85 and still kicking

Rally’s spirit rises to meet challenging times

Laconia, N.H., June 14–22— It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… OK, so it wasn’t the French Revolution and no one lost his head to the guillotine. Laconia Motorcycle Week was certainly impacted by high gas prices and the current economic slowdown, but one needed to look beyond the gloom and doom of those who are predicting the reduction, or even the disappearance, of some of the country’s bike rallies. In some ways, this year’s Laconia rally was better than ever.

For one thing, during my ride to Laconia, I didn’t see a single drop of rain. I’d hoped that the clear skies that day were an omen for the upcoming week, but no such luck—it rained nearly every day. None of the days were complete washouts, though, and if you planned your schedule well, you’d be inside enjoying a snack or a beverage during those afternoon showers. Well, in theory, anyway. What actually happened was that I managed to get caught in the rain on at least three of those days.

But what’s Laconia without some precipitation? In fact, many riders take such delight in complaining about the inclement weather that I think they’d be disappointed without the raindrop drama.

Off to the Races
Although motorcyclists began gathering at Weirs Beach in 1916, the event’s official recognition didn’t come until 1923 when the Federation of American Motorcyclists (later called the American Motorcyclists Association) sanctioned a Gypsy Tour featuring races and hill climbs.

That racing legacy has continued throughout the years in various forms. This year’s 16th Annual New England Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Dealers Association Ben Campanale Laconia 1/2-mile flat track races in Rochester, usually held the last Friday of the rally week, were held the day before the rally opened. The 85th annual Loudon Classic was also held on the opening Sunday rather than wrapping up the rally week. One quite notable change is that the track at Loudon has been acquired by Speedway Motorsports Inc. and has been renamed the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. SMI is planning on major improvements to the track to entice racers, spectators, and sanctioning bodies to come to the track. Now, if only the AMA would return once again to sanction America’s oldest motorcycle road race…

The vintage races at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway took place on Monday, as usual, accompanied by spurts of rain, and gray clouds, finally being blessed with sunny skies later in the afternoon. The race day started late due to poor track conditions related to the weather, and at least one wipeout occurred on the slick surface (but no serious injuries reported). There were 16 races, with the ever-popular sidecars competing twice that afternoon. I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than paying homage to these antique bikes, and in some cases, their ageless riders who helped pioneer this road-racing sport we enjoy today.

Another racing event that didn’t move was the historic hill climbs at Gunstock. Actually, the date didn’t move—it was held on Wednesday, as usual—but the hill did. In 2007, Ridge Runner Promotions moved the location of the hill climb to the other side of the ski slope where it had been held for years. Not everyone was pleased with the change, so this year, side-by-side drag racing on the hill—the first-ever in New England—was introduced to create a more exciting event for both riders and spectators. Although the hill may not have been as steep and challenging as in years past, the riders seemed to like the new format. And there were certain advantages to holding the competition on this side of the hill. It’s a lot closer to the parking area, and quite near the lodge where you could grab a bite to eat, have a drink, and listen to live music on the expansive party deck. Attendance at the hill climb was just over 7,000 this year—not much of a change from last year. Watch for other positive changes to be announced in November for next year’s Laconia rally.

Gunstock is also coming up with events to entice the motorcycling public to enjoy the beautiful recreation area. On the weekend before the hill climb, Flip Fest 2008 was held, featuring freestyle motocross, pit bike FMX, street bike stunts, junkyard supercross, paintball, and other activities suited to the younger crowd (or the youngsters in us).

The reason for the aforementioned date changes? Several years ago, the city of Laconia and the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association agreed that the rally week would start on the second full weekend of June. For 2008, the rally happened to fall a week later than usual, and this was the cause of some events shifting from the ending weekend of the rally to the opening weekend.

Increased community participation in the rally, though, is a quite positive trend. Maybe the economy is driving local organizations and merchants to look for new revenue sources, but regardless, several new activities were launched this year. When I checked into the lovely Belknap Point Motel in Gilford, my home for the week, I was given discount coupons to some local eateries. The New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord presented an exhibit on the history of Motorcycle Week and the Meredith Public Library had a family introduction to motorcycles where children could read about two-wheelers. The Belknap Mill in Laconia continued its annual motorcycle-themed art displays with two new exhibits this year. The Gilford Rotary held its first pancake breakfast in the parking lot of Patrick’s Pub. Even the picturesque lakeside town of Wolfeboro welcomed bikers with the New Hampshire Boat Museum offering free admission (just say “Charlie and Jennifer sent us”), and the World War II Museum promoting its wartime Harley exhibit.

The Harley-Davidson exhibit that was set up in downtown Laconia for the second year attracted a half-dozen local eateries that set up food tents in one corner of the Road Tour. This was a big improvement over last year when we had to leave the exhibit to find something to eat.

Harley also took over the annual ride-in bike show at the old train station around the corner. Although there weren’t many bikes in the show this year (it was one of those rainy days), the cash prizes paid out to the winners will almost guarantee more participation next year. I spoke with Jenna Smith, H-D’s manager of consumer events, who said that Harley is delighted to be a part of the downtown community, and that it would expand its presence every year at Laconia.

Another bike show was held at nearby Opechee Park. Although cash wasn’t awarded, winners were given some nice prizes provided by local sponsors. The Smokehouse held its annual bike show and tattoo contest, and one of the more unusual shows was held at Acme Choppers in Meredith where the Greasebag Jamboree hosted about 20 old-school choppers, bobbers, and other unique home-built creations.

The bar and restaurant industry experienced some changes, as well. The Lobster Pound is under new ownership, and the restaurant has undergone extensive renovations. The inside has been expanded and completely remodeled, and two new outside dining areas have been added, including a second-floor deck, more than doubling the seating capacity. And new restaurants T-BONES and Cactus Jack’s have opened on Route 107 in Laconia, offering even more dining choices.

We were dismayed to find out, though, that the Boot Hill Saloon, taken over not long ago by the same owners of the Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach, was closed down. In contrast, the Broken Spoke just across the street was hoppin’ day and night, with crowd-pleasing activities like the Budweiser Burnout Bike. (We’d heard that earlier in the week, Jeff Clark and the TCX crew created so much smoke during a burnout at the NASWA resort that the fire department showed up.) The Broken Spoke also features dancing-on-the-bar-friendly bartenders, food and merchandise vendors, and some of the best bands around.

Speaking of bands, the Bike Bash at Meadowbrook Musical Arts Center in Gilford had a stellar lineup of musical acts that week: Lynyrd Skynrd, Foghat, Brooks & Dunn, the Volunteer Jam 2008 Tour with the Charlie Daniels Band, .38 Special, and Shooter Jennings, and other top-name acts. Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard of ZZ Top put on quite a show the night I was there. I can’t imagine how next year’s lineup could be any better, but Meadowbrook always manages to top prior years’ performances during rally week.

There were noticeably fewer vendors at most of the Laconia rally venues this year, and according to Charlie St. Clair, Laconia Motorcycle Week Association executive director, that probably worked out better for the vendors that were there, as well as for local businesses. Charlie’s take is that “the vendors don’t make the rally—the attendees make the rally. They come to ride, see the races, visit with each other, and go to the events. Vendors are definitely part of that mix, but even if a lot of vendors don’t come, people will still come.”

Spreading Out
Each year, the rally has been expanding geographically, extending its tentacles outward from its epicenter at Weirs Beach. The Fun Spot is becoming known as the bike demo headquarters, with seven or eight motorcycle manufacturers offering free demo rides. It’s not unusual to see many folks test-riding as many bikes as they can in a single day. And across the street from the Fun Spot, eating and drinking establishments like the Looney Bin and JT’s were doing a brisk business.

I spoke to Paul Lessard, special project manager at Meredith Harley-Davidson and Laconia Motorcycle Week Association president, who told me that Meredith H-D had a great year; in fact, parts and MotorClothes sales were the highest of any of the Laconia rallies. “Several of our outside vendors told me they had the best year yet,” commented Paul. “People are beginning to find out that Meredith Harley-Davidson is really a destination, and they can spend the day here—shopping, eating [Hart’s Turkey Farm is right next door and operates The Hawg Pen during rally week], enjoying the live music, and even getting their bikes serviced.”

Harley dealers all over New England got into the Laconia spirit, and some put on mini-rallies at their own dealerships for riders to enjoy before, during, or after Motorcycle Week. It’s safe to say that pretty much the entire state of New Hampshire has gotten into the act. For example, a new venue, Rally in the Valley held in North Conway, about 45 miles north of The Weirs, took place the same week as the Laconia Rally, and 40 miles to the west in Lincoln, The Mountain Club on Loon scheduled its second annual Bikers & Barbecue pig roast. The Great North Woods Ride-in took place in Colebrook—just south of the Quebec border—during the closing weekend of the Laconia rally.

Motorcycle traffic was somewhat lighter than usual on the main roads leading to The Weirs, and we realized that many riders were taking advantage of these alternate attractions. Plus, once you get outside the Laconia area, the lodging rates are much lower. And let’s not forget that New Hampshire roads offer some of the best riding in the country. Unlike other parts of the U.S. where you may have to ride hundreds of miles to get from one place to another, you can get to your destination within several hours, making for some nice day trips. Many visitors from the Midwest and other land-locked areas like to ride to the New England beaches, and they can get to the seacoast town of Portland, Maine in an hour and a half, and the coastal city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in less than an hour.

Early reports estimate that between 270,000 and 290,000 people came to the rally this year. Although that number is less than the estimated 300,000 or so who attended last year, the rally population wasn’t down nearly as much as some had anticipated. For one thing, the heavy marketing blitz for Laconia’s 85th anniversary helped draw crowds. According to St. Clair, long-distance riders from the West Coast as well as the rest of the country rode in to the rally. A lot of Canadians and Europeans attended as well, partially because of the strength of their respective currencies.

So even though gas was over $4 a gallon (and even more for the high-octane blends many of us use in our bikes), and our economy’s recovery seems to be a distant dream, Laconia Motorcycle Week provided a week of unrivaled riding roads and first-rate fun for those who helped celebrate the 85th anniversary of the oldest motorcycle rally in the U.S.


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