One last gathering, before the fall
I have two friends named Jim. Both are avid motorcyclists, and they live on the same block; their back yards abut. As I arrived at Jim Carns’ house I saw that his 750cc Norton Commando had already been rolled out of the garage onto the driveway. Jim Van Eman rode up on a pristine 1974 Ducati 750 Supersport. As he put it on the kickstand and pulled off his helmet, he cocked his ear at the sound of another motorcycle passing somewhere nearby.
“Listen to that,” he said. “Some other guy has got his crappy old vintage bike running for one day of the year.”
The ‘one day’ was the first Saturday in October. For every motorcyclist in Kansas City, that means Ralph Wayne’s Vintage Backyard Nationals. It’s part bike show, part ride-in, part massive beer bash; an invasion by thousands of bikers of an otherwise unremarkable outer suburb of Kansas City.
There’s always a little urgency to Ralph Wayne’s, since it takes place on one of the last (usually) reliable weather weekends of the year. But this year everyone really wanted to drop by, because after 20 years of hosting the event – 20 years in which attendance steadily grew and the hassles of having 5000 of his closest friends drop by for a party in the back yard grew, too – Ralph had been telling anyone who’d listen that this was the last time he’d be putting it on.
On the first Saturday in October, the working-class suburb of Loma Vista is overrun with bikers. Strangely, Ralph’s neighbors don’t seem to mind that much.
While we waited for the morning to warm a tad, Carns laid out coffee and croissants. Bill rode up on a sweet Triton, and Bob arrived on a Honda GB500 (not authentically vintage, but the electric start was a concession to artificial knees.)
After breakfast, and the usual farting around with old bikes that aren’t eager to start on brisk mornings, we headed out. I was appointed to drive the van, since the guys wanted to display their bikes all day at Ralph Wayne’s, but not actually spend the whole day there. That meant we needed one vehicle to shuttle us all out of there after a couple of hours.
I followed them as we rode through suburban Kansas City. Hardly any cars stirred in the tidy postwar neighborhoods through which we passed. The bikes all still looked new at first glance. My friends were wearing black leather jackets and jeans, and only the style of their crash helmets betrayed the fact that it was 2012, and not about 1975.
I should not have joked about the merits of having a sweep truck. We didn’t actually get all the way from KC’s Brookside neighborhood of two-story brick houses to the wooden bungalows of Loma Vista before we had to load up the Ducati. We were still in a neighborhood in which Obama signs predominated though we were headed to one where Romney placards predominated.
I frankly doubt that there is another motorcycle gathering anywhere in the U.S. quite like “Ralph Wayne’s Vintage Backyard Nationals.” I can’t imagine such a thing happening anywhere else but Kansas City. In the burg’s excellent jazz and blues clubs and in its nonpareil barbecue joints, race relations are conspicuously relaxed. On the cycle scene, the inch and metric types have declared it a demilitarized zone. Not what you’d necessarily expect in a battleground state, but there you go… KC defies expectations.
The coolest thing about Ralph’s party is that it’s free, although bikers donate enough to pretty much cover the cost of beer and brats.
Twenty years ago, Ralph Wayne was a construction worker, biker, and general reprobate. He and a few riding buddies thought it would be a good idea if they gathered in Ralph’s backyard on the first Saturday in October. That weekend’s not the end of motorcycle riding in the KC area, but it’s the beginning of the end. They made a big pot of chili, tapped a keg, and Ralph’s good buddy Fred Holter made up enough blue ribbons so that each person who came on a vintage bike (that was all of them; all their bikes were vintage bikes) could leave with a Best in Show award.
Most people now don’t remember that there wasn’t a Backyard National the next October, but Ralph’s pals missed it, and vowed that they’d take it up, and make it a real annual event beginning in ’94.
Growing up around Grandview, Ralph got his first bike – a BSA Bantam – in ’59. He told me, “I saw The Wild One, with Marlon Brando. I loved that movie; I wanted to be Johnny. I loved the British bikes, and he was always my favorite actor. When he died a few years back, I was all tore up.” Ralph rode with a club called the ‘Cycos’, and I won’t call it a gang but I will say that while I sat and talked to him (I first interviewed him a few years ago) a bunch of his cronies dropped by and the conversations often turned to who’d had what trouble with the cops, back then. He was no Caspar Milquetoast, if you get my drift.
Since we’re all fascinated by the bikes we wanted to have as we came of age, I ogled an elegant Bultaco short tracker.
But by the Clinton presidency, Ralph and his pals were past the worst of their hell-raising days, and they were no gang anymore. In fact, anyone who arrived on a vintage motorcycle was more than welcome to join their party. For a few years, the gathering grew by word of mouth; then handbills appeared at bike shops in Missouri and Kansas. Hundreds of bikers started showing up, for a party that began early in the morning and lasted until late at night. It took some planning to pull off. There was a Food Committee. There were commemorative T-shirts. There were portable toilets. Ralph started renting a huge circus-style tent for the vintage bike display. But there was never really any thought of moving from Ralph’s back yard.
Seven or eight years ago, the growth hit that part of the exponential curve that’s nearly vertical. Some of the neighbors started complaining that parked bikes blocked their driveways, and ‘the Harley guys’ were staging impromptu drags and burnouts. It was just a question of time before someone got hurt.
Somehow, though, Ralph talked his way through a neighborhood meeting, and the Backyard Nationals continued, with a legal ‘block party’ permit to close surrounding streets. Ralph has to walk around the neighborhood gathering enough neighbors’ signatures to get it approved. An ex-cop (they’ve obviously stopped chasing Ralph and made friends) volunteered to head the Security Committee. All the neighbors are invited, of course, though I’m sure that for everyone who comes, there’s a family who find an excuse to leave town for the day.
This meticulously restored ’38 Speed Twin would be worthy of a much snootier show…
…as would this ‘20s Harley.
We arrived early but the streets were lined with bikes at least two blocks in all directions from Ralph’s house. Ralph looks over the bikes as they come in, and decides which ones are special enough to justify being parked under the tent.
It had to have been after noon somewhere, so not long after parking up, we walked to the beer wagon. That was a large, ice-filled trailer with three or four bar taps mounted on the outside of it. We each grabbed a disposable cup and pulled ourselves a pint of beer. There was food, too: hot dogs, chili, potato salad. And the most unique aspect of it was that it was all… free. Yes. All the food you could eat (though the length of the food line was a bit of a deterrent to gluttony) and all the beer you could drink was free. This, in an event devoid of anything resembling corporate sponsorship. All I had was one beer, and I put five bucks in the donation jerry can, so I suppose Ralph did OK on my account.
The show tent fills quickly and riders arriving on some pretty fine bikes get sent to park them in the street. I’d say that there were at least 2000 people milling around, mostly male and of a certain age. From the snippets of conversation that I overheard, it was clear that quite a few KC bikers encounter each other only once a year, at Ralph Wayne’s place. There’s a bit of one-upmanship that goes on, as people trot out the oldest Ralph Wayne’s shirt they have, as a way of showing they were here before it was cool. There was not much of a Japanese presence; the mix of bikes was skewed to vintage Harleys and Brit/European stuff. If someone asked, “Have you been to the races lately?” they meant flat track races.
The bike show on the surrounding streets was almost as good as the ‘official’ bike show under the tent. As we walked up and down the surrounding blocks, we watched the Security Committee (which patrols in golf carts) move the barriers down half a block, as the parked bikes spread further and further afield.
Meanwhile, these end-of-an-era two-strokes were condemned to the ‘Salon des Refusees’ just outside the tent.
Afield is a good word for the parking, too. Loma Vista doesn’t have sidewalks, but there are grassy ditches on either side of the road. Since it’s been dry, bikes were parking in there, though it was easier to get them in than get them out. We watched one guy try to ride an 800-pound dresser out of the ditch and end up ass over teakettle. On the one hand, he must’ve been embarrassed that so many other bikers saw him topple it, but at least there were lots of helpers to lift it out of the ditch.
The bikers who gather at Ralph Wayne’s Vintage Backyard Nationals drain about 30 kegs of beer, and eat 3,000 hot dogs, 70 pounds of chili, 80 pounds of beans, and 90 pounds of potato salad.
“It was getting’ outta’ hand,” Ralph told me, “And now they’ve got me on the damned Internet!”
I didn’t tell him that I was one of “them” putting him on the Internet. I’d love it to keep going, but Ralph’s old ‘Cyco’ cohorts — those that have survived — are all one aneurism away from packing it in. Ralph’s been saying, “This is the last year,” since I first came, back in 2008. I’ve heard rumors that my club, the Heart of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts, might try to take over the event. Presumably we’d keep on Ralph as a Grand Marshal. Or, maybe this really was the last year that every bike will leave with its blue ribbon as ‘Best in Show’.
It’s hard to know what KC bikers will do when the first weekend in October rolls around next year.