Here’s a message I never want to receive: “I’m in medical getting checked out, I’m a little banged up”.
Anytime a rider is on course in Bison gear, I’m on pins and needles. It’s literally the same feeling I get when my son takes to the course for a race. I’m anxious for them to do well, anxious for everything to go right, and I’m anxious that they’re going to crash and get hurt. Of course that’s not to say that the gear I’ve designed isn’t some of the safest, best constructed stuff on the market - quite contrary, that’s the one thing that gives me solace: I know they’re in good hands. Still, there’s a risk we all assume every time we throw a leg over a motorcycle. That risk is injury or even death. As the owner of a company who bases 99% of their business around the sport of motorcycle racing… it's a reality I have to face not only when I’m on the track, but also when any of our customers are on track. Such is the life of a motorcycle gear provider.
Before I go further, I feel I may need to apologize for the somewhat dark tone of my introduction. Something you should know about me is that I’m a proponent of showing injuries and damage to gear. It’s my opinion that we should acknowledge and learn from the misfortune of others. There is no rider exempt from physics and there is no article of safety gear that is impervious to damage. The possibility of injury should be in our minds at all times, if not at the front of your mind then at least somewhere in the back nagging at you as you stuff that apex faster than ever. Seeing images and videos of crashes helps us learn. It also ensures that we never lose that healthy respect for the machine.
With that out of the way, let’s get back on track. Where were we? Oh right, anxiety! As I said, I do get anxious for many reasons when Bison customers are on track. These feelings peak to 100 when I get a call or message that someone’s been hurt.
When Tosha and I founded Bison, we understood what we were signing up for. There is so much at stake when it comes to outfitting a rider whether it’s on the street, for a trackday, or on the race track. Every time you gear up in Bison, we are laying our name and our reputation on the line. After all, you’ve placed your faith in our products to protect you as well as can be expected from any other brand. For this reason, when there is an injury or compromise of a Bison product - regardless of the circumstances - we take it very seriously. And we take it to heart. Yes, we knew this wasn’t an industry that would be all rainbows and unicorns but that doesn’t make it any easier when one of your riders gets hurt.
Earlier this year one of our MotoAmerica racers experienced a crash in which his suit was compromised and his arm was injured. We immediately went to the team’s paddock and talked to the team members (the racer was still in medical). The team owner was angry. The rider’s father was angry. The mechanic was angry. Tosha and I? We were completely deflated.
We took the suit back to the Bison booth where we laid it out, sat down and just stared at the half-dollar sized hole in the side of the forearm. It was very unusual damage for this area of the suit. “This makes absolutely no sense,” I told Tosha. For what seemed like an hour, we just sat there staring and digesting the situation. Then we got a text from the rider with a photo of his injury: a very severe abrasion to the tip of his elbow. I immediately pulled my phone out and summoned up the MotoAmerica Live+ app, then clicked on the race in which he had crashed. I jumped to the slow-motion footage of the incident. Just as I suspected, when the rider hit the asphalt the forearm of his suit twisted and allowed his elbow not only to move out of the padding but the sleeve also pulled upward. This meant his elbow dragged across the asphalt on a single layer of leather with no padding, as opposed to multiple layers of leather and a CE-rated protector. The leather didn’t stand a chance, and neither did his elbow. It was immediately apparent that the arms on his suit were too loose.
Once bandaged up and back from medical, the racer came to us and put his arm into the suit. We could immediately see that the arms were too big. I could grab the padding and move it all around from his elbow to the wrist! I whipped out my trusty tape measure and found a 3-4cm measurement differential.
It’s always good to have an explanation for why a rider got injured or why a piece of gear was compromised, but that doesn’t make the sting much better (for us or the injured rider)! The fact is, when we get that (very rare) call or message that one of our riders is hurt, it ruins our day. Sometimes it ruins our week. I lose sleep over it.
“How could I have designed that area differently?”
“How do we ensure that these measurements are being taken properly?”
“Are there new, innovative materials or construction methods we could use?”
Sometimes I just get out of bed, go down to the workshop and play with the gear. I might pull apart a glove at the seams or adjust the position of some padding in my suit. I measure the distances between external protectors and contemplate their placement. Something as seemingly silly as the location, size and material of a sleeve zipper might take me down a rabbit hole of “what ifs” and contemplation:
“What if we moved the zipper to the outside of the kevlar? That would put it out of harm’s way in a prone-position crash. But then it’s more vulnerable to a low-side tuck.”
“Nylon zippers are smoother and require less maintenance. Should we ditch the brass zippers on the sleeves? Nah they’re just not as tough.”
“Maybe we just reduce the size of the zipper as a compromise? Best of both worlds. But do I want to trade a little durability for a smoother operation?”
Guys, this is how my mind is working. All the time. And this is why every couple months or so, our suits change just the slightest bit. Almost no one will ever notice it, but I know the change is there and it’s there for a reason. There is a tradeoff for every single little tweak and change we make… but I have to rely on statistics and my instincts as a racer to determine how I want the suit or glove to work. These little edits to the article might be the result of some post-crash “CSI” work, or they might be the brainchild of a late night one-man whiteboarding session powered by insomnia and Wellbutrin. Whatever the case, rest assured I’ve poured my heart into it. We want as few of those injury messages as possible.
Rob Lackey has been a motorcycle gear connoisseur for years, mostly because he crashed a lot there for a while. After spending 20 years in the automotive industry managing service departments with a focus on culture and customer service, Rob decided to combine his passion for making people happy with that of racing and "going fast while staying safe". He founded Bison Track LLC with his wife, Tosha and they now roam the country with their two youngest kids, Edith and Carter, growing The Herd and educating others about the importance of safe riding gear. Every now-and-then he still gets to race.