GALVESTON, TEXAS, NOV.1-4–During a span of 11 years, the Lone Star Rally has faced a rocky roller-coaster existence, surviving politics, natural disasters, economic hardships and a disgruntled citizenry. But having been a witness to every one of its birthdays since its inception, I can honestly state that this had to be the best Lone Star Rally ever. Ever.
After devastating Cuba, Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston on September 13, 2008, upsetting the rally’s original scheduled date in October. Due to heavy damage across the island, the event was shoved into the first part of December. Local residents cried foul, claiming the rally would place too much of a burden on an already weakened infrastructure. But the Lone Star machine weathered the criticism and actually became a viable part of Galveston’s recovery. Much to the bikers’ delight, the later calendar date offered cooler temperatures with even greater attendance being experienced. But the locals protested the revised dates, stating the rally would interfere with the island’s holiday shopping. So a compromise was eventually reached and the event is now held during Halloween weekend. But just as stormy as anything nature could toss her way was the relationship between the original rally owners and the Galveston City Council, with shouting matches often occurring punctuated by threats of relocating to a more biker-friendly locale. Luckily new promoters took over a few years ago, forging strong bonds with city officials and addressing the concerns of the island’s full-time residents. And in 2012 all that hard work resulted in a major vendor and entertainment presence on the Seawall alongside the gulf waters. This one action has completely revitalized the event, opening up greater opportunities for growth and success. It was the best—ever.
In typical fashion, Thursday began slowly with riders mainly showing up, checking into their accommodations and grabbing dinner and drinks with friends. Live entertainment did kick off at noon on two stages located in the historic Strand District with special music treats including Jasmine Cain and Big Engine. Friday offered even greater music talent with the Red Bull Stage opening up on Pier 21 and the Badlands Stage launching at Beach Central Park in the Seawall location. This was the first time Seawall Boulevard had seen any type of significant motorcycle-oriented action since Ike splashed ashore, wreaking havoc and leaving ruin in its wake. But the massive rebuilding efforts during the following four years have netted some dramatic improvements—not the least being Pleasure Pier.
Rebounding through the storms
Located at 25th Street and Seawall Boulevard, Pleasure Pier extends into the gulf 1,130 feet. But this massive concrete structure isn’t exactly new to the island. Originally built in the late 1940s, the pier was first used as a recreational facility for the military. Top dance bands from around the world would regularly fill the huge Marine ballroom, while outside motion pictures were shown as ships sailed across the evening horizon. After World War II, the pier was turned over to the city and renamed Pleasure Pier where it operated as a family destination until 1961 when Hurricane Carla damaged it severely. In 1965, the Flagship Hotel opened on the site and became known as the only hotel in North America built entirely over the water. The Flagship saw its last days in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. Landry’s Inc. (the restaurant moguls) re-envisioned the venue and, wanting to reignite the island’s civic pride and bolster economic growth, reopened the pier in May 2012. It now includes a steel roller coaster that juts over the water, the Texas Star Flyer that swings riders 230 feet above the gulf, a 100-foot ferris wheel and even a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. seafood restaurant. They hope to garner the same type of attention given to the Santa Monica Pier and Coney Island. The standard Pier Pass ($10) was waived during the rally in an effort to entice the bikers to experience a different type of thrill (yes, they charge just to walk on the pier).
The Seawall Lot began at Pleasure Pier with one-way traffic being restricted to two lanes beginning at 25th Street and going east along the water until 21st. And this new addition was a huge hit, featuring live bands, well-known motorcycle innovators Eddie Trotta, John Shope with Sinister Industries and Bourget Bike Works, and big rigs from industry heavy-hitters J&P Cycles, Rinehart and S&S Cycle. Plenty of smaller vendors filled in the gaps along with ample food and drink being on hand at the Seawall Beir Garden. Friday night Bret Michaels performed a free concert here starting at 7:30, which drew riders and a huge number of non-riding fans. But as welcome and needful as the new Seawall operation may be, the epicenter of the Lone Star passion remains at The Strand.
The Strand Historic District is a two-lane cobblestone street of Victorian-era buildings and is Galveston’s major tourist attraction. It runs parallel to Galveston Bay and is sandwiched between Mechanic Street and Harborside Drive. The area is noted for two major festivals: Mardi Gras Galveston in February and Dickens on the Strand at Christmas. But in real numbers, the Lone Star Rally dwarfs both in attendance and in the amount of dollars brought to the island. Past estimates have ranged as high 500,000 bikers showing up, which is highly suspect since many riders make several day trips from the mainland during the course of the weekend (I rode down on Friday and returned again on Saturday). But no matter what the true figures may be, no one can doubt the significant impact the rally has on the local economy.
Showing his true colors
Helping add to this year’s fervor was the appearance of Charlie Hunnam on Friday and Saturday at The Strand. Hunnam plays Jax Teller on the highly popular FX TV drama Sons of Anarchy. His draw was apparent when the scheduled VIP Meet & Greet sold out within hours after the online registration opened three weeks earlier. Only 225 slots were available (at a cost of $50 each!), which secured the VIP an autographed poster and one 8×10 glossy, one item of your choosing that Hunnam would autograph, one photo of you and Jax taken by the rally’s official photographer and another taken by a camera of your own choosing. Repeated requests by this reporter to secure an interview were denied (but I guess were available for $50). Hunnam also acted as grand marshal for the Outlaw Dave Ranch Ride, leading a pack of more than 1,500 riders on Saturday morning. Now in its ninth year, the Ranch Ride benefits the Stevens and Pruett Ranch for Abused Children and Animals. A $20 donation gave you breakfast at the starting point (Stubbs Harley-Davidson in east Houston), a commemorative T-shirt and a parking pass for the rally. The San Jacinto High Rollers MC and Houston PD provided the escort for the ride.
Last year’s inaugural All-Star Round Up Bike Show was such a success that the rally added a Metric-Only Show on Friday this year in addition to the all makes and models show on Saturday. Both were held at Pier 21 with the harbor as a backdrop. The metric show was well attended with more than 30 bikes entered, but Saturday’s event exceeded all expectations with more than 90 machines in competition. A large contingent of touring bikes made up a sizable segment of the entries, all vying for the Baddest Bagger in Texas honors presented by Paul Yaffe’s Bagger Nation.
Across from Pier 21, the Full Throttle Lot was stuffed to the boundary ropes with custom bikes while their celebrity builders fielded questions from the curious novice to the interested buyer. On hand were Rick Fairless with Strokers Dallas, Joe Martin with the Martin Bros., Jeff Nicklus with Desperado Motorcycles, Bronson Willard with Southern Metal Choppers, Paul Yaffe’s Bagger Nation and Roman Blum from RB Customs. Mike and Angie Ballard from the “World’s Largest Biker Bar,” the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, were also onsite throughout the weekend hawking FT-labeled merchandise.
Putting the squeeze on
Parking remains a problem, with some lots charging as much as $10 (and that does not include any type of reentry). Cruising The Strand, either just profiling or hoping for a parking space, will also run you a ten spot. But that little expense deters few, with The Strand packed on both Friday and Saturday from noon until well after the sun went down. And while it is possible to spend way too much money dining at some exotic eateries, there are plenty of discount grub outlets providing quality fare for the budget-minded. In the end, the biggest challenge facing anyone attending this free rally (there is no admission fee to any of the event’s various components) has to be finding a place to bed down after a full day of island celebration. During rally weekend, a single room at most of the condos and hotels located along Seawall Boulevard (where almost all the accommodations are based) was running between $250–$300 per night. When I inquired about the exorbitant rates, the high costs were generally blamed on the popularity of Pleasure Pier. But when I checked back with the same condo a week after the rally, the same room had dropped to less than a third of the earlier quoted price. Even checking for a place to stay on the mainland yielded little success, since a lot of riders had the exact same idea. The nearest reasonably-priced lodging was almost 30 miles away. In protest I rode 75 miles home on both Friday night and Saturday night, missing plenty of the party, but feeling justified in my frugalness. Galveston’s innkeepers know they have a captive customer base, and one that has the money to pay for ease of access. Let’s just hope they don’t squeeze so hard that the riders take offense and go elsewhere.
The organizers of the 2012 version of the Lone Star Rally declared the event a resounding triumph, with perfect weather, an expanded vendor zone and a crowd estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. But even further, this is an illustration of how a city seeking survival can work in harmony with a group dedicated to an alternative lifestyle to the mutual satisfaction of both. Now, let’s work on those hotel rates before we all end up sleeping on the beach.