The full brevity of our arrival didn’t hit us until we entered the hallowed racing grounds of Daytona International Speedway. At that moment, the reality of our surroundings sunk in.
The sense of urgency began at midnight on Sunday at Orlando International Airport as my flight landed two hours late and my ride was nowhere to be found. This engaged the sense of my needing to be constantly in motion, like Keanu Reeves in a bus full of explosives in Speed, and would not subside for 192 hours until I walked through the terminal of Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport to drive back home.
In the span of eight days, I had tread the sacred sporting grounds of Daytona International Speedway, swayed shoulder to shoulder on Main Street as the mass exodus scrambled to squeeze in every last minute of partying possible on Saturday night before the clock tolled the end of Bike Week, and jockeyed for position with a snooty photographer and his thick European accent on more than one occasion while shooting various events. The quest for coverage, the opportunity to snare that spot interview with a Daytona 200-winning racer or the chance to chat with the next up-and-coming custom builder, the desire to see and do and embrace as much of the Daytona experience as possible pushed the need for sleep to the back of the line.
The black straight stretch known as 95 North spit me out at Daytona Beach at 2 a.m. that first Sunday. Pirelli had put us up at the plush accommodations of The Shores for the first two days, a welcome sight after traveling coast to coast and then navigating unknown byways in the dark. Monday morning was open so I headed down for my first trip to the Speedway. The grounds surrounding Daytona International Speedway had been transformed into a temporary biker bazaar, overrun by towering tents and big rigs emblazoned with supersized Bar & Shields, Tuning Forks and Red Wings. There are not many places that within three-quarters of a mile you can find, inspect up close, and ride almost every 2008 motorcycle out there.
I had brought some gear in anticipation of hiking a leg over the Triumph Rocket III Tourer or taking a spin on the Spyder, but so did a long list of other riders who had gotten there before me. Just about every manufacturer’s list of bikes available for test rides that day was full. Can Am’s Spyder was easily one of the demos most in demand. Unable to land a bike, I watched as the long line of riders waiting for the performance three-wheeler were mostly older men, while quite a few women expressed an interest in the innovative trike as well.
The Drag Simulator at the Kawasaki tent was also buzzing with a steady stream of wannabe Ricky Gadsons waiting for a chance to lay down a sub 10-second lap. A young brunette in her early twenties was going head to head with her boyfriend aboard the 2008 Kawasaki ZX-14 as the Christmas tree ran red to green, always clicking through the gears a second ahead of her beau. He gave up after losing three races straight and she exalted as the queen of the simulated drag strip.
Between the amount of people waiting to ride the Can Am Spyder and the number of owners already rolling down Daytona’s streets, we’d say the innovative trike has so far been embraced favorably by bikers.
My feet could not keep up with my eyes as I sauntered through the cavalcade of aftermarket parts and accessories, bikes and builders. I could have spent the entire day lost in the maze of vendors and booths that clogged the Midway, but Pirelli had a presentation on its new ‘performance’ tire in store for us at 5 p.m., so my assault on the Speedway was swift. I did break to harken the call of busy Twins buzzing and super Singles screaming around the banks of Turn 4 of Daytona’s International Speedway. It was vintage bike racing day on the track. I followed the sounds escaping from the Turn 4 tunnel, an auditory treat unlike the shriek of modern inline-fours. I watched as BSAs and vintage Universal Japenese Motorcycles (UJM) carved low lines on the banks, lacking the horses to run up high, but still ripping around the 31-degree angle turns throttles wide open. What better way to start the week than by returning to its roots, witnessing historic bikes racing around an iconic track. I walked back through the Turn 4 tunnel to the chest thumping roar of a group of Harley riders revving their Big Twins, the metal tunnel magnifying the blast from their dual exhausts to a deafening roar.
The six-mile ride between the Speedway and The Shores on A1A took forty minutes. With only a handful of bridges feeding into the densely packed strip that is Daytona Beach, traffic is constant and an unfortunate entity that cannot be avoided. The sensation of Keanu in Speed again tightens in my chest. Meetings to make, presentations to watch, networking to be done, and me sitting, spinning my wheels in tire-to-tire traffic.
Tuesday I woke up anxious knowing that there was a 2007 Harley-Davidson Road King with brand new Pirelli Night Dragon’s on it awaiting me outside the front doors of The Shores. We were taking Route 1 south for a 70 mile jaunt to the Kennedy Space Center that sits in the middle of a 140,000 acre wildlife preserve. Blue Herons stepped slowly, one foot carefully placed in front of the other in the shallow canals lining the roadways, big brown pelicans perched on wooden posts of piers, and bald, black turkey buzzards bolted airborne from the sides of the road as we rolled by, casting large-winged shadows in our path.
There was no better place that you could have taken a bunch of motojournalists who are self-professed adrenaline junkies than to a facility that set the standard for propulsion and power. Pirelli had arranged for us to be met by astronaut John Fabian. With a jovial smile and a sharp wit, Fabian is a veteran of three shuttle missions, including the famed Challenger mission with Sally Ride, the first American woman to reach outer space. He gave our group a good chuckle when asked whether he rode a motorcycle.
“Oh no, they scare the bejeezes out of me,” Fabian said. This from a man who has sat on enough rocket fuel to reduce a good chunk of Central Florida to a crater.
It wouldn’t be Bike Week without the smell of BBQed sausages and kabobs filling the air on Main Street.
The pleasure of meeting John could only be outdone by when we stood under the mammoth F-1 rocket engine of the moon-orbiting Saturn V. As fans of the liquid-fed combustible engine, we could not help but be in awe when we stood below the pinnacle of powerplant engineering. Developed by Rocketdyne, the F-1 produces over 1,500,000 lbs of thrust. The ‘V’ in Saturn V indicated it had five F-1 rockets. At full throttle, the five first-stage engines produced 7.6 million pounds of thrust. And we thought the Desmosedici RR was fast.
We picked up the pace on the ride home because of foreboding forecasts from the weatherman. We couldn’t outrace the swift moving thunderheads, and heavy drops caught most of us with our rain gear packed tidily away in the corner of our gear bags. The rain was warm and tolerable, but with only a half-shell helmet and goggles on, I had to bite my tongue against the stinging swarm of droplets pelting my face. My Bobster goggles steamed up inside in the humid Florida atmosphere and were rendered pretty much useless. Luckily, Pirelli’s Night Dragons were living up to their billing, and contact with the road was never an issue. Denim riding pants and a soggy crotch quickly became one, though.
Arriving back at The Shores meant that my fortuitous time on Pirelli’s dime was over. I had packed up my gear in the rental SUV before we left for our ride that morning knowing that I had to switch hotels. I arrived soaking wet to a ruinous hotel with a Pacific Island theme a little up the street from The Shores on the A1A. Buckets sat strategically placed around the foyer catching the rain that showered from the ceiling as yellow plastic caution signs pointed out the abundant puddles spread across the floor. The musty smell of permanent dampness penetrated the entire building, up the elevator and into my room.
With only an hour to get ready for the Biker Fusion party that night at the Dog House on Main Street, I barely had time to get dry and clean up before I was out the door. I returned from the Dog House around midnight with a camera full of pictures ready to download and an interview with Love Hate Choppers’ Marlowe B fresh in my mind and sat down to get to work. I went to log on – no service. For a journalist that’s on assignment and needs to post his stories remotely, this was the kiss of death. I went down to the office, only to find out that they didn’t provide any internet service at all. No Web, the place is a dive, the rooms on both sides of me are filled with yahoos that slammed doors, banged walls and shouted down to their buddies four floors below until 3 in the morning. I kept waiting for John Belushi to come crashing through my door. I choked back the ball of anger welling in my throat and prayed for sleep. A few hours later, I was up and out the door, walking down the A1A in search of a new place to stay, and was packed and checked out of the second level of Dante’s Inferno before nine the next morning.
The lack of connectivity left deadlines looming, photo galleries sitting on my hard drive, and a Daytona page with no fresh content. Two stories and forty photos later, I’m out the door to catch the tail end of the Harley-Davidson Ride-In Show and to check out The Motor Company’s spread at the Ocean Center. Thirty minutes and two miles later, I finally get parked. Driving by street after street of open parking spots, I curse the yellowing ‘Residential Parking’ only signs and the small parking patrol wagon circling the block. Shadows are creeping over the Ocean Center and photo ops are fading and I need to be at the airport in an hour and a half to pick up my Motorcycle USA co-hort Adam Waheed.
I spot an eye-catching ivory-colored Harley-Davidson trike at the show and pull out my camera for a shot. I saw more trikes at Bike Week than ever before, indicating companies like Lehman must be happy. I get a good angle for my shot, focus, and press the button to snap the shutter. No click. I do it again. A red icon blazes the dreaded ‘No Card’ message. I had left the memory card in the card reader on my laptop back at the hotel while downloading my pictures. Now I could care less if Keanu lets the bus slow down below 50 mph. Willie G. and Bill Davidson waltz by, stopping to pose with some of the winning bikes, shaking hands and signing autographs. I sulk into the Ocean Center, a dog with his tail between his legs, my useless camera slung under my arm. Every imaginable Harley was on display, Sportsters, Softails, V-Rods, Buells, H-D techs pimped out a stock bike showing what can be done with H-D Genuine Parts & Accessories and a little ingenuity, and plenty of beer swillin’, patch-and-pin wearing H.O.G. members milled about. And me without a camera. I counted my losses and headed back to the rented SUV to begin the crawl up the International Speedway toward the airport.
I was pounding keys on my laptop before the sun came up on Thursday. A Boss Hoss trike parked below my window decided to rev up at 6:30 a.m. and then idle for 15 minutes, sending V-8 shock waves through the hotel’s walls and waking up the entire side of the building. Just as well. Gave me enough time to process photos, crank out a story, make a few calls, eat some cold pizza for breakfast, put on my least-dirtiest jeans and head out the door. It’s Metric Madness day at the Rat’s Hole, the first metric-centric contest at the Rat’s Fest in 36 years. The sidewalks of the Daytona Lagoon are overrun with imports. Slammed Hayabusas with 300mm rears and single-sided swingarms are the standard. Old-timers walk by beautifully restored UJMs and Triumphs, share stories of rides long past. I see my first ‘Triabusa,’ an ’06 Hayabusa whose back end has been converted to roll on two monstrous back tires. To get those wheels a-rolling, the 1300cc lump has received a twin turbo upgrade. I stick around to see the first half of the trophies passed out, then make a B-line back to the SUV. BMW had sent us an invite for a meet-and-greet with the four riders they were entering in the Daytona 200. Who are we to refuse a steak and lobster dinner at the swank Chart House Restaurant on the marina? Besides, I’d only eaten cold pizza all day, so a proper meal was right on time.
The dinner was highlighted by a chance to sit and talk with Bertie Hauser, the Head of BMW’s Motorsports Division. With the sharply angled lines of the HP2 Sport sitting on a stand not 20 feet from our table, Hauser professed BMW’s pride in the third incarnation of the HP line. He said that BMW’s concentrating on beefing up the list of aftermarket parts and accessories for the HPs, and that we can expect to see the high-performance line continue to evolve.
Rat’s Hole expanded its Bike Week lineup to three shows starting with Metric Madness on Thursday, the inaugural Rat Bobber Show on Friday, followed by the grandaddy of them all, the World Famous Custom Show on Saturday.
His eyes lit up when asked about BMW’s entry into the World Superbike arena in 2009. He acknowledged the correlation between race results and bike sales, and knows that the new BMW superbike is going to have to be competitive against the Japanese inline-fours to be successful. It also will have to be competitively priced, which Hauser insisted that it would be. As the head of BMW’s Motorsports Division, Hauser will have a definite say in who will be riding the BMW superbike next year and had a vested interest in the fortunes of the four riders present at the dinner.
We felt privileged to have gotten a chance to talk to BMW HP2 Sport riders Richard ‘Coop’ Cooper and Brian Parriott before the race and then watch them go out and post fifth- and sixth-place finishes two days later in the Daytona 200. Parriott almost crashed on Lap 1 as he ran off the track, but was able to hold it upright and return to the fray. Coop wasn’t even one of the original four who were supposed to race. He got called into action when BMW lost its regular rider in a crash during practice and broke his arm. Coop was hobbling around himself Thursday night from a get-off during his practice session, but come race day the plucky Brit came up big. A top-five finish by the HP2 Sport in its maiden outing on American soil gave the Bavarian marque plenty to cheer about.
Friday morning I awoke to my usual Big-Twin alarm clock booming from four stories below my hotel balcony at the break of sunlight. The Motorcycle Hall of Fame Breakfast with Arlen Ness was scheduled for eight that morning. Daytona has a freshness to it in the a.m. hours. It’s also one of the few times you don’t have to fight for a parking spot. The Hall of Fame Breakfast was a nice break from the tawdriness of Main Street, a modicum of civility in an otherwise pagan affair. As the hat was passed around to raise funds for the museum, Billy Lane stepped up to the plate with a donation from Choppers Inc., Bert Baker from Baker Drivetrains contributed to the coffer as did the reps from S&S Cycle. The rapport between Ness and guest interviewer Russell Mitchell was interesting and engaging, and seeing Ness’ one-off creations put me in the mood to ride.
Luckily, Kevin Foley at Yamaha had set me up with a 2008 Star Raider for the day. I had been itchin’ to ride the torque-filled beast again since we gave our test bike back. I was not disappointed. The first time I was able to blip the throttle open, the Raider did its best to separate my shoulders from their sockets and I remembered one of the things I like most about the bike. It’s got plenty of pull, power that comes on plentiful and spreads out wide.
I was ready to break away from the Main Street scene and the constantly congested roads, so I headed north to take in a scenic ride known as The Loop. But between me and the allure of two state parks and scenic stretches along the Halifax River was a wall of purple skies, whipping wind and sheets of rain. Tornado warnings flooded the airways on all the local channels. The closer I got, the darker the horizon grew. The first stinging drops were all it took to thwart my plans, as a driver at the gas station I pulled into talked of golf ball-sized hail. Besides, I could still see patches of blue back at Daytona Beach.
So I did the next best thing – I took a cruise down Main Street. For my first pass, I entered with a right hand turn in front of the Boot Hill Saloon. An older rider wearing a faded leather Harley-Davidson skull cap checked out the clean styling of the Raider and nodded his head at me in approval. Riding down Main Street is like starring in an M.C. Escher print. Features of a thousand faces from the crush of people lining the streets melt into a menagerie of chrome and carbon fiber as the world seems to press down on you, leaving you with a small glimmer of light at the end of a tunnel and a pinpoint off in the distance that’s fading fast. Embracing the moment, it’s as if the universe is centered around you. In all my years of riding, it is a wholly unique sensation, something that all bikers should experience in their lifetime.
All you had to do was walk down Main St. to stumble upon a stage with plenty of booty shakin’ going on.
A crack of lightning off the Atlantic ended my euphoria. The squall unleashed its fury, doing its best to clean the soiled streets of Daytona Beach. And me without rain gear. And wearing a half shell. And denim pants again. Obviously I didn’t learn a damn thing from the first downpour I got caught in coming back from the Space Center. The point I’m trying to drive home is, if you’re going to Bike Week in the future, remember your rain gear. Don’t be disillusioned by state mottos that proclaim Florida to be ‘The Sunshine State.’ More likely than not, you’re going to get dumped on at some point, so come prepared.
Saturday came with clear skies but strong winds, blowing sand across the A1A. While Hutch and Adam headed to the raceway, I again set out for the empty fiberglass spirals of the waterslides at the Daytona Lagoon. The spirit of Big Daddy Rat was alive and well as the 36th Annual Rat’s Hole World Famous Custom Show was about to get underway. With approximately 150 entries in 18 categories, there was a bike to fit any rider’s taste. Camera’s followed American Thunder’s Michelle Smith and Jay Barbieri as they canvassed the show for an upcoming episode. I jockeyed for shooting space again with the short, bushy-haired Euro photog who thought the show was his own private studio. Luckily, I had no sweat getting my shots over his shaggy head. It was a true international affair. There were quite a few builders from Quebec and Ontario that are doing some unbelievable work and represented Canada well. Rat’s Hole owner Ted Smith was also sending three winners to Germany to represent the U.S. against their European counterparts. I walked away from the show with a stack of cards from builders I