my loan for that Suzuki GN250. I rode that bike forever. And that was it. My motorcycling journey came out of a desperate need for transportation and not being able to afford a car.
SD: You faced the challenge of a parental figure who wasn't supportive, but what are some of the main challenges that you see motorcycling facing in 2020?
RP: Broadly speaking, boomers were an analog generation, right? They climbed trees. They did analog work. They had to go to an office and punch a time clock, physically be there typically to do the work. Their kids, Generation X, which is me, I'm 53. We were born analog, right? We climbed trees. We rode bicycles. We got the, “Hey, kid! Go outside and play. Get out of the house.”
Then all of a sudden cable is invented. You get your first video game, “Pong.” Kids start staying inside. Divorce rate goes up. 24-hour news is constantly looking for, you know, salacious content. So Generation X grows up with some level of safety net as they grow up, "Stranger Danger," and "Just Say No," and stuff like that. So it's not surprising that that generation's kids are given a screen as a pacifier and are told to stay inside. Their kids tend to be far less analog.
I’ve seen that in the work that I've done with Strider Bikes, where riding bicycles is down 21 percent for youth and is down close to 50 percent for older kids riding to school or a teenager pedaling to work. That's a significant part of motorcycling’s problem.
We're not addressing Generation Z in order to create a market. We got to create our market to even get to the point where we can start selling stuff like a VanVan 200 or a Grom or a Ruckus or whatever, right? And we're not doing that as an industry. Strider does it with fantastic programs and a bunch of dealers who get it, but as an industry, we've largely failed to elevate the category of motorcycling. Individual companies are only focused on their brand.
SD: How do you feel STACYC has done with the introduction of kids to two wheels?
RP: I think that they’re great. I really do. But prior to STACYC it comes back to bikes, just standard bicycles. The STACYC comes in at 600 bones. What $600 thing are you buying for your six-year-old? You know what I mean? We don't really do that.
But $100 for a really safe, nicely built, balanced bike that you can put on a rocker base that an 18-month-old can crawl onto and start rocking and then it actually scales up to fit them until they're four or five years old? It’s an affordable bike that teaches them balance and mobility and freedom and how to negotiate hills and being off-road and all that kind of stuff. Getting that into the core of the human beings at such a young age is what is going to create a future market of motorcycling.
SD: Once you left Polaris you created a program called Give A Shift which is essentially a digital roundtable to discuss the future of motorcycling. In your most recent post you were arguing for Keanu Reeves to buy the American Motorcyclist Association. If you had your druthers what changes would make to the AMA to help create a future market?
RP: Before someone says you can't buy a non-profit, a non-profit can buy a non-profit. Keanu already has one. So he could acquire another non-profit. Not that I was making a real argument for that, but it could be done.
The opportunity there is clearly a culture of celebrity, but also authenticity. If some non-rider starts pitching motorcycling we’re the first to smell BS and we're just not going to pay attention to it. My point isn’t about the fact that getting a celebrity owner of the AMA would change everything, but rather we need a fundamental shift in the way that the AMA works. We need a decentralized organization where the best people around the country can work on it.
Mark Blackwell is pretty much retired but I guarantee you he would want to be involved in something like that. However, he lives in Utah and he's not going to move to Columbus, Ohio to do that. So let’s decentralize it and elevate the message through celebrity about what motorcycling can bring to your life.
Let’s take the conversation away from 1,000 cc superbikes and big, heavy expensive adventure bikes and talk about bikes like a CSC 250. It is just fun! Let’s bring that fun back in. When you have a catalyst personality like a Keanu Reeves, or any number of guys who are into motorcycling, to draw that level of attention, that's when you can start getting, like, a PSA that we could give to the RevZilla media team to tag on to the end of the video that you do where it's like George Clooney saying, "Hey, look out for motorcycles out there."
That's the sort of thing that we need to do ultimately to get more people aware of motorcycling. And a decentralized and return to grassroots enthusiasm within the AMA would be a great opportunity. I don't know that that'll ever happen. It's a big dream, but I really feel like that could change things.
SD: There's a difference between creating future markets and how to create an existing market. When you're talking about future markets that’s where you're trying to get kids on bicycles but what can be done to help the industry right now? What do you think would make the most impact?
RP: The number one thing would be approachability of training and that's why we created Discover The Ride. The whole point of Discover The Ride that we do at IMS is that if someone can balance on a bicycle, I can give them the basics on a motorcycle in 10 minutes.
We use an electric Zero motorcycle that’s detuned. It has had its speed capped and its throttle response limited. You can whack the throttle wide open and there is no worry that it’s going to whiskey throttle across the building. It's a really safe, first taste test of motorcycling. That program needs to just be copied.
SD: If you could offer up just one piece of advice for that new rider or anyone looking at getting into riding, what would that one piece of advice be?
RP: Start small and don't believe everybody you talk to. You’ll have the old-school guys who are going to say, "You're going to grow out of that Sportster. You might as well go ahead and get a bigger bike.” Don’t listen to that nonsense.
We have to get better at understanding just how intimidating all of this is.
For those 40 percent of new riders that came in and did Discover The Ride, easily half of them had never put a helmet on before. Do you realize how many people I trained how to buckle a helmet? And they'd never put on an armored jacket. And they'd never put on armored gloves. They'd never worn that stuff. And all of a sudden I'm telling them to get on this device that you've never operated before and ride around in a circle. I mean, it's clearly intimidating.
As experienced riders, we tend to forget how tough that is. So my advice for a new rider is to understand that you're getting advice from experienced people who are going to talk over your head, who are going to make assumptions about the kind of bike you want to ride or the kind of riding you want to do and that sort of thing. And you've never had more access to information and opinions and that sort of thing. So you really have to spread it out. It's not just the opinion of your one buddy. Just try to learn as much as you can from as wide a variety as you can.