Those of us that ride moto or off-road all know the feeling of getting to the track and losing an ever-important fastener and having our day ruined. We scrounge through our toolbox or gear bag hoping for a miracle bolt to be laying there, but more often than not, we come up empty-handed. Dave Nichols experienced that as a kid and did something about it as an adult. Dave is the owner of Bolt Motorcycle Hardware and his goal is for us to never miss a day of riding because of a lost bolt. I'm sure you've seen his product at your local dealership on the counter. Hopefully, you at least have one of his Track Packs in your toolbox. We got him on the phone recently to tell us his story and how the business became successful.
For the full interview, check out the Vital MX podcast right here. If you're interested in the condensed written version, scroll down just a bit further.
Jamie Guida – Vital MX: I always start with your history. How and when did you discover motocross?
Dave Nichols: Oh, shoot. We were living down in the San Diego area when I was a kid. Probably my first-ever exposure to motocross was watching the Superbikers down at Carlsbad on TV. That was NBC's Wide World of Sports. I come from a family of big-time surfers, and I had never known anything about motocross. I saw those guys on TV and something about it, man, they looked like superheroes to me. I was like, “Whatever this is, I want to do that." That was pretty much the first hook. I'm 47 years old and it's still got me hooked, you know? It's funny, there are guys I grew up and rode with and we were super into it, but they just kind of drifted away. I and a couple of other buddies, as I said, were hooked. Even if we don't ride at this particular time in our life or whatever's going on, or you have kids or whatever, you've got to have a bike in the garage. Otherwise, you're in a bad headspace. I'm one of those guys that got bit by the bug and haven't been able to shake it.
Vital MX: When you see this on TV, on Wild World of Sports, do you go to the parents and say, “Hey, I need a dirt bike, I'm into this now?" How do you leap to having a bike, and gear, and figuring out where to go ride?
Dave: I later moved up to Santa Cruz, California, and there were a couple of kids at my school that had dirt bikes. I used to go down to the Honda shop and sit on the dirt bikes and I'd watch it whenever I could on TV, but I never really had access. Then I met these two guys at school, and they let me on their dirt bikes. One of them had an XR100. One of them had an XR80, and they were cool dudes and they let me ride their dirt bikes. It was probably third grade when I saw the Superbikers. Then this is like sixth grade when I finally got on a dirt bike, and we became super tight, and we grew up together. Eventually, I got a bike. So, when I got a bike, my family didn't have any money. I never even bothered going to my parents. I worked after school that sixth-grade year and I worked during the summer, and I saved up all my money and eventually bought a KX80, which is funny because that's kind of how the whole Bolt thing started. I was so pumped to finally have a bike because I was just bumming rides off my buddy's bike. I got this KX80, and it was a race bike. I was so pumped, and I finally got a ride to Hollister Hill where I could ride it. The first 5 minutes of riding, it failed. The back axle came out because the guy used all thread for the axle and the thing was clapped out, but I didn't know better. I was trying to find some way to fix it. I couldn't believe that this one bolt ruined my day. It was so built up in my mind, I was finally getting to ride a new dirt bike. I was just pissed because I had to watch my buddies ride all day while I looked at my bike going, “If I just had that bolt, I could be riding”, you know what I mean? That created a passion for fasteners, you could say.
Vital MX: It's interesting that as a kid your mind goes to, “This ruined my day.” I probably would have just had a temper tantrum, and asked my dad to fix it. I wouldn't have thought past that. Interestingly, that led to what is now your business.
Dave: Yeah. I mean, my dad was a surfer, and it wasn't something I could even go to him with. My dad was a machinist, though, and he did help me a lot. Later, when I started racing and building engines, he helped me. He never had money, but he had some really good skills that could help me make a bike faster. But at that time, you know, he was surfing, and I was 2 hours away with my friends at the track. There was nothing I could do but sit there and look at the broken motorcycle. Then you get ultra-paranoid after that whenever you're going. You get super prepared, you know, you're like, “Oh, I don't want that to ever happen again." Part of that is my product. It's the type of product you buy, and have in the toolbox. If something goes wrong fastener-wise, you have it fixed in seconds and you're back on the track.
Vital MX: That was the moment that sort of set everything in motion. At what point do you start thinking, “Okay, this is something I need to create?"
Dave: I always needed a fastener. So, later I got a CR125, and I was always working on the thing. The track was like an hour and a half away. So, when we didn't have our driver's license, it was hard to bum a ride, you know. I was always tearing down the bike just to be with the bike. Even if it didn't need maintenance, I would tear it down and do maintenance. I was finicky and picky and I always needed fasteners. You'd go down to the hardware store and it was the wrong kind of fastener. Then you go down to the shop and they wouldn't have it and then they would have to order it. Then you have to go back down and get it. That also showed me something else that led to the creation of the product, not only was it a hassle for me to go get this 95-cent bolt from the Honda shop, it was a hassle for them. It was like a $2 sale, and it didn't make sense for the shop. As I grew up and got older, I realized that there's a need for the riders and there's a need for the shop to kind of streamline this process and to anticipate what the customer, what the rider is going to need so that they can buy our product and not have to deal with these little issues that can be a pain for everybody involved.
Vital MX: There’s a process to getting this product in motion. You have to find a distributor for materials, you have to get bolts or machine them yourself. There’s the packaging. Talk about that.
Dave: It was a combination because I mentioned my dad was a machinist. I worked in a machine shop growing up, and I still consider myself a machinist. So, I had an idea of how to get things made and what to do. I didn't own a fastener factory. That's different machinery. But I knew enough of how to speak the language, get tooling made, get the right fastener made, and it wasn't like I could go somewhere and get them off the shelf. I had to develop tooling. It wasn't original. I was duplicating the OEM fasteners, and then I would have a factory make them. Our factories are anywhere from Illinois, we do a lot in Germany, we do a lot in Turkey, we do some in Taiwan, do some in Japan. It's all over the world now. Certain regions are better at certain processes. Then we had an in-house machine shop, which it's less of now because the business grew to the point that we couldn't keep up with our machine shop. We've been focusing more on the marketing of the product, and we don't have so many machines anymore. I was like 20, 24 or so, and I had to scrounge all the money I could and go all in on the Track Pack, which was the only product we had. It's a little universal bolt kit and it costs me like 25 grand to get it up and going, which was a huge amount of money to me at the time. Then I started going to shops after developing the kit and trying to sell it.
Vital MX: You talked about creating tooling, and I've heard that term many times when people are talking about creating something. I always wondered what does that mean? How do you create tooling?
Dave: What I was doing was creating the drawings and the design and then going through the sampling process with the factory. Because again, I'm a machinist, I cut metal, and I don't form metal. A bolt is formed, it's not cut. You give them a mechanical drawing and say, “This is what I want." Then the process is that it feeds metal wire through a machine, and then some dyes stamp it and form it in stages. There might be four or five different dyes that form it in stages. Basically, they would duplicate my drawing and then I'd be like, “Hey, the flange isn't round enough”, maybe it was a little oblong or whatever. They get funny shapes. They go, “Okay, we're going to have to add another dye." So, we would refine the process until we have these dyes that produced the fastener that looked like OEM. I knew guys wouldn't put something close on the bike, it had to look just like OEM. I was kind of the enthusiast who was doing the QC because when it was right, I knew it was right. I'm my own customer, and we can be pretty discerning customers. When the shape and the performance and everything were right, then we would send it to production.
Vital MX: I assume you also have to learn about outsourcing materials, manufacturing plants, and who's going to do the manufacturing because there are lower-grade metals. How do you go about it?
Dave: That’s pretty simple. They're carbon steel and it has everything to do with the carbon content. Higher carbon creates a harder bolt in the heat treatment process. 10.9, which is like a sprocket bolt, has a higher carbon content, so it gets harder in the heat treatment process. A regular bolt on your motorcycles, probably an 8.8, which is a lower carbon, has more ductility. You would say, “Why don't you just make every bolt hard and make them all super strong?" There are a couple of reasons for that. Number one, hardness equals brittle, and brittle is not good. A fastener is a spring. That's what it is. If you imagine you had a metal slinky, and everybody probably did this once when they were a kid, you have your metal slinky back and forth and you pull it out, right? Well, what happens? It doesn't spring back anymore. That's what a fastener is doing. You want it to be under tension, but you don't want it to be pulled so hard that it loses its spring or loses tension. It doesn't come back to its original state. So, you say, "Just make them all 10.9 super hard, super strong." Imagine that slinky if you pulled it all the way out. If it was hard or brittle, it would just snap. So, you're always trying to find this happy medium between hardness and ductility. The Japanese leave some of the bolts soft for a reason. One of those is because the characteristics need ductility, the other one can be, and it's really smart actually, they don't want you stripping out an engine case. They would rather the bolts stretch or snap before you stretch, and strip out your engine case. Because we're dealing with aluminum. They're safeguarding you from damaging a more expensive or more critical part by creating weak links and fasteners at times. Over the years, I've been able to find out where and why they do that. That's what we duplicate in our fasteners. Different is not always better. You know, these Japanese guys, they've been doing this for decades. There's a lot of liability, a lot on the line for them, and they know more than most any of the aftermarkets. So, we definitely follow their lead and try to duplicate what they've done.
Vital MX: Once you have this original Track Pack you talked about, you have to go sell it. You have to get it in shops, you have to get it in some catalogs. What's that process like? How do you make that happen when no one knows who you are, and they probably don't even know they need this product just yet?
Dave: Well, everybody knew they needed it. But it's a funny thing, and I see a lot of guys have done this. They've come up with a cool product to do with motorcycles. They're super pumped about it. They're capable of making it. It's a good idea. Then they think it'll just sell. That's just not the case. I figured when the Track Pack was finished, the distributors would pick it up, and I would just be sending pallets to distributors, and they would service the dealers. Well, it wasn't that simple. They all turned me down. All the big distributors turned me down. I had all this money invested, so I had to liquidate it. I just started traveling around the country repping my product to a dealer. I would fly to Texas from California and go visit their dealerships and ask them if they'd buy this Track Pack, which was this countertop display that had these Track Packs in it. The funny thing is, the distributors didn't want anything to do with it, but the dealers all loved it. Eventually, I had a really good market share because I was the only guy doing it. The dealers were buying it and selling out of it. Finally, the reps from the distributors saw all their dealers were carrying it and went back to their bosses and said, “Why can't I sell this product? It sells well." Then the distributors called me and then asked me to carry it. If somebody listening is thinking about bringing a product to the market in this industry, the fact of the matter is you have to do the heavy lifting first, no matter how good of an idea it is. If there's no demand for it already, the distributors won't touch it. The other mistake I see people do is they go right to the customer direct and don't leave any margin for dealers. I believe dealers have a super important function in our culture and our commerce. I'm loyal to our dealers. I built a margin on the product so that they get paid. It's been a really good relationship and I think it's a better relationship for the customer, too, to be honest with you.
Vital MX: Let's say I buy a CRF Pro Pack. Somebody, maybe you, somebody has to go grab a new 2023 Honda CRF450 and say, “Okay, this bolt is this long, this bolt is this diameter. This spacer is this shape and size." That seems almost an insurmountable process every year for each bike.
Dave: It was at first when we started. There was so much, well, a couple of things. It was easy because bolts used to be more universal on bikes. When we started in like ‘03, the bikes were more universal, so that was easy. But there were still a ton of models we had to cover. Every time I saw a bike, whether it was at a track or I knew somebody that had it, I would ask people if they knew anybody that had a certain model I needed, and then I'd go through it. For years I was just going through these bikes constantly. A lot of dealers were cool. They'd let me go on the showroom floor and look at the fasteners and take them out discreetly. It's kind of cool now because we've been in business so long that we have a huge foundation of data. So, when the bikes change, now it's just little tweaks I need to make, not a big deal. That workload has gotten a lot easier. But like I said, with my old CR125, I just loved being with dirt bikes. When I started the company, I thought it was a cool job because I was a machinist, and I was also a painting contractor. These are, especially the painting contractor, a gnarly job. So, if I was at home, you know, working with dirt bikes, I was pumped. I was like, “This is the best job ever.” I had the enthusiasm for it back then and we were able to gather all the information. I still really like my job. That's it. I've had people say this, and I know you're a passionate guy. I see everything you do and how you hustle. There are a lot of guys like us. I had somebody say this, and I think we take it for granted, people like us. The guy said, “Wow, you've done so well. I wish I had a passion as you do.” You never think about that. There are people out there that just don't get as fired up about things as we do. That's why it's a real blessing, you know, that I could have done this for this long. When I go into my showroom and I see a dirt bike in the showroom and we're making cool products, I'm still really pumped to be at work. Not everybody has that benefit. They're just working because they have to.
Vital MX: Once you start building some name recognition, you start working with privateers. Were there any factory teams that start reaching out?
Dave: I wouldn't say we've been with factory teams. We've been with really good privateers. We were with Weston Peick all through until he got picked up and that was awesome. He got us a lot of exposure. I also loved sponsoring Weston because if there was ever a question of quality, I could point at Weston. I could be like, “Dude, he's in a Main Event every weekend and he's not having failures." This stuff works because that guy was hard on stuff. If you go to any Supercross, even today, you'll find us in a few different pits of privateers that we're helping. Number one, because I'm a racing enthusiast, I know a lot of the guys personally. We've had a surprising number of Supercross racers that worked for the company. I figure if I can't have a guy line up with my sprocket bolts and my fasteners on his bike for a Main Event in Supercross, I probably have no business selling them. I like proving them every weekend.
Vital MX: You also have hardware for ATVs, UTVs, and sport bikes. I just want to let everybody know about that. Talk about the different products that you have.
Dave: There are probably four main categories. There's the Track Pack, which you see on your dealership counter. There are these little kits that are easy to keep around. They're not very big, but they have everything you'll need at the track. If you're going to lose something, you're going to find it in that kit. They're only about 20 bucks retail. They're affordable. They're easy to keep in the truck or the toolbox. That was our flagship, our original product. Then we have the Pro Packs, which is a bigger kit. If you're tearing your bike down a lot or you're racing a lot, you're riding a couple of times a week, that's the kit you'll want. It is for a guy that's getting into the bike a lot. It'll do entire systems on the bike. It'll do all your bodywork, it'll do most of your chassis, and it'll do all your rotor bolts and sprocket bolts. So, it's pretty thorough. Those are between $50 and $60. Then we have engine kits where you would buy the kit and it replaces all the fasteners on your engine. We have bodywork kits that you buy, and it replaces all the fasteners for your bodywork. If you get new plastics and you need fasteners, I would just get the bodywork kit.
Vital MX: That even includes those little nut inserts that a lot of the teams use. The little flat nuts that press into the fenders.
Dave: Yeah. I mean, they'll do everything if it holds on your plastic, it's in the kit and it's OEM match. Those are only like 24 bucks. I think they're a good deal. It even replaces all the aluminum bushings that hold onto your bodywork. We have other stuff like sprocket bolt kits, rotor bolt kits, and just little stuff for doing maintenance. But that's kind of an overview of the product. We have some more comprehensive kits such as a kit for the steel frame Honda's, which is a full-on restoration kit. The thing's huge, it's heavy. Those are like 95 bucks. But man, they're a good value. If you're doing a resto on one of those bikes, that does everything.
Vital MX: I consider the Track Pack almost like having a spare inner tube or a spare spark plug. You keep all that stuff in your toolbox, so you don’t ruin your day. It's one of those items that you just should have on hand in case your muffler is about to fall off, or your kick starter is about to fall off.
Dave: Yeah, we spend so much time and energy and money to get to the track. It's silly when a fastener or something small like that, hangs you up and it's not worth it, in my opinion. You just grab a Track Pack, and it usually has you covered. There was a guy at the track just last weekend. He was bummed because his clutch perch came off and nobody had a bolt. He was walking around the pits, and nobody had a bolt to put this clutch back on. It was a kid. He was like 17, you know. I was pumped when I was able to pull out a kit and be like, “Hey, here you go." It worked perfectly. I mean, that stuff makes my day. It's crazy how happy you make somebody for a 50-cent bolt. He was just over the moon.
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