40 years of Uncle Donny's Flying Machine Factory
Don Emler, 62, started FMF in 1973 in a garage in Hawthorne, Calif. He was a racer himself, going to events every weekend and competing in the pro class. Emler and his friends could race at least four nights a week at many different motocross tracks around Southern California. He started working with different riders, wrenching on their bikes and making them faster. He started thinking that maybe there was more to this than just messing around with other people's bikes.
So Emler stopped racing and started building one-off motors and pipes. Back then it took a long time because everything was hand-built right off the bike.
He created a name for himself in the Southern California area and started helping riders such as multi-time AMA National Motocross champion Marty Smith, a move that burst him into the limelight. Back then his shop was popularly known as "Uncle Donnie's Flying Machine Factory."
In 1981, Emler would be part of another great creation when son Donny Emler, Jr. (known as "Little D" to friends and associates) was born. We recently sat down with Donny, now a major part of the FMF brand, to take up the story.
Emler, Jr.: [My father] loved this movie back in the day called the "Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines." It was a movie about these guys who were making up these crazy contraptions and my dad was a guy who loved to work with his hands. Ever since he was a kid my grandpa was telling me that he would be making go-karts out of their lawn mowers and stuff -- just kind of ruining their lawn mowers (laughs). He loved that movie because they were creating these weird machines and flying contraptions so his first logo was a little guy riding a bicycle with wings. That's where he got the name Flying Machine Factory.
When Marty won a world championship (round), it was kind of a big deal. All of a sudden, like an overnight sensation, my dad was known for building these crazy mods for Hondas and all these bikes back in the day. He was one of the first guys who really turned that corner and was like a "hop-up" shop.
XGames.com: Obviously FMF grew out of the garage over the years, so when did you join the company?
Emler: I officially started working for the company when I was 18 and graduated high school, but you know every summer I thought it was the coolest thing to come and work at my dad's shop. He would let me put stickers on silencers or just basically put me into work for like eight hours a day. I swept the shop, I worked in shipping – he just basically let me work at whatever I thought would be fun for the day. When I was about 18 I started in sales, which is where anyone working at FMF would start out. Answering phones and getting feedback from actual consumers, so I just kind of started there.
Now that you have spent more than a decade at the company, how has your position grown with your tenure?
My official title now is director of marketing and brand development. Anything that has to do with our logo, the advertising, working with all the great athletes that FMF sponsors all over the world. Business relationships with companies like KTM or Toyota, we're building strong relationships throughout the industry.
Over the past few years you seem to have tried to move into quite a few different product genres. Is that a push that you consciously made?
Yes, but really we are trying to build the brand and growing the whole image of the company is really the general direction. Keeping it core and what we are is motocross, you know, our product line is still the same – we make exhaust pipes for motorcycles. That's what we are and that's what we always will be.
There has been opportunity to grow our apparel line, which I think goes hand-in-hand with the FMF vibe. The cool thing about our company is that people like to live that motocross lifestyle and I think our image is one that kids or guys who are 60 or 70 years old and still riding their dirtbikes can wear. It's still cool for them to wear it and it's still cool for kids. That's the biggest thing, trying to have a brand that really means something to people and that's their lifestyle and they are living their passion. The kind of passion that we have is that we love to ride our dirtbikes.
When you look at this motorsports business, the value of soft goods has to be pretty significant.
It is. Apparel has been really good for us and obviously we want it to grow and gain momentum. It's a great way for us to build our brand outside of maybe just someone who doesn't even ride motorcycles, but they like what it's about. They watch it on TV and they don't necessarily ride, but we can earn a new fan and get people to learn about who we are and our brand.
Just like any company I'm sure there have been things that we have tried to do that didn't work and I think that staying true to what we are and not kind of forgetting that we make exhaust pipes. That's the coolest thing for me is that we have a strong brand and image.
What comes to your mind as the single coolest piece that FMF has ever produced?
You know, it's not a single piece, but what I love is the fact that we build everything in-house. In this day and age, especially being a business from California, it's not the easiest to run a business out of California and for us to literally say that we build everything 100 percent in the U.S., there are not many companies that can say they do that.
To be able to patent things that my dad and our great R&D staff here have engineered and come up with, then to see other people try to use our technology all over the world as competitors. It's just cool to see that something that was developed right here in my dad's hands, that they (R&D) can take it and patent it after eight years of trying and now everyone's trying to figure out a way to copy it and use it.
It's amazing that you have stayed true to that core and you seem to give a lot back to the sport.
I think that's my dad's number one thing and what I learned from him is that you have to definitely give back to the people who have made us what we are. I don't know another company that sponsors as much in events as we do and it's not just about motocross and Supercross because there are so many people out there that are doing so many different aspects of riding dirt bikes.
I think that's one of the coolest things about dirt bikes is that there are so many different things that you can do with them. Whether it's off road or endurocross or so many of these crazy different types of sports within the big picture, for us to be able to support the little guy coming up. That's the testament of, you know, my dad was a racer and started his company from people racing at the local level and so we really try to help those people out.
You have also spent a lot of time with other areas of the sport like the youth market.
It's about everything that people do. Whether it's the guys that just go out and go to the desert and go riding, how do you reach those people? Because the majority of people that have dirtbikes don't even race and they will never race. They just like to go out and ride with the family and we are a family-oriented company and we definitely want to get to those people.
So can you let us behind the curtain and tell us about some future plans?
We are just always pushing forward and we utilize all of our race teams as our test bed. So if we come up with something that works really good for, say, the Joe Gibbs' Yamaha and we like it, then we just put that back into the pipeline and right into the manufacturing process.
So how do your customers react when you do something like the Ronnie Mac campaign that featured the moto rider in overalls and spawned a line of "overall" T-shirts?
It's so funny that you could spend so much money marketing one athlete. You might have the number-one guy in the world and you're spending so much money pushing a marketing campaign around him and then you get a guy like Ronnie Mac where it literally costs you pennies on the dollar. You go out and you do this crazy campaign and you just don't know how people are going to receive it and it just goes like wildfire.
How often do people show up at your team hauler in their overalls?
We have a whole new line of stuff coming out for Ronnie that is going to be pretty funny when people see Ronnie's new equipment. We have more in the pipeline for Ronnie and I think people are going to dig it. He's not for everyone, but he does have his following and it is a pretty big following.