AUSTIN, TEXAS, June 7-10 — I was riding south on Decker Lane on Friday, the second day of the 18th annual ROT rally, heading to downtown Austin. It was 5:30 in the afternoon and although the parade wouldn’t leave the Travis County Expo Center for more than two hours, the roadsides along the route were already filling with locals; non-bikers setting up canopies complete with chairs, iced-down drinks, music and even the occasional barbecue pit. Despite the heat and the long wait, hundreds of spectators were already in place, securing the most ideal viewpoint to witness what has become a yearly ritual, a celebration of chrome, an Austin institution.
Over the years the Republic of Texas Biker Rally has entrenched itself into the very fabric of the State Capital and earned the respect of the city and its citizens. Hotels and bars hire additional staff. Restaurant workers jockey for optimum working hours to maximize their tip potential. Liquor stores lay in supplemental supplies and bike shop owners suspend vacations. City officials eagerly look forward to the boost in tax revenue while the local boys in blue realize some easy overtime pay without a whole lot of work. And although the traffic gets a little hectic at times, most of the citizenry remains sedate during the event’s four-day run, accepting a little inconvenience in return for the massive amount of money that comes rolling into town. This year’s estimates put that figure in excess of $40 million, possibly making it the most successful ROT in history. (A three-percent increase in gate admissions over 2011 was reported by Denise Garcia, head of ROT sales and PR.) And while one can speculate that that monetary figure is due to the fact that most motorcycle enthusiasts are professionals with above-average access to disposable income, I like to think that bikers just like to have fun and to hell with the rent and the kids’ college funds. “It’s only money, I can always make some more.”
Although ROT didn’t officially kick off until the first Thursday of June, pre-parties the week preceding were rampant at Austin-
based biker-friendly establishments. While the intent of these early ROT parties was twofold—to amp up the local pre-ROT excitement and to log in as many pre-registered attendees as possible—with Austin’s central location, the pre-parties are actually a great enticement to nearby riders from San Antonio, Houston and even the Dallas/Fort Worth area. At less than 140 miles from my Houston office, I can take off at day’s end, take a leisurely ride to Austin, do a meet and greet, grab a few beers and some tacos and still get home before midnight. Texas is big but it ain’t that big.
Friday is full-swing mode for ROT with thousands of bikers making the trip from cities across Texas, neighboring border states (including a large contingency from Mexico) and sometimes even from overseas due to the lure of the Lone Star State mystique (we had numerous guests from Germany this year). And while many have no desire to participate in the Friday night parade personally, thousands of riders do converge early on the downtown district of Austin in anticipation of the event that set a Guinness World Record several years ago. An estimated 100,000 to 140,000 people flooded the 52 barricaded blocks for this year’s Friday night party. During this time, only motorcycles and foot traffic can be found on streets of Congress Avenue and the world-famous 6th Street, known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” The parade lasted more than an hour as bikes wheeled into downtown with the iconic State Capitol building as a dramatic backdrop to a near-perfect evening. Temperatures were a toasty 90 degrees at sunset with the roar of V-Twins and others notching it up a few degrees upon arrival. But safe and cool havens were abundant, with nearby 6th Street and its multiple bars serving up frosty refreshments and chilled beverages—friendships forged, parties unbridled, memories blurred.
But despite the over-the-top party atmosphere at ROT, we are somewhat a self-controlled bracket of revelers. While there were 26
motorcycle accidents over the ROT weekend (and three deaths), none were attributed to alcohol. Beginning this year, the Republic of Texas Rally promoters instituted a Ride Safe—Ride Sober program. The phrase was even imprinted on the mandatory admission wristband as a reminder each time you raised that cerveza to your lips. Even Austin Police Department Lt. Derek Galloway was impressed when he stated to local KVUE News, “We did not have anybody arrested for DWI on a motorcycle, and we did not have any fatality crashes that involved alcohol. We made 50 arrests for DWI, but again, none of those were motorcycle riders.”
If you only attended the Friday party downtown and never actually visited the rally site, then you missed out on a giant show. Saturday presented a huge offering including two of Texas’ most acclaimed residents, Jesse James and Ted Nugent, neither native Texans, but both embracing the Wild West attitude that is impossible to ignore. While Friday night’s music selection included Shooter Jennings on the Expo’s main stage, Saturday gave way to continuous talent including comics and live music at the Paradise Bar. And that’s the only drawback to this event: there is so much crammed into the weekend, you are hard pressed to see it all. While I was fully engrossed in capturing the action at the Biker Rodeo in the covered vendor mall, I was missing the Hulk Hogan Micro Championship Wrestling being held at the same time in the ThunderDome Arena. I bumped into famed photographer Michael Lichter at the bike games and he was torn between covering the rodeo and the ride-in bike show. It was one busy day—even for us professionals.
The Boost Mobile FreestyleMX.com Tour presented three shows a day, while helicopter rides were available in the back lot. For the first time this year, a vintage car show was added to the mix with a good sampling of local classic vehicles. And in an effort to keep all participants well hydrated during this hot Texas weekend, the Paradise Bar, the Cowboy Bar, the Hookah Bar & Lounge and the Skyline Bar provided just about every type of atmosphere you could want. But if partying at camp was more your style, there was the drive-through beer barn ready to keep your coolers well stocked.
Inside the air-conditioned ThunderDome (a nice respite on this steamy day) a respectable group of professional bike builders had been assembled including Paul Yaffe’s Bagger Nation, Desperado Motorcycles, Southern Metal Choppers, Strokers Dallas and Spitfire Motorcycles. In the middle of the Dome, Bronson Willard had once again assembled a great collection of old bikes for the Vintage Bike Showcase. And for once, ROT finally found a decent comic emcee: Steve Trevino was bawdy and crude, insulting every ethnicity and political persuasion to the laughter of an appreciative crowd. There was also a Tattoo Expo held on the upper level along with a strange assemblage of six gals in Mad Max attire posing for photos in front of an apocalyptic display. Although labeled “Barter Town,” in reality the girls would actually only accept cash for the photo op and turned down every barter I presented.
But the biggest draw had to be Saturday’s appearance by Jesse James, formerly of West Coast Choppers fame and now operating
under the Austin Speed Shop placard. Jesse was on hand for a meet and greet on Saturday between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. and had been asked to select the best bike from the ride-in bike show for a distinction labeled “Jesse’s Pick.” All the winners from the various divisions in the show were wheeled over to the ThunderDome. Once there, James was to judge the show’s best-of-the-best and select his favorite, the winner receiving a custom-made trophy personally crafted by Jesse. James’s mere presence created a mini-fiasco, with fans crowding in to get a glimpse of the celebrity. He had a police escort at all times (strange to see tough-guy James with security) who actually came to his aid when one over-ardent admirer broke through the cordoned area and rushed James during the judging process. The violator was quickly tackled by APD and taken away. The winner of Jesse’s Pick was Patrick with Primer Inc out of Houston for his classic 1977 Shovelhead. That night James also presented the Military Bike Give-Away right before Motor City Madman Ted Nugent hit the stage for a blazing performance.
So attendance at ROT was up and generated revenue that reached record levels while biker DWIs scored a zero. Those are numbers pleasing to any city. Although rumors continue to bounce around about the rally relocating, Austin remains the event’s best bet for future growth and a long life. But relocating just down the road a piece may be a possibility. Now under construction near the Travis County Expo Center, the new Formula 1 United States Grand Prix racetrack, “Circuit of the Americas,” features a 3.4-mile course on over 900 acres. Along with Formula 1, an initial Moto GP race has already been scheduled for 2013. And I think one of those Italian GP racetrack models would look just about perfect on the ol’ Harley.