The baddest mothers in town. This week anyway

Published: 18 March 2001

Bubba was a big man, and after six days of dubious personal hygiene and with the stench of stale bourbon and vomit dancing on his breath he wasn’t getting any prettier. But more worrying than that – Bubba had just threatened to kill me.

How wasn’t clear, but then nothing Bubba was saying was making much sense any more, at least not since his third pitcher of beer.

Now struggling to down his whisky, one thing was obvious, Bubba had changed in the last two hours. He had long since departed from the person who arrived at the bar stool next to me, and in his place was the biggest, meanest, baddest bastard who ever rode into town.

Bubba now believed he was a biker from the old guard. In his alcohol-sodden state he saw himself as Sonny Barger and Peter Fonda rolled into one. He wanted you to believe he had been at Altamont, and if he had been old enough, instead of about 38, he would have tried to convince himself that he had been at Hollister, too, where it had all begun.

The truth was Bubba (if that was even his real name) worked in a bank. He’d told me that some time ago, but as his metamorphosis took hold it had slipped his mind that he was a decent, hard-working, family man. For now, Bubba was in that grey area between reality and fantasy. He was in Daytona Beach, Florida, for Bike Week 1993 and he was loving every minute of living a lie for a few days.

Eight years on, I’m back on thesun-baked streets of this normally serene seaside town a few hours from Orlando and Miami and I’m wondering if much has changed. Or, if it is still the playground of middle-aged, middle-class Americans who like to call themselves bikers, but only at the weekend.

I don’t have to wait long. As I stand in the queue of a packed diner opposite Daytona’s famous banked race track, watching the Stars and Stripes flutter at half-mast in memory of the recently departed NASCAR legend Dale Earndhardt, who was killed at the track, in he walks.

His well-watered gut is sheltered from the world by a plain grey T-shirt splattered in… something, and his mirrored wrap-around shades stop you from seeing if his eyes will give any clue to his real identity. He looks nasty. He wants to look nasty.

Then, just as the bustling waitress arrives, who of course is called Darlene in the finest tradition of American diners, out it comes. " I’m Bad Dog… and I need a table for three. " It is said in a southern drawl as long and lazy as a childhood summer.

Turning round to try and catch someone’s, anyone’s, eye to share in the irony, I find no-one else has even noticed, Darlene especially. " No problem, hun. That’ll be just a few minutes. " She’s seen it all before and she’ll see it all again, tomorrow, the day after and the day after that. It won’t stop until Sunday night when the bikes and their owners head home.

Later, outside, I engage " Bad Dog " in conversation. Within seconds I am lost as he reels off the spec of his 1972 Harley. You learn fast that few bikes are stock in Daytona and to keep up you need an encyclopaedic knowledge of the models, accessories and leading customisers associated with the world’s oldest manufacturer, which makes up the bulk of bikes in town.

" I’ve ridden 600 miles from South Carolina, " he reveals. " Not like these pussies who bring their bikes here on a trailer, " a common practice among the half million or so visitors who more than double the town’s population each year. But it soon becomes clear he is a well-connected, self-made businessman, no more dangerous than you or me – though you are left with a sneaking suspicion that a six-pack of Bud might turn him.

Everywhere you look, along the crowded sea front, the packed bars, the roads around the town, you see thousands upon thousands of Bubbas and Big Dogs, ordinary Americans getting away from it all by making a statement about how bad they could be, if only they wanted.

Near the beach I bump into Cleo Shields, a 49-year-old body shop manager from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (home of another huge Bike Week-style event each summer), and one of the few black bikers in town.

He’s dressed in regulation black leather cap, black Bike Week 2001 shirt, black leather waistcoat, jeans and leather chaps. I ask him if he dresses like that all year. " No I’m a church-going guy and put suits on. At work I wear a uniform. "

Journeying on to the beach, which is open to traffic if you pay the five dollars and observe the 10mph speed limit, I drive down the coast to the beautiful Ponce Inlet, a name that only seems to make the Brits laugh!

I see 15 bikes parked up and a group of people huddled together, all in regulation gear and looking every inch a gang. On closer inspection it is a wedding party. Charlie and Sandy from Toledo, Ohio, a middle-aged, professional couple, both on their second marriage, are tying the knot.

" It was the only weekend we could guarantee getting the whole chapter together in one place, " Charlie says of his now clearly unintimidating friends. They ride off into the distance, white sand on one side, clear blue water on the other, to the undulating sound of Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

THE disciples first started to arrive in Daytona at the start of the last century. Just like Pendine in Wales and Bonneville in Utah, the wide open space that stretched as far as the eye could see were seen as a gift from the gods for the growing number of young petrolheads who just wanted to go fast. When the Atlantic retreated, the hard-packed white sand lay in front of them for 23 undisturbed miles and the word spread fast that it was too good to waste. Daytona’s love-hate relationship with the internal combustion engine had begun.

Now Bike Week is a festival that sprawls out of the town’s hotels and on to every campsite and motel within a 30-mile radius. It is a free-for-all that swamps an entire region for seven days and boasts every conceivable activity from rallies and runs, to exhibitions and demo rides, to coleslaw wrestling and drinking contests, to the more bizarre, such as a motorcycle demolition derby.

Events such as the famous Daytona 200 race are mere sideshows at an orgy of motorcycling. Less than 10 per cent of the half-a-million or so extra people in the area will go and watch the race. As it is on the final Sunday, most will have already left as they try and get home across all 52 states in time for work on Monday.

Gill and his mate are enjoying a beer across the road from the track in Hooters, a fast growing restaurant chain where the waitresses all enhanced their chances of employment there by embracing silicone. They’ve come all the way from Long Island, New York, are staying 25 miles away and are sitting right opposite the race track.

" So what day is it on? " he asks casually. " Sunday, " I say. " Are you going? " He says the racing is not what Daytona is about. He’s right, but if it weren’t for the racing pioneers, Bike Week would never have begun.

They came first on four wheels. In the early 1900s, dashing young daredevils raised the land speed record on the beach in a jocular, tongue-in-cheek manner. Gentlemen sportsmen with suits and goggles sped down the beach in contraptions that were little more than buggies without horses. The first death is recorded in 1905, when a driver swerved to avoid a child on a bicycle and barrel-rolled into the sea.

But as time passed they got more serious. Their cars got better. New speed records were sought in long, streamlined giants which looked like earth-bound rocketships. From 1904 to 1935 there were 19 annual tournaments of speed along Daytona and its neighbouring Ormond beach. The unlimited Land Speed Record was advanced 15 times during that period, which included a run of 254mph by British hero Sir Malcolm Campbell in Bluebird.

Soon they were racing each other on a course consisting of road and beach and in 1937 bike races started. On and off until as late as 1960, bikes raced on the old course, until moving to the now famous International Speedway, which still hosts it today.

As the race grew in popularity so did the crowds, and as bikers started to realise the sun was always going to shine and beer was always going to flow freely, more turned up. Soon the festival started to eclipse the racing and took on a momentum of its own. It became massive.

It has not always been the fun party atmosphere it is today. Locals talk of the bad days, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there was trouble on the streets. Rival gangs used the annual gathering as a testing ground to prove their might. Violence was common, arrests were, too, and there was talk of clampdowns.

The police and local authorities were forced to act and today the gangs are actively discouraged. The police will track them down and watch them closely, the bars will have signs out side saying " No colours, no weapons, no attitude allowed " , and for the most part it is observed.

Despite Bike Week being more like middle America’s playground these days, there’s still trouble if you know where to look. Very occasionally, grizzled older bikers who look like they where really there in the tough times will front up a young buck who has lost his manners in the bottom of his beer glass. Even around Main Street, the well-policed heart of Daytona, which is packed all day and night with revellers, the mood gets boisterous occasionally, but it is soon swallowed up by a wall of noise from the rock bands and open exhausts.

For some the new ways are too tame. One nameless old fella in a bar who I had just seen reduce a young man into submission with the hardest stare I’ve ever seen said despondently: " It used to be a load of good ’ol boys making a lot of noise. Now it is just too commercial. "

And that’s why Daytona puts up with it. Speak to anyone with a business and they say it is the bikers who bring the most money into town and who leave the most behind.

Everywhere you see signs saying " bikers welcome " , and in one lovely ironic twist the same sign could be seen hanging outside an " adult video " shop and the church next door.

Of course, the locals have issues they don’t like, like the fact that every Harley owner seems to have straight through pipes on his bike, which even to the most enthusiastic lover of a V-twin can seem like an unnecessary sensory assault after seven days and seven nights.

The locals also hate losing control of their roads. Like the entrance to Dartford tunnel on World Superbike day, two wheels rule for a week in Daytona, and this year even more of them turned up because Florida recently relaxed its helmet laws. Now, if you can prove you are over 18 and you have adequate medical insurance to cover your treatment after an accident, you can ride without a lid.

Ironically, local police claim that brought even more bikes into the area this year, which clogged up the roads which in turn reduced the number of deaths from a record 15 last year to five this year.

In contrast, other Daytona traditions are now being clamped down on. This year the practice of girls flashing their breasts at strangers, be it in a bar or from the pillion seat of a bike, saw them being quickly handcuffed by the police, if they were seen. The arrests incited what is likely to become a new tradition. Groups of men having impromptu whip-rounds to cover the girl’s bail costs.

Knuckleheads, Panheads, Shovelheads, hardtails, softtails. To be in Daytona in March is to be in Harley’s temple. As you enter, you realise you are here to worship chrome and cubes and nothing else. Anything else is false idolatry.

Every spare inch of parking space, every spare inch of street and every road in and out of town is littered with Milwaukee’s finest. But unless you are an expert, spotting one you recognise is the hardest job of all. Engines and frames are mixed and matched, accessories worth more than my first house are bolted on, specials that look they were built by the gods, but which were actually made by a bloke called Seth in a shed in Idaho, are everywhere. Never have so many beautifully crafted bikes been gathered in one place before.

Underneath my hotel is a car park and as I approach I hear the buzz of mobile generators. Turning the corner I am greeted by rows of bright spotlights casting their light down on to men furiously polishing chrome in readiness for the next day’s ride around town. Now I understand the sign at the check-in desk at reception, which says in assertive handwriting: " We have free rags for you – please do not use the towels from your room. "

" So what it is about Harleys, then, " is my predictable question to this bunch of earnest workers. " If you have to ask you wouldn’t understand, " bounces back the cliché. Many men nod sagely at his incredible insight and at my obvious unworldliness.

For it is Americans who seem to understand the Harley thing best. The U.S. bike market is huge and as Willie G Davidson tells me proudly during a conversation in the Harley-Davidson pit during practice for Sunday’s race, " 50 per cent of all bikes sold in America over 650cc are Harleys. " And Americans don’t do small bikes! Given the firm almost went bust in the early 1970s and by 1979 only had four per cent of the U.S. market, that’s probably the greatest turnaround in the history of motorcycling.

Rival manufacturers try to compete with Harley in Daytona, but deep down they know it is only a token gesture. Outside the race track every major manufacturer is offering demo rides on its latest model range. But take a close look and it is the cruisers that are being pushed to the front.

On the Yamaha stand a young, preppy marketing assistant, who can answer any question on any Yamaha model with unnerving coolness after clearly taking the brochure to bed every night, is briefly fazed when I ask a question not on his cue card.

" Why not push your sports bikes harder if you know Harley is going to win here anyway? " I say. To which he replies, with his first flash of emotion: " If you were in a butcher’s shop would you try to sell fruit? "

But sports bikes are on the up on the streets of Daytona and with it come the stunts and antics. One day a guy on a Suzuki TL1000S (wearing a lid, but no shirt!) wheelies past me standing on the seat. As I pull up beside him at the lights I can’t help but smile at him. I don’t necessarily approve, I just think he’s funny.

The next day I smile again as I read in the local paper that the cops have thrown the book at a bloke for the exact same stunt. His Daytona is over for this year and I wonder if he’ll be back next year to join in the party. And I can’t help wondering if next time he’ll come on a Harley.