Mickey Thompson, wheels of fortune

Mickey Thompson. A highly regarded name in American motorsport circles, both on and off the road. On sale through the ATS Group, these tyres may not be aimed at budget-oriented motorists, but those in the know reckon Mickey Thompson (MT) is the real performance deal. We spoke to ATS to find out more about the MT brand

Text: Danie Botha

Photography: Jannie Herbst

Seven years ago Johannesburg-based ATS Motorsport Supplies started importing a limited range of off-road and drag-racing tyres from Mickey Thompson (MT) in the United States. The off-road-racing rubber proved especially competitive in extremely slippery conditions, with legendary racer Hannes Grobler winning a national event using MT’s highly acclaimed mud tyres.

“In the early days we experimented a bit,” says ATS managing director Robin Houghton. “We imported a limited amount of off-road racing and drag-racing rubber, and sold it exclusively to motorsport competitors. It was clear from the word go that the MT products were really in their element in a motorsport environment, and at that stage we didn’t really plan on expanding the product range to more commercial applications.”

At the time Mickey Thompson’s more commercial products were being imported by relatively obscure local companies, but in 2006 Mickey Thompson headquarters in the US contacted ATS Motorsport Supplies.

“They wanted to know if we would be interested in taking over the distribution of all their products in South Africa. They needed a company with a proven track record and the necessary infrastructure to look aft er clients properly. But we didn’t want to jump into the deep end. First we did proper research into the viability of such a project. We wanted to make sure we could off er our clients and Mickey Thompson the required infrastructure,” says Houghton.

So 2007 was spent evaluating MT’s more commercial ATZ and the off -road oriented MTZ tyres, speaking to specialist 4×4 shops such as LA Sport, looking at rim options, figuring out what tyre and rim combinations would be popular here, speaking to prospective customers and setting up a proper dealer network.

“By the end of that year we decided that’s it… we were ready to roll. We ordered four 40-foot containers, filled to the brim with MT products. The business was officially up and running,” says Houghton.

In ti me clients started arriving on the ATS doorstep looking for premium MT products. ATS also found a very ready market in Ford F250 owners.

“There was a problem in supply of replacement rubber for the bakkie. If an F250 owner wanted to upgrade to a bigger wheel, there was hardly anything available. MT wheels and tyres fi lled that gap perfectly. Business rolled our way, so to speak!” says Houghton.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

“MT products are premium products, so they are more expensive than run-of-the-mill ones. Although our off -road products, such as the amazingly capable MTZ tyres, are selling well, the standard replacement models for bakkies and SUVs is a harder sell, as we are competing against a very broad spectrum of tyre brands oft en at extremely low prices,” says Houghton.

This hasn’t prevented ATS from being the only MT distributor in the world to show market growth in 2009 – a feat that amazed even the bigwigs at MT headquarters in the US.

“The financial downturn actually worked in our favour,” explains Houghton. “We found that owners of the latest and greatest double cab or 4×4 would normally change their vehicle for a brand new one every two years or so. Now some of these guys don’t want to buy that new vehicle anymore, because of the financial situation. So instead they spend more money on making their two-year-old vehicle stand out from the crowd, with an exclusive, premium and prestige look – and our MT rims and tyres again fill that gap to a tee. Now we have customers who spend between R25 000 and R40 000 on a set of rims and tyres.”

Sales figures for 2009 turned out to be four ti mes higher than those achieved in 2008. Quite remarkable in light of the negative financial climate in 2009.

“Client service and quality people working with the product have also been a priority, and I must say that MT in the US is also very focused on this. We imported one batch of rims whose powder coating started to flake. For MT there was no question: replace the customers’ wheels with new ones, immediately. That is important for customers too: to know that their premium products are supported by premium service and back-up,” says Houghton.

Other than Mickey Thompson products, ATS Motorsport also distributes another famous American brand, Dick Cepek. Cepek, a keen off -road enthusiast, founded his company in 1963, and also provides high quality on and off -road products for bakkie, SUV and 4×4 owners.

“The Dick Cepek tyre and rim range is a bit more fl ashy and shiny, for people who prefer that kind of thing. They are nevertheless very high-quality products too. So between Dick Cepek and MT we now cater for most premium off -road wheel and rim needs,” says Houghton.

And the future?

“We are very positive about the future of MT and Dick Cepek products in South Africa. Besides for the obvious such as more dealers, even better service and expanding our business on the commercial MT tyres, we are increasing our marketing activities, preferring to focus on special projects, such as the Leisure Wheels Project Navara,” Houghton, a national champion in off -road racing, explains.

Then, a small smile.

“I must admit, the day those 38-inchers were rolled out of here, I thought our guys were making a mistake with the size. I couldn’t believe they would ever fit a Navara! But they sure did… and it looks brilliant. Just like a set of premium MT rims and tyres should.”

ATS Motorsport: Tel. 011 670 8400; [email protected]; www.ats-motorsport.co.za