Between the Motos: John Slater

Between the Motos John Slater

September 1, 2015 11:20am

John Slater created Slater Skins with one goal in mind—increase advertising space on a dirt bike. Created in 1995, John has marketed his streamlined panels as a way to increase sponsorship awareness. It hasn’t always been an easy sell. Manufactures have resisted taking away from the “stock look” of the bike, while customers have been hesitant to try the new look and style. This season, John finally found a manufacture willing to give Slater Skins a shot—Yamaha. The brand has helped the team throughout the 2015 season, willing to forgo the “stock look” of the bike. We caught up with John earlier this week to talk about the partnership with Yamaha, how the relationship with title sponsor Blue Buffalo started, and those unique skins.  

Racer X: Tell us a about your background and how you got into the industry.
John Slater: I raced all through the 1970s and eighties. Took some time off after high school and then got back into it in ’85, ’86 or something. It’s a drug. Once you’re in, you’re in. You can’t get out. It just becomes a part of your DNA, your whole life. I tried qualifying for some nationals. Came close, but I did qualify for the ’92 GP at Unadilla. It was super cool. I’ve been going there since 1976. Then in ’92 I met Kevin. He owns MindFX now. He was a friend of mine back home in Connecticut, and one thing led to another and him and I started a company called Ryno Moto Skins with a guy named Richard. Richard passed away from cancer, and I moved back home because my dad had cancer. I just kept going with the skins idea and called them Slater Skins. Initially, we had a few of the freestyle guys—Trevor Vines, [Mike] Metzger, and Jonesy [Mike Jones]—running them. And then just kept going with this thing. 

A lot of factories wouldn’t run my stuff because they want the bikes to look stock, which it hinders, maybe not so much the factory teams, but it hinders a lot of secondary teams that need the signage for sponsorship. Some of these factories will give you some bikes and parts, but you need money to go racing, not just parts and bikes. That’s where I think my product comes in. My product allows for more advertising space for companies to come in and sponsor. I’ve got a thirty-inches-by-eight-inch spot on the front of the motorcycle for advertising. On the side of the bike I can have a four-foot logo, as big as you want. That’s huge. That’s super key. I look at all these bikes out on the track and to me they all look naked. When you go down the line and you see all the bikes, every one of them looks the same, just a different number. You don’t even really know who sponsors the guy. The Blue Buffalo people love it. We’re looking to expand our team for next season and hopefully do a multi-year deal with those guys; I’m working on that now. 

"We had really a lot of TV time. Even though we didn’t make one main event in supercross we did make a lot of headway with TV impressions. " photo: BrownDogWilson

That’s why you created the idea—to bring more brand awareness to the bike.
That’s correct. Your pit presence is cool, but realistically what do you get in pit presence—15-20,000 people? Which is great—I’m not saying it’s not; we definitely need that. But to me, for the bang for your dollar for a company that wants to advertise is TV. That’s where the money is. That’s where you’re getting the millions of viewers worldwide. You don’t get any of the pit presence on the live streaming. You’re not getting that on the TV. You’ll get a little blurb here and there, but the racing is on YouTube, it’s on TV, it’s streaming. It’s all over the place once it’s televised, and that’s where you’re making the money. You can see our logos better on TV. 

You got with Blue Buffalo because they actually used to own SoBe, correct?
That is correct. Blue Buffalo, when they owned SoBe beverage company, and SoBe obviously was the perfect fit for extreme sports. That’s what their whole thing was about. They sold that to Pepsi. One of the owners, Bill Bishop Sr., had a dog named Blue and it passed away from cancer. So he and some of the other guys, they all became partners and they started Blue Buffalo. I’ve always kept in contact with some of the guys over there and suggested this. They thought it was fine; they wanted to branch off into that industry. This year was a trial year and it worked out fantastic for us. We had really a lot of TV time. Even though we didn’t make one main event in supercross we did make a lot of headway with TV impressions. And that’s what we’re all about—we sell TV impressions. There’s a company that tracks every time you see a logo during a NASCAR race. They factor that in by whatever it costs for a commercial time, and then they come up with a value as to how much that logo is worth. So I took that model and that’s what I’ve been doing. For instance, in New York—a thirty-second commercial costs like eighty grand—we had close to two minutes, give or take, of TV time, and we got about $36,000 on the return of investment for our advertisers. 

"I look at all these bikes out on the track and to me they all look naked. When you go down the line and you see all the bikes, every one of them looks the same, just a different number."

Like you said, it took you guys more than fifteen years to get a manufacturer to partner with you and let you actually do this to their bike. There had to be a lot of hurdles to overcome.
Yeah. Over the years I made them for some other teams. I made them for a Honda team, and they rode with them and they had no problem with them, but Honda wouldn’t let them use them because they didn’t make the bikes look stock. And I just said, I’m starting my own team. So I started my own team. I said, I’m going to pull in my own sponsors, start my own team. I don’t care if a factory jumps on board or not. I’ll make the bikes purple. I’ll make them green. I’ll make them rainbow. I don’t care what color they are—I’m going to make a statement. Because I just got sick and tired of dealing with all the naysayers. And I was very fortunate enough that the timing was right with Blue Buffalo, and then when I got a hold of Mr. McCarty [Keith McCarty] at Yamaha, and luckily Yamaha is probably the only factory out there that does really think outside the box. He was super cool about it. It worked out really well.

And what’s really cool is Blue Buffalo did an IPO, initial public offering, this year. I bought one of the display bikes. We’re at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan to the eighteenth floor, and Yamaha, my motorcycle with the Slater skins, was inside the Waldorf Astoria. That’s huge. So we’re taking the Yamaha brand and we’re going business to business. We’re branching out.

John hopes to have Blue Buffalo back as title sponsor in 2016.
John hopes to have Blue Buffalo back as title sponsor in 2016. photo: Cudby

For better or worse, there has been a connotation that they are uncomfortable to ride with.
That’s fine because all people talking never rode the product, and that’s what I think. People just love to talk. And that’s the thing where now that barrier has been broken. There’s no interference whatsoever. Actually, if you talk to Broc [Schmelyun], he was riding the skins and then we got him a brand new bike from Yamaha. We were out there, Larry Brooks was helping us out, setting the bike up. Then he rode the bike stock without those skins on it. Then he was like, "I kept catching my knee brace on the shroud, but with the skins no problem." He said he could grip the bike better, too, because we put some grip tape on it. And then the graphics believe it or not, it’s sticky. It gets a little tacky. And you’re able to grip the bike way better, he said.

How have you overcome that connotation? That is what some people are going to think about it. How do you overcome it to where not everyone is thinking that?
Here’s the thing: one, just try the product. Or don’t. But don’t complain you don’t have the money to go race, because you can market yourself and it’s all about the marketing; it’s all about the advertising. So anyone can try the product, no problem. Let’s try it. I’ll meet up with you, we’ll set it up and you go ride. On Vital, dudes are calling me up left and right. I had people say to me on instant message, “Why don’t you quit? You will never do this.” It used to bother me, but now I’m like, “Whatever, dude. I’m here; I’m doing it. You guys are sitting at home, Monday morning quarterbacking it. I’m here doing it.” There’s a difference. I actually laugh now, but there was a time when it did bother me. But at the end of the day I got Blue Buffalo, I got Yamaha, and we’re racing, and I got my product out there. It’s pretty impressive. 

For not making a main, I will say you guys did garner a lot of publicity. So how do you convince other privateers to give this a shot?
We’re trying to work a little contingency program. If you’re running the product we’ll kick in some SRP dollars redeemable for a year. Just a program we’re trying to figure out. And then I was thinking at the top level, the pro series, if you’re running it, we’ll start matching or coming close to Yamaha’s contingency and stuff like that. The product’s available for Yamahas and the other brands; it’s pretty much universal for any bike. You might have to cut a little bit different around the front fenders because each manufacturer’s a little bit different. So you just cut it around there and it pretty much bolts right on.

What’s the future for the team itself? Are you going into next year for certain, or is it still kind of up in the air?
It’s pretty much certain, just trying to figure out what our budget’s going to be. I’d like to see if we can get a top-ten guy. Blue Buffalo, they figure out their budgets in like November or something like that, so it’s kind of late, but they’re kind of working on it now for us, for the motocross team, to see what we’re going to be able to do. We’re trying to collect all the data now. We did six events this year where Blue Buffalo came and they set up a booth out in the retail area, on vendor’s row. The response…like at Unadilla we had a 700-pound pallet of food; it was all gone. So they gave away a lot of product. The response has been fantastic.

The Blue Buffalo mascot hanging out at the East Rutherford Supercross.
The Blue Buffalo mascot hanging out at the East Rutherford Supercross. photo: Fredrickson

These guys were with SoBe; they’ve done supercross and motocross before. Supercross and motocross are obviously a little different than when they started. Have they seen the change and growth with live TV and all this other stuff?
Absolutely. What’s cool about our sport is you’re able to get as much exposure, if not more, than Indy and NASCAR, even football, baseball, for pennies on the dollar. I explain to people and they say there’s no way, NASCAR’s way bigger. Yeah, but it’s only big here in the United States. They are not big in Europe. You go to Belgium, nobody’s watching NASCAR over there. They aren’t in Czech Republic; they’re not in Dubai—any of that stuff. Same with NFL. It’s huge here. What’s it over in Belgium? Who is watching baseball? Baseball’s dying. They got large numbers, but if you look at the scale, NASCAR’s ratings are way down, baseball’s ratings are way down. So our sport worldwide is one of the biggest sports on the planet.

What’s the future for you guys as far as Slater Skins goes? How do you get this product into people’s hands and get them to try it?
Demos, rides, or something like that. I don’t know—we’re figuring it out. This year, because I’ve been on the road for close to six months traveling doing the supercross and outdoors, I haven’t really had time to set up the distribution network, but I have been planting the seeds to get it going and we’re there now. So the product’s available. For anybody with a Yamaha, the skins are available. The shields are universal—they’ll fit any bike. Contact me and we’ll put something together.

What’s the best way to get a hold of these things?
You can email