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Next to Spring Break, Bike Week Set Is Born to Be Mild : Tourism: Daytona Beach loves the sound of revving hogs and ringing cash registers. City leaders say bikers are tamer than college kids--richer too.

March 12, 1994|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Hogs and choppers begin to rumble down Main Street each day about 8 a.m. and before long the curbs are lined with saddlebags and chrome, the sidewalks are jammed with tourists in black leather and tattoos and the rumble has become a roar that won't let up until dawn.

"Everybody is here for the same reason. It's a bunch of boys getting together with their toys," said Ohio dry cleaner Al Oates, 33, as he eased his $15,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycle into a rare available parking spot across from the Boot Hill Saloon earlier this week. "It's just amazing to be here."

Indeed, even for veterans of this tribal gathering, Bike Week '94 seems like a revelation, a noisy, beer-fueled celebration of motorcycles and free spirits that over 10 days is expected to draw more than 500,000 people to this resort town on the Atlantic Ocean.

More than 8 million tourists a year come to Daytona Beach, famed for a 500-mile stock car race, reveling college students on spring break and a white-sand beach so wide and hard-packed that motorists are allowed to drive on it. But nothing, says the city's public safety director, Paul B. Crow, compares to Bike Week. "It's the biggest, best-behaved group we have all year," says Crow. "Compared to this, everything else is small."

Before Bike Week ends Sunday, local tourism officials expect that spending will surpass last year's record high of $211 million, while the death toll drops to a record low. Last year, eight motorcyclists died during Bike Week, all after being struck by cars. Through Friday there had been only one Bike Week fatality--a 49-year-old man who fell off his motorcycle and was run over by a police cruiser as the officer was trying to arrest him for speeding.

Although there are motorcycle races throughout Bike Week at Daytona International Speedway, most bikers are here just to hang out on Main Street, ride off to various mud-wrestling and tattoo contests at bars in the county and be part of the scene at what is billed as the world's largest gathering of two-wheeled vehicles.

"We look forward to this all year," said Bob Landon, 49, who works for Honda in Marysville, Ohio, but--like 95% of those here--rides a Harley-Davidson. "We just like to look at the bikes and ride around a little."

Adds Michel Bedard, an oil refinery technician who with his wife, Lucille, and several other couples trailered their motorcycles into town from Montreal: "I can't believe how friendly everyone is. It's happy, a party. I'll be back."

For those whose idea of motorcyclists begins with Marlon Brando in the 1954 movie "The Wild One" and ends with notorious biker clubs like the Hell's Angels or the Outlaws, Bike Week might sound like a nightmare. And Daytona Beach has had its share of bad dreams.

Until 1988, says George Mirabal, president of the Daytona Beach-Halifax Area Chamber of Commerce, "there were a lot of problems. The event just happened and the previous city administration did not welcome bikers.

"We had a lot of arrests and fights, and weeks later we used to find bodies in the woods, leftover from Bike Week."

A new city administration and the formation of a Bike Week task force changed that. "We turned it into a festival rather than an invasion," said Mirabal.

Now Bike Week, if not tame, is a well-mannered affair, where a sizable number of the participants are middle-age, graying and costumed for a street party where the dress code is basic black. "It's a lifestyle," said John Scott, who handles promotions for a 16,000-square-foot Harley super store that opened here last month. "We get a lot of affluent doctors and lawyers who stop shaving in January to get ready for this week."

According to market researchers, the average age of those at Bike Week is 43. Family incomes average $45,000, and the typical individual here for a few days of vacation is prepared to spend $1,500. This weekend, all of Daytona Beach's 17,000 hotel rooms are full and campgrounds around Volusia County are packed.

"We close at 3 a.m., but it's an hour after that before we can get everybody out of here," said Tina Strahan, manager of Dirty Harry's, a Main Street bar that is resupplied each day of Bike Week by a truckload of Budweiser. "They don't want to go home."

There has been some drunken rowdiness this week, to be sure, and there are so-called one-percenters--members of the outlaw biker clubs--in town, according to Crow, the police chief. But also in town are scores of police officers from as far away as Japan, Germany and Australia keeping tabs on the outlaw bikers, some of whom have been associated with narcotics and organized crime.

"People have a tendency to forget that 99% of bikers are good, family-oriented people who have a more sober agenda than the college kids, for example," said Crow, a former motorcycle cop who has been police chief for six years. "We deal with the 1%, and they work with us too."

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