The taming of Laconia

Keeping things mild, with the sauce on the side

Laconia, N.H., June 9–17—“Time was, in the Heart of New Hampshire, that mothers warned their children not to go out during motorcycle weekend in New Hampshire. Now the event spans nine full days and mothers take the children along for the adventure.” These two sentences from an article in Heart of New Hampshire magazine sum up perfectly the evolution of Laconia Motorcycle Week from the rowdy rally of the ’60s to the toned-down affair it is today.

Laconia Motorcycle Week really does offer something for just about everyone, even for those unfortunate souls who have never ridden or owned a motorcycle. This year, fellow THUNDER PRESS contributors Kenzo and Mark Jags were on assignment with me for the event, and we sampled nearly every activity available during those nine days.

Making the rounds
Racing fans are presented with an array of competitions here, including the US Classic Racing Association’s Vintage Grand Prix at New Hampshire International Speedway (NHIS) in Loudon, the hill climbs at Gunstock, the Ben Campanale half-mile flat track pro races at the Rochester Fairgrounds, and the Loudon Classic at NHIS. If you’ve always wanted to ride around the track, you could have joined Monday’s AMA Gypsy Tour Parade to the vintage races in Loudon where riders got in a few laps between vintage races. Would-be racers can even get some track time at the Penguin Racing School held every year at NHIS.

The Fun Spot was a great place this year for testing that motorcycle you’ve admired, but never gotten a chance to ride. It’s located on Route 3 between Weirs Beach and the Broken Spoke, and promoter Mark Cresswell promoted the venue as the official manufacturer’s row of Laconia Bike Week. Sure enough, Cresswell has expanded and paved the already expansive parking lot, and Fun Spot was the demo ride headquarters for five major motorcycle manufacturers as well as host to a number of aftermarket parts companies and other bike-related vendors.

Another extremely popular venue was the Bombardier Recreational Products Can-AM Spyder exhibit. BRP (the maker of SkiDoo) set up its display on the property of B. Mae’s Antiques, just a few miles from The Weirs, and the parking lot was jammed all week long with folks kicking tires and taking test rides on the three-wheeled vehicles. Trikes are nothing new to the industry, but this one has two wheels in the front and one in the back. The Spyder seems to have captured the imagination of the baby boomer generation, and BRP has already accepted a number of orders (MSRP starts at about $15,000) for its not-yet-released 2008 models.

There are several motorcycle runs and tours throughout the week if you want to experience the charms that New Hampshire’s roads have to offer. For the past two years, Extreme Boats Magazine has hosted a party at the NASWA Resort to bring boaters and bikers together. Peter Makris, longtime boater and biker from the family who owns the NASWA, passed away during the past year, so the magazine put together the first Peter Makris Memorial Ride & Run Around the Lake to benefit the Laconia Fire Department Life Saving Fund and water rescue teams.

The Mt. Washington Valley H.O.G. chapter also guided a tour through the White Mountains and another to the Mt. Washington Auto Road. For the third year, a guided tour rode to the covered bridge of Bath to benefit the Center Harbor Fire Department in Meredith. Several other benefit runs took place, and during the Toys 4 Tots run sponsored by the Loud Pipes Saloon, I even saw Santa Claus riding his red Softail down Lakeside Drive!

Corny entertainment
Many riders, though, chose to take their own tours. Jennifer Anderson, director of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, told me, “Every year, we see people staying farther away. They’re spending limited time in Laconia and more time riding in other areas.” My own little tour on Friday took me on a lovely 40-mile ride along Lake Winnipesauke to the Loud Pipes Saloon in Somersworth. It’s a fun place with lots of Bike Week activities, but this year, the bar celebrated its 10th anniversary with special festivities. I missed the free celebratory pig roast, but the smells wafting from the grill tempted me to order a big, juicy buffalo burger—my first, but definitely not my last. Or maybe I should sample the elk and venison burgers next.

The place had a great vibe, and we enjoyed great music by the Dave Berry Band. The main event of the day was creamed corn and baby oil wrestling, but there was a whole ritual that went with the match. Each wrestling contestant was entered in the auction for prospective managers to bid on, and each winning manager got to rub baby oil all over his wrestler. Then, huge Army surplus-sized cans of creamed corn were dumped into an inflatable pool. The greased-up wrestlers entered the “ring,” more creamed corn was dumped over each wrestler’s head, and the match began. By the time the bout was over, one wrestler had only her Spandex pants on and the other only her body jewelry. The whole affair ended with outdoor showers for the contestants. By the time I left, I had creamed corn in my hair and baby oil on my camera.

Music lovers can get their fill at Meadowbrook in Gilford, a few miles down the road from The Weirs. Meadowbrook scaled down its Bike Bash from last year and returned to what it does best—live music. Favorite biker bands like Foghat, Molly Hatchett, and Blackfoot played on Thursday, and on Saturday Vince Neil, Skid Row, and Slaughter took the stage. We caught Friday night’s show, and although it’s always great to hear Willie Nelson play, the real thrill for me was seeing Shooter Jennings perform. Some of you may remember the days of Waylon (Shooter’s deceased dad) and Willie and the rest of the Outlaws.

Greasebags beat the system
Although Laconia is the oldest of the Big Three motorcycle rallies, there hasn’t been much in the way of organized events for those who appreciate the legacy side of the industry. Brothers Wayne and Jason Ahlquist of Acme Choppers got together with Grail Mortillaro of Knucklebuster Inc. for the first time this year to present a weeklong swap meet culminating with a motorcycle show on Saturday. The event was held on Acme Choppers’ property in Meredith, between the Broken Spoke and Meredith H-D.

Many vendors are unable to pay the high rentals and vendor permits in Laconia and have chosen to set up outside the area, or not at all. In fact, we observed the city’s greed in tripling the rent this year for prime spaces on the Weirs Beach boardwalk, resulting in nearly all of those spaces remaining unrented. And there haven’t been any used parts vendors since I’ve been attending the rally. So, as Grail says, “We believe they should be there representing the greasy, old-school side of the industry just as much as the high-dollar guys should.” To this end, the Greasebag Jamboree offered booths to vendors for free, as well as free admission to the bike show.

The bike show had around 20 entries, with prizes given out for best Japanese motorcycle, best restoration, best British bike, best rat bike, best pre-1960, best American bike, best custom, best radical custom, people’s choice, and best of show. Grail continues, “Free shows and swaps are pretty much unheard of around these parts, but we think it’s a good way to lay the groundwork for the future.” We agree, and we hope this show gets bigger and better every year.

The life of the party
The epicenter of Laconia Motorcycle Week is still Weirs Beach, where a huge concentration of vendors, bikes, and people converge. There’s activity going on all hours of the day and into the night, from breakfast being served on the M/S Mount Washington docked behind the old train station to the live music at the Marketplace to the fireworks shows that take place during the week. The biggest excitement for the police nowadays seems limited to DUI arrests at sobriety checkpoints, bikes towed from illegal parking spaces, and tickets handed out to New Hampshire residents whose bikes don’t display current inspection stickers.

The police force has traffic control down to a science—quite a feat since nearly every road has only one lane in each direction. Lakeside Drive is limited to motorcycles during Bike Week, and traffic is one-way heading away from Route 3. The detour takes riders to the intersection of Roller Coaster Road and Route 3, where the Broken Spoke and Boot Hill Saloon often prove an irresistible lure, especially when the roads are crowded, it’s hot out, and both you and your bike are overheated in just that short mile-and-a-half ride. Once you leave the saloons, you can head south another mile and a half and stop in at the Lobster Pound and the Weirs Beach Drive-in, just across the street from where you started at Lakeside Drive.

At the Drive-in, the International Trick Riders rode the Wall of Death, and during the show I watched, one of the go-kart riders held up two irons attached to a hook hanging from a hole punched through his tongue. Later, inside the Wall, he swallowed a sword, performed a fire-eating act, and pounded a nail up his nose. After that show, the helicopter ride next to the Wall seemed downright tame—at least from the ground.

There were vendors galore at both venues, and the Lobster Pound has the added attraction of several bars, a huge stage, and live entertainment. The place was packed for a competition that involved a slew of lovely ladies with “Got balls?” plastered across their belly shirts. None of us heard what the contest was for, but who cares? The crowd had a great time, and that’s what matters most in Laconia.

Jennifer Anderson and Charlie St. Clair, the executive director of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, projected that attendance would be down even before the rally began. Charlie commented that Bike Week attendance has dropped by about one-third since 2004, when 425,000 people attended. Sure enough, early estimates are that attendance this year was in the low 300,000s; slightly down from last year, even with great weather for most of the rally, including the closing weekend. That said, Bike Week still pumps $140 million a year into the New Hampshire economy. Some hotels (the high-priced ones) had vacancies, but others were sold out as usual. And Mt. Washington Auto Road had its best year ever!

Theories abound for the lower numbers, but this is not a unique phenomenon, as Sturgis and Daytona have both reported attendance drops over the past few years, as well. High gas prices, the economy, and competition from many newer rallies that have sprung up over the past few years were cited as some of the reasons. Some think that aging baby boomers are less willing to travel long distances, although there seemed to be plenty of young riders at Laconia this year. But a favorite reason is that next year is Laconia Motorcycle Week’s 85th anniversary, and a lot of people are waiting until then to attend. “I think this is going to be one of those average years and that in the future you won’t see a big spike in attendance until every fifth year, one that ends in five or a zero,” Charlie said.

This 84th year was special for one couple, however. It turns out, Weirs Beach is quite a popular area for honeymooners (although not usually during Bike Week). One night, some of us staying at the delightful Belknap Point Motel on Lake Winnipesauke in Gilford were grilling chicken, quaffing a few cold ones, and enjoying the balmy weather. We met Patty and Justin Mitchell from Georgetown, Delaware, and found out they had tied the knot on June 8, and came to Laconia the next day with their good friends Donna and Michael Walton from Greenwood, Delaware. I can’t think of a better way to start a new life together, can you?


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