A Stop on the Harley-Davidson Open Road Tour

I like Harleys, I really do. The 100th Anniversary Fat Boy would fit right nice positioned betwixt my leathers. Thing is, I’ve liked something about nearly all the motorcycles I’ve ever owned, or ridden. So why did that epiphany feel so much like a character flaw I should keep to myself? Because the party at the California Speedway was for Harley-Davidson and their fans, and few enthusiasts are more mono-mindedly devoted than Harley afficionados.

It’s a little tough to fathom that Harley-Davidson has been a part of our American texture for a century now. For all those years these steel steeds have symbolized independence and freedom for a new breed of cowboys. As a company, Harley has become a metaphor for our country’s tough, never-surrender personality, with a legacy as colorful as a Will Rogers quip. To celebrate its cornucopia of history and influence on contemporary culture Harley-Davidson has taken the show on the road. Aseries of Open Road Tours (ORT) will keep the birthday bash ablaze for 14 months, climaxing with The Ride Home. This nationwide ride back to the mother ship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is scheduled for August 31, 2003.

Seattle Stunt and Drill Team sans Cossacks.
Seattle Stunt and Drill Team sans Cossacks.

The ORT at the Speedway in Fontana, California, was the third installment in a series of 10. The party ran from Friday to Sunday (September 6-8, 2002), firing off at 1 p.m. each day and ending at 11 p.m. (9 p.m. Sunday). The speedway inhabits approximately 550 acres of Fontana real estate, 50 which were devoted to the party. Parking was accessible and ample, and fairly secure considering the circumstances.

Rarely does the opportunity arise for this many babied motorcycles to hook-up in the same place at the same time, all shiny and clean, creating an ocean of chrome and color sparkling in the sun like a whacked kaleidoscopic dream—impressive and inspiring to view firsthand. Security overall was good. The obvious potential for varying degrees of drama and debauchery wasn’t lost on the organizers. The police presence was mighty, but for the most part, not restrictive or intimidating.

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Oh, that crazy Bubba.
Oh, that crazy Bubba.

Like most parties, things started awkwardly slow. Early in the day thousands of disassociated bodies roamed the numerous exhibits and scouted out the eats—taking their bearings and finding the corners. Things were spread evenly over the entire 50 acres; there was plenty of walking room. The price of food and beverage was about the same as what we’ve grown uncomfortable with at county fairs or amusement parks, although tastier, rumor had it. There were an abundance of beer stands and margarita huts, though the notion of a $6 brew or a $10 margarita kept most patrons at bay at first—but that would pass.

The heart of the Open Road Tour festival is the three 20,000-square-foot circus-type tent exhibits entitled the Journey, the Machine and the Culture. The Journey traces the history of Harley-Davidson through the use of multimedia and historic displays, original artifacts, reproductions of vintage products, and the collection of material from memorable marketing campaigns.

George Jetson’s Harley.
George Jetson’s Harley.

In the Machine tent Harley reminds us that it’s about adventure, freedom and individuality—perhaps feeling the need to reminisce as we are simultaneously bombarded with and encapsulated in a sh-tload of corporateness. This pavilion features a notable exhibition of select motorcycles from H-D’s archives, some of which have never before been seen in public. Alongside the motorcycles is an exhibit of the evolution of the engine and tank graphics.

The distinctive style and culture of Harley-Davidson and its impact throughout the world are examined in the Culture exhibit. As you move around this exhibit you’ll witness H-D’s role in movies and rock ’n’ roll (music hall of fame). There’s a thousand-seat cinema featuring specially commissioned short films about the company, including a look at Harley in the movies, narrated by Dan Aykroyd (I don’t know why Dan either). Overall the exhibits contain a palpable amount of viable history amidst a good deal of hey-look-at-me stuff.

A hundred years of history—tanks for the memories.
A hundred years of history—tanks for the memories.

There are eight other attractions on the tour including a custom and antique bike show and the H.O.G. Roadhouse, an exclusive area for H.O.G. and BRAG members to meet. If you’re 18 or older, with a motorcycle license, there’s a complete lineup of H-D and Buell motorcycles to demo. All in all, like the brochure reads, there’s something for everyone. Even for the next generation of Harley fans, who can enjoy demo rides on cute little Fisher-Price toy-Harley motorcycles.

The two live motorcycle shows featured the Seattle Cossacks Motorcycle Stunt & Drill Team and Bubba Blackwell. The drill team performs a series of mind-numbing precision riding routines that you’ll either love or walk away from—there’s no middle ground here. Bubba, on the other hand, will win you over if you give him half a chance. Once you get past the corny showmanship routine, this guy does things on a motorcycle that I’ve never experienced before. He actually does a wheelie sitting on the gas tank of his Buell Lightning XI, with feet dangling over the handlebars—front and back wheelies.

By late afternoon, with the sun beating down and the price of alcohol looking less prohibitive and more like medicine, the party started getting interesting. More than 12 bands played on two stages over the course of the weekend, and nothing says partaaa like 120 decibels of internalorgan-shaking rock. The sound system on this main Harley stage was first-rate. All the ands sounded better than they had a right to.

As with all celebrations, there comes a point of diminishing returns, when the partying becomes too much for some. When the rookies with their overly exuberant fast starts fall aside and the veterans kick into another gear. Saturday, that point came at about the time Billy Idol hit the stage. That’s when the inhibitions came down and the shirts came up. Party on. Long live Harley-Davidson.

(This article Hogstock: A Stop on the Harley-Davidson Open Road Tour was published in the January 2003 issue of Rider magazine.)

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