SILVERADO, CALIF., JUNE 30—I’m not believing this! Everyone was pretty sure attendance would be up this year, but this is ridiculous! Those were my impressions as I entered the east parking area at Oak Canyon Ranch at around noon on Saturday, June 30, and began the quest for a parking space. Event officials had already opened parking areas that I’d never noticed before. Plus they had diverted all of the cars, a sizable number, to a parking area to the north of the property in order to free up yet more space for bikes.
A bit of background on the rally: Mike Davis, owner of Born Loser Cycles, and Grant Peterson, owner of Freedom Machinery and Accessories, started the whole thing three years ago when the modest garage party they had planned went viral. By year number two, enthusiasts from all over North and South America, Europe (including Russia), all over Asia, with a sizable contingent from Japan, as well as groups from Australia and New Zealand made the pilgrimage to join their custom building brethren. Then last year, of the 8,000 to 10,000 attendees who showed up at Oak Canyon Ranch, the new rally site, hundreds of intrepid souls rode their Flatheads, Knucks, Pans and Shovels to the rally from far-flung regions across the U.S. and Canada, enduring challenging weather conditions and mechanical issues during the journey.
After the awards ceremony Grant and Mike favored me with interviews, and I asked for a guesstimate of the crowd size. “We’re
sure it’s bigger than the eight to 10 thousand from last year,” Grant offered. Mike Davis said, “Yeah, some rally-savvy people are saying it’s somewhere between 12 and 15 thousand, but based on the number of parking areas that opened up, some are estimating it could be higher, maybe as many 18 to 20 thousand. What were you thinking, PJ?” I had to admit I was way off when I estimated last year’s turnout, so I might not be the best one to ask on the matter. The thing is, it’s the Born Free Show—so since there’s no charge to get in, we’ll probably never know with any certainty how many people showed up.
If you were looking for more of the usual suspects set up in booths in the vendor village at the Born Free Show, you would have been disappointed. Sure, a couple of rally stalwarts were in evidence. Motorcycle attorneys Schapiro & Leventhal, along with The Law Tigers, were both present and accounted for, Roland Sands had a booth, and Andy, owner of seat manufacturer Bar Enterprises, waved to me from his booth. However, with a few other exceptions, pretty much all of the other vendors were ones rarely (or never) seen by this reporter. Sections of the vendor area took on the aura of some kind of offbeat, two-wheeled midway. There was a guy with a barber chair giving shaves and razor cuts, and almost all of the gear purveyors offered sensually designed clothing items. Some of the models were pretty exotic, even for SoCal standards. Tats ruled supreme, and the signage on some of the booths featured explicit language and suggestive images. Clutches of bikes sporting vintage motors were everywhere. The moment you got a photo of one group of bikes you spotted another a few yards away, displaying yet more audacious designs, chrome and bright work. Talk about a target-rich environment; man, I never even bothered to sling my camera down on my hip. I kept it in hand and at the ready.
I happened to stop by world land-speed record holder Wink Eller’s booth, just as he fired up one of his over-powered monsters in order to demonstrate one feature or another to an inquisitive motoscribe. Holy shit! I’m no stranger to loud machinery, but damn…
As intriguing as the offerings in the vendor area proved to be, the assortment of audacious-looking examples of two-wheeled industrial art languishing about the two-plus acre infield expanse in the middle of Oak Canyon Ranch drove my poor air-cooled mind past the point of boggled. I found myself dropping to my knees and a few times actually lying on my belly or my back to get the angle required to properly record the images of these tributes to the imagination of their designer/builders.
Just when I thought I’d been bedazzled to the limit, I happened to stroll on over to the patio area in front of the main stage.
There I found the two raffle prize bikes (Panheads) and last year’s raffle prize bike (Knucklehead) parked in and among more than a half-dozen of the most eye-catching pieces of machinery at the rally. I know; how much better could it get?
Though the vibe at the Born Free Show was already topping the chart, the buzz among attendees got kicked up yet another notch when word got around that Willie G. Davidson himself was onsite, greeting attendees while perusing the multiple rows of classic motorcycles. Mr. Davidson, recently retired from his position with The Motor Company as senior vice president and chief styling officer, was in hog heaven—literally. I can’t remember ever having seen him so engaged and in such great spirits. Nancy Davidson accompanied her husband and their daughter Karen, the creative director of general merchandise for The Motor Company was also there with her husband Scott Phillips. The story goes that when his contacts in SoCal regaled him with tales of last year’s third iteration of Born Free, Willie G. made plans to come out to Orange County on Saturday, June 30, a day earlier than he normally would, in order to attend Rip’s BAD Ride on Sunday, July 1, specifically so he could attend the Born Free Show. The design of Harley-Davidson’s latest version of the Sportster, which Mr. Davidson approved just before he retired, was obviously heavily influenced by trends displayed by the current group of custom builders.
I got the chance to visit with world-renowned sculptor Jeff Decker who works in bronze at his Hippodrome Studio in Utah creating pieces that depict vintage motorcycles and their riders (www.jeffdeckerstudio.com). Jeff was displaying some examples of his art including “By the Horns,” a.k.a. “The Hill Climber,” one of his most recognizable pieces. When I asked Mr. Decker for his thoughts on the rally and on the current crop of custom builders he responded, “Years ago when you went to Sturgis, the custom builders were coming up with exciting design ideas. Then somehow over the last few decades or so it seems as though the design process has become stagnant. I don’t necessarily mean boring, but… Now this new breed of custom builders has gone back to the roots of custom design. They have not only embraced and drawn from the inspiring creations of the past, but they have dedicated themselves to maintaining the integrity of those early machines, including restoring the original engines.”
When the awards presentation got underway I saw internationally famous motorcycle photographer and Sturgis Hall of Fame inductee Michael Lichter approach the stage area with camera in hand. In August, his exhibition hall, located on the grounds of the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, will feature an exhibit entitled “Come Together: The Spirit of Born Free” which was inspired by this very rally. Michael has worked closely with Grant Peterson and Mike Davis, the event originators and producers, to ensure the exhibit will include some representative examples of the designs and fabrications from a number of current builders.
Matt Olsen walked off with Best-in-Show honors for his green and white ’41 Knucklehead with a ’47 engine. The win entitles him to an all-expenses-paid trip to the Mooneyes Hot Rod and Custom Show in Yokohama, Japan. The thing is, the level of competition was so high that when it came to picking winners in every category, it seemed like the judges resorted to nit picking and hair splitting.
The Saviors and the Gipsy Moonlight Band set up on a stage located toward the eastern end of the facility. If someone wanted to groove to the music, they needed only to saunter over that way. Since much of the focus of the event was on the bikes themselves, the semi-isolation of the live music made perfect sense.
Kudos go to Jay Eatinger with Eden Audio who set up Tech Logic speakers at strategic points around the park. The system eliminates delay and echo effects and, as a result, you could hear announcements and music clearly—a rarity for such a large, sprawling venue.