At least the weather’s wild
Turnout declines; diversity the theme
Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 29–March 10—It’s the first Sunday of Daytona Bike Week, and I’m cruising across International Speedway Boulevard, headed east to the beach. The weather is pretty close to perfect—sunny and in the 80s—and has been since I arrived in Orlando the morning before. The ride is a familiar one, yet there’s something different this year. Generally, Bike Week brings gridlocked traffic around the Speedway and the bridges leading to Main Street. However, the congestion around the Speedway isn’t nearly as bad as what I expected. No one seems in a terrible hurry, and few riders are cracking the throttle just to lurch forward to the next light. The street scene seems calmer than previous Bike Weeks. Or maybe it’s just my sense of relief in escaping the frozen wastelands of the North. After all, it was still snowing when I left New Jersey.
The faithful continue to flock to Daytona every year, like migratory birds, but in recent times they’ve become birds of a different feather. My first ride through Daytona Beach proper confirms that Main Street is no longer the hard-core haven of years past. The riders and their rides have become more eclectic, and I don’t mean wild-ass one-of-a-kind garage-built customs, crazy costumes or bared bodies. Sadly, those sights were few and far between. There were nearly as many sportbikes and metrics as Harleys cruising the blocks between Atlantic Avenue and the Main Street Bridge, as well as many more helmet- and protective gear-clad riders. Trikes, which used to be an oddity, have seen a dramatic increase in numbers, and now include vehicles like the Can-Am Spyder and the T-Rexx, buglike conveyances with two wheels in the front and one in back.
Harley-Davidson’s traditional high-profile presence at the Beach has taken on a different focus this year, and it appears that after years of living high on the hog, so to speak, they’ve found it strategically wise to reach outside their core ridership to expand their sales base. So outreach efforts have been undertaken to attract more women, blacks and Latinos, and new and young enthusiasts to the Harley family.
For the first time ever during Bike Week, Harley designated Tuesday as Women’s Day, with most activities taking place at the Ocean Center. Inside, interactive seminars on how to pick up a motorcycle, customization tips, and MotorClothes were presented. The main event of the day, though, was the Women’s Ride. Last year, Harley announced its Get Down to Daytona contest, and six women who submitted the best learning-to-ride mentoring videos were selected to join in the ride. Each of the six winners received an all-expense-paid road trip for two from Atlanta to Daytona (including three nights’ stay in Daytona) with Karen Davidson, (great-granddaughter of Harley-Davidson co-founder William A. Davidson), her husband Scott, and six other Harley staffers. Hosting Harley dealerships at the starting point in Atlanta and the overnight stops in Savannah and St. Augustine arranged a slew of activities in honor of the women, and to help raise funds for one of Harley’s favorite charities, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. These events and other ride-related fundraising activities allowed Harley to donate almost $65,000 to the MDA.
Five hundred women preregistered to join the final leg of the ride—a five-mile fully escorted parade from the International Speedway to the Ocean Center. The skies were overcast with the threat of rain (and it did pour cats and dogs later that day), so somewhat less than half that number actually participated. According to Harley-Davidson Women’s Outreach Manager Leslie Prevish, “It was still one of the biggest parades run by Harley. It was great! People were waving all along the route, showing their support. And one of the biggest impacts of the ride was how the core riders really bonded. It just goes to show that being with a group of Harley-Davidson riders, you really become a family.”
Once the Women’s Ride ceremonies were over, I took a leisurely stroll through the Ocean Center. All of Harley’s displays this year, especially the women’s exhibits, were bright, spacious, and inviting, even though the Ocean Center is in the middle of a $76 million expansion project. This expansion will more than double its current space from 225,000 square feet to over 452,000 square feet. The ongoing construction has completely done away with the former parking lot behind the building where some of Harley’s outdoor activities have taken place in the past. Instead, the front of the center served to host the Harley-Davidson Traveling Museum, annual ride-in bike show, BOSS (Ball of Steel Stunt show), and other live entertainment.
Bikers on Bethune
Black riders have been congregating along Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard in the heart of Daytona’s Midtown Black Heritage District during Bike Week for decades; some say the gathering goes back to the ’60s or even before. Although I’ve ridden through the area in prior years, time constraints had always prevented me from spending any time there. This year, though, I was determined to enjoy a part of Bike Week that I hadn’t yet taken part in.
As I parked the bike on the boulevard, I saw thousands of bikers enjoying the day (Thursday afternoon was sunny and warm) and each other’s company. I spoke with Turner Hynes of the Second Avenue Merchants Association who told me that the event has been growing each year. She said it was held in Joe Harris Park until about 20 years ago when the scene outgrew the park and spilled out onto the surrounding streets. Turner tells me, “There’s not much money in the community, and we created something from nothing. We’ll be approaching the major motorcycle companies for financial support.”
The delicious smells emanating from the many food vendors mingled with a cacophony of sounds pouring out from the equally numerous CD tents, and were punctuated by motorcycle exhaust notes and friends yelling greetings to one another. The musical styles ranged from Motown to funk; rap to R&B. I hung out quite a bit near the Old School CD booth and grooved to tunes by George Clinton and Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—reminders of my dance club days in New York City.
What really struck me was the friendliness and welcoming nature of the community. It was much more of a true neighborhood vibe, quite unlike any other scene at Bike Week. I didn’t have to ride a certain type of bike or dress in a certain style. It was as if I were a long-lost friend who’d come back to visit. It seems there are no strangers on Bethune Boulevard— just friends who haven’t yet met.
Dozens of motorcycle clubs and social clubs make this event an annual pilgrimage. This year, the Orlando chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers MC set up a hospitality area to welcome other Buffalo Soldiers chapters who traveled from all over the country. I chatted with some members of a Newark, New Jersey, club that my own Newark-based club hangs out with—the Newark Knights MC, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year! Most Wanted MC, Four Seasons MC, Magic Wheels MC—there were many different club colors seen at the event, yet no rivalry seemed to exist. Everyone was there just to have a good time.
Bethune Boulevard wasn’t blocked off even though vendor booths, parked bikes, and people lined both sides of the street. Adding to the neighborhood feeling was folks who were riding or driving down the boulevard, spotting a friend or acquaintance coming the other way, and then stopping traffic on both sides for a chat. No one honked, yelled, or got impatient—not even the cops who were sometimes behind a line of bikes and cars. It was a much more mellow scene than the frenzy of Main Street or Atlantic Avenue, and the cops who cruised by were definitely not looking to hand out tickets to riders who rev their motors or lay rubber. It seemed that visitors were much too respectful of the neighborhood to pull those kinds of shenanigans—at least during the day I was there.
The scene on Bethune Boulevard was another Bike Week venue where heavyweight Harley-Davidson chose to focus its outreach efforts. For the past four years, Harley had given its support behind the scenes through banner and financial support. This year, the company stepped up that support by setting up one of its big rigs in Daisy Stocking Park just off Bethune for the Black Bikers in the Park event. Various 2008 Harley models were on display, and Harley staff was on hand to provide women-only riding tips. Harley also sponsored a Hot Model competition where entrants compete for a spot, with two models being selected to compete in a big competition at Harley’s 105th Anniversary. These two models will compete with finalists from other events such as the National Bikers Roundup, West Coast Roundup, LAMA (Latin American Motorcycle Association), and Black Bike Week in Myrtle Beach. The two final winners selected in Milwaukee will win prizes and photo features in Harley’s 2009 MotorClothes catalog.
Heavy rain on Friday prevented the scheduled activities from taking place, but the weather cleared up Saturday in time for the Hot Model finals, a trophy party, and a special performance by Darryl McDaniels of hip-hop group Run-DMC to take place. Darryl learned to ride last year by taking the Rider’s Edge course at Barb’s Harley-Davidson in Camden County, New Jersey, and has been a staunch supporter of and participant in many Harley events since then.
Even though Harley sent its “street team” out to draw riders into Daisy Stocking Park, many folks didn’t notice that there were any activities there. A few hundred people did show up for some of the late afternoon and early evening events, but there wasn’t much for them to do in the park during the daytime so they went back out onto the street to shop, eat, listen to music, and just hang out. It was a decent first attempt, though, and Harley-Davidson’s director of market outreach Lynn Bonner, who was present for the duration (and in fact was one of the judges of the Hot Model contest), confirmed that Harley is committed to this event. Lynn commented, “Harley will continue to look for ways to be with the community and have a more integrated presence. We want to do more activities and be more interactive with people, and create an experience where people want to linger and enjoy. Everyone’s invited!”
Festivities continued on Bethune Boulevard till midnight every night, but I couldn’t stay that long. Heavy rain was predicted for that evening, and I’d promised our esteemed (and hungry) editorial director Terry that I’d bring some ribs home. My nose led me to Hazel Dendy’s food tent. The marinated ribs with barbecue sauce and the red velvet cake were divine. Hazel, if you’re still wondering whether you should run a full-time food business, my vote is a resounding “Yes!”
Old is new
This year also saw a dramatically increased interest in old-school bikes, and the bike shows representing this genre doubled in number. Willie’s Tropical Tattoo hosted what’s arguably the most famous (and well-attended) of the bunch on Thursday, although the Last Resort claims that its Saturday show is the granddaddy of the garage-built shows. After 35 successful years of bike shows in Daytona and other locations, Rat’s Hole expanded its venue into a three-day Rat Fest, with a metric bike contest on Thursday, a Rat Rods and Old School Bobbers show on Friday, and the traditional World Famous Chopper Show on Saturday.
About 50 bobbers of various styles and a half-dozen rat rods competed for prizes at Rat Fest, but I wanted to get to another new venue before the forecasted tropical storm-strength rain and winds hit Daytona. This new spot, Limpnickie Lot, was set up at the Stone Edge Skate Park in Port Orange, across the street from Miller’s Custom Parts. It was intended to draw the younger motorcycle enthusiast and featured next generation builders like Sucker Punch Sallys, Bling’s Cycles, Nash Motorcycle Company, Street Smart Cycles, and Detroit Bros., and included the first appearance of Keino Cycles since Keino Sasaki left the Indian Larry Legacy.
On Wednesday, the crowd enjoyed skate demos by Benji Galloway and the Bacon Skate Team. The celebrity paintball tournament following the demos sounded like the most fun any grown-up could ever have. Infamous gypsy rider Bean’re showed me a colorful bruise on his ribs that he’d earned. And I thought paintball wasn’t supposed to be a painful sport.
The Friday chopper show drew nearly 50 bikes, and was a very cool mix of vintage daily riders and retro-style choppers and bobbers with modern twists (exactly what the next generation builders at Limpnickie Lot represent). The awards presentation was moved up as the sky continued to darken, and guest judge and emcee Roadside Marty did an admirable job of insulting nearly everyone there. In the middle of the prize giveaways, the skies opened up and the street turned into a stream. I heard the emcee call out, “First one up to the stage with a New Jersey driver’s license wins these handlebars donated by Miller’s Custom Parts.” I was way over on the other side of the lot, trying to stay dry under Led Sled Customs’ tent and I just wasn’t willing to make a run for it in the driving rain, so congratulations to the other New Jersey rider who claimed the prize. You earned it.
During a break in the downpour, I jumped onto my bike to head back to our home away from home. As soon as I got the kickstand up, the rain came down even harder than before. Ah, well, how wet could I get in just the four or five miles I had to ride? That question was answered upon my arrival at our lodgings as I peeled off layer after layer of damp (and sometimes drenched) clothing and prayed to the camera gods that my Canon hadn’t drowned inside my backpack.
Avid weather-obsessed bikers that we are, we stayed glued to the Weather Channel for the rest of the night, and learned that tornadoes had touched down in Leesburg, about 70 miles to the southwest, and near Tallahassee, 150 miles northwest of Daytona. We got lucky. That said, the stormy weather didn’t break until Saturday morning, and left cold and windy conditions in its wake. Putting things in perspective, though, 60-degree weather is a heckuva lot better than the 10 degrees the thermometer showed on my back porch the day I left New Jersey, or the snow that hit northern Texas that week.
All spread out
The light traffic I noticed on my way into Daytona continued throughout the week except for the usual traffic-crammed spots like the bridges leading to Main Street, Main Street itself, and Tomoka Farms Road on coleslaw wrestling days at the Cabbage Patch. Tangela Boyd from the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau commented, “It’s definitely a smaller crowd than previous years. We’ve always said Bike Week draws between 400,000 and 500,000 visitors, but this year, it looks like the numbers were down to about 300,000, just like the newspapers reported. Remember, the crowds are more spread out now.” One major reason is the ever-expanding Destination Daytona that draws the masses away from Main and Beach Streets and closer to the house that Bruce Rossmeyer built. Since last year’s Bike Week, J&P Cycle has opened a superstore among other new retail ventures and the new Coca Cola pavilion stands ready to host events. Future plans call for 125 luxury RV sites, a new restaurant, and a second hotel. Needless to say, both US-1 and I-95 were heavily congested in that area most of the week.
The Deland Bike Rally also draws crowds on the first Saturday of Bike Week. “Gas prices and the economy are other reasons,” Tangela continued. “We rely a lot on Northeast blue collar workers. With construction slowdowns, there’s not enough money to travel. Plus there’s a lot more competition among events. Many people like smaller rides that may be closer to home. We also noticed that there was no pre-crowd (i.e., riders that visit Daytona the week prior to Bike Week to avoid the crowds). And the weather on the last weekend may have hurt a bit.”
Nonetheless, to this rider from Northern New Jersey, Daytona Bike Week is the harbinger of spring, bringing hopes for an early riding season when I return home.