The Star Touring and Riding Group's STAR Days event invaded Roanoke, Virginia, for a weeks worth of riding, games, custom bikes.
The year 1996 was a busy one. The Dallas Cowboys claimed their fifth Super Bowl title by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, America's eastern states experienced one of the most disastrous blizzards in history that killed more than 100 people, the Prince of Wales divorced his princess, and Alan Cease decided to form a club that revolved around his favorite pastime: motorcycles. Cease's vision spawned the Star Touring And Riding Group, which at that time had a grand total of six members on its roster.
"It all started from there," Cease, the president and founder of Star Touring and Riding, explained from the annual STAR Days rally, held this year in Roanoke, Virginia. "I'm a doer, not a shaker. I don't just talk about stuff, I move forward."
The group started its forward movement in 1997 when the first national charter mailing was sent out to attract 356 anxious members. Since then, Star has grown to over 30,000 members who, according to Yamaha, ride more miles than any other manufacturer club.
This year, the Star Touring and Riding Group set their sights on the small town of Roanoke in Virginia, which hosted their sixth annual STAR Days event. Roanoke's beautiful riding areas combined with its rich history make it an ideal location for this small-town bike rally, which usually sees a couple of thousand participants each year.
The Roanoke location proved to be perfect for another reason. A steel and concrete star 100 feet high has rested atop Mill Mountain for the past four decades, and it's been described as "a symbol of the friendliness and the industrial and civic progress of Roanoke." It's only fitting to have a motorcycle group known for its own friendliness and sense of community stay in a town of equal stature, both represented by a star.
"This is more like a church social, a family picnic, or a family reunion than a bike rally," John Vaughan-Chaldy, President of Baron Custom Accessories and six-time STAR Days vendor participant, described. "It's a small group of a couple thousand people that have been to more than two of these. They have established friendships with people from other parts of the country, and they are coming back to meet them again. They go on a ride together or go to dinner. They look at one person's motorcycle to see what he has done to his bike this year as apposed to what he had done last year. It's more personal."
And in an effort to make the event even more community friendly and arguably less like other rallies, STAR peppered the week-long gathering with family oriented activities; including a picnic, evening games and giveaways, a band, a Feed The Children auction, and a Feed The Children run where members took 40,000 lbs of food to a local food bank.
And unlike last year's event, STAR organizers made this year's rally more user friendly with a better layout that was appreciated by both members and vendors.
The picnic games included a balloon toss, a five-member relay, and the "carry three potatoes between your legs" race.
"This year we made sure we ran the vendors in a much tighter area for better concentration," Vaughan-Chaldy pointed out. "In previous events the vendors have been spread out more across and around hotels or at fairgrounds. This year we really worked to try to get them all into a very comfortable progressive pattern where you can flow from one vendor to the next. And there's a turnaround pattern where you can come back and work two sides of the event. For the customer, it means that they don't have to work as hard to see something, and the opportunity as they walk through to see a bigger diversity of product that's really well laid out and displayed well, which is better for people who are coming to see the new stuff."
"This is much better than last year when it was in Utah," a five-time STAR Days participant mentioned as he passed through the vendor displays. "In Utah (last year) we stayed at the Marriot and we had to drive five miles just to get to the activities. Here it's all in one location."
With this kind of devotion to its members, Cease is confident that STAR Days will continue to grow in popularity. He hopes that the initial idea of having the whole family involved as a team will convince new members to join the tight-knit group and participate in the next year's activities.
STAR Days is more than just scenic rides and picnics. It also provides a location for vendors to display their latest products specially designed for Yamahas and other metric cruisers. It gives custom builders the opportunity to hear feedback from the customers that purchase their products, and talk to them about the new, more comfortable, more user friendly and better looking designs. Among the vendors at this year's event was the dominating presence of Yamaha's accessories department.
Yamaha's accessories department had a large presence at the STAR Days event. It featured clothes, parts, and new designs for their cruiser lines. It also provided numerous bikes for participants to test ride.
Since 63% of the street motorcycle business takes place in the cruiser market, Yamaha has added an emphasis on developing aftermarket accessories to help its customers make their bikes their own. It currently has more than 1,000 aftermarket products geared toward its Star cruiser line alone, and with its focus on building cruisers that can easily be upgraded or completely customized, that number will only increase in the future.
Yamaha is embracing the idea of designing its cruisers from the ground up with future customization in mind. The challenge lies in creating individual parts for each bike that can be easily changed without having to do the excess work involved with trying to Johnny-rig a part on a bike that wasn't necessarily designed for it. Working as a chief designer on these projects for Yamaha is Jeff Palhegyi who first delved into the Star cruisers back in 1996.
"The primary thing that I've been doing as regards to the motorcycles is trying to build bikes that make people realize that they can do this," Jeff said. "Yamaha is no different than Harley-Davidson; all of the same things apply. We've been building these bikes to showcase that our platforms are a good start for custom bikes."
Palhegyi's philosophy of creating elemental designs is reinforced every time he attends an event like STAR Days because he's able to come face to face with the customers that are using his products. He is amazed at the amount of people that are willing to buy a brand new bike and completely immerse themselves into it. But it's not just custom paint and a few chrome parts anymore. Average Joe Schmo customers are starting to flirt with full chassis and frame modifications, as well as complete bike overhauls.
"Our simple philosophy to building with an elemental design is the key to customizing," Palhegyi reiterates. "If you want to make a comparison to Honda, they don't think that way, which really ruins the aftermarket guys for customizing. There's some bikes with Honda that you can't even put pipes on because it's so integrated into the design of the bike."
Even though Palhegyi works with Japanese designers on some projects, most of the time he and his staff of seven work by themselves to come up with new designs and ideas. Not only is most of the engineering done in America, nearly 99% of their parts are manufactured in the U.S. as well.
However, Palhegyi doesn't shoulder all of the responsibility when it comes to creating new products and improving existing ones. There's also a lot of surveying and leg work put into generating ideas for accessories.
Other custom builders also polished their creations and showed what they could do in order to customize the Yamaha platforms.
"We spend a lot of time out at the various rallies; at Daytona and at Sturgis and here," Dave Pooler, Product Manager of Yamaha's Star Accessories, commented. "I spend a lot of my life talking to the customers and seeing what they want – what they like and what they don't like. I look around at the larger events and see what the other cruiser crowd is doing. This is where we find a pulse on what's going on."
Yamaha also gave the STAR rally goers a chance to demo several of its models such as the new Royal Star Tour Deluxe or any of its existing models like the Warrior or V-Stars. Yamaha provided rides throughout the week, in which all you needed to participate is a motorcycle endorsement and a little curiosity.
Yamaha also had a display area where participants can look at Palhegyi's newest designs, talk to accessories experts, and make plans on how they want to customize their own cruisers.
One bike that many STAR members were taking notes on was Palhegyi's customized Royal Star Tour Deluxe "Deville." Although this bike can't be purchased as a whole yet, it displays a multitude of Yamaha parts that grabbed many people's attention.
"I've been building Road Stars and Warriors for awhile, and I always had this vision of what I wanted to do with a bagger," the Yamaha designer said. "I just wanted to build this bike for a long time."
Palhegyi took the brand new design for the $13,999 Royal Star Tour Deluxe
and completely reinvented it. It supports stretched hard bags that are made from scratch to fit the longer, re-angled custom rear fender. The gas tank is channeled and the frame is chopped two inches to give it sleeker look. The turn signals are also the first of their sort, adding to the bike's one-of-a-kind feel.
The "Orange Crush II" is another one of Yamaha's custom bikes. It's a tricked out Road Star Warrior that's been laced with chrome and has a value of $22,768.05
The "Deville's" 1294cc, 79-cubic-inch, liquid-cooled engine is laced with billet covers and chrome. A Bub Enterprises exhaust runs along the bottom of the cruiser to give it a little extra grunt, while a Sony X-PLOD stereo system and Polk Audio/Infinity Speakers generates a different kind of soundtrack for the ride.
Since this bike is more or less a prototype it's not for sale. However, Palhegyi did mention that even though they had around $45,000 invested into this dream machine, the total value of the bike, accessories and labor if sold to the consumer would be about $35,000.
"I got into it and it was a lot more work than I thought," Palhegyi remarked, "but we've gotten really good responses on it. It would be neat if something like this caught on because this is a practical bike that is customized. You could really ride this and have a lot of use for it."
Another tactic Yamaha employed when they first started developing custom parts and accessories for its bikes was helping other aftermarket companies fit their products to Yamahas. This generated interest in the customizing industry and allowed them to develop their accessories.
"Between 1995 and the year 2000 we hit a real fairly large amount of aftermarket support," the designer and engineer stated. "I would spend time helping the aftermarket companies by showing them how their parts can work on our bikes. Obviously we have the upper hand. I usually have the bikes for six to eight months. I've got an idea of what we're going to have ahead of time. Our parts are engineered at the very beginning, specifically for our bikes, with the same tolerances and quality levels that the factory uses. We use factory specifications and dimensions and engineering as a basis to develop our parts. But we jumpstarted some of the aftermarket guys into getting started on that too."
One such company that has embraced the aftermarket industry for cruisers is Baron Custom Accessories, headed up by John Vaughan-Chaldy. Baron Accessories, which is out of Fallbrook, Calif., started out building one-off custom choppers but has found its way into producing custom parts as its primary business.
After building customs for three years, Vaughan-Chaldy decided that the bikes they were building weren't affordable for everybody that was coming to look at them, and at that time the amount of clients that wanted the extreme bikes wasn't increasing as quickly as the amount of people building them. At that point Baron switched its emphasis over to designing parts. Now, Baron creates less extreme customs that it uses mainly to feature its parts.
"We designed bikes and would keep them for ourselves and use them to display new product on as well as develop new product," the president of Baron said. "During the year as we would display those products across the country, consumers would come up and ask if the bikes were for sale. We would work out a deal and if it was feasible for everyone involved, we would sell them a bike or sell them that bike. It made it easier for us because at that point in the build we don't have to worry about if the owner would like this, will he want us to do this, or if he doesn't like the height of those bars, or where that seat sits."
The Royal Star Tour Deluxe "Deville" comes with one-of-a-kind stretched hard bags that were specially made in order to fit the custom rear fender.
After experiencing success in selling individual parts and complete bikes, Baron took it one step further and created complete customizing bike kits. After several years of designing and planning, Vaughan-Chaldy launched his new kit product line this year. Baron has a total of eight kits that fit Kawasakis, Hondas, and Yamahas, and they come with everything a customer needs to build a high-end custom at a budget price.
"We've done it in a box form where we just send everything to the customer; the instructions are there too," the former extreme one-off builder described. "They basically do the assembly themselves and add their own paint. We can do those from $3,000 to $7,000 and that includes the paint."
Baron has a fleet of 14 to 17 bikes in which it picks and chooses from in order to take several to each show. Depending on the show it attends, it chooses a balance of its custom motorcycles and up to a quarter of a million dollars in inventory to sell. Vaughan-Chaldy likes to have everything available to the customer so they have the opportunity to "hear them run, see 'em, touch 'em, taste 'em, and some cases even ride them." That way the consumer has no question about what they're getting.
"In an event like this as a vendor, it gives you the opportunity to meet your customer on a more intimate basis, and gives you more time to visit with them and look at their motorcycle, or to just talk to them about what they're thinking about doing without feeling rushed," Vaughan-Chaldy pointed out. "When we go to an event like Sturgis or Daytona or Laughlin or something like that, the feeling is that you have so many people delusioning you and crawling all over you booth and your support staff that you always feel like you have to cut your conversations short. Here you can be a little more leisurely and spend more time with your customer, and that's real beneficial."
And that's what STAR Days is all about; giving people the opportunity to experience the quality of bikes you might see at Sturgis or Daytona, but doing it in a friendly way.