Ventura, Calif., Dec. 12—Watching the seagulls as they hovered over the Pacific Ocean, I glanced around the fairgrounds where the David Mann Chopper Fest was gearing up. I’d been on the road for three days, sometimes staying ahead of the wet weather I’d been trying to outrun, but mostly not, and the warmth of the mid-day sun was intoxicating. Palm trees stood silently against the calm afternoon and the atmosphere oozed the kind of laid-back mellow that can only be experienced in Ventura.
It’s that exact mellow vibe, and killer weather, that sets the Chopper Fest apart from any other bike show, swap meet or biker gathering and makes the annual ride down from NorCal a great escape from the dreary, damp gray winter. The beach bum, hippie and biker vibe that permeates this event is such a feel-good gig that it goes on my calendar each year as soon as the promoters get the date figured out.
For seven years, friends of the dearly departed David Mann have gathered to keep his memory alive in the warm glow of the California coastal park. The celebrated biker artist was originally married some 17 years ago to his beloved Jacquie during a swap meet at this very park, and then memorialized here after his much-too-early passing due to cancer in 2004.
Known worldwide for his indelible mark on the biker world, Mann painted his way into history with his depiction of the lifestyle he lived, loved and proliferated. His vision of what a motorcycle should be served as an example for the creative choppers that continue to be put together by everyone from notable builders right on down to the shade-tree do-it-yourselfers. From the kick-start hardtails that he personally rode to the long, lean, raked motorcycles and their riders that he committed to canvas, the daily lives of bikers rolled off the centerfolds of Easyriders magazine and into the garages, living rooms, clubhouses and bike shops of bikers across the globe.
Though his first love was custom cars, David eventually immersed himself in the motorcycle world when he moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to California. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth is credited with first bringing Dave’s work to the public through his custom motorcycle magazine Choppers, before Mann started working for Easyriders in 1972. Dave would continue his affiliation with Easyriders the rest of his life and the love and respect of his fellow Paisano peeps is evident by their attendance year after year at the DMCF. The clan from the magazine was on hand on this day too and, as usual, Kim Peterson (In the Wind editor) and Clean Dean (Biker editor) were helping out with the judging as the good-time Mann vibe floated through the crowd.
For the lucky number 7 iteration of the DMCF, (which, it should be noted, was held on the same date as the first event) over 6,000 David Mann devotees roamed the fairgrounds at Seaside Park and were proof positive that the legendary artist’s spirit lives on in the hearts of friends, family and fans. Considering the amazing weather that prevails every year at this event, it’s a widely-held belief that Dave has an “in” with the powers that be and puts in a good word for the riders that roll out for the bike show. Here we were, mere days before Christmas, and riders were basking in the bright California sunshine as they rolled out en masse to pay tribute to the great artist’s memory. Nomadic rider Panhead Billy, who was found camped on the beach near a palm tree, awoke to the sight of surfers celebrating an epic day as they put toes to the nose in the sparkling sea.
Meanwhile, inside the fairgrounds, bikers were also appreciating the close proximity to the surf as they soaked up the salt air and happily cruised the rows upon rows of spit-shined and polished motorcycles while a group of gals on wheels had a roller derby exhibition. The Sugartown Roller Girls, featuring coach Razor, skated on old-skool skates through the venue among some 200 vendors and between 40 builders’ booths, sexy bike displays and swap meet setups.
Over in one of the onsite buildings, there was a salute to the biker lifestyle with a gallery display of some of David Mann’s work. One of his most recognizable works, “Ghost Rider,” shows the image of a lone rider crossing the desert, shadowed by a rider on horseback from days of the old Wild West, and exemplifies Mann’s range as a painter. Several other of his works were hung, including “Choose Your Fantasy,” “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” and the controversial “Thunder Struck” that had a crowd of riders discussing their religious convictions. Even in the afterlife, Mann is still stirring controversy and insight in the biker world.
In anxious anticipation of the awards ceremony, Sonny Boy from Santa Fe Springs was over in his booth applying the finishing artistic touches to the awards he’d fabbed out of tank-shaped tin. Everything from ape hangers to Z-bars was represented among the 180 show bikes, with long bikes being particularly apparent.
One such stretched-out machine was Shannon Aikau’s 1976 Shovelhead, which was so long we had a hard time getting the entire bike into a photo frame. The raked-out ride ended up taking first place for the Koolest Paint. Top awards included one for Old Skool Skooter and Best of Show, as well as the coveted David Mann Memorial award that was presented to Gray Cat for his badass 1950 Panhead.
On stage, the lovely Jennifer Santolucito played emcee and kept the boys in the band, The Preachers, in line. Pretty in her strapless pink dress, the tattooed and cheerful Jennifer performed an original song she’d written as a tribute to her sister during her battle with cancer, just before promoter Tory DuVarney took the stage. In offering his thanks to everyone who attended, Tory specifically thanked Mother Nature for her extremely beautiful weather, which drew applause and whoops of appreciation from the crowd.
In speaking with Thunder Press, Tory reported that this was the biggest show yet and wished to thank the list of sponsors who support the Chopper Fest, including Ventura Harley-Davidson, Limpnickie Lot, Barnett Clutches and Cables, JIMS Machine, Dave Mackie Engineering, Ventura Toyota, and Shapiro and Leventhal, many of whom had representatives wandering the grounds and enjoying the Fest for themselves.
The SoCal motorcycle accident attorney, Steve Schapiro, was spied soaking up the sunshine and suds with NorCal buddy Alan Scott. Builder Slim from Slim’s Fab, who always has a hug at the ready and is a joy to see, was on hand, as was the wandering riding personality, Bean’re. Sugar Bear brought his winning smile to the party and Kiwi Mike was hanging out at his booth, showing off his Kiwi Indian Motorcycles. While scoping out the swap meet offerings and chatting with buddy Beatnik, the wild and wonderful husband-wife team of Bart-at-Large and Wendell Perry gave a holler, and ride-all-over-the-world Ray C. Wheeler posed for a photo next to his red-orange racer that was entered in the show. Everybody seemed to know everybody, and those that didn’t quickly stepped up to meet new friends. Folks at the David Mann Chopper Fest are never strangers for long.
As the bikes began to slowly disappear from the venue, I strolled out to saddle up and continue my nomadic winter ride down the California coastline. It had been a picture-perfect Sunday filled with love and laughter. I took a long last look across the grassy park to absorb the warm memories of the good time spent with good friends to carry along with me as I continued my trip south. The roar of departing motorcycles could be heard echoing across the parking lot and bouncing off the palms, and a light coastal fog hovered on the horizon as the sun inched its way into the shining sea. The magic of the day was a fitting tribute to the amazing Mann himself.