Friday Feature: Rocket Exhaust

Don Leib has been involved in motocross in one way or another since he was fifteen years old; first as a local pro racer, then in marketing, and now developing and manufacturing pipes. As the founder and head honcho at Rocket Exhaust Don has taken some unique approaches to the design and manufacturing of aftermarket pipes, all with the goal of producing quality products at an affordable price. After running into some challenges when trying to manufacture pipes overseas, Don has taken his company through a self-described ‘rebirth’ and is now doing everything in-house.

We stopped by Rocket Exhaust’s production warehouse in Lake Elsinore to see how things are coming along…

TWMX: Don, you’ve been in and around the motocross industry for many years. Tell us how you translated your experience into creating Rocket Exhaust…

Don Leib: I’ve been riding and racing motorcycles since the mid-’70s. I grew up back east and moved out to California in the ’80s. I was a good expert/local pro guy, but could never make any money at it, so I started racing Baja and off-road for fun and did well at it, with some good finishes in the 500 and 1000. I then went to work for ETK Motorcycles as their national sales manager in the late-’80s, after which I formed an advertising agency called DRL Marketing, which then became the Gravity Agency. From the very early ’90s through to today I have done marketing for various companies, which has included Pro Circuit, KTM Motorcycles, Shoei Helmets, White Brothers, and Suzuki.

I then co-founded Big Gun in 1997. We hired Mike Young to run the day-to-day operations, and within a year he had bought into the company. After about four years I sold my portion of the company to Mike, and that’s when I started to develop Rocket Exhaust. My ex-partner and I had some different ideas about how to run the business, so now I get to do it my way. I’m three-and-a-half years in, and I am just starting to feel like we’re getting everything right. The old belief that it takes about three years to get a company off the ground is very true.

How do you make the jump from marketing to building pipes?

Well for many years I was a test rider. I did a lot of test riding for Dirt Bike Magazine, and I also continued to race. I’m 48 years old now, but I’ve been racing motocross non-stop since I was 15 years old. You know frankly, after spending several years doing the marketing for companies like Pro Circuit and White Brothers, you get to thinking that you can build a better mouse trap and do things better. When I started Big Gun, the four-stroke was just getting popular, but Pro Circuit at the time wasn’t interested in them. So you get very critical of other companies and you just really want to do it yourself.

I understand pipe design, and you can definitely build a better mousetrap, but it takes a lot of work. The way we develop a pipe is to look at the two or three best pipes for a particular bike; see what works, and what can be better. We then build five to fifteen prototypes that are tested at the track and proven on the dyno. Then after any necessary fine-tuning, they go into production. So by the time we get a pipe to market, it may not necessarily be the first one out there, but we end up with a very strong pipe.

How long does all of that take?

If you could allocate one person to do it, it could probably be done in a few weeks, but of course we’re developing for many different models at the same time. Some bikes are easier than others. Some of the off-road bikes, for example, that have small carburetors and valves are really simple. But the race motorcycles and ATVs require a lot more fine-tuning because their motors are more highly tuned from the get-go, plus you have a better-educated consumer base in that market. You just cannot bring a bad product to market.

So then you develop rictly four-strokes pipes?

Yes. In fact my son races for American Honda in the schoolboy class on a 125, and everyday people ask me why I don’t make a two-stroke pipe for him, but it’s a completely different manufacturing process. And really, in a few years we probably won’t see anymore two-strokes.

You explained during our tour that one of the biggest recent developments for Rocket Exhaust is bringing the manufacturing in-house. Why don’t you talk about that?

My initial vision for Rocket Exhaust was to R&D the pipes here, and then have them manufactured offshore where labor is cheaper. That is a very common approach for virtually everything for your motorcycle; gear, helmets, goggles, gloves, chains, wheels, etc. But it’s always been a standard in the industry that aftermarket performance companies and pipe manufacturers stay exclusively in America.

Because of the way products are distributed in this industry we have very high retail price points. When people ask why a pipe costs $500 or more, the answer is that a lot of it is because of the levels of distribution we have. I believe that it’s possible to manufacture offshore to allow for a quality product at a lower price point. But while I spent two years doing that and going through different offshore suppliers, we found inconsistencies. We would have it and the parts were good, but then the next order that came in would have too much zinc in the casting and the product would have problems; things like that. So after really battling it and trying to make it work, I decided that if we’re going to survive we’ve got to get a handle on quality parts, which means for the immediate future we are manufacturing our products in-house. Virtually every part is now made here.

Will I go back offshore? Yes, at some point. I do believe it’s necessary and at some point everyone else will be doing it.

So this is a rebirth of Rocket Exhaust. We’ve hired Joe Waddington, who has many years of experience with other manufacturers, to head up our R&D and production. We’ve got some quality people in-house.

In addition to the “rebirth” you also have some new products coming out…

One new thing for us is carbon fiber for both the big bike and mini bike cans. The mini bike cans will also be used for duals on the Honda CRF250R.

As you can see with this prototype, we’ve also developed a new end cap to reduce noise and help address the AMA plans for even further reduction in noise requirements. We have been able to get a two to three dB reduction in noise without affecting performance.

We’re also working closely with Moto XXX. We don’t want to be in the motor modification business, but it’s very important for us to work with a company that we can develop our pipes with. For us that’s Moto XXX and Allen Brown. Allen has a lot of experience with four-stroke motors. He’s building motors for two of our top amateur racers right now, and the upcoming TransWorld test bike is also a joint-effort between Moto XXX and Rocket Exhaust.

From the performance aspect, what separates a Rocket Exhaust pipe from some of the other brands out there?

Every company has their own philosophy for how they like to do it. Some really depend on the dyno; others depend on track testing. I use the dyno to support the data that we get, but I’m more focused on track testing. It’s easy to make a pipe go win a dyno test, and there are companies that do that. But it’s more important to design a pipe to address any weak points in a given motor; whether it’s top, bottom, mid or whatever. So as a pipe designer and builder we try to make the weak characteristics of a motor better. At the end of the day, I think it’s better to make broad, usable power, and not the kind of power that explodes. I think that explosive power is sometimes construed to mean that a pipe is better, but it’s not. What’s better is a more usable power, and that’s what we strive for.

What about rider support?

We have over 200 amateur support riders through SponsorHouse.com. Ricky James works for us as our lead rider rep, handling a lot of our top amateur riders. We want to be really strong in amateur motocross.

One last question; where can people find your products?

We’re at dealers all around the country, and on the web at www.rocketexhaust.com. We’re also available through some of the larger mail order companies.

but it’s not. What’s better is a more usable power, and that’s what we strive for.

What about rider support?

We have over 200 amateur support riders through SponsorHouse.com. Ricky James works for us as our lead rider rep, handling a lot of our top amateur riders. We want to be really strong in amateur motocross.

One last question; where can people find your products?

We’re at dealers all around the country, and on the web at www.rocketexhaust.com. We’re also available through some of the larger mail order companies.