AUSTIN, TEXAS, JUNE 13-16–It was high noon. And although some decent cloud cover provided a respite from the relentless sun, that same blanket of cumulus bottled up a butt-load of humidity causing a pressure cooker effect. With temperatures in mid-90s, the humidity soared to a stifling 85 percent. Apparently this was enough of a lethal combination to cause typically normal individuals to temporarily go freakin’ insane, shedding attire and modesty, revealing skin that hadn’t seen daylight since last year. No matter how proud you may be, there is some flesh that should never be exposed. Not even at the ROT Rally.
What began almost two decades ago as a H.O.G. rally has evolved into one of the most anticipated two-wheeled events in all of the Lone Star State. That evolution has included controversy, unexpected surprises and over-the-top shenanigans. I’ve drank Jack backstage with David Allen Coe, was a front-row witness to Robbie Knievel soaring over two Budweiser trucks in front of the State Capitol and have been scared witless by the poor riding skills of individuals during the annual bike parade from the Expo Center to downtown Austin. And although each year is always different than the previous, it is never boring. The 19th annual proved to be no exception.
Although promoted as a four-day event, Thursday is generally slow, mainly consisting of those who have reserved an RV site, rolling in with their house-on-wheels, bike trailers and golf carts early to establish a base camp. And some of these camps are quite elaborate, being equipped with inflatable swimming pools to battle the heat, barbecue pits and grills to stave off hunger pangs, outside bars to wage war with the problem of dehydration and even a few stripper poles to negate the possibility of discretion. The actual number of RVers is staggering with more than 1,000 aluminum-skinned campers vying for favored sites, many returning year after year to the same location to reignite friendships forged with neighbors during previous rallies. Typically all the RV sites are sold out within a matter of days creating a self-contained city of streets and alleyways, food and beverage barns that rival the population of many rural Texas towns. Musical acts kicked off that afternoon at the Paradise Bar and culminated later that evening with Vitera and Los Lonely Boys onstage at the Cyclone Amphitheater. The prelims for the Miss ROT Swimsuit Competition rounded out the night’s entertainment schedule.
6th Street party
While the ROT riders only trickled in on Thursday, the floodgates were opened the next day with multitudes riding into the state capital and gearing up for the mandatory Friday night motorcycle parade. That’s when several thousand riders take off from the Travis County Expo Center to the biggest one-night party in Texas on the streets of downtown Austin. The police shut down 20 blocks of Austin’s famed entertainment district for the close to 200,000 people who show up to watch the bikes pass the Capitol building and parade down Congress Avenue. And the event also draws thousands of curious college kids, staid businessmen and respectable elders—non-bikers all seeking immersion in the town’s largest public event (ROT attendance surpassed Austin’s famed music and film festival, South X Southwest, several years ago). And this had to be one of the longest parades since ROT was founded. It was made even longer (at least time-wise) when the motorcycle being ridden by rally owners Jerry and Colleen Bragg suffered a breakdown and had to be loaded onto a trailer, halting the motorcade and causing a big break in the parade. After the final participant found a parking spot, the partying continued to rage for hours, spilling from one nightclub to another and deep into the late hours. Unable to contain their enthusiasm, some partiers hit it a little too hard with a reported 18 incidents requiring police action occurring before the bars finally shuttered their doors. But since the Austin PD has long established ROT weekend also as “no-refusal weekend” (i.e., breathalyzer tests for everyone stopped, blood test if you refuse), it only makes sense that people will act senseless.
By Saturday the entire city of Austin was abuzz with bikes and the Exposition Center swamped with activity. More than 80 bikes were entered in the Ride-In Bike Show with judging being conducted by Wino’s Crew, a bike club out of Fort Worth. The Nerveless Nocks Stunt Show was originally established in 1840 performing under the Big Top at circuses around the world. This weekend they took on the Globe of Death, the Vortex of Doom and Skycycle three times a day near the Great Pond of the Republic. Nearby the X Game Jumpers presented onlookers with FMX jumps and backflips, launching from ramp to ramp while sailing over tractor-trailer rigs. But one of the most entertaining and original groups were the Acrobacias, a team of motorcycle acrobats from Mexico City. We had our first glimpse of their skills downtown the night before while waiting for the parade to file down Congress. Like a well-oiled machine, they all straddled Milwaukee iron, full-dresser FLH models of varying years, performing human pyramids, single and group tricks and performance derring-dos. Inside the covered vendor mall, in the horse arena, Buda and his henchmen were busy ramrodding the biker rodeo, which included a slow race, wienie bite competition, cone and ball, and a hotly-contested rivalry in the barrel race. But for some reason those in charge reasoned that the rodeo audience needed to stretch their legs and absconded with the damn bleachers, leaving the patrons to stand in harm’s way.
Under the dome
Inside the huge ThunderDome, a flurry of activity was available along with the only air-conditioned space in the entire venue. Here you could find Arlen and Zach Ness putting in their first appearance at ROT and displaying a nice collection of Ness parts and custom bikes. Other custom builders included Jeff Nicklus with Desperado Motorcycles, Bronson Willard with Southern Metal Choppers, Dan “Bacon” Carr from DC Choppers and Three-Two Choppers out of Fort Worth. That Saturday Nicklus was celebrating his shop’s 18th anniversary and doing it in high fashion having just finished a tribute bike, the RadRacer. His son Conrad had started the motorcycle before his tragic death last year and Jeff managed to pull off a creation that truly captured the spirit and heart of a very talented kid. Last year’s Republic of Texas rally was the last event Conrad Nicklus attended before his life was cut short.
The Tattoo Expo was housed on the upper level with more than a dozen talented shops on hand carving personal body
expressions into the hides of the willing. Also on hand were the crew from Count’s Kustoms who had built this year’s military bike giveaway, a stretched rigid sporting a tall sissy bar and extreme springer front end. The line to get a glimpse and an autograph from these guys (who are also the cast of the TV show Counting Cars) was surprisingly long on both Friday and Saturday. ROT Warrior MMA fights were also held inside the ThunderDome along with Paul Yaffe’s Bagger Nation Baddest Bagger Contest. Although he lent his name to the contest, Yaffe was not able to make an appearance this year due to the recent birth of his first child, Nash Robert.
A second giveaway bike had also been promised but ran into a major hiccup. Seems the company that commissioned the construction never came up with the funds to actually buy it. Bronson Willard with Southern Metal Choppers in Austin had been contacted by Cyclone Fusion, an energy sports drink, to build a custom bike for the company to be given away at ROT. It was to remain under wraps and not to be revealed until the winner was announced onstage Saturday night prior to the Vince Neil/Twisted Sister concert. Cyclone Fusion had also partnered with ROT promoters, purchasing large amounts of advertising and even securing the renaming of the main concert stage as the Cyclone Fusion Amphitheater—until, that is, the promised funds failed to be delivered leaving both the rally and Willard stiffed for their efforts. After fielding constant queries in regards to how one might register to win the “raffle bike,” an exasperated Bronson was quoted as saying, “You buy one ticket, from me, for $40 thousand and you win!” Bronson has since decided to keep the custom bagger as his personal ride. One presentation by Willard that was a success was this year’s Vintage Bike Show that featured 18 quality antiques including a super-rare 1922 Hazelwood with sidecar.
Partying continued on 6th Street Saturday night but, as typical, the crowd this night was using a smaller brush to paint the town. An offshoot, non-ROT event was orchestrated by former ROT rally Public Relations Manager Denise Eisman. She organized a benefit ride for MDA that included appearances by Sons of Anarchy celebrities Chibs and Bobby that included a VIP meet and greet at Cowboy Harley in Austin, a Ride with the Stars leaving Central Texas H-D and a VIP party at Maggie Mae’s in downtown Austin that night.
Promoter Jerry Bragg has expressed interest in expanding next year’s ROT Rally to include more downtown activities, possibly relocating some events and vendors. If this does occur, Bragg promises to maintain a family atmosphere. But even such guarantees have not softened the intents of some in the community who have organized a pushback in protest to the event. They feel Austin is not the type of town for such aberrant behavior. Aberrant behavior indeed—strange accusations coming from a city that is the very heart of Texas politics.