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11th annual Thunder Beach Spring Rally

By Walt Lumpkin

Bikers’ Spring Break

Rally brings in the disillusioned

Panama City Beach, Fla., April 30–May 3—Spring is a time of renewal and freshness. The biking community renewed their faith in themselves and thumbed their collective noses at the bad economic chatter in the news when they descended on the Spring Thunder Beach Rally with all of the alacrity and ravenous appetite of Mike Tyson having an evening meal at Evander Holyfield’s expense. The economic news may have given pause to some but the solution to prudent dollar management was to book fewer days at the local hotels and condos and party harder, while staying within the downsized budget.

The event itself was renewed with new venues and fresh faces. The spring rally appeared to be the largest in recent years. Some attributed this to the disgust riders felt toward the city of Myrtle Beach and their attempts to cancel that rally. And since the South Carolina Myrtle Beach Bike Week rally traditionally follows the Gulf Coast Thunder Beach Spring rally, it has been difficult for the promoter to entice riders to travel to Panama City Beach from the Atlantic coast. Some of these riders made their first foray to the Emerald Coast this year for the largest free bike rally anywhere and were amazed at the difference in attitudes, prices and the beautiful white sand beaches. In comparison to other coastal events, the local hotels still charge reasonable rates and the food and beer you consume is usually good and moderately priced. None of the venues charge admission. This setup saves the rider mucho dinero because there are now seven different authentic Thunder Beach locations.

Frank Brown Park is by far the largest of these sites, and is located within the athletic park on the large, hard-packed grassy lands between the ball fields and the horse rink with big rigs lining the boundary. Bert Baker of Baker Drivetrain and Jerry Covington, newcomers to Thunder Beach, brought their entourages to serve the attendees. The daredevil Ives Family had an ideal setup for their stunt show of ramp jumping and close-quarters riding within the steel ball. The crowds arrived early each morning at the park to avoid the subtropical sunshine that can overwhelm the less sturdy by lunchtime. At times the bike parking areas were packed to the max and the bikes were sparkling like a sea of diamonds in the harsh glare.

The newest venue is the world-renowned Club LaVela. This location also had its share of new vendors like J&P Cycles and Fat Baggers Inc. Returning vendor Küryakyn was set up just inside the gate where Jay Barbieri and the Speed TV production crew were filming a segment for the New American Thunder television show. Jay and his crew were on location most of the rally, so if you saw a large video camera pointed in your direction, look for yourself on an upcoming episode. You could be a star, baby!

Thursday night the first-ever VIP party was held at the Ebro Dog Track about 15 miles directly up Highway 79. Vendors, builders and media were on hand. For a small price, those purchasing the VIP package received a ticket for entrance into the VIP area, a buffet, a Thunder Beach T-shirt and pin. It also gave everyone the opportunity to hobnob one-on-one with industry professionals like Vince Doll of Redneck Engineering. The track did not have the dogs running but the gaming tables were open for those who wanted to wager a few coins in the hope of a personal economic stimulus package. Based on the turnout, the dogs will probably be running next time, so each of you can help the track owners with their personal stimulus package.

On Thursday night, Jay Barbieri and Bert Baker combed the parking lot of the Ebro Dog Track during the VIP party looking for candidates for a special promotion. They located two black, almost-stock Street Glides and then returned inside to locate the owners. Küryakyn made them an offer no sane biker could refuse. If the bike owners would agree to enter their rides in the Saturday bike show, they could shop Küryakyn’s display, load any items they could get on a pushcart and then install those items free of charge. The parts had to be installed within an allotted time and the additional caveat was these guys had to agree to put their bikes in the bike show and be on TV. Quicker than you could ask, “Where do I sign?” they were turning wrenches and adding bling with help from a Küryakyn staffer. The total dollar amount of the pilfered loot eludes me but these two guys were good with a wrench and were installing everything from a new exhaust system to derby covers. I did mention the parts were free, right?

Two of my favorite people, Debbie and Dean Anderson, were on board at Club LaVela with their newly logo-wrapped motorhome touting the good times had by all on their High Seas Rallies (formerly Hogs on the High Seas) cruises. They were just about home after making a whirlwind tour around the U.S. visiting various rallies during the previous six weeks. During their travels they actually got in some relaxing riding time and sightseeing between stops. For those not in the know, Dean and Debbie host two cruises per year for bikers—one in the Western Caribbean and the other on the Mexican Riviera. Aboard these ships are as many as eight dialysis patients who are provided with medical care, cabins and pocket money by the promoters and the generosity of the shipboard rowdies.

World burnout champion Nick Lee was back at Frank Brown Park shredding several rear tires each day while contributing to the hydrocarbon overload in the atmosphere. Traditional biker games were held inside the horse-riding rink.

Pier Park hosted the second US Rider News Best of the Beach Bike Show.The inaugural event was held last fall to test the waters and work out any potential start-up problems. The spring show had 103 bikes displayed along the sidewalks and green areas. The $15,000 in cash and prizes attracted some serious iron to the beach. A number of the bikes were veterans of some of the top bike shows around the country. The mountain of previously won trophies displayed by some of the bikes had to be intimidating to fellow competitors.

Also within Pier Park are two good places to kick back and get some tasty grub and cold beverages to wash it down. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville fronts the beach road, and their patio provides a perfect vantage point to watch bikes pass by. The view of the Gulf of Mexico is not too shabby, either. Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge has live entertainment just like the mother ship in Nashville. As a matter of fact, you can sit at the bar in PC Beach and watch what is happening at the original saloon via the Internet on the in-house TVs.

Sharky’s became an official rally site a couple of events ago. They have expanded their participation with a bikini bike wash, adding more vendors and hosting a stop along the poker runs. Ms. Newby’s is not an official event location but no trip to Thunder Beach would be complete without at least a visit or two.

The Saturday morning bike parade seemed to lose a bit of its appeal the last couple of events, but this spring there was a renewed sense of self and machine. More than 700 bikes lined up to show off to the thousands lining Front Beach Road who pass judgment on the various rides and riders. The enthusiasm of the viewers sometimes exceeds that of the viewed.

The Miss Thunder Beach contest has evolved into a must-see part of Thunder Beach. Multiple eliminations during the week at various locations insure the loveliest ladies you could hope to see on stage for the finals at the Boardwalk on Friday. The prizes and cash have kept pace with the talent and are additional insurance to keep the best ladies returning. The winner becomes a “spokesmodel” for the rally so look for her in printed ads, calendars and at some select rallies promoting Thunder Beach.

So was this the best Spring Thunder Beach ever? Many would say yes. And in a time when the majority of motorcycle-oriented events have seen attendance waning, Thunder Beach continues to pack the house by keeping the itinerary fresh and entertaining. (www.thunderbeachproductions.com)

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