The Marketing Maven
Words by Brett Smith | Photos by Aaron Brimhall
Carey Hart has a fear of being broke. Yes, one of the most recognizable motorcyclists in the world—who transcended freestyle motocross more than a decade ago, who still collects a paycheck for riding, who owns a chain of high-end tattoo shops, runs a clothing line, and co-owns a team that wins Monster Energy Supercross and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross races—is scared of going belly up. It’s an esoteric thing for him to say, yet it’s the first comment given when asked where his energy comes from, why his brain spews an unlimited supply of ideas. The fear of an empty bank account is partially what motivates him to finish a 10,000-meter SkiErg workout by 5:30 a.m. and answer emails and messages before the sun rises. There are businesses and deals to keep an eye on—a lot of them. Hart isn’t delicate with his words; he’s pointed, honest, and quick-witted. Sitting on a metal workbench in his 4,000-square-foot garage filled with motorcycles, bicycles, tools, half-built hotrods, guns, skateboards, and a lofted fitness center (yes, a fitness center), Hart needs no prodding. He’s happy to explain how a tattooed scumbag from Las Vegas became way more successful in business than he ever did as a rider and how he’s now winning races in a sport that, two decades ago, didn’t want anything to do with him.
Hart’s actions, however, betray his fears; judging from his history, he seems unafraid to fail, and there’s one action that helped launch Hart’s name well beyond the motorcycle microcosm and proved that he would take big risks in life: the first backflip attempt, at the 2000 Gravity Games in Providence, Rhode Island. He didn’t know if he could do it, no other riders were making the effort to try, and many thought Hart was nuts for even thinking about it. While Hart estimates he spun 600 practice flips on a bicycle under the guidance of friend, roommate, and BMX professional TJ Lavin, nobody was able to truly teach him the physics of inverting a 220-pound Honda CR250 and bringing it back to the rubber. Beyond that, nobody at that point knew the geometry of a proper takeoff ramp. It was all one giant experiment. Hart’s father, Tom, took a loader and carved into the face of one of the freestyle landings, cutting a 12- to 13-foot wall that Hart remembers looking to be 2 degrees away from completely vertical. With a shovel, Hart spent two hours digging and shaping and throwing his hands in the air in animated visualization of what he was soon to attempt.
When Hart dropped in on what was supposed to be a 75-second-long freestyle run, the standing-room-only crowd already knew what was going on. In an unintentional marketing maneuver, he didn’t try to keep his backflip plan a secret.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the stadium thought a backflip was impossible,”
he says today. But he certainly had the attention of 100 percent of the audience. Hart didn’t come to Providence to win a medal. He hit no other jumps, did no other tricks; it was backflip or bust. After two passes to feel out the makeshift takeoff, he clicked into second gear, repeatedly blipped the throttle on approach, then grabbed a handful through the transition. He shot 30 to 35 feet in the air from the flat bottom, spun slightly more than a complete rotation, brought both tires back to dirt, and crashed; technically, he failed, yet he simultaneously succeeded. Even today he admits everything he did on the jump was wrong, from the ramp angle to the amount of speed he carried into the approach, but he was the first person to prove it was possible. While he didn’t actually land a backflip, he landed himself and the sport into unprecedented media territories; everyone was talking about Carey Hart.
“Someone was going to attempt it,” he says. “It was a matter of time. I wanted it to be me.”
The backflip as a business-strategy model has been used over and over by Hart for 15 years; he’s not afraid to be the first one in, but he’s smart enough to know when something isn’t working well.
Now 40, Hart can still remember the feeling of being broke. Broke was cold showers as a child because the gas service had been cut off. It was the nights when homework was finished with a flashlight because there was no power in the Las Vegas home where he lived with his dad. These periods were some of the happiest in his life because he always had motorcycles to ride, always raced on the weekends, and developed a passion that eventually turned into a career. The Harts were not in poverty, but they often prioritized motorcycles over paying bills. Hart was born in Seal Beach, California, but his parents split soon after, and when he was 4, he and his father moved to Las Vegas. They bonded over bikes. A construction worker, Tom Hart would “borrow” heavy equipment from the job sites of his employer on the weekends to build tracks for Carey on undeveloped land outside of town. During the week, Carey rode on the gas tank of Tom’s clapped-out Suzuki RM250 for the 6-mile fire-road commute to school. In the afternoons, Tom would be waiting at the curb to take him home. Everything they did together revolved around motorcycles.
Hart, himself now a father, doesn’t want to have to choose between paying utilities and buying new tires, but he’s thankful for the unconventional sacrifices his dad made. But there were lessons in work ethic, too, and Hart got a taste of manual labor working with his father and uncles. Being 12 years old and shoveling asphalt or pouring concrete under the full force of the southern Nevada sun in August isn’t something a kid forgets. Ever. For many summers, that was how Hart made extra money to buy himself a new pair of riding boots or a helmet. During the school year, his job was to maintain grades at the A/B level or the bikes were parked—“And there was a couple of times that my bikes were parked,” he says—but if he was going to predict the direction his life was heading in, swinging a shovel, toting a wheelbarrow, and choking on drywall dust wasn’t it. Hart knew what he didn’t want to do for the rest of his life.
Hart has been blessed—or cursed, depending on how you see it—with what he calls “Hart Luck,” and the play on words (“hard luck”) has become not only a tattooed reminder on his knuckles, but part of his brand.
“I’ve always said I had ‘Hart Luck’ because sometimes it’s really great and a good chunk of times it’s really, really bad,”
he says. Hart is a glass-half-full type of person and would say the good luck is winning. For all the right timing, relationships, investments, and well-calculated risks, Hart’s life has been filled with tragedies that he has been able to turn into opportunities to create something better, bigger.
He’s broken close to 80 bones and is still trying to repair all the damage from his horrendous collisions with the earth. In February 2014, two vertebrae in his lower spine were fused to alleviate back pain. He already knows he needs a hip replacement, and he’s currently nursing a torn right rotator cuff. He’s had two riding crashes that should have killed him—one in 1991 as an amateur racer and another in October 2003 at the Tacoma, Washington, stop of Tony Hawk’s Boom Boom Huck Jam. In Tacoma, he broke bones in every limb and spent four weeks in intensive care because blood clots breaking free in his body threatened to take his life. The 2003 crash effectively ended his freestyle motocross career. During recovery, he focused his energy on the Hart and Huntington Tattoo Company, which opened its first store less than four months after the crash. Preparing to become a proprietor was sort of like learning to flip.
“I didn’t know a fucking thing about running a business,”
he says bluntly. But Hart, who had been drawing on his own skin since elementary school and received his first permanent tattoo on his 18th birthday—some flames, skulls, and #111 on his left pec—knew the tattoo business could benefit from an image upgrade. He wanted to move it away from a niche, gritty, edgy, feels-like-you’re-doing-something-almost-illegal environment to an upscale, service-oriented, glossier establishment. He convinced George Maloof, Jr., then the majority owner of the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas and the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, to gamble on allowing him to open a tattoo parlor amongst the boutique shops and day spas. Hart said no other casino in Las Vegas had tried having a tattoo shop as part of its retail lineup. Again, Hart wanted to be the first.
The tattoo parlor led to a TV show on A&E, which led to a marketable brand, more store locations, a book, a nightclub, late-night TV interviews, and a cast-member role on season five of VH1’s “The Surreal Life,” where Hart taught Jose Canseco how to ride a motorcycle.
While most top American motorcycle athletes go unrecognized outside the two-wheeled world, Hart became so famous that he remembers encountering people who were surprised to learn he also rode dirt bikes. His notoriety was spread amongst several buckets: motorcycles, business, television, and as the boyfriend of musician P!nk (Alecia Moore), whom he married in June 2006. While he was growing businesses, walking red carpets at the Grammys and other galas, and producing reality TV, Hart still wanted to be an athlete. After spending two years recovering from the Boom Boom crash, he knew his days of trying to win freestyle contests were over. He started a supermoto racing team instead, and in 2006 they contested the AMA series. In the summer of 2007, the “Hart Luck” reared when the entire Hart and Huntington race rig turned into a roadside barbecue on I-15 during a drive to Salt Lake City. The team lost everything—the vehicles, bikes, tools, and parts—and Hart learned the valuable lesson about insuring the contents of a trailer as well as the trailer itself. With just a few weeks until X Games, an event that would provide more exposure for his sponsors than all the other races combined, Hart scratched out a $500,000 check to buy a Concept Hauler, eight new motorcycles, parts, and more, and then called an emergency meeting with his team manger.
“Me and Kenny Watson sat at the Spearmint Rhino in Vegas with a napkin and started writing out ideas to do a [supercross] team,”
Hart says. With that much money laid out, he knew he wouldn’t get the desired return from competing in supermoto, and he couldn’t afford to hire freestyle riders, who, at the time, were fetching $100,000 a year from clothing sponsors. The end goal was to promote the Hart and Huntington brand at the races. “Sell tattoos and T-shirts,” he says. “A supercross team that goes out and does 17 supercrosses is a lot cheaper than sponsoring five freestyle riders. That was kind of the business model that I built, or the justification for doing my supercross team.”
The year 2008 was possibly the worst to start anything. Financial troubles consumed the country and the catchphrase “You know, with the economy the way it is and all” was becoming part of the American lexicon. In October, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) authorized nearly $500 billion in expenditures to bail out U.S. banks and auto manufacturers. The motorcycle makers started a sales decline that lasted for half a decade, and Carey Hart decided it was time to go racing. His agent, Wasserman Media Group’s Steven Astephen, jokingly told him he was an idiot.
“I have always cared about him personally,” Astephen says. “It’s a hard, hard gig, and it wasn’t the right time to be doing it when he did it. He put a lot at risk.”
Hart wasn’t deterred, and he said his total out-of-pocket investment was close to $1 million in the first three to four years. “I just looked at it as an investment into the brand,” he explains. “I love the sport of motocross; I love going to the races. Nowadays, it’s tricky; this thing has grown into a monster. We now deal with Fortune 500 companies.”
At the 1992 World Mini Grand Prix, Kenny Watson was helping out a friend who was racing. Parked next to them was a 16-year-old 125 intermediate rider named Carey Hart and his dad. Watson didn’t speak to them, but remembered the bond the father and son shared over being at the races. Four years later, at a supercross race, Watson—wrenching for Scott Sheak—was parked next to Hart again. They met, and Watson remembers the teenager having an edge to him—“Not cocky, but grounded,” Watson remembers. He was most impressed with how the kid was doing it on his own and living in a van, sleeping on couches, sometimes staying at KOA campgrounds, being resourceful. “He was business savvy, budget oriented, and knew how much money he needed to keep going,” Watson says. “I respected him for that.”
In the world of freestyle motocross and tattoos, talking about mathematics is not an image-building topic, but Hart says he has always loved numbers, and he graduated from Green Valley High in Henderson, Nevada, with honors in 1993. He thought he might someday become an accountant if he didn’t become a supercross champion first. By 1998 Hart had appeared in several freeride videos, already had sleeve tattoos running up his arms, and rode for Fleshgear, a baggy-riding-gear company—his first paying sponsor. Greg Schnell was a friend and practice partner. Hart remembers sitting in a pickup truck together laughing over the language of a contract Schnell had signed: no visible tattoos, no colored hair, no piercings. Motocross was attempting to protect its image and distance itself from the burgeoning freeriding and freestyle culture.
But Hart was still racing in the late ’90s. In 1998, he traveled the entire AMA Supercross series, competing in the premier class. He made two main events in the 16-round tour, Daytona and Minneapolis, and he finished dead last in both. In the Cycle News coverage from Daytona, the text from the last-chance qualifier recap read, “Bauder always had to keep an eye on Kawasaki rider Cory [sic] Hart.” After the supercross finale in Las Vegas on May 2, Hart’s phone didn’t ring, even though he felt he was a top privateer with promise. “Nobody wanted to help me,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Fuck it. I’m over it. This is it. I’m done.’”
He enrolled in the Community College of Southern Nevada for the fall semester of 1998. He was getting an education to become an accountant. That summer, he got the opportunity to spend nine weeks jumping in the Warped Tour for $1,000 a week plus per diem. He still went to school that fall, finished the first semester, and had plans to transfer to UNLV, but 4 Leaf Entertainment had started a freestyle motocross series that Hart squeezed in on weekends. The series expanded in 1999 and Hart took a semester off school to focus on building his trick list. Seventeen years later, life hasn’t slowed down.
“The little chemistry project that I did with my tattoo shops and TV shows and promotions, it was a college education,” he says. “It was also a whole lot more expensive than a college education.”
Somewhere in the two decades of Hart’s career as a professional racer/rider and entrepreneur, he learned the value of ROI (return on investment) and how to under-promise and over-deliver. Even as a young freestyle rider, Hart knew his sponsors expected something in return for the money they were paying him. When he and Watson went supercross racing full time in 2008, Troy Adams and Cole Siebler were the riders—hardly a lineup expected to win races. Hart knew the return to his sponsors wasn’t going to come from the racetrack—at least not right away. But he had also not forgotten the feeling from the late ’90s when he couldn’t find enough support to keep his own racing career alive. That chip on his shoulder still has sharp edges.
“I wanted to come back and prove everyone wrong, prove that some tattooed scumbag can run a business and be successful and eventually, hopefully, win races,” he says.
But first he had to show commitment and growth, and that meant doing something better than Honda and Kawasaki and Yamaha and the other teams. Instead of keeping their team area shrouded in secrecy and erecting barriers to keep out the fans, Hart decided he had to win off the track. They called it “activation.” “We embrace the fans, we embrace the people,” he says. “We bring them into our truck. We want to establish that touch and feel of what racing is now. Now you look through the pits and everybody is doing it, which is great. I feel like we’ve helped change the sport of supercross from an experience standpoint.”
Loyalty is important, and Watson said he noticed it as far back as 2006, when they were a truck/trailer supermoto team.
“I always noticed how many people loved [Hart] and wanted to be around him,” Watson says. “He wasn’t winning. He was a top-10 guy, but he had so many people around his truck.” Hart has at least one fan so loyal that she tattooed his autograph onto her body. The four bars of the Hart and Huntington logo is a tattoo he’s seen on the arms, legs, and bodies of many fans. He is flattered by the gesture. At the races, Hart makes sure the fans feel like they’re part of something, and the team tracks these experiences and takes extra effort to make sure the engagement goes beyond the races.
“We work extremely close with the sponsors and we figure out what their mechanism is. You want to sell hotels? You want to sell vehicles, you want people to see your logo, you want feet in the door? We really focus on that and try to give a return on that,” Hart says. By 2012, however, they knew they had hit a ceiling. The show in the pits was working, but the on-track performance had improved as much as it could without better equipment and the technical knowledge to attract top talent. Team Hart and Huntington was still writing checks to Pro Circuit for performance work, and the bikes, while not stock, could have been built by any rider. Hart wanted more, and in February 2012 he leaked a hint on the “PulpMX” radio show.
“I don’t want to just be a dog-and-pony show in the pits,” Hart told host Steve Matthes. “I want to go, eventually, still be a dog-and-pony show, but win races. I want the best of both worlds. That’s what we’re working on for 2013.”
In October 2012, Hart and 15-time AMA Supercross/Motocross champion Ricky Carmichael announced a partnership that would have seemed like an April Fool’s joke 10 years prior. The team’s name was changing to RCH Racing and Carmichael was bringing Suzuki factory equipment and support and his own technical knowledge that he used to win 150 career races. Watson was friends with Carmichael long before becoming co-workers and remembers the idea first being floated in the summer of 2011. At that point, Watson says, Carmichael was contemplating starting his own race team. Instead, Carmichael asked Watson to set up a meeting with Hart at the Anaheim Supercross opener in 2012. Nine months later, they announced the partnership. “The marketing power that Carey has is second to none, and I needed to join a team that I could bring something to,” Carmichael said at the announcement that year.
On Jan. 3, 2015, RCH won its first Monster Energy Supercross race, and the 55-pound trophy, signed by rider/winner Ken Roczen, is on display in Hart’s garage. Hart remembers the emotions being surreal, and he was so elated about the win that he posted four different photos of the trophy to his Instagram feed that night. He also remembers the overwhelming feeling the next day of both satisfaction and the urge to do it again and chase the next milestone: a championship.
On a warm December morning, that’s exactly what Hart is doing in his garage as he conducts business over the phone while preparing his own riding gear. Or maybe he’s working on his new 10-year deal with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, of which he was the grand marshall in 2015. Or maybe he’s working on the upcoming opening of the new tattoo-shop location: Nashville. Or maybe he’s setting up a riding tour with Fox, whose roster he’s still on as a rider. Maybe he’s negotiating a deal for a new television show. It could be anything; Hart is always grinding, looking for the next best way to get exposure for those who believe in and invest in his brand.
Now living on a 220-acre vineyard in California with his wife and 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Willow, Hart’s life is drastically different from the humble desert-rat upbringing of rural Nevada. As big as Hart’s businesses, image, and list of assets have become, he’s never developed an ego. While his personal stock has grown, “He is the same person no matter what room he is in or who is in the room,” said his wife, in September 2012 during an appearance on “The View.” Hart nods in agreement when asked about the statement.
“I’m just a straight shooter. I have no time for bullshit and I don’t want to be around people that have to act certain ways in different circles. I’m me, love me or hate me. Rarely is there anything in between.”
After all the questions and shutter clicks—through which Hart was immensely patient—he drops everything to go back into his home and take care of priority number one, his most prized possession, the invaluable asset that he’s most proud of: his family.