Going Coastal in Carolina
Rally grows beyond the Grand Strand
Myrtle Beach, S.C., May 11–20—There it is! “Pedro Welcomes You to South of the Border! Only 100 More Miles!” No, I’m not riding my Dyna into Mexico. This is just the first of probably 50 such billboards dotting the I-95 South landscape as I head toward South Carolina. The signs heralding my approach to South of the Border, a landmark highway stop, are always a welcome sight because they let me know that I’m nearing Myrtle Beach. OK, so I’m still 175 miles away, but considering where I came from, it seems like I’m just around the corner. As Pedro says: “Eef you follow Pedro’s signz, ze treep seems MOCH shorter!”
Soon enough, I’m following a steady stream of trailers—and not quite as many motorcycles—down South Carolina State Route 501. I notice that some of the license plates are from Minnesota, Illinois, New York, the New England states, and even one or two from Quebec. Although it makes me wonder what happened to all the folks who actually used to ride, I begin to realize that Myrtle Beach Bike Week isn’t just a rally for Southerners anymore. In fact, some Daytona Beach Bike Week vendors have complained that a lot of their customers are choosing to attend the spring Myrtle Beach rally instead. The lure of Myrtle Beach is hard to resist. The weather is generally quite favorable, although rain sometimes precedes the upcoming hurricane season. This year, only one day was marred by a few hours of rain. But who cares if you get wet when a warm, balmy breeze dries you off by the time you reach your destination?
Myrtle Beach is quite different from the other big rallies. Unlike Daytona Beach, Laconia and Sturgis, Myrtle Beach Bike Week did not spring forth from motorcycle racing or AMA road rallies. And there’s no Main Street where motorcycles line both sides of the road and cars are prohibited for the duration. Ocean Boulevard, the beachside street that runs most of the length of Myrtle Beach, used to be the spot to cruise every evening before the sun went down. However, last year, the city made Ocean Boulevard one-way, with traffic going south from 2 p.m. till midnight. To further add to the indignity, the entrances to most westbound streets were blocked off so riders had few opportunities along the two and a half mile strip to escape. Because of this traffic pattern change, there weren’t nearly as many bikes (or cars) on Ocean Boulevard this year. However, this seemed to cause longer-than-usual traffic backups on both 17 Business and 17 Bypass, where many rally attractions were located. Visitors, and even some residents, were somewhat disappointed because dragging a beach chair and cooler onto the sidewalk and just watching the show was a big part of the Bike Week experience in the past. In fact, some considered Ocean Boulevard the heart of Myrtle Beach. No worries, though. There were plenty of other attractions to keep bikers busy throughout the week.
Myrtle Beach is a huge family tourism destination, and gigantic shopping areas have sprung up to support the business generated by the beach, golf courses both full-size and miniature, and the euphemistically named gentleman’s clubs. Nevertheless, you probably won’t mind that you’re in the middle of a tourist mecca at Barefoot Landing in North Myrtle Beach because the shops, restaurants, and hundreds of Bike Week vendors and several major motorcycle manufacturers are arranged around a rather inviting body of water with bridges connecting various parts of the property. The whole area is quite relaxing, even with tons of people and all the bikes zooming in and out of the parking lot.
Colonial Mall, just a few miles south of Barefoot Landing, also hosts a collection of vendors, with the Boss Hoss demo rides drawing lots of attention this year. Folks sitting on the monster Boss Hosses often look nearly paralyzed with dread when they set out, but when the test-ride brigade returns, those frowns of fear are generally replaced by gigantic grins.
One of the largest venues is Broadway at the Beach, a conglomeration of shops, restaurants, theaters, hotels, and even an aquarium. Part of the parking lot is populated with major motorcycle and parts manufacturers. In the shopping area, the Hard Rock Café opens onto Celebrity Square where bands play on the big stage, vendor booths are packed in among the permanent stores, and sidewalk cafes provide some respite from the midday heat. It’s a festive atmosphere, and you can spend days enjoying the shopping, the music, and the liquid refreshments.
The players and where they play
Myrtle Beach is also unique among the larger rallies because no single entity organizes all the events. The Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association started Myrtle Beach Bike Week 67 years ago. However, Sonny Copeland, a former member of the Association, owns the Myrtle Beach Bike Week name. For the past 20 years or so, Sonny Productions has hosted vendors at the Inlet Square Mall in Murrells Inlet.
For the past 14 years, Sonny has led poker runs Monday through Thursday during Bike Week. The runs start at Inlet Square Mall where the first card is handed out, and the second card is drawn at a beautiful park along the Waccamaw River in Conway. The next stop was at the peaceful and picturesque La Bella Amie Vineyard in North Myrtle Beach. The fourth card was drawn at Medieval Times in Myrtle Beach, where the crew put on a special show just for us, and the last card was drawn at the Lone Star back at Inlet Square. These roughly 130-mile poker runs are a great opportunity to enjoy the scenic roads of the Low Country outside of Myrtle Beach. Although Sonny is pretty busy during the rally, he enjoys showing people roads they’ve never seen. And, he says, “It helps me keep my sanity during Bike Week.”
The Carolina H-D Dealers Association sponsors the Myrtle Beach Spring Rally, held concurrently with Bike Week. The official dates of the Spring Rally, however, are May 15 through May 19. Most of their events take place at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center or at the dealerships. Myrtle Beach Harley-Davidson, in conjunction with Jack Daniel’s, came up with Cruisin’ the Coast in honor of the legendary pirates who cruised the Atlantic Coast in the 18th century. The idea is for riders to cruise the coast in search of special pins at four area Harley dealers. This year’s “pin pirate” is Calico Jack, who was killed in an attack on his ship when he was too drunk to defend himself.
All that too confusing for you? Then let’s stop for some refreshments at the Iron Gate Saloon, a rally mainstay just next door to Myrtle Beach H-D. Vendors and bikes are packed in the parking lot and the area around the saloon and dealership, and it’s a must for anyone who wants to be around thousands of their fellow riders, not to mention the lovely bartenders who have created many imaginative ways to pour shots down thirsty throats.
There are plenty more partying spots in Myrtle Beach. Burnout pits, live music, contests, and all sorts of other activities attract thousands every day and night to Suck Bang Blow Original and Suck Bang Blow Four Corners at Murrells Inlet. The Broken Spoke in Garden City Beach offers bands, bike shows, vendors, and the famous Wall of Death as performed by the daredevils of the American Motor Drome. I’ve seen the show countless times, but I still get chills every time Jay Lightnin’, Wahl E. Wahl, Charlie Ransom, Flash de Monet, and the talented Samantha Morgan go round the boards. Several more bike shows take place during the rally, like the one at Dog House South, another popular hangout along with its sister location in North Myrtle Beach, and the Masters Club.
Nekkid in the outskirts
Another bike show was held at the Rat Hole, a vending and fun spot run by Ratt Weaver and Buster Brown, a couple of good ol’ Southern boys. The 15-acre location is on private property, and no one under the age of 18 is allowed in the venue during the day. The minimum age is bumped up to 21 at night. As you can imagine, just about anything goes at the Rat Hole. The main event in the daytime is the Handlebars and Horns Rodeo, where you’ll see biker games like the beer keg roll, slow races, and the ever-popular wienie bite contest with the participants’ choice of ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise. During one of the days I was there, I stuck around for the pudding wrestling. I won’t soon forget the sight of women ripping each other’s clothes off while trying to pin each other for the count of three. There’s probably nothing more demoralizing for the contestants (or more fun for the spectators) than the ladies slithering around in an inflatable pool of pudding while struggling to get that T-shirt or pair of shorts back on. And these aren’t fashion models, folks. I can safely say that I probably won’t be eating any chocolate pudding for a long, long time.
The farther away from Myrtle Beach you get, the wilder the party. H. B. Spokes, about 25 miles north in the small town of Longs, is one of the old-time biker bars/restaurants popular with the Myrtle Beach crowd. It has 10 inside and outside bars, live bands, and the most elaborate and dramatic burnout pit—or should I say burnout chute?—I’ve ever seen. Suck Bang Blow has also opened up a new location, The Hog Pound SBBQ, in Andrews. One advertisement says, “Five acres of wild countryside 40 minutes from Myrtle Beach. Great ride, great BBQ, live music, get nekkid if ya wanna!” With these two anything-goes biker bars, the rally has now been extended to a distance of about 80 miles.
We’ve heard about former city officials who were not particularly biker-friendly, and in fact, there were rumblings of a Myrtle Beach rally boycott a few years ago that never panned out, but the only indication I saw of this anti-biker attitude was that some hotel and condo owners, while happy to take a rider’s hard-earned cash, would not allow motorcycles on their properties. I heard reports that a group of riders at one hotel, located in a residential neighborhood where motorcycles aren’t allowed, were advised to park their bikes in a lot half a mile away. The police officers on traffic duty didn’t seem to go out of their way to harass bikers, although, just like at any other rally, if you revved the motor on a bike with loud pipes, you’d most likely be handed a ticket.
I spoke with officials from the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, the City of Myrtle Beach, and Horry County, and all agreed that this year’s rally experienced even fewer problems than prior years. Though three motorcycle-related fatalities occurred in the county, the number was down from seven last year. (A fourth rider was on his way to Myrtle Beach so his death wasn’t included in the count). All fatalities were due to four-wheeled vehicles turning left in front of the riders. Lisa Bourcier, a Horry County spokesperson, said that, except for the fatalities, the county had a very good experience this year: “We’re starting to see more people enjoy the first weekend than last year. The crowds seemed to spread out more over the week and throughout the county,” she said. She also commented that the county didn’t receive many complaints from residents. Myrtle Beach public information officer Mark Kruea echoed that statement and added, “I don’t know why, but I would hope it’s attributable to the bikers taking more care not to disturb the residents as they ride.”
Although the city doesn’t keep statistics on rally attendance, the Chamber of Commerce’s Nicole Aiello gave me estimates from the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism at Coastal Carolina University. A survey shows that weekend occupancy rates averaged about 2 percent less than last year, but keep in mind that less than 10 percent of the 89,000 units along the 60 miles of the Grand Strand are surveyed, so estimates are probably under the true number. This is borne out by the 325,000 people who were estimated to be in Myrtle Beach from May 11 through May 20, compared to last year’s estimate of 300,000.
Good news, bad news
With other rallies’ attendance numbers dropping over the past few years, it’s pretty impressive that Myrtle Beach has increased its rally population. And new biker-friendly businesses are opening up in Myrtle Beach, as well. For instance, Wimmer Performance has opened a new motorcycle shop on 17 Bypass, a second Milwaukee Iron is now open, and Jamin’ Leather is opening a second location in Surfside Beach very soon.
The last night of my stay in Myrtle Beach arrived much too soon. Since I was staying only a half mile from the Broken Spoke, that’s where I ended up on my way back most nights. I can’t think of a more fitting place to end a fine week of riding, partying, and just hanging out. And as for the other places I wanted to go and roads I wanted to ride around Myrtle Beach, well, there’s always next year.