Daytona Bike Week is presently in full-swing, so it’s probably a little late for you to make this year’s event. It’s entirely possible that won’t bother you. If you’re like me, events like Daytona often carry a pretty bad reputation in your mind – chauvinism of all kinds perpetuated by fat, old white guys. But after attending last year’s gathering, I’ve had something of a change of heart and now feel that every motorcyclist should attend an event like Daytona at least once.
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Taking place in Daytona Beach, Florida, in early March, Daytona Bike Week is the unofficial opening of the riding season in the United States. Folks living in more northerly parts of the country will be looking at the snow outside their windows and feeling such a claim is a bit ambitious, but remember that there are a hell of a lot of Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line (and the imaginary line that continues west along the same latitude), and many of them are already wearing T-shirts. If it’s warm enough to play baseball, it’s warm enough to ride a motorbike.
Like many events of its type – eg, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Laconia Motorcycle Week – Daytona Bike Week started out as a racing event. Back in 1937, a handful of moto nuts got together to duke it out over 200 miles on a 3.2-mile course consisting of beach and public road. These days, the races are held at Daytona International Speedway. The firm-sanded beach, stretching in either direction as far as the eye can see, is now untroubled by motor vehicles.
‘It’s not just fat, old white guys.’
Roughly half a million people attend Daytona Bike Week each year. And last year, I was one of them. I came as a guest of Harley-Davidson, who flew me out to crash its Street Rod and watch the first contest of American Flat Track’s inaugural season. Despite the fact I ended up sliding across a Florida highway at 70 mph, the three days I spent at Daytona were amongst the highlights of 2017 for me.
That’s not just because Harley knows how to do a press event. Or because I was able to wear short sleeves on St. Patrick’s Day for the first time since 2003. Or because I got to hang out with ultra-awesome moto-journalists like John Burns, Lemmy, “Goober” Joe Gustafson, and Ron Lieback. Though, certainly those things played a part. But one of the biggest reasons I look back at that event fondly is that it helped me to change – or, at least, adjust – some of my very negative opinions about motorcycle events like this and the people who attend them.
The fat, old white guys were there, of course – many wearing three-quarter helmets and ferrying their equally mature and generously proportioned wives on American-flag-festooned Gold Wings and Ultras. But, firstly, why are we hating on these folks? I mean, take a moment to think about the root cause of your anger toward fat, old white guys. Is it because they have committed the sin of aging? Is it because they have more money than you? Is it because they think differently than you in a country founded on the belief that people who think differently can still get along? Is it because they are of your parents’ generation? Is it because you can feel yourself turning into them?
And, of course, if you interact with these graybeards face to face you discover that, by and large, they’re pretty cool. OK, the “brother” stuff feels a bit affected, but, hey brother, are you really going to shit on somebody for trying to be nice to you? Fact is, these guys are bike nerds, just like you.
Carrying on from that thought, it occurs to me that events like these are the Comic-Cons of motorcycles. One of the clichéd criticisms waged against Daytona/Sturgis-type attendees is the assertion that they are all a bunch of dentists and accountants dressing up as land-pirate bad boys. Wandering around Daytona Beach, I suddenly thought: “Well, so what if they are? Who am I to judge?”
I mean, FFS, y’all. I’m a sucker for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, where I will straight-up dress like an actual pirate. Or sometimes a pirate in a kilt. Because that makes all kinds of sense. And it’s definitely 100-percent historically on-point with medieval times. And the Britishy accents that people put on at Ren Fest are totally believable, and all of it – turkey legs and cloaks and tankards of Schell’s and jousting – is representative of how I live my life 24/7. Or… ah… maybe not.
In making this comparison in my mind I realized I don’t have firm ground to stand on if I try to criticize someone who wants to pretend that he or she is tougher or more rebellious or wilder than their minivan and suburban ranch home might suggest.
Secondly, it’s not just fat, old white guys.
Watching the impromptu parades that roll up and down Main Street each night, I saw a whole lot of young white guys, as well – only a few of which were fat. Most were riding sportbikes with New Jersey plates, wearing flat-brimmed baseball caps and transporting Jersey Shore-like girlfriends who were Snapchatting from the passenger seat. There were also black dudes – considerably more than I would have ever imagined, since I had thought events like this were all leather chaps and sexism. Many were riding the most amazing and cartoonish baggers you’ve ever seen: sparkle-painted, enormous-wheeled mobile pieces of art equipped with 300-watt stereos. Their bikes’ lung-rattling bass was outmatched only by the mobile music festivals that were the blinged-out Slingshots.
Visiting the various events taking place around town I ran into genuine outlaw motorcycle clubs, motocrossers, hipsters, weirdos, scooter geeks, and every other kind of person who’s ever thrown a leg over a motorcycle. With all this spinning around me – this huge, ridiculous, and disjointed mess of humanity that had rolled into this spot beside the Atlantic Ocean – I couldn’t help but begin think: “Actually, this is kind of… cool.”
Maybe “cool” isn’t the exact word I want there. I mean, I’m not sure I would make an effort to go to Daytona Bike Week again, but I am so very glad I went at least once.
Even though I write and think about all kinds of different bikes every single day, I’ll admit I can get a little too lost in what I like. And then I can get a little too lost in thinking that because I like something it must be the right thing to like. Being at Daytona helped me correct my thinking. It was a chance to see and interact with hundreds of thousands of people who ostensibly share the same passion as me – motorcycles – while not necessarily sharing my exact vision of it. Being reminded of just how varied motorcycling really is made me appreciate it all the more.