5 Minutes with ... Cobra's Sean Hilbert

Cobra motorcycles were founded back in 1993 by Bud Maimone, who started hand-crafting the mini bikes out of his garage in Ohio. A decade later Maimone sold the company to Sean Hilbert, who is now the President and CEO. The company has seen some tremendous growth in the past few years and last year they entered the ultra-competitive 65cc market with their CX65. Just last week all of that hard-work paid off for the American-made minicycle manufacturer as their CX65 earned its first amateur national motocross championship as Michael Young took the 65cc (7-9) Modified class title at the Parts Unlimited Spring Classic at Lake Whitney. In fact, Young and the CX65’s title is the first major national amateur 65cc class championship won on an American-made bike!
As the amateur motocross community made their pilgrimage to Oak Hill MX Park for another week of racing, we managed to get Cobra’s President on the phone for this 5 Minutes with…

Cobra's Sean Hilbert

photo: Courtesy of Cobra

Racer X: Sean, tell us how you first got involved with Cobra Motorcycles.
Sean Hilbert: Let’s see...there was a group of us that took Cobra over from Bud Maimone in late ’03; we didn’t start rolling till 2004. That group was myself and a guy named Phil McDowell and a few other silent partners who kind of work in the background. My involvement is titled as President, but I do all kinds of things. Right now I’m sitting down at Texas at the Oak Hill GNC Final waiting on a rain delay. But I do everything from design work, because my background is on the engineering side of things, but I also do all of the financial stuff. So everything from sweeping floors to designing bikes to meeting with bankers and lawyers, so it’s a pretty wide variety of activities on a daily basis.

Where were you before you worked for Cobra, Sean?
I spent all of my teen years racing and dreaming about what I could do in the motorcycle industry, and then I went away to engineering school and spent a lot of time there working on motorcycle-related projects.

Where did you attend college?
I went to Michigan State, and for grad school I went to MIT, which was a little bit later after I had work experience. But everything from day one was trying to aim to do something in the industry, ideally something in a position where I could design and play with motorcycles. I then spent about 10 years at Ford Motor Company doing everything from advanced engine technology to being on the manufacturing floor. And then I took a leave of absence and went back to school. During that time I worked on a business plan, and after that I spent a few years working the capital markets trying to find investors, and that’s what eventually led to Cobra. We got to the point where we talked to a few investment firms, and they said they liked our team and ideas, but they’re not going to fund any sort of start-up, so they asked if  there was a company we could go buy and get jump-started with. So Phil and I immediately thought to give Bud [Maimone] a call and see if he had any inkling to sell, and to our surprise, he did. He was getting tired and wanted to move on and do some other things in life. He said yes, and the we spent a couple years putting the deal together, and that led to us taking over full time. Bud is still involved, by the way. He’s still a minority owner and I talk to him on a weekly basis and he’s still involved in motocross and the company. And as long as he wants to be, he will be.

The Cobra CX65

So like most of us in this industry, you followed the sport of motocross pretty closely growing up.
[Laughs]I was good enough to realize that I had to make a living doing something off the bike!

Well, I heard you guys at Cobra had some success at the Parts Unlimited Spring Classic at Lake Whitney last week.
Yes we did! It was a huge breakthrough for us. One of our goals when we took Cobra over was to get a 65cc on the market. Bud had made a run at it, but I think he realized that he needed to take a couple steps back and take another try at it. It took us a few years to get the bike full developed and back on the market. We did our first press introductions of the bike a year ago in Texas when we were down here, and one year later we won our first title on the bike with a little guy named Michael Young. Michael is out of North Carolina and he’s been a Cobra team rider for several years now on the little bike, and he stepped it up big time, so it was really fun to see.

How much more advanced is it building a 65cc compared to the 50cc machines?
That’s a great question, because on the surface it doesn’t seem like much. But it’s a bigger bike and the 65cc market is something that KTM holds near and dear, and they’ll certainly continue to. When you look at the starting gates around the country in amateur motocross, the 65cc class is quite often the biggest class at any national event. So it’s a really big market, and Kawasaki and KTM both feel it’s important. The level of the motorcycle is higher, but more importantly, the level of competition and the willingness of companies to dig a little bit deeper. So that’s out biggest hurdle in all of this—just competing against companies that our literally hundreds of times bigger than we are. Our whole mantra or reason for being is being the best company in the world at the youth competition segment. So the 65 and other bikes in that segment is certainly fair game for us now and in the future.

Michael Young took a championship in Lake Whitney on the CX65.

photo: Brent Stallo

How does your CX65 compare to the Kawasaki and KTM?
From a size perspective, it’s about the same size. It might be a little bigger, with respect to seat height. We pushed the wheelbase to the edge of the rulebook’s specs for stability. But as far as performance, we worked hard to benchmark the other bikes on the market to make sure we we're better in every category, and that includes horsepower, as well as the level of suspension and chassis components. It has a six-speed transmission, and from a component standpoint, we put a lot of nice touches on the bike. There are things like billet triple clamps, 9 gauge stainless steel spokes, billet hubs, aluminum swingarm, which nobody else has in the class. There are a lot of details to where we feel we’re the elite end of the market. If we’re going to cater to that end, we need to put that level of components on our bikes.

How about price?
We’re competitively priced with KTM, and some of that is a gift, some of it is the weak dollar. If you look at our costs and what it costs to maintain the bike, I’d almost say it’s a bargain, because a lot of our components are made in America and people aren’t fighting the currency differences. We’ve also been working hard to export the bikes all over the world.

Cobra's Sean Cantrell

photo: Brent Stallo

Yeah, I was going to ask if Cobra is popular in Europe and around the world.
Believe it or not, the most popular unit we make that get exported around the world is our ATVs, the one you see in the GNCC series. The 65 and the 50s are certainly taking off, and we’re exporting everywhere right now, from Australia to Bulgaria. And the biggest export market for us right now is Latin America. We’ve aligned ourselves with an importing group that’s based out of Mexico City and literally Mexico, Columbia, Ecuador, Costa Rica—every major motorcycle market in South America we’ll be going heavily into this year.

Lake Whitney is the kick-off of the amateur motocross season every year, so it has to be nice getting a championship already. What are you guys expecting for Oak Hill?
I just hope luck is with us and our kids stay on two wheels. We have a few more kids here on the bike than there were at Lake Whitney, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed and we’re going to work really hard to make sure everyone is on a good machine.

Is Michael Young your number one rider?
Yes, he’s the number one guy on a 65. On the 50s we have a couple of kids that I’d consider “factory” level. One of them is a little guy out of California named Sean Cantrell. He won a national championship in the 50cc junior class a couple years ago, and this is his second year in the 50cc (7-8). Other kids that have shots at titles this week would be Tanner Stack, who is out of Kansas. He won a title last week and showed a lot of speed. The other kid is a little guy out of Florida named Jordan Bailey. Jordan trains quite a bit with Adam Cianciarulo, and they put that same level of effort into their programs. Jordan won the (4-6) title last summer at Loretta Lynn’s, and he actually had a podium finish last week in the (7-8) class.

You mentioned Adam Cianciarulo, he was one of your more notorious pilots.
Yeah, Adam will probably go down as the fastest rider to ever throw a leg over the Cobra.

Moving on, you mentioned that you guys want to be number one in the youth market, so are there any plans for an 85cc machine?
Sure there are. At this point in time we don’t have a launch date, but it’s certainly something we’re working on. One of the things we were waiting for on that was the ruling by the AMA and the FIM on the four-stroke. I’m really happy with where the FIM and the AMA have come to on that, and that is to keep racing simple and affordable and to keep the two-strokes in the minicycle classes in the foreseeable future.

Well Sean, you got some championships to win in Texas, so I’ll let you get back to work. Thanks for your time, and good luck!
Thanks a lot, Billy. There were a lot of happy faces after last week, so we’re looking forward to a great season in 2008. I think you’ll see more and more riders on Cobras from here on out, too.

To learn more about Cobra motorcycles or to find a dealer near you, check out www.cobramotorcycle.com.