Like in thousands of other garages across the country, I, too, found myself on a Friday afternoon packing the bike for a weekend ride. Grass is mowed, trash is at the curb, answering machine is on, and Monday is a distant nuisance. I was answering an urgent call, more basic than any primeval urge... it was my editor. "Get yer ass up to Portsmouth to cover the Fleet Ride - yes you can bring your wife, yes we'll cover the cigars, and yes there's a Bikini Contest." With my three prerequisites covered, I agreed and began to do some background research on the ride.
Take a retired Navy Chief, set him in the middle of the Hampton Roads area (Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Chesapeake Bay) in Virginia, add his position as General Manager of the Bayside Harley dealership, throw in the Annual Fleet Week activities for the U.S. Navy and stand back, because you got a growing event that is destined to be an October mainstay for East Coast riders.
Bayside's Parts Manager, Steve Adkins, came up with the ride idea through the areas many tunnels, and General Manager, Kevin Johnson, put it together with the Fleet Week activities and hooked up with their charity recipients, The Navy & Marine Corps Relief Society, the Navy League and the Virginia Beach Jaycees.
All under the direction and leadership of Maurice Slaughter, owner of the Bayside, Elizabeth City and Nags Head Harley-Davidson dealerships, this year they were expecting well over 5000 riders, included among them was Jim McCaslin, President of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Following the ride, and after the bike show and bikini contest, ride participants were invited to see Creedence Clearwater Revisited that night in Norfolk. It sounded better than a long ride to Biketoberfest, so I booked my room for the weekend.
Now, with many riders heading south for Daytona, I found myself packed up, my bride on the back bundled up against the Fall chill, and heading north to join the bikes that will be converging on the 3rd Annual Fleet Ride called "Rumble Through the Tunnels".
Beginning in 2001, with 2500 bikes, growing to nearly 5000 bikes in 2002, over $17,000 had been donated prior to this years ride. Benny Suggs, Director of Dealer Training at the Harley-Davidson Motor Company had been the Grand Marshall those two years. This year, Jim McCaslin presided over the ride, marking the Fleet Week Ride as a major event in October's calendar of events.
As an ex-Naval Airman myself and not being overly fond of big rallies in general, when I was asked to cover this year's event, I didn't hesitate a minute. In the days before computers, I had joined the Navy to see the world. Little did I know I wouldn't see much beyond the Mississippi River, stationed at a Naval Air Station in Memphis, Tennessee. So an opportunity to ride amongst our Fleet and to show appreciation to our servicemen in uniform was an easy decision.
Saturday morning, we rolled up to the staging area behind Harbor Park Stadium in Norfolk. It was over an hour before the ride was to begin and more than 4000 bikes were already lined up, their owners milling about, polishing their bikes, or bellied up to the Krispy Kreme doughnut table and drinking coffee. I made a point to find the first bike in line to ask his story.
Leonard Bragg was his name. He rode down from Utica, New York to ride in his second Fleet Ride. Leonard told me he was retired from the Navy himself, as was his dad, and his two boys, Jeremy and Jeffrey, were active duty Navy, too. I could appreciate his desire to ride in this particular event, as both my parents were stationed here in Norfolk in the Navy during WWII. He had gotten in line at 7am this morning. It's guys like Leonard and his boys that make the rest of us feel a need to make these kinds of rides. Thanking him and his boys for their service, I shook his hand and looked up over his head at the growing throng of bikes, now 100 deep and nearly 50 wide. Ya gotta know there are hundreds of similar stories among them.
Next to him in the VIP line was Larry Linton, one of the hundreds of Active Duty who rode at no charge. Larry was the winner of the 2004 Sportster 883 given away by Bayside at the recent Navy Days Golf Tournament. He was on the last hole, the last foursome and the last to tee-off, when his drive dropped into the hole, winning him the bike he was riding today.
Before getting a chance to get into any more stories, I had a few moments to interview Jim McCaslin. Now, you have to imagine the President of Harley has requests made of him on a daily basis to attend some event or another like this one. I asked the expected question, "What made you accept this invitation to ride in the Fleet Ride?"
"Maurice asked me." was his simple reply. I suppose owning three dealerships does have its advantages. But Mr. McCaslin went on to explain he tries to attend many of these kinds of events, especially ones which benefits local charities, in this case the Navy League and the Virginia Beach Jaycees.
I asked how he explains the public perception that Harley purchases had peaked in the late 90's when the 6 to 18 month wait for some bikes slowly returned to normal wait times, in light of the fact that Harley-Davidson showed record sales in second quarter 2003. OK, so it was a slow-ball question, I just wanted to look like I was mildly intelligent, and I got the expected response, "Production has been ramped up to meet the demand, but the demand is in no way subsiding - we just have more bikes to meet it. Our challenge is not to prove our quality; it is to find other ways to get new riders on a bike."
I asked if he gets an opportunity to rub elbows with his customers like this very often, and he went on to say he attends many of the Primary Officer's meetings, training meetings for HOG officers, and wanders through the crowds at rides and dealership events like this fairly often. I wondered if he ever tells anybody who he was as he wandered about, but after watching him in the crowds after the ride at the dealership, I can tell you he was meeting and greeting a lot of people eager to talk to him and have pictures taken. You have to imagine word of mouth spreads fairly fast who he is.
I had a long list of other questions, but lucky for him the long wail of a Motorcycle Officer's siren signaled the beginning of the ride. The front few rows of the crowd suited up, fired up their bikes and snaked through downtown Norfolk making their way onto the beltline of highways that surrounds Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News. Through four tunnels under the area bays and rivers, the miles long procession rumbled and revved in each tunnel creating an awesome vibration felt throughout your body. Crowds stopped and waved and cheered from overpasses, or from parked cars stopped at on-ramps as the 45 minute parade sped past.
Back at the Bayside dealership in Portsmouth, the crowd swelled, hot dogs stuffed into hungry mouths and T-shirts flew off the racks. Several square blocks surrounding the dealership was crammed with bikes as the tail end of the ride returned. My wife and I bought our T-shirts and pins, wandered through the Bike Show entries, listened to the music and marveled at the numbers of people who will go home tonight with their own stories of the ride.
After the presentation of the charity proceeds, about $13,000 this year, and the bike show awards, (congratulations to Nelson Loucka for the People's Choice Award with his '98 FXD), the remaining crowd slowly crowded around the stage anticipating the bikini contest. The temperature was a little nippy (pun intended) and very few people were gonna leave til the girls came out. Unfortunately, some of the contestants were stuck in one of the tunnels following an accident (not one of the bikes), but the three remaining girls were troopers for braving the cold air. Christy Tracey came away with first place in her aqua knit bikini.
Followed was Teflon Blond, a local band who played as the crowd thinned, getting ready to go downtown for the culminating event at the Norva theater in Norfolk, featuring one of my all-time favorite bands, Creedence Clearwater Revisited. Two of the original band members, Stu Cook, the Bass Guitarist, and Doug "Cosmo" Clifford, their Hall-of-Fame drummer, gathered three other amazing new band members in 1995 to play CCR's long list of hits, and they've been playing to packed concert halls ever since. With scores of bikes parked out front, the small concert hall rocked to classic Creedence tunes. The result was, in my opinion, as good as or better than the original performances which I still remember from the early 70's.
Thinking "What could possibly top that?" my wife and I rode the couple of miles back to our hotel in Portsmouth, sorry to see the Fleet Ride event coming to an end. I generally don't like Rallies much but as Dealer events go, this was one of the better ones I'd been to. The answer to the above question came at the hotel as I walked to the elevator lobby and followed a group of people into the small elevator. As they turned around to face the front, I found myself going to the 12th floor with Creedence Clearwater, still in their sweaty stage clothes. Managing to stay fairly composed, after the handshakes and the usual, "Great concert" and "I've been a big fan since "Suzy Q" in the late 60's", Cosmo took pity on me and handed me an autographed drumstick. This is one that will never hit eBay, I assure you!
Next year, I'll skip Octoberfest again in a heartbeat - showing my support for the boys in uniform is more important, and the funds Bayside raised for them badly needed. Might be hard to make my editor think he's twisting my arm next year though.
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