SILVERADO CANYON, CALIF., JUNE 29–Willie G. Davidson, along with his wife Nancy, heard so much about the 2011 Born Free Show that they showed up for the 2012 iteration. There was no fanfare involved, and Mr. Davidson didn’t take the stage or address the crowd. He was there merely to ogle the two-wheeled industrial art and muse at the inventive vendor booths along with the rest of us. Now I’m not sure how The Motor Company decided to come onboard as the event’s major sponsor this year, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Willie G. had nudged those responsible for such decisions in Milwaukee.
This year, Ray and Rhonda Malzo, owners of Orange County Harley-Davidson, squired the Davidsons to the event. Even motorcycle royalty like Willie G. and Nancy were not immune to the horrific traffic conditions in the vicinity of Oak Canyon Ranch on the shores of Irvine Lake, the site of the Born Free Show. Mr. Davidson told me they had been stuck in the mess for the better part of two hours, all because the folks that run things at the lake scheduled an additional event that needed use of the access road to the park. Though the second event was rather diminutive, the traffic it generated served to add insult to the injury already faced by those headed for Born Free. And, at around noon, officials were forced to close down the entrance because the facility was filled way beyond capacity.
After they stopped letting people enter the property I spoke to Grant Peterson, event co-originator, and asked him what the consensus was regarding attendance figures. At first his eyebrows raised as though he wasn’t really sure he wanted to divulge the information, so I guessed, “20,000?” He knit his brows and shot me a wry smile. “25,000?” I asked. Finally he gave me the so-so gesture with his hand, indicating that the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
I know I tend to gush over the bike builders and the inspired creations they bring to Born Free each year, but the truth is, I can’t think of an event anywhere else in the country that attracts so many cutting-edge, two-wheel fabricators who have dedicated themselves to reviving antique motorcycles. Last year and the year before, in the Born Free spirit of build it in your garage and then ride the thing to the show, judges went around the grounds and chose which bikes would compete for prizes. Essentially every bike on the property was a de facto bike show entrant. The process was charming and made for some real suspense when the winners were announced. And when the officials of the world-renowned Mooneyes Car and Motorcycle Show in Yokohama, Japan, signed on as a sponsor and offered to take the best-of-show winner from Born Free along with his or her bike on an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan to compete in their event, it became clear that Peterson of Freedom Machine and Accessories (FMA) and Mike Davis of Born Loser, co-originators of the Born Free Show, needed to apply more stringent metrics to their competition. With that in mind, Davis and Peterson, with the help of some industry stalwarts, put together a list of 32 builders whom they would invite to vie for prizes in this year’s bike show competition. When he got on the mic to announce the raffle winner and the bike show winners, Peterson made a point of saying that, as much as Born Free was about people who loved old bikes and getting together to share their ideas, have a good time and not be “all about” the competition, it was a bike show so there had to be winners. Peterson then let the throng know that the builders themselves had done the judging.
The show bikes were set up within a corral-style area about 30 yards from the front of the stage. Each entry had a plaque nearby denoting the builder’s name, where he hailed from and the year and model of the motor. There were entrants from Sweden and Japan, as well as from all over the U.S.A. Scott “T-Bone” Jones of Noise Cycles in Santa Ana, California, presented a café racer-inspired build featuring a Panhead motor that proved to be the darling with the other builders. Yaniv Evan, who won the Pro Builder trophy at last year’s L.A. Calendar Show as well as best of show at last year’s Artistry In Iron at the Las Vegas BikeFest with an Ironhead, walked off with the People’s Choice award for a Panhead he finished just in time to campaign it during this year’s show circuit.
Admission to the Born Free is, well, free. In order to raise enough revenue to break even and perhaps earmark a small profit for the near full-time job of putting on the Born Free Show, Peterson and Davis rely, in part, on the sale of raffle tickets. This year a guy named Ryan Hagger from Murietta, California, who bought his ticket online via Lowbrow Customs, was the winner. Peterson then announced that Hagger would have his pick from 18 of the 32 bikes from the competition. (Some of the bikes were the property of the builders’ clients; otherwise all 32 would have been available.) Peterson, in an effort to keep the proceedings moving along, went on to say that Hagger had 90 seconds to make his choice. Hagger knew exactly which bike he wanted and he announced his choice to the delight of the assembly, choosing the 1931 Harley-Davidson VL built by Jason Sheets of Sheets Welding & Machine, from Hagerstown, Maryland. As something of an afterthought, Peterson mentioned that Jason would be compensated for having his bike selected. What an honor it must be to have your build chosen by the raffle winner at the Born Free Show.
One of my favorite pastimes at Born Free involves roaming through the extensive vendor village, which is unlike any other. It’s always good to hang out with Ari, Ed, Dave or Chuck at the Law Tigers booth, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re invariably accompanied by smokin’ hot models. And yeah it’s always encouraging to know that there are a number of major corporations that routinely support motorcycle rallies and events including The Motor Company, EagleRider, Bell Helmets, Jim’s USA, Spectro Oil, Vans and the Miller Brewing Company, among others.
Throughout the vendor village I beheld antique motorcycles in every stage of repair. There were bikes that had been completely restored, radically modified and there were several that looked as if they had been snatched right out of a barn in the heartland where they had languished for more than half a century. I came upon a guy seated on the ground, gams akimbo, transfixed at the mechanical detail of an ancient unrestored Harley. It took me a minute before I realized it was a JD model from the late 1920s; the very model Captain John D. MacKinnon, my maternal grandfather, rode while he was a young motor officer in Boston back in the day. There may have been a hair or two on my body that didn’t snap to attention with that realization, but I doubt it.
Rock Guitarist Gilby Clarke, formerly with Guns & Roses and Rock Star Supernova, has had some of his builds grace the covers of a number of motorcycle magazines. He posed for me with his beautiful wife and one of his almost-as-beautiful examples of industrial art. At another booth, Sugar Bear, legendary fabricator of long forks whose motto reads, “If it ain’t long it’s wrong,” agreed to favor my lens by posing with industry legend Keith “Bandit” Ball and world land-speed record holder “Wink” Eller. Inasmuch as it’s normal for Wink to use his body-like projectile, it’s always good to see him walking unassisted.
When you get a chance, go to www.bornfreeshow.blogspot.com and check out the back stories on some of the builders. There’s a story behind each of the bikes that people build in their garages and then ride, sometimes across the country, just to be at the Born Free Show. If you think you can muster the dedication, fortitude and mechanical ability necessary to ride hundreds of miles on a bike built sometime around World War II, talk to some of the guys who rode in from the Midwest on a Knuck or a Panhead. And then there’s the story about Dominic Mingerulli and his 19-year-old son Dylan who were both invited to the builder’s competition this year, making Dylan not only the youngest competitor in the brief history of Born Free, but also the youngest person to win an award for his rigid ’66 Shovel bobber.
I hung around well after the exhibitors had started breaking down and until the food vendors had pretty much run out of victuals. It seemed like a sizeable portion of the crowd and exhibitors didn’t want to leave. The place had been crowded all day long and it was difficult to find anyone that didn’t run into you by happenstance. Once a portion of the throng had departed, you could finally begin to recognize acquaintances and also get the chance to see some of the bikes and displays that you’d missed earlier. But more than that, the ’60s vibe was so damn soul nourishing some of us old “heads” couldn’t bear to tear ourselves away.
I can’t forget to mention the Born Free Pre Show Party at Cook’s Corner on Friday night. I know almost everybody who hit town a day early showed up this year, and they all got to meet Rhonda Palmeri, Cook’s general manager and The O.C.’s resident V-twin Valkyrie. As is her wont, she pulled out all the stops for the Born Free people. Keep an eye on the Thunder Press Calendar for info and dates for the 2014 iteration of what’s quickly becoming one of the country’s most popular bike shows.