Cameron Campbell and Paige Bushey of New Gloucester bought a utility terrain vehicle as an early wedding present after they had to postpone their wedding because of the coronavirus pandemic. ATV sales have surged in Maine and across the country during the virus outbreak. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Like many people, Cameron Campbell and Paige Bushey were forced to alter major life plans because of the coronavirus pandemic. The New Gloucester couple had planned to marry this year, but they postponed the wedding to assure keeping their guests safe.

Instead, they decide to splurge on an early wedding present.

They bought a utility terrain vehicle, a beefed-up ATV commonly known as a side-by-side. In a month, they’ve already put 600 miles on it.

“It’s amazing the sights we’ve seen. We’ve seen so many partridges, deer and loons while riding,” Campbell said. “Being able to connect with the outdoors is the biggest help with stress right now with everything being harder. You forget about the worry.”

Campbell and Bushey are part of the ATV-buying boom across Maine and the U.S. during the pandemic. From Houlton and Bangor to Oxford and across southern Maine, dealership lots are empty and dozens of ATVs are on back order. The spike has been fueled by new riders, as well as veteran ATV riders upgrading their machines and parents introducing their kids to ATVs.

In May, sales at many Maine dealerships were up by at least 100 percent over May 2019. By June, many ran out of inventory during a buying spree like they’ve never seen. It’s a story playing out across the country. ATV manufacturers haven’t been able to keep up with demand, chiefly because factories had to shut down at the outset of the pandemic, industry experts say.

The spike in sales takes place in a sport that was already growing. ATV registration in Maine has increased 63 percent over the past 20 years – from 45,000 in 2000 to 73,000 in 2020 – through the registration year ending June 30, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

But the pandemic has brought ATV demand to a whole new level.

“Depending on the dealer, ATV sales are running between 350 to 400 percent of normal,” said Brian Bronson, supervisor of the state’s Off-Road Recreational Vehicle Program. “Honda and Can-Am are trying to get 2021 production started in July because they have run out of 2020 models. Polaris is still making some of the 2020 models but also running out.”

Yamaha reported that ATV sales were up nearly 150 percent for the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year, said Scott Newby, a communication specialist for Yamaha Motor Corp.

Sales this spring spiked in every region of the country, said Erik Pritchard, president of the Motorcycle Industry Council, a nonprofit trade association based in Washington, D.C., that has represented motorcycle and ATV manufacturers and dealers since 1914.

“I can’t say every dealership has sold out. It sounds like dealers in Maine may be exceptional in that regard. Across the country sales are way up. It’s a most unusual year,” Pritchard said.

The sales boom is not unique to the ATV industry, Pritchard said. There have been increased sales in motorcycles, RVs and bicycles, he said, as Americans look to get outside – and away from others – during the pandemic. Many people can’t vacation or don’t want to get on an airplane, so they’re looking for the next great outdoor toy.

“It’s very much a theme in many industries right now,” Pritchard said. “The question going forward will be: Is this temporary, or will the enthusiasm continue to grow?”

EMPTY LOTS EVERYWHERE

The machines are no small purchase. ATVs, which seat one and are straddled like a motorcycle, start around $800 for some youth models, and run up to $9,000, while UTVs start at $9,000 and run all the way to $20,000 and beyond for a two- or four- or six-seat vehicle that riders sit in and drive with a steering wheel like a Jeep.

At Central Maine Powersports in Lewiston, the ATV dealership usually has 200 machines spread across the lot and on display inside. Earlier this month, the showroom was half full and the outside lot was empty.

“It looks like we’re going out of business,” said co-owner Craig Anderson. “We probably have 20 to 30 percent of our normal inventory this time of year. Who would have thought it would be like this? It’s happening across the nation. The demand is higher than what you can get in.”

Craig Anderson, general manager and co-owner of Central Maine Powersports in Lewiston, stands on a showroom floor that is normally jam-packed with motorcycles and ATVs. Anderson says that his stock is down to about 25 percent of what it usually is at this time of year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Typically, ATV buyers first want to see and drive their new off-road vehicle. A week ago, Anderson had more than a dozen machines pre-sold, although it will take four months to get them, he said.

At Reynolds Motorsports in Buxton, sales almost tripled in May, said General Manager Scott Nicholas, who has worked at the dealership for 24 years. Nicholas hasn’t seen such a buying frenzy since before the 2008 recession. He has a waiting list 30 people deep – and customers from as far away as Ohio and Kentucky, as ATV riders scramble to find the exact model and color they want.

Every kind of ATV is selling well: the larger UTVs, traditional one-seater ATVs, and youth machines.

At Windham Powersports, which specializes in youth ATVs, the dealership website has had an alert posted for several weeks: “Youth ATV/Dirt Bikes and Go Kart inventory is currently at a stand still in the U.S. and we are all waiting on new arrivals to restock our Showrooms.”

“We have to keep our fingers crossed (the distributors) will throw six or 12 on a truck and send them in our direction,” said Windham Powersports owner Chris McDonald. “We have a list of customers. We email them what’s coming. Typically, they’re gone before they hit the parking lot.”

McDonald said the stay-at-home orders in the spring fueled an immediate demand for youth machines – and most of the calls he got in March and April were from parents working from home who wanted to know if an ATV would keep their child outside and keep them busy.

“For the cost of two to three weeks of day care, they could buy them a four-wheeler,” McDonald said.

At Central Maine Powersports, Anderson said many customers in May bought ATVs as presents for seniors who couldn’t go on a trip or attend a graduation party. At Houlton Powersports, co-owner Ben Adams saw a lot of first-time buyers getting into the sport this spring, as his inventory ran out. And in Oxford, where the Bowden family has owned Maine-ly Action Sports for 35 years, James Bowden said many of their customers during the unusual buying spree were veteran riders looking to upgrade.

Bob Burns Jr., president of the Messalonskee Trail Riders in Oakland, said six of his club’s 30 members bought new ATVs this year, including his son.

Steve and Laura Schaefer decided to buy their first ATV this spring – a small side-by-side – because they moved to their summer house in Grand Lake Stream early this year. Now they take the ATV to go trout fishing, to the pickleball court, and even to the post office (because Grand Lake Stream allows residents to use ATVs in the village).

“It was 50 percent because of the pandemic,” Steve Schaefer said. “Everyone around here has one. Secretly, I always wanted one. Then I had more time on my hands. So I bought a four-wheeler to clean up around my land. My kids like it. The younger crowd likes it. So we bought one.”

TRAIL TRAFFIC

ATV registration in Maine was up slightly over 2019 – by 952 machines, according to DIF&W (the registration year runs July 1 to June 30). But because of the pandemic, the registration requirement was waived by Gov. Janet Mills in the spring and town offices, where riders are required to register new machines, were closed for weeks. So it’s possible not all the new machines bought in 2020 are captured in this year’s registration numbers.

Likewise, education classes that are required for ATV riders ages 10 to 15 also have not seen a growth in numbers, said Mark Latti, DIF&W spokesman. But again, because of the virus outbreak, classes were canceled early in spring. Once they resumed, class sizes have been kept small to assure social distancing.

Cameron Campbell and Paige Bushey drive their side-by-side ATV through a puddle on their New Gloucester property. The couple bought the machine this spring. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Despite the spike in sales, accidents involving ATVs are down this year. There were 141 accidents through July 16 compared to 156 through the same date in 2019. This year’s accident figures are lower than each of the past four years.

However, with more ATVs on the trails, many club riders worry that rogue or careless practices by new riders will force trail closures across Maine’s 6,500-mile trail system – 86 percent of which is on private land.

Bronson, who served on Mills’ ATV task force seeking to restrict the size of machines allowed on the state’s trails, hopes the Legislature reconvenes this summer and passes bills that could help fund the trail system. The task force was created to address the growing number of side-by-sides that are too wide for many trails. The bills were stalled in the Legislature when it adjourned early because of the pandemic

Veteran ATV rider Jeff Pinette of Topsham, who recently upgraded his ATV, is afraid new riders already have caused problems – and it will only get worse.

“You see a lot of trail closures,” Pinette said. “New people might not be as aware of the signs. Every year you hear some negative stuff. I’ve heard a lot this year. More people is not always a good thing.”


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