Laconia, N.H., June 10–18—The old days, when it was rare to see anything other than a Harley parked on Lakeside Avenue and women pushing baby carriages and carrying purse-size dogs were verboten, reside in my memory like gritty 16mm black-and-white movie clips. The big beer tents at the crossroads are gone, the Funspot retired, and only the Broken Spoke remains as an oasis of libation. The Wide Open Saloon/Smokehouse burned, and the adjacent Weirs Drive-In has, in the aftermath of last year’s music festival debacle, returned to the status of a dusty parking lot.
The first year I covered Laconia Motorcycle Week as a journalist was in 1998 when a “riot” (police/club incident) took place and even as late as 2002 there were concerns about a “gang war” expanding into Motorcycle Week. Two years later 425,000 riders showed up, boobs were flashed, the police had their hands full with DUIs, and traffic was so jammed up you couldn’t ride anywhere near the epicenter. In 2007 THUNDER PRESS opened coverage with the title “The Taming of Laconia,” and here we are, a decade later, where ladies bring their babies and one of the most famous of all outlaw motorcycle clubs sells T-shirts and bottled water as accepted members of the community.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not necessarily a bad thing—especially for tourism. The name of the game has simply changed from party hardy to that of cash commerce. The rally is more inclusive than it has ever been and the sweltering first weekend was so mellow that I had to remind myself this was a biker rally and not a May Day gathering.
At the beginning of the week traffic on Route 3 leading to the Weirs was backed up for a couple of miles. The rumble from Big Twins was nearly constant, yet there were available parking spaces on Lakeside Avenue, heaps of food remained on vendors’ grills, and there was time for the beer girls to model for me between customers.
Monday morning, the 4th annual Mae West Pet Run took place. While I don’t have a head count, it was obvious there were more bikes lined up than the 200 people who had signed up in advance. The group pulled out of Lakeside Avenue and made a quick run to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Before you make any unwarranted associations, Mae West was once a cat owned by Laconia Motorcycle Week Association Executive Director Charlie St. Clair. Doug and Misty Asermely of Sick Boy Motorcycles founded the run and all proceeds go to the New Hampshire Humane Society.
The Gypsy Tours, memorial rides, charity runs, and the Ride to the Sky enticed so many people to take advantage of the great weather that sometimes it seemed fewer people were at the rally than numbers suggested. Gypsy Tours and other rides were held all week including the Ladies’ Ride, We Love Laconia Motorcycle Week Ride, guided tour to Ride to the Sky, POW/MIA Freedom Ride, Nam Knights Benefit Ride, Moonlight Madness Motorcycle Ride, and the 7th annual Jesus Ride. The 11th annual Peter Makris Memorial Run opened the week with more than 300 riders and raised just over $41,000. The amount of money these organized rides contribute to local charities is something to be proud of.
For those who weren’t motivated to get back in the saddle to ride the roads through the mountains and around the lakes of central New Hampshire, there were plenty of contest events taking place. Mud wrestling, tattoo competitions, a pool tournament, several bike shows, the ever-popular wet T-shirt contests, and even the traditional rally games of skill—if a wienie bite can be considered as such—were held at various venues.
The Cycle Source Pin-Up Contest at the Broken Spoke on Tuesday had quite a lineup of contestants in retro 40’s and 50’s attire. I’m sure the prizes of $100 for third place, $200 for second, and $500 for first were a small incentive, but the winner being featured in the magazine seemed to be what most of the women were competing for. In the final round, Erica captured first place, Stacey second, and Elise third.
The Vintage Bike show sponsored by Haymond Law Firm at the Broken Spoke was a bust, but their Ride-In Show on Wednesday featured over 30 machines of all makes and was one of the best seen at Laconia during the last few years. A multitude of trophies were handed out with the top two given to Darryl Sargent for Best Paint on his 2000 Road King and Robert Timko for Best in Show with his 1948 Panhead old-school chopper. It’s not quite the same as when fledging custom builders such as Arlen Ness and Dave Perewitz would simply show up and park their new creations on the street, nor even the Greasebag show and the Roadhouse Biker Build-Off of more recent years, but hey, times change.
Things at the Laconia Roadhouse changed for the better last year when Jack Schitt became the emcee and this year he didn’t disappoint. The daily wet T-shirt contests once again became fun for participants and audience alike and nobody, not even Jack, quite knew what to expect once the ladies and water boys (oops, water persons) got onto the stage. A couple of girls showed up wearing pasties and to the delight of the crowd it was no longer simply about wet T-shirts. The audience near the stage ended up almost as soaking wet as the competitors.
Lakeside Avenue has always been the place to show off bikes or bodies, but this year it was more like a sedate country fair in the Bible Belt than the rollicking carnival of only a few years past. There were a few—but only a few—interesting custom bikes with the remaining 99 percent being stock or off-the-shelf creations imitating trends that were cutting edge five or more years ago. More interest was elicited by current-year stock models that people were considering as their next purchase. The Flaunt Girls occasionally walked through the crowd promoting their aerial act, but with leather corsets (available at their booth), garters and stockings, one would see more feminine skin at any local beach. No flashed boobs—none at me, anyway—no almost-naked women—despite the hot weather—and no long lines of lounging bikers in black vests against the fence. There were families with babies in strollers, dogs on leashes, dogs in strollers, children on leashes and plenty of ice cream and French fries for all. The $1.2 million street improvement with extended sidewalks and granite curbing looked nice and even provided a couple of wonderful vantage points, but this came at the loss of 114 parking spaces (official figure) for bikes, maneuvering problems for larger vehicles, and a feeling that crowds had diminished.
With almost everything being touted as an improvement, one thing certainly was: Harley-Davidson had returned to the Weirs. Located on Route 3 across from the iconic Weirs Beach sign in the lot formerly occupied by the Wide Open Saloon/Smokehouse, Harley offered 25-minute self-guided demo rides along a well-marked route. The truck with the Milwaukee-Eight display was set up and the spot became a destination for H.O.G. pins. Those that signed up for a demo also had the option of testing helmets and riding gear offered by Laconia H-D in Meredith.
One of the traditional venues returned to Motorcycle Week after a hiatus of five years. The hillclimb, sponsored by Ridge Runner Promotions and hosted by Gunstock Recreation, was held on Wednesday. With 5,340 people paying the $20 entrance fee plus vendors, competitors, security, support, main tent and, and, of course, journalists, it was quite a crowd at the old ski jump. The hillclimb at Gunstock ran from 1946 to 1962 and reinstated in 1993 to 2011. However, in 2007 the climb moved from the old 70-meter ski-jump hill to the lower (boring) Ramrod ski slope and attendance dramatically dropped. The promoter moved to their hill in Canaan and the pro-series events, but it seems to have been a financial loss to both parties.
As in amateur road racing, hill climbing is a family sport with parents and their kids competing in different classes. Many of the girls and boys who I’ve interviewed in past years are now teenagers and here they were on bigger bikes, confident, and skilled to a degree I’ll never attain on a motorcycle. Honestly, it’s fantastic that this event has returned to Gunstock.
Lest one forgets, there are gorgeous, twisty roads that beg to be ridden, so I ventured over to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS) via Routes 11A, 140, 107, 129 and some lesser-known local roads. Anyone who wishes to see a beautiful colonial village should make a point to ride through Gilmanton.
The US Classic Racing Association held its events during the first weekend of Motorcycle Week, while two of the Legends series, the Moat Mt. Road Course Series and the Loudon Classic, were held during the final weekend. Shane Narbonne won the 94th Loudon Classic, his third straight win in this event.
Not only were amateur races and professional series held at the track, there were other things taking place at this venue. Parts, pin striping, and pizza were, among other things like a mobile beer cart, available here from over 20 vendors, including the Miller High Life Hub tent. The Wall of Death provided some much-needed entertainment as did the bikini bike wash and police demos. Many of the charity rides ended or came through here during the week. The main draw, besides the races, were the demo rides offered by Indian, Victory, Yamaha, Can-Am, and the Italians: Ducati, Aprilia, and Moto Guzzi. This time I came for a different reason.
The New England Motor Sports Museum on the grounds of NHMS opened to the public on Monday, so I was a couple of days late. It was bright, attractive, and filled to the walls and ceiling with wonderful stuff, but a closer look revealed this to be a very special place. The collection is diverse and absolutely cherry picked as many have expressed a desire to donate their motorcycles and cars to the museum. Everyone will have their favorites, and honestly it is difficult to choose one. For instance, there is the motorcycle of Eddie “The Savage” Sarno. With a frame built around a 401 c.i. dual-carb engine mounted sideways, the bike was so awesome that race officials wouldn’t allow it to run in competition, but it became a headliner as an exhibition bike.
The museum was a dream in 2011 and groundbreaking didn’t take place until September 2015. Still, the all-volunteer crew had to work practically around the clock to have it open for Motorcycle Week. Local contractors donated materials for the concrete slab, electrical wiring, heating and a/c, the epoxy floor, and much more. Over 800 people contributed their time to this all-volunteer effort. The president, Dick Berggren—race driver, founder of two auto-racing magazines, editor of the largest motor sports mag, and race announcer for major TV networks—tells me all the board members work; none are token positions. Since the board is comprised of the who’s who in the race world, this speaks volumes of how important this venture is to the history of motor sports in New England.
The American Police Motorcycle Museum was, despite rumors, open. New additions include a twin-cylinder Pope and Merkel boardtrack racers, a dirty barn find all-original 1938 Indian Four, and a 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA with cutaway sections that was used at the Fort Knox Armor School to train mechanics. With over 100 vintage bikes and countless photos, ephemera, and artifacts on display, this qualifies as a major historical museum and happens to be one of my favorites.
I talked with the owners and learned that they plan to relocate, hopefully to the seacoast region, as soon as their building sells. Doug Frederick and his wife have put this museum together and moving everything will be a challenge, but he said, “If I’m determined, I’ll get it done.” We spoke about several things, including the restoration shop that he says is “the most popular look” in the museum. It was Laconia Motorcycle Week that transformed the museum and when a lot of friendships were made, but having more square footage for display and a location that could offer more annual visitors will allow the business to expand and even include other vehicles appropriate to this history.
On Friday, it rained so I decided to walk to Laconia Harley-Davidson. As to be expected, almost everyone was staying inside or under one of the tents. Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant was packed but, understandably, the activity in the lot at Kuryakyn, Progressive Suspension, Mustang Seats, and Performance Machine was subdued. The dealership had surrounded itself with some of its regular, smaller vendors plying anti-fog cleaner for glasses, case medallions, gun holsters for hard cases, LED lights and sunglasses. The food tent was, for obvious reasons, packed, and the sales tent held mostly new bikes rather than the multitude of used machines as in past years. It appeared that sales of apparel were brisk and a several people were waiting for service to be completed on their bikes.
It was still raining when I left and the line of traffic on Route 3 was backed up past the Route 106 rotary and down the hill. Three riders asked me what the problem was up ahead; obviously, they had never been to Motorcycle Week since this was normal and, in fact, because of the rain, quite minimal. A few decided the slick roads and traffic delay was an invitation to do impromptu burnouts that transformed visibility on the highway into a simulation of fog rolling in off the Atlantic Ocean.
I don’t know what I was expecting for the 94th Laconia Bike Week. Certainly, not a three-ring circus, but life has become a carnival as substantial as cotton candy while spinning on a carousel with the illusion of going someplace. We all need a bit of an escape every so often. Those of us who have been coming to Laconia for years can’t help but compare today to times in the past; those new to this event will, someday, compare this to a future rally and probably reminisce about the good old days. Next year will be the 95th year of America’s oldest motorcycle rally and, well, one never knows what might happen.