Getting rowdy in the Sunshine State

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA., MAR. 8-17—They rev. They roar. They squat low to the ground and glare in the late evening sunlight. They sit side-by-side along Main Street or creep by with high-performance audio systems bumping explicit lyrics from Dr. Dre and guitar riffs from AC/DC followed by a Latin reggaeton rhythm.

And, then, when the light fades over the Atlantic and the armada of bikes slows across this sandy spit of Florida coast, bars fill up, cigar smoke wafts through the air and cheesesteaks and grilled sausages are consumed on the sidewalk as attractive women dance from poles and stand on stilts pouring shots, while live bands fuel the start of the rally.

It is the opening night of the 78th Annual Daytona Bike Week and practically the whole city has been transformed into a V-twin mecca, with bikers rolling in their machines from across the country and visitors flying in from France, Germany, England, Portugal, Australia and Argentina to witness one of the largest gatherings of American muscle.

Daytona Bike Week epitomizes the enduring legacy of American biker culture and serves as a gauge of the whole V-twin industry. While there are concerns that the Harley-Davidson crowd is graying and some local reports claimed hotel bookings during the rally softened compared to previous years, it was hard to imagine a downturn in attendance, especially as events were spread across Volusia County and roads were clogged with two-wheel traffic. Daytona routinely claims it draws in at least a half-million participants and we would concur.

As always, Main Street remained packed with bikers and spring breakers all day and well into each evening, with neon-lit establishments each offering their own entertainment. One of the more popular venues was Dirty Harry’s, with Cowboy’s wet T-shirt contests drawing raucous crowds every afternoon and a selection of solid bands bringing in music lovers at night. The always-popular Bobby Friss Band performed both weekends, and talented rocker Jasmine Cain and her band took the stage Monday and Tuesday nights, as well as opening for ’80s-’90s hair metal band Slaughter on Wednesday. The rockabilly band Razorbacks played every night at The Bank & Blues Club, where people took turns rushing the stage and dancing alongside the large upright bass.

On Saturday, Billy Lane of Choppers Inc. held his Sons of Speed vintage motorcycle races, which have for the past few years drawn large grassroots support at various rallies. The location of the Daytona races is the New Smyrna Speedway, with its half-mile banked track that harkens back to early 20th-century board-track racing. The pre-1925 American V-twin bikes are stripped down to the essentials, running wide open and without brakes! Three classes and about 40 racers, some competing in more than one class, comprised Saturday’s races. The thrills and spills were epic, especially for those who purchased a pit pass to see the racers speed by just a few feet away.

“This race shows the evolution of everything we know about riding,” as one announcer put it.

The fearless Billy Applegate, who you may have seen perform with the American Motordrome Wall of Death, took the 45” class with a 1941 Harley as well as the Hot 61” Board Track class with a 1924 Harley, while Josh Owens of Moonshiners fame won the Early 61” Board Track class with a 1919 Harley.

Outside of the speedway, the legendary and nomadic Panhead Billy Burrows was unstrapping some tools from his bike and trying to connect his old Nokia flip phone to the battery. He gave his blessing to the Thunder Press crew past and present and said to keep an eye out for him at Sturgis. Billy has been on the road since the ’70s and shows no sign of giving up his drifter lifestyle.

Back on Main Street, Indian Motorcycles introduced its Jack Daniel’s Limited Edition Indian Springfield Dark Horse, the fastest special edition bike the four-year collaboration between the two iconic brands has created. Custom features were crafted by South Dakota’s Klock Werks Kustom Cycle and the bike comes with a first-ever Thunder Stroke 116 c.i. engine with an estimated 127 ft/lbs of torque. Only 117 of these aggressive bikes will be produced and sold globally. Indian Motorcycles appeared to dominate Main Street in terms of advertising with a massive outdoor showroom that took up nearly a block.

Bruce Rossmeyer’s Destination Daytona in Ormond Beach had free daily live music and stunt shows. If Indian’s presence was felt on Main Street, it was dwarfed at Destination Daytona, with a sea of Harleys taking up three parking lots.

Under the pavilion, Rhett Rotten’s Wall of Death had shows every hour or so, with Rhett ripping around a 30-foot-wide stunt barrel and grabbing single dollar bills from outstretched hands. Also under the pavilion, American Iron partnered with Mobil 1 for its Best Of The Beach Daytona Custom Bike Show where, Tim Firstenberger won with a sleek and minimalist Sportster. While the American Iron show is not the largest bike show, it is worth checking out because it is nicely located in the shade. Closer to the H-D dealership, vendors were spread wide and interest seemed high.

A trip to Daytona would not be complete without a stop at the Iron Horse Saloon in Ormond Beach. We caught the tail-end performance by legendary outlaw David Allan Coe, who spun some of his classic country yarns.

“If I forget some of the lyrics, pick up the slack for me as I am getting old,” said the 79-year-old before the crowd launched into a sing-along. Of all the bars we visited, Iron Horse was the liveliest. The burnout pit, which started quiet, was used for nearly two hours, partially propelled by the presence of a camera. The last bike we saw give it a go was a Victory. After a plume of smoke and burning rubber sticking to the stable doors, the drive belt snapped.

“You should have bought a Harley,” the crowd playfully yelled.

For many, Willie’s Tropical Tattoo Chopper Time Old School Chopper Show on Thursday is arguably the most-anticipated event of the entire rally, featuring the who’s who of the custom bike world. Entrants pack the small parking lot in front with their old-school rides that included customs, chops, and gnarly rat bikes, with the overflow ending up in Willie’s back yard, where Big Rick & the Troublemakers provided live music. A barbecue was cooked up and drinks flowed as freely as the giveaways. There were at least 20 classes plus special awards, with cash prizes handed out to the winners.

One of our favorite motorcycle shows, the Boardwalk Bike Show, took place on the closing Friday of Bike Week. A total of 59 trophies in 20 classes as well as $500 cash to the Best of Show drew more than 170 bike registrations to the 30th iteration of this annual affair. The day of this show is the only time that bikes are allowed on the boardwalk, and the calm, scenic backdrop of sand and ocean, combined with temperatures in the 70s, made it one of the most laid-back and enjoyable events of the rally.

All in all, Daytona once again proved to be fast-paced hit with a frenzy of events to attend and admire some of the best custom bikes born in the winter months. With the weather pleasantly hovering between the low 70s and upper 80s and plenty of sunshine, the rally did the trick to fuel the bones and sweep the winter doldrums away. If it is any indication of what the season will bring, it will be a good one.

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