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Victory Vice President, Mark Blackwell: A closer look

Mark Blackwell became Vice-President of Victory Motorcycles in 2004, but his relationship with motorcycles goes much farther. It began in his teens when his parents made a deal with him.. As long as he kept his grades up, they agreed to let Mark buy a Honda 50. Within a short time he was racing friends around dirt lots and eventually began racing on sanctioned flat track, TT, and scrambles racing. Spurred on by his success, he became the perennial rider in the early days of Motocross in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s just as it was being introduced in the States. During this time Mark became this country's leading rider on Yamahas and then was contracted to ride for CZ.

In the summer of 1970, Edison Dye, widely regarded as the Father of Motocross, presented Mark with the opportunity to ride for Swedish bike maker Husqvarna. He quickly accepted and went to Sweden to train with the factory Husqvarna riders. To pay for his stay in Sweden, Mark, just 17 at the time, worked as chase driver for one of Dye's European motorcycling tour groups.

In 1971 Mark returned to the states and won the American 500cc Motocross title (a predecessor of today's AMA National Motocross Championship) by being the top-scoring American in the Trans-AMA Series. The significance of this race pitted the top European riders against America's best. He also rode to victory in the 500cc motocross class at Daytona International Speedway in 1972. This would later become the Daytona Supercross. Blackwell was one of the first American riders to compete in the Motocross World Championships during the early 1970s. He would spend most of that season racing in international motocross events in Europe and by 1973 was competing full-time on the Grand Prix circuit. Mark even went on to score a podium finish in an international race in Germany, which gained him a lot of attention among hardcore motocross fans in America.

At the height of his racing career Mark would suffered a freak injury at a GP in Luxemburg. Mark explains,
'It was a muddy race and I was running in the top five. I couldn't see so I put my visor down and got hit by a rock in the eye." He spent two weeks in a hospital, temporarily losing sight in his left eye. Though he returned to racing, he never enjoyed the success of his earlier years. The eye injury led to an initially undiagnosed cataract, which Blackwell felt led to a slew of crashes and resulting injuries.

While Mark Blackwell continued racing primarily in select U.S. events through 1975, he began to migrate to the business side of the industry, teaching at a popular motocross training school for Suzuki. He was also involved in product development for a number of companies, including Goodyear Tires, Scott Goggles and Boots and Fox Racing. It was during this time that Mark began attending college at night to earn his degree.

The Business of Bikes

Knowing of Mark's racing background, Suzuki asked Blackwell to advise the company's struggling U.S. motocross team in 1977, and by 1978 he was asked to take over as team manager. Under Blackwell's guidance, the Suzuki team made a dramatic turnaround to become the most successful factory team in AMA Motocross and Supercross racing during the early 1980s, with riders such as Mark Barnett, Danny LaPorte and Kent Howerton.

It was then Mark was approached by his old employer, Husqvarna, ultimately leaving Suzuki under friendly terms. He started as product manager and worked his way up to Vice President of Marketing. Mark was a major contributor to returning Husqvarna's U.S. motorcycling division to profitability, a feat that would occur repeatedly over his career. One of his last projects at Husky was to make the presentation to the Castiglioni brothers of Cagiva, who bought Husqvarna's motorcycling interests.

In 1986, Mark Blackwell returned to Suzuki as advertising manager and eventually became the top American employee of the company. Under Blackwell's guidance, Suzuki merged its struggling marine division into the motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle division and helped turn that segment of the business around. All during this time, Blackwell continued his education, working towards an MBA. Mark recalls, "I would learn something in class and put it to business use. I remember writing press releases for a PR class, getting a grade on them and then going to use them at work the next day."

In 1992, feeling he had advanced as far as he could with a Japanese company (as an American), Mark joined snowmobile maker Arctic Cat, finally going to work for a publicly held American company. At Arctic Cat, Blackwell spearheaded the company's entry into the ATV market. When he joined the company, they were doing about $150 million in sales annually, and during his reign, the company grew to over $500 million in sales.

A Chance to Truly Run a Business.

Fast forward to 2000. Victory Motorcycles had just entered their 2nd year of production on the company's only model cruiser, the v92c. They had added a new model, the v92sc, a sports cruiser, new category in motorcycling. Mark's reputation as a motorcycle legend and his business acumen was well known and Victory wanted a leader. Joining Victory as General Manager, Mark said, "For me, it was a chance to truly run a business. I also came back to motorcycling, the industry I loved and knew so well." He went on to oversee Victory's landmark introduction of the 2003 Vegas, a bike that would incorporate a custom style , as well as innovative production techniques. Under Blackwell control, Victory would make good on its pledge to release one new model every year for its first ten years, significantly increasing its product line and market recognition.

2000 would be a milestone for the California native. Mark Blackwell was inducted into the AMA Heritage Motorcycle Hall of Fame at the age of 37.

In 2004, several years after the Victory concept bike "Visteon"? had been unveiled, work began in earnest on Mark Blackwell's biggest gamble yet under the Victory brand, a full-on touring bike. Bringing all his teams together to create Victory's flagship touring motorcycle would take 4 years and break new ground in styling and production techniques, just like the Vegas had done.

In that same year, Mark Blackwell was promoted to Vice President of Victory Motorcycles. In their news release, Polaris COO Bennett Morgan said, "Mark has done an outstanding job over the past four years building a very strong team, developing new compelling product and establishing Victory, The New American Motorcycle, as a legitimate brand positioned for significant growth in the motorcycle industry." In fact, Polaris felt so positive about their decision, they allowed themselves a little humor, releasing an April 1, 2004 press release that announced Mark Blackwell would jump the Snake River Canyon (of Evel Kneivel fame) on a Victory Vegas:

Victory to Celebrate Polaris 50th Anniversary with Jump Over Snake River Canyon
GM Mark Blackwell to Jump Victory Vegas Over Legendary Canyon

MEDINA, MN, April 1, 2004
? Victory Motorcycles is going to new heights to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its parent company, Polaris Industries, by having the bike division's General Manager, Mark Blackwell, jump the Snake River Canyon on a Victory Vegas.

Blackwell will make the jump on July 24, 2004, and it will be televised live to the crowd attending the Polaris 50th Anniversary Celebration in St. Paul, Minnesota.

This is the same canyon that motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel attempted to clear in the X-1 Skycycle on September 8, 1974. Knievel did not clear the 1,580-foot canyon but he landed safely as a parachute slowed his vehicle's descent.

"This Victory jump will be doubly memorable because it celebrates the Polaris 50th as well as the 30th anniversary of Evel's attempt," said Blackwell. "We're doing it to pay tribute to Polaris and entertain the company employees, dealers and customers as they celebrate back in Minnesota."

While Knievel was inside a rocket-like vehicle with two wheels, Blackwell will be on a nearly stock Vegas. "We've removed a few parts to reduce the bike's weight, and I'm using hard-compound tires, but that's about it," said Blackwell, who won the AMA's first 500cc motocross national championship in 1972 and was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2000.

Knievel launched the Skycycle off a steep 300-foot ramp and had hoped to land about 400 feet beyond the far edge of the canyon, making his goal a leap ? or, more accurately, a "flight" ? of about 1,980 feet.

"I've cleared 2,000 easily on practice jumps, and I even overshot the landing ramp a time or two when I built up too much approach speed," Blackwell said. "The key to a smooth jump is throttle restraint on the run-up ramp. The ponies in our Freedom(TM) V-twin like to run, but I've got to make sure I don't exceed my target speed. Once I'm airborne, I'll just sit back and enjoy the ride."

Victory and a national broadcast network are currently discussing the possibility of airing the jump live. Details such as the broadcast time and network will be announced once plans are finalized.

"It will be great viewing for motorsports enthusiasts at home, and for me, it's a great riding opportunity," Blackwell said. "When the idea was first suggested, I said "I love it. I hope you're not fooling!'"

In 2005, work began in earnest on Mark Blackwell's biggest gamble yet under the Victory brand, bring all his team together to create Victory's official touring motorcycle, the Vision.

Recognizing the importance of good dealers, Mark commented in an industry magazine, Powersports Business, "We emphasized that to the dealer; you need to know more than they [the customer] do when they walk in." Noting that such customers already have decided on a bike before they walked into the dealership but haven't decided which dealership to buy from. "They're going to ask you questions and they probably already know the answers to those questions. They're trying to see if they trust you, if they want to buy from you. So they expect you to be very, very knowledgeable about these machines and to be able to answer the questions."

A year later in 2008, Powersports Business Magazine named Mark Blackwell one of the industry's top executives. He was one of five industry executives to be named by the magazine in its April 21, 2008 issue. He was the third Polaris executive honored by the magazine in the previous eight years.

Eyes To the Future

Not satisfied to stand still, Blackwell has pushed Victory to explore international markets, namely The UK, Europe, and Australia. Starting in late 2008, Victory opened its first company-owned store in Melbourne, Australia. As head of Victor's international operations, Mark had full control over this expansion. In an interview with Dealer News Mark was optimistic about the expansion and reflected on how entering the UK market had gone, "We went in and did a geographic assessment of the market [in England] and it helped identify three areas where we needed to add dealers." ? This ultimately resulted in a 90 percent increase in sales. The same process was done in Germany and Australia.

What's the next step for Mark Blackwell? Well, as of this writing (May 2009), Polaris has just created an On-Road Vehicles Division in which Victory and ATV operations will be structured. Mark Blackwell will continue on as Vice President of Victory Motorcycles, including international operations, within this new division. It's easy to see that motorcycles are Mark's true obsession and that's just fine by Victory owners.

Author's Note: You can catch a podcast interview with Mark Blackwell on CycleWorld Radio here.

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