Laughlin, Nev., Apr. 26–29—Thousands of bikers converged upon Laughlin, Nevada, for the 35th annual Laughlin River Run. Bikes started rolling into town as early as Monday, however, Thursday is when the constant rumble of V-twins could be felt, and by Friday the party was in full swing. With over 200 vendors, live music, contests, gambling, poker runs, stunt shows, and more, the stage was set for another epic year in this remote desert oasis.
Registration opened Thursday morning with event passes this year going for $30. Passes get you a souvenir event T-shirt, event pin, attendance to the early bird poker run, and contestant entry to the custom bike show and the Ms. Laughlin River Run contest. Vendors and exhibits were located at the Riverside Resort, Edgewater, Colorado Belle and the Golden Nugget. There’s literally so much condensed on one strip, you could drop your kickstand and not need your bike again all weekend. Everything one could want is right there within walking distance. The River Run has everything you would expect from a resort destination with the added bonus of having all the distributors, manufacturers, and exhibitors you could possibly want. There’s even demo rides all weekend long from Harley, Indian, Honda and Ducati.
The American Veterans Charity Poker Run benefiting the Tri-State Veterans assembled at the Tropicana Friday morning. For a $15 donation ($10 for passengers), riders receive breakfast and coffee and a crack at a winning a 2018 Laughlin River Run room package. The poker run leads contestants to Old Route 66 and the Mother Road Harley-Davidson party at the dealership. If you’re not participating in the poker run, Friday is a good day to head up to Oatman, Arizona, an old mining town about an hour outside Laughlin where the wild burros still roam free in the streets. It’s a beautiful ride, and where else can you watch a stubborn jackass square off with a thousand-pound Harley. It’s hilarious! The 74th Street band was playing the Oatman Hotel, a great bar in the center of town. It’s the perfect place for a burger and a cold one and, as always, 74th Street thoroughly rocked the house.
Back in Laughlin, it was time for the Sin City Bad Kitty contest; yep, it was as wild as it sounds. Jackylyn Grijalva from San Fernando took home first place and $500 cash. It’s pretty amazing she won considering she had the most clothes on. Then with both headline musical acts playing at the same time, fans had to choose between Willie Nelson and Cheap Trick. Being a huge Willie fan the choice was a no-brainer for me. Willie seemed to have a technical issue with his famous guitar, Trigger, and left the stage for a good 10 minutes as the band just rolled on in an awkward holding pattern. Right as I began to worry, here comes Willie like a trooper to finish out the show, playing on a different guitar. The dozen or so times I’ve seen him play live, I’ve never seen him play anything but Trigger and although he seemed a bit flustered at times, he finished the show like a pro.
After the show, I headed over to the Edgewater vendor village to hang out with the Rolling Deep 4 Charities crew. They had a booth this year promoting their annual Rosarito Motorcycle Run in July. I highly recommend this run if you ever get the chance. It’s a blast! Then it was time to check into the Hogs and Heifers road bar. They literally recreate their Vegas bar down to the hanging bras. No trip to Laughlin River Run is complete without a visit with the Hogs and Heifers girls. If you’re sitting at the bar keep your drink close and watch your hands. You never know when these girls will break into a spontaneous dance atop the bar.
This year the custom bike show was hosted at the Colorado Belle on Saturday. The best in show award along with a cool $750 cash went to Delvon Bailey from Las Vegas for his 1996 Electra Glide themed after the movie 300. Among the custom features were 4″ stretched bags, 4″ stretched fender, custom airbrush work by Corey Sinclair, powder coated and diamond cut throughout. Delvon bought the bike for just $2,300 and put about $45,000 into it. The bike was fresh out of the shop, just completed the day before the competition and it is a beauty. Also at the Colorado Belle was the Ink Mayhem tattoo convention with a slew of tattoo artists buzzing away. Adam Romano of Handsome Devil Tattoo Co. from Lake Havasu took home four awards in the tattoo contest awards total first-place for best portrait, first and second place for realism, and first-place for the large black and gray category.
The Straight Up stunt team was doing shows daily at the Golden Nugget. Those guys put on a great show. Then it was time for the Ms. Laughlin River Run contest over at Riverside Resort’s outdoor stage. I headed over early to catch Joe O’Day with some questions and next thing I know, I’m one of the judges. Now that was fun! The first-round pick was done through audience applause before myself and two other judges chose the top three winners. The Ms. Laughlin River Run title went to 21-year-old Meghan Campbell from Riverside, California. This was Meghan’s first time at Laughlin River Run. She rode out as a passenger on her father’s Harley. Meghan already has plans to put her $1,000 prize towards her own bike someday. Nice.
The Dirty Tequila folks had a mechanical bull which was a pretty entertaining way to kill some time while waiting for the next event. Next up at Riverside’s outdoor stage was a raffle for a brand new 2017 Indian Scout. And the lucky winner was Kenny Goetz from Bullhead City. Kenny is a member and chaplain for the American Legion Riders Post 60 in Laughlin. Up the street at the Tropicana, a Heritage Softail Classic was raffled off. The lucky winner of that bike was Mary Russell from San Bernardino, California.
The River Run was founded in 1983 by Dale Marschke, a San Bernardino Harley dealer who was looking for something to do for his customers from a promotional standpoint. Dale teamed up with Joe O’Day, whose family was also in the motorcycle business, and Dal-Con promotions was born. Joe explained a bit about the run’s history. “Back in about 1982 when the prime rate was up to about 23 percent we couldn’t get anyone financed. Those were challenging times for the motorcycle industry; business was terrible. You made more money those days selling parts and accessories and servicing the bikes than you did by selling the motorcycle itself. So, Dale decided that he was going to put together a motorcycle ride for his customers to Laughlin. He met with everyone at the Riverside resort, talked to Mr. Laughlin and got his blessing to have a motorcycle event.” Said O’Day. “Dale invited some of the Harley-Davidson dealers in the region to participate including the dealership that I was affiliated with. I came out here on my own time and mapped out every gas station to make sure that there were places for us to stop and get everyone fueled up, and in case somebody broke down we’d know where we could take them.” The first year kicked off with a mere 426 riders, but it didn’t take long for the Laughlin River Run to flourish and today, it’s the largest motorcycle rally west of the Mississippi with attendees from around the globe.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. In 2002 the now infamous shooting between rival clubs at Harrah’s casino threatened to destroy the run’s future. It would be years before things would begin to stabilize. “The shooting in 2002 comes up every year. People like to bring it up because it was sensational,” explained MJ Smith, executive director of the Laughlin Tourism Commission. “It was a huge deal. We had a shooting in a casino in Laughlin with 75,000 people in town. That’s going to make the news and it’s going to continue to come up. The one thing that people don’t talk about when that comes up every year is we have not had an incident since that. We have one of the safest motorcycle runs in the country and that is very rarely mentioned. We took our lumps immediately after the incident and we increased our metro presence to a point that it became a deterrent to the run. We had to find that balance between keeping our guests safe and still allowing them to have a good time and I think we’ve met that point,” said Smith. When asked about attendance numbers, Smith said, “One of the biggest things that hurt the event probably in the last 10 years was the recession. So many people had to get rid of their bikes; it was one of the first things to go when people fell on hard times. Now that we’re seeing some recovery from that, our numbers for the event are growing. They’re going up at the same rate that the economic recovery is happening so in the last two years we’ve seen an increase of about 5,000 to 7,000 participants per year and were expecting 52,000 participants this year. The Laughlin River Run is an event with strong participation from around the world. We have groups from Brazil this year, we have groups from Germany, we see people from all over the world and you cannot put a dollar amount on that kind of exposure. That’s incredible for a destination like Laughlin which is often second tier to some of our bigger destinations like Vegas.”
All in all, this year’s event went very smoothly. The weather was good with the exception of a little wind which is pretty common in Laughlin. And although it’s probably rained more on the River Run in the last five years than has in the entire 30 years prior, there wasn’t even a hint of rain all four days this year. As far as the police, MJ seems to be right. They have mellowed out quite a bit and everyone was having a great time. With attendance on the rise, you might want to reserve your room for next year early as the odds are good that rooms may sell out.