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28th annual Laughlin River Run

By “LoDown” Dan Parker

Cavorting on the Colorado

You can’t do it all—but you can try

Laughlin, Nev., Apr. 23—In real estate, as the axiom goes, it’s all about “location, location, location.” When it comes to hosting long-running motorcycle events, that same truth seems self-evident. As much as any other multi-day, ride-in rallies, the annual Laughlin River Run is living proof that geography can be destiny. Now in its third successful decade in this far south corner of the Silver State, it has drawn hundreds of thousands of rid-ers here over the years, including some 35,000 this year.

However, back in the day, such a bright future may not have been so obvious. Initially this was a tiny, tiny place called South Pointe where, if folks stopped at all, it was probably for a soft drink, a tip on local fishing holes or directions to Hoover Dam or Las Vegas. Impresario Don Laughlin showed up in the early 1960s and reopened a small club that had gone bust. There were a few slot machines and an eight-room motel (now grown into the impressive Riverside). Don must have been a good map-reader too, noting the area’s proximity not only to Vegas (less than 100 miles away) but also to population bases in both Arizona and California and the roads that linked them. Eventually, he even gave the place his name.

Flash forward to the early 1980s and that other saying: “If you build them (casinos, that is) they will come.” Don was right about the location and, with more casino fun in place, the River Run got off to a modest start in 1983 when, reportedly, a little less than 500 River Run pioneers showed up.

But, more important than the actual numbers was the fact that the Laughlin rally drew from the tri-state region, including getting the notice of the large population bases in Southern California. When the big biker boom shook the land in the early ’90s, Laughlin and its River Run were ready made for good times and, despite a hiccup or two, the event has never looked back. Today, Laughlin has left the sleepy little fishing village persona far behind. It has long since gone 24-hour glitter gulch, with a clutch of nine neon-coiled casinos lining two full miles of Laughlin’s riverfront.

Naughty and nice
In addition to gamblers, Laughlin also has golfers, retirees, RV jockeys, fishermen and boaters aplenty. That patina of wholesome outdoorsy recreation continues to mesh well with the motorcyclists who desire to be in the wind, at least during the day. For those who want to stay in town during the River Run, there is a river walk, jet skis for rent and water taxis aplenty. On land there are factory outlet stores and, during the River Run, lots of rider-oriented vendors. When the sun goes down, the casinos do their best to meet bikers’ more adult-oriented needs.

It’s made for a good match and for five days every spring many of Laughlin’s 7,000 locals don do-rags and skull-emblazoned T-shirts to coax bikers from the southwest U.S. and beyond to fill most of the 11,000 local hotel rooms. Additionally, there are many RV and camping spots in the region. The promise of free entertainment, a peek at some skin (just a bit, mind you—this isn’t Vegas), cheap eats, good grog and a chance to just generally whoop it up for an extended weekend of biker-style fun has been a winning formula. Consequently, it’s been dubbed the “largest ride-in motorcycle rally in the West.”

Anyone unfortunate enough to be standing along any of the many windswept main highways leading here from Nevada, California, Arizona and other points would be hard-pressed to argue against Laughlin’s claim to “ride-in rally” fame. Starting as early as Tuesday of rally week, motorcycles—individually or in pairs and groups, with most on Harley-Davidsons (but a noticeable number on other brands as well)—had rolled into town ready to party.

Some drizzly and windy weather early in the rally week may have depressed attendance this year but the 28th annual Laughlin River Run looked to be a success, sustaining its recent attendance figures. This is not an insubstantial accomplishment in an era that has seen many events founder in the current economic desert.

Less can be more
While attendance at the venerable Laughlin River Run was down noticeably from its salad days, less can be more. For example, gone now are the horrible traffic snarls of those days past (and, in some years, the horrific bike accidents that went with them). It was all the better for a nice putt across the river and up in the hills to the outlying areas like the ghostly Arizona mining of Oatman or Lake Havasu, Arizona. Gone, too, is the former insane parking—or lack thereof—conditions. And yes, there are now fewer vendors but that also meant less repetition of goods, with many of the quality folks from the past still around (vendors doing onsite installations seemed to be doing rather well indeed).

Nor have lighter turnouts led the major casinos to throw in the towel when it comes to providing quality entertainment or amenities. A case in point was the Edgewater Hotel and Casino and its sister the Colorado Belle, where the Thunder Press crew stayed this year. It was right in the center of the action, and parking the bike in the hotel’s covered lot was a breeze. There were plenty of folks at the gaming tables and machines (including Sunday at 6 a.m. as we sought a cuppa joe before loading the bike up for the ride home). At the long bar facing the Colorado River, the wait for service all weekend was never long and seats opened up often for the weary of foot.

Laughlin lovin’ feelin’
Those seeking entertainment needed only to walk a short distance to the all-day, everyday tattoo show under a big, enclosed white tent. Admission was $10 but during the nearly hourly contests on a raised stage, only the shy didn’t end up with enough freebies to at least offset some of the admission cost. And naturally, anyone lusting after some new ink to mark the occasion had a plethora of ink slingers from which to select.

There was plenty of good live music close by and, on Saturday morning, a great $1,500 poker run got started (and ended) at the Colorado Belle next door (more on that later). During the afternoon at the Belle, some additional cash and goodies were handed out to the winners of the custom bike show.

That evening out in the parking lot at the Monster Energy Drink entertainment tent, a hot and heavy Bedroom Babes contest got underway. With underwriting by Jack Daniels, a bevy of obviously professional and very enhanced lovelies wowed the slack-jawed crowd with a series of runway routines.

This is not say that the other hotels and casinos along the main drag and elsewhere didn’t get in the River Run spirit. Bill Medley, the surviving member of the Righteous Brothers, brought his lovin’ feelings, ’60s and ’70s song book, and his duet partner and daughter, McKenna, to Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino.

During the day on Friday, the American Heroes Charity Poker run left from the Tropicana and headed over to Kingman, Arizona, and Mother Road Harley-Davidson. At the far end of the strip on Friday night, Three Dog Night was slated for the amphitheater at Harrah’s. The same night and the next, outlaw country-rocker David Allen Coe appeared at the Tropicana Express. The band Cheap Trick got in the mix as well, as did a bunch of tribute acts.

The Ms. Laughlin River Run contest, with a $1,000 winner, went down at the Aquarius Casino Resort Saturday afternoon. Over at the Avi Resort and Casino a few miles outside of Laughlin, there were more vendors, bike drags and a free concert by the all-woman Iron Maidens band on Friday and Saturday Evening. And there was much, much more just about any way one turned.

Feelin’ the heat
Laughlin, which is not an incorporated city, is under the jurisdiction of the Las Vegas PD and, since a casino-floor shootout here in 2002, there has been a significant police presence here during rally weekends. In addition to the local force, an additional 160 or so officers in plain clothes and uniforms were reported to be on hand in 2010. As in recent years, it turned out to be wise to park the bike before dark. (Long gone are the days when tons of riders cruised Casino Drive, with many a lass dropping her top for beads.)

This year police patrols seemed to materialize along Casino Drive as soon as the sun dipped behind the hills. This included cops in cars, on bikes, in SUVs and even on horses. In one span between two of the major casinos, the Thunder Press crew saw five separate traffic stops of riders along the main drag. Sobriety checks seemed to be popular. The deposits of the meandering equine patrols posed some slippery problems for those who did brave the parade ride.

However, according to reports in the local news media, the 2010 Laughlin River Run was really feeling the love this year. Even the so-called “bait bikes” set out by the local cops to trick thieves got no takers and there were no other bike thefts reported, either. In all categories in Laughlin, arrests and citations were down. Across the river in Bullhead City, Arizona, citations were about the same as last year but the seven DUIs issued doubled the 2009 figure there. Across the board, there were comparatively few serious injuries or accidents reported during the rally period.

In the end, there was plenty to do at the 2010 Laughlin River Run and no one could do it all. But, judging from the early-morning bleary eyes in the Edgewater Hotel elevator, that didn’t stop some from trying. Look for this eternally youthful event to turn 29 starting on April 28 next year (one can already find hotel early-bird specials on the Internet).

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