Panama City Beach, Fla., April 27–May 1—With violent storms and a line of deadly tornadoes hitting sections of Northern Alabama and Georgia on the first day of the rally, the fate of the Spring edition of Thunder Beach was initially in limbo. With a huge amount of the event’s draw coming from these Southern states, the impact such destruction would have on attendance was yet to be seen as news of the severe weather rippled across the Gulf coastline.
Carefully crafted and tweaked over a 12-year period, Thunder Beach has entertained a variety of shifting venues, each offering something a little different. For the rally’s 13th annual, seven official sites had jumped onboard, covering the entire length of Front Beach Road, the area’s main traffic artery, and extending on to Thomas Drive on the far east end. Before Thursday’s launch date, the lavish Shores of Panama was the locale selected for this year’s Kick-Start Party. The Party included the preliminary round of competition in the Miss Thunder Beach Pageant and live music by Geneva. Unfortunately, this schedule was in the same timeframe as the storms ravaging Florida’s sister states only a few hundred miles north, causing many to be more attentive to the news broadcast than pretty girls or rocking music.
By sunrise Thursday, the news that greeted rally attendees was not good. The storms had cut a catastrophic swath across the Southeast. Cell phone connections were jammed with many calling home to check on family members and receive damage updates. And as the first of the poker runs was registering riders, everyone wondered exactly how much influence Mother Nature would have on the 13th annual.
Thunder Beach held three poker runs this year, all starting at noon. The first was on Thursday and sponsored by the Shriners with registration at Rock’ It Lanes. For Friday’s run, everyone picked up their first card at the Shoppes at Edgewater. This one was sponsored by the Defenders LEMC (Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club). The third poker run was on Saturday with the Red Knights MC and Fire and Iron MC organizing the ride from Buckaloo’s Saloon. The poker runs were, in effect, bar hops, as each card stop was held at either a saloon, a restaurant or a bar & grill, and kept the riders close in to the event action. A feel-good motivation for attending any or all of the poker runs is that all the proceeds collected are retained by the nonprofit sponsoring organizations.
By Thursday afternoon, the full extent of the tragedy that had hit on Wednesday was starting to be completely understood. And while some may have left at that time to return home, others were determined to stay. One couple was overheard to say they had lost their home but they weren’t leaving. They had reassurances that none of their family were harmed and they knew that Thunder Beach might be the last relaxing time they would be able to enjoy for a while, so they were going to take advantage of it. By week’s end, the rally would make a surprising rebound that no one expected.
A more somber run took off from Middle Beach Road on Saturday morning. The Sgt. Kevin Kight Memorial Bike Parade was organized after Sgt. Kight lost his life in the line of duty during a routine traffic stop in 2005. Sponsored by the Panama City Beach Police and the White Sands Riders, the parade benefits the organization Cops for Kids and welcomes all riders. This year’s escorted parade had several hundred bikes participating with a wide spectrum of makes and models represented.
When I last attended Thunder Beach, Pier Park wasn’t much more than an expansive parking lot with big plans for the future. At the time, construction crews were still carving out connecting streets and city planners had huge visions of creating a shopping, eating and entertainment mini-plex. I shook my head and thought, “We will see.” Well, those future plans have been completed and have resulted in a quaint village of shops and eateries. The ambiance is inviting with a festive mood combining part Disneyland and part Bourbon Street. And it all seems to work. The Steelhorse Law “Best of the Beach” Bike Show was held here on Saturday. Presented by USRiderNews, the show featured 16 classes, was sanctioned by the IMBBA (International Master Bike Builders Association) and was offering $10,000 in cash and prizes. And although there was a decent crowd of admirers, unfortunately the number of entries was light. Seems that many of those in town aboard show-worthy customs were more interested in cruising than parking their machines for the majority of the day.
At the Front Beach Road entrance to Pier Park, a new City Pier has recently been completed, adding a great coastal flavor to the boardwalk that runs along the beach in this sector. County Pier, a second pier near the Shoppes at Edgewater, was also recently finished. The weather was perfect this day, with a light breeze coming in off the Gulf. During a stroll in the sand along the boardwalk my only thoughts were of finding a hammock and settling down with a few fruity umbrella drinks for the rest of the day. But… I still had to hit Frank Brown Park.
Frank Brown Park is the largest venue at Thunder Beach. It is a true park with grass, several midways and a carnival-like atmosphere. It’s also the place where most of the big-rig vendors park their trailers and where performances like Nick Lee’s Burnout Tour and the Cody & Kyle Ives Stunt Show have the room to get crazy. Indian Motorcycles had their big truck on hand showing off the latest models while custom builders Vince Doll with Redneck Engineering and Jeff Nicklus with Desperado Motorcycles garnered what they said was possibly the largest audience in all their years of attending the event. I caught up with Thunder Beach promoter Joe Biggs at Frank Brown and asked about this year’s attendance.
Biggs enthused, “This is the biggest Spring Rally to date.” (Which actually means it’s the biggest Thunder Beach ever since the spring event is always larger than the one held in the fall.) “I have not talked to one vendor who did not kick ass.”
But with such success comes the imitators; interlopers who strive to work outside the guidelines set by the rally to avoid paying fees. Since this is a free rally, it is also a sponsor-driven event with the only revenue generated by the promoters being in the form of advertising. One such outlaw entrepreneur consisted of two scantily-clad girls on Front Beach holding aloft placards announcing “Free Beer.” Of course it got my attention, so I pulled in to get the details. Seems that for $25, these gals would wash your bike while you enjoyed a beer and then up to three of the sweet young thangs would pose with you on your clean bike for a photo shoot. Great deal, girls, but get a license; pay your dues. This year the rally adopted a “Keep Thunder Alive” program that promoted supporting local sponsors (hotels and bars), buying official Thunder Beach merchandise and patronizing the many vendor villages.
So the largest Thunder Beach Rally ever was held under some of the worst conditions ever. Would it have been even bigger if not for the storms? Most likely yes. But you don’t have to wait until next spring to see if there is a repeat. Their next event is slated for September 20–October 2 when the Most Biker-Friendly Rally in the U.S. holds their 11th annual Autumn Run.