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17th annual Biketoberfest

By Mike Savidge

Redesigning Daytona

Changes refine Florida’s fall rally

Daytona Beach, Fla., Oct. 15–18—There was some skepticism leading up to this year’s Biketoberfest celebration in Daytona Beach. With the weak state of the economy, especially within the state of Florida where a majority of the fall rally riders come from, would the party still be able to draw the usual large crowd? Also, given the state of the motorcycle industry, would the builders and vendors be willing to haul their wares to town and set up shop for four days? Thankfully, most of us in the motorcycle community don’t seem to let the state of the world interfere with our fun. Thousands of riders showed up and enjoyed an event that is spreading its impact further each year. And most of the big players in the business of selling motorcycles, parts and accessories saw this as another opportunity to directly connect with their customer base.

The attendance numbers are officially always unofficial, and even though the crowd may have been a bit smaller than in previous years, you probably didn’t notice the difference if you were shuffling along Main Street with the masses after sundown, or stuck in the near-constant traffic flow on the Ormond Strip. At those times, you were probably thinking to yourself, where did all these friggin’ people come from? It seems the event is starting to draw bikers from farther away. The Biketoberfest celebrations in the past have had a distinctly Florida flavor to them. But glancing around the hotel parking lot, I noticed a lot of southeastern state tags, and even one from Alaska. A Pennsylvania rider explained it to me in terms I could easily understand: “Our summer sucked. I came down here to do some riding before winter sets in.”

Well, dude, our Florida summer was very hot this year and seemed like it would never end, with Mother Nature still baking the state as Biketoberfest got underway on Thursday. I spent most of my ride over from Tampa trying (with little success) to avoid what the local weather guy calls isolated rain showers. They weren’t nearly isolated enough for me. But the heat wave got its butt kicked on Friday night when a cold front started moving down the state. There was a brief evening shower but it did little to slow down the party, although I’m sure it helped earn the bike wash girls some extra coin on Saturday. The cooler weather on Saturday and Sunday also put big smiles on the leather vendors’ faces.

Putting some extra coin in someone’s pocket was the original idea behind the formation of what has become known as Biketoberfest. Back in 1992, the Daytona Beach Convention and Visitor’s Bureau promoted an event they called the Daytona Fall Tour. They were looking to fill some hotel rooms during the slow period. And since Bike Week in March kicks off the motorcycle-racing season, they wanted to create an event that would be a fitting celebration when the racing wrapped up in October. Janet Kersey was a new employee at the CVB back then and headed up the committee that organized the first fall rally. She’s now an executive vice president and chief operating officer at the CVB and has watched the event grow from attracting 5,000 that first year to more than 100,000 in recent years. “I’m extremely pleased at how many came out and how the event has spread throughout the county,” Janet told me after she had a few days to assess this year’s results. On a tour through the area, she noted that a lot of local mom-and-pop establishments were getting decent business from the bikers and even though the hotel booking rates were good, she said that a lot of people were renting out condos and private homes, especially those that were already on the market for sale. This is an area that depends on the tourist economy and special events to survive. Given the current slump in both, many of the hotels were offering lower-than-usual rates and foregoing the usual minimum-night stays. My hotel was also offering excellent rates to get you to return for the 2010 rallies if you booked early. The city of Daytona Beach and bikers have had an up-and-down relationship at times but Janet wanted to make sure the motorcycle community knows how grateful the local merchants and residents are for the economic boost the bike events give to the city.

I’m not sure if the local police are grateful, but they certainly seemed to have a different attitude this fall. Plus there were a lot fewer of them to be seen. While it could be that they had to cut back on overtime, I believe they’ve come to realize the heavy-handed approach really isn’t necessary. I noticed it most along Main Street where you could walk for a block or more without seeing a uniform, and those who were patrolling seemed to be more willing to let the crowd enjoy the party a bit more than in the past. I watched as one unsuspecting girl (not realizing there was a cop standing right behind here) twisted the throttle to impress the crowd. I was waiting for the usual citation ritual but was surprised to watch the officer approach, giving the rider only a verbal scolding and a wag of the finger. It was a different, and welcome, attitude change.

Even Main Street itself was a little different this year. Normally a glance skyward would reveal a display of Biketoberfest banners lining the street. Not so this year. It’s a minor thing but another one of the changes found during Biketoberfest ’09. And for those who remember an old guy in a spandex suit with a big horned helmet parading down Main Street during previous visits, I hate to report that he’s gone on to that big bike rally in the sky. A flyer posted on the wall at Froggy’s told the story of a man named Archie along with his place in the lore of Daytona bike events.

Friday was spent checking out the activities at Daytona International Speedway with the background music of the race machines speeding around the track. And while the fewer number of custom bike builders this year was to be expected, the absence of the Harley demo fleet came as a big surprise. In its place was the pin stop for the Harley Owners Group. Stopping to check if the demos had been relocated, I was told that was not the case. I was also told that Harley would not be occupying the Ocean Center as it usually does in March for Bike Week. Conflicting reports place them at either the Speedway or Beach Street for the spring of 2010.

If bike shows are your passion, there’s no way to be disappointed during Biketoberfest. There’s at least one bike show each day and each has its own distinct flavor. The first, and the one with the highest coolness points, takes place on Thursday afternoon at Willie’s Tropical Tattoo. The shop is located in Ormond Beach, and the show gets better and bigger with each event. Beautiful pinup biker babes, cold brews and a live band in the back make this just as much a party as it is a bike show. It’s old school meets Joe Cool. Usually, the Boardwalk Bike Show on Friday is a great place for shooting photos of some pretty unique creations with a beautiful ocean backdrop. However, this year someone thought it would be a good idea to tear out the palm trees that lined the beachside walkway, leaving large gaping dirt holes. The new planters haven’t yet been installed and the entire show space was squeezed into the back half of the boardwalk area while the perimeter was outlined with iron railings and yellow caution tape. It wasn’t pretty but the crowd didn’t seem to mind at all. Anyone who showed up on Saturday at the Water Park looking for the Rat’s Hole Bike Show in its customary location discovered it wasn’t there. In fact, for the first time ever, it wasn’t even in Daytona Beach. The show, which has a reputation for bringing out the best that the custom bike-building world has to offer, was relocated to the Coca-Cola Pavilion at Destination Daytona in Ormond Beach. Founded more than three decades ago by the late Karl “Big Daddy Rat” Smith, the Rat’s Hole was the original bike show on the Boardwalk, was free and drew huge crowds. The crowds eventually became so large the city wanted Karl to start paying for security if they continued to use the Boardwalk. Karl’s son Ted and his family manage the shows now and in recent years they’ve been held at the Peabody Auditorium and at the Water Park. Ted told me he had been working with Bruce Rossmeyer prior to his death to move the show to Destination Daytona. Ted saw it as being beneficial for the builders who enter his shows to get more exposure with the massive crowds that Destination Daytona draws during the events. The bikes took up most of the floor space under the cover of the Coca-Cola Pavilion and they were even able to add a live band to the show. The move also allowed them to eliminate the admission fee for spectators, something Ted has told me he has always wanted to do since they left the Boardwalk location. As they were attending to all of the details on Saturday, Pam Smith told me they were extremely pleased with the new digs. I’m sure Destination Daytona is also happy playing host to the show as the effects of the economy are obvious here also. Remember the Arlen Ness shop? It’s now a Destination Daytona T-shirt outlet store. The people who seemed to be doing the best business here were the food vendors. It seemed like every place had a line. No matter what the economy, ya gotta eat.

This was the first Daytona bike event in many years without Bruce Rossmeyer. His death this past summer was felt tremendously in this area but the Rossmeyer family seems to have not missed a single step in keeping everything rolling smoothly. The week before Biketoberfest, his annual Ride For The Children to benefit Camp Boggy Creek was held and his smiling face still adorns billboards throughout the area. His original dealership downtown was also a hub of activity as Beach Street goes through another facelift. A few years ago, the real estate boom had developers licking their chops over the riverside location and the properties were bought up as condo plans were developed. Many of the bike businesses moved out since they didn’t fit into the new plans and couldn’t afford the high rents that were looming. Beach Street became an afterthought during the events. Since the real estate world went bust, the area is now being redeveloped with mainstays like Carl Morrow moving their businesses back to Beach Street. Riverfront Park is once again open during Biketoberfest, playing host to several vendors, live music and a bikini contest.

A popular nearby riding spot happened to receive some prestigious recognition during this year’s event when the Ormond Beach Loop and Trail was designated as a National Scenic Byway. There are only 149 other roads so honored throughout the country so the trail has some pretty elite company. This is a two-lane roadway that winds through the coastal marshlands just north of Ormond Beach and carries a hidden benefit. If you take the back way out of the loop on the Old Dixie Highway, you can come into Destination Daytona from the north on I-95 and avoid the congestion of coming up US 1—unless, of course, you’re one of those people who enjoys sitting in traffic.

Watching people load up on Sunday morning, it occurred to me that Biketoberfest has succeeded with what it set out to do. The CVB has created an event that helps fill a large number of hotel rooms that would have gone unsold, and they managed to provide a fitting celebration to the end of the motorcycle-racing season by appealing to the non-race crowd with attractions and entertainment throughout the area. Mission accomplished.

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