Interview with Gary Gray: Spirit Lake Revolution

Feb 28, 2014 View Comments by

Interview with Gary Gray: Spirit Lake RevolutionInterview with Gary Gray: Spirit Lake RevolutionGary Gray is the product director of motorcycles for Polaris, the company that founded Victory Motorcycles and now owns Indian as well. With the rollout of the 2014 Indian Chief lineup at Sturgis last August, Polaris has put Indian back on the motorcycle map and continues to whittle away at Harley-Davidson’s domination of the domestic cruiser category.

RR: When did you first start riding motorcycles, and how did you get into the industry?

Gary Gray: I started on my cousin’s Yamaha DT 175 when I was 11. Because of my interest in things mechanical, I got a BS in engineering and started at Polaris directly out of college. It was honestly a dream come true. When we started the Victory Motorcycle Division in 1996, I was one of the first 10 employees. I was responsible for the design of half the chassis on the original V92C.

Interview1What was your first ride?

I always loved dirt bikes but probably sportbikes more. The first bike I bought with my own money was a 1987 Yamaha FZ700 Genesis. It was a good bike and nice in profile, but it had a horrible-looking rectangular headlight that ate bulbs and batteries. My second was an epic Honda CBR 600 F2.

Tell us a little about your job.

As product director, I do everything from determining our five-year plan of motorcycle releases to picking out the color of valve stems. I look at market sizes, profitability, competitors within segments, customers’ needs, and internal capabilities. Then I formulate a plan on what bikes we should build next, and why, for Polaris to have a successful motorcycle business. I also set pricing, write the specifications for the motorcycles, and work with industrial design and engineering to make sure our product will be attractive and exceed the riders’ needs. Honestly, it’s lots of big decisions, but when I say I pick the color of a valve stem, that is true! Someone has to make the call on small details too.

What were your initial thoughts about buying Indian?

I was excited to be part of such a historic brand but nervous about the infinite number of ways to get it wrong. In retrospect, that same energy went through everyone working with the brand; and I’m proud of what our team created in the new lineup of Chiefs. Initial response from the press, customers, and dealers has been exceptional—but I still get nervous!

Interview2How did you balance innovation and heritage in designing the new Chief?

Everything started with the heritage; we worked to understand the key attributes and then added as much modern technology and premium material as we could. The design goal was to create the premium American cruiser. All of that was based on the core confidence that we have in Polaris’ engineering capabilities.

Give us a summary of the Chief’s production schedule from purchasing the brand to the unveiling.

In April 2011, we purchased the brand; in July, we chose the engine architecture from Indian’s heritage, and committed to a V-twin. By March 2012, the final styling was complete, and in June we had the first running bike. Our executive sign-off ride was in December 2012. Then in March 2013, the Thunder Stroke 111 debuted in Daytona; and in August, there was the Global Launch in Sturgis, SD. We had an official European reveal in Milan in November.

Which elements did you take from past Indians, and which ones are entirely new?

We started with research and rides of pre-1950s bikes. We held sacred what people actually remembered (and held critical to Indian Motorcycles) and designed them into the final product. For instance, the look of the down-firing exhaust is not easy to accomplish, but it’s critical to the brand, so it had to be included. Indian Motorcycle also was an innovator, so to include ABS, keyless ignition, the first fork-mounted power windshield, and voice-activated calling via smartphone fit into our ethos.

Describe how you see the respective market positions of Polaris’ two motorcycle brands.

Victory is bold, confident, and features the best ride. Indian is forward thinking, American quality, iconic design, and legendary history.

Interview with Gary Gray: Spirit Lake RevolutionHow do you keep the two marques distinct both in branding and production?

Both brands have intentionally unique design and marketing teams as well as completely separate production lines for both engine and chassis.

Do you see any departure from heavyweight touring bikes and cruisers in Victory’s future?

No, those are the largest and most profitable segments for us to compete in. Victory, in 15 short years, has become number two in the world in large-displacement cruisers, baggers, and touring bikes. With the Victory brand, we can put almost any type of bike alongside our great lineup of heavy cruisers and tourers; and no, I can’t tell you any more!

In your mind, what are the differences between Harley, Victory, and Indian riders?

They are the same in that they all love to ride. The bike helps express how a rider wants to be seen.

Interview with Gary Gray: Spirit Lake RevolutionI don’t think anyone was surprised by the Indian Chief and Chief Vintage when they were unveiled, but the Chieftain was an unanticipated addition. Is the Chieftain a harbinger of things to come?

The Chieftain is an amazing bike, and it shows what we are capable of doing in a short time period. Ride it;, and I guarantee you will be impressed. As for what the future brings, we are far from done releasing new and exciting products.

With the advent of what Harley-Davidson calls “twin-cooling” on its Rushmore models, do you see liquid cooling as part of Indian’s or Victory’s future?

Victory has had dual cooling from the start in 1998 with cylinder head cooling in the V92C with oil. We maintain that system today in the Freedom 106. The Indian Thunder Stroke 111 was designed to be powerful and reliable without secondary cooling. Our large fin area, dual layer valve covers, and ceramic-coated headers keep the engine performing reliably.

How about smaller displacement and/or non-V-twin models?

If we can delight customers, be profitable, and on brand, we’ll build it; if we can’t, we won’t.

What’s next for Polaris motorcycles?

I think we should cherish the three amazing new Indian Motorcycle models that we just released. Believe me, we can build anything—Indian and Victory Motorcycles have a well-thought-out plan and a great future.

What’s your personal favorite Polaris motorcycle?

That’s like asking someone whom their favorite child is; I love them all for different reasons. It just depends on where I’m going and how I want to get there. I guess that is the real benefit of being the product manager—I have the keys to all of them!

 

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About the author

There’s something relentlessly romantic about riding a motorcycle. I’m blessed to know that feeling. With a background in photography and a love for motorcycles, I’m interested in the beauty and honesty of the open road. You’ll find me riding Carolina’s roads on my Suzuki SV650.