Back in 2009 I got a call from a guy who was putting together a cross country, coast-to-coast run and wanted some help with organizing it all. He’d heard about me from a mutual business acquaintance so he conducted a phone interview to see if I’d be interested in helping out. He warned that he had no experience in promotions and no expectations beyond taking an epic ride across America with his buddies on their old motorcycles. We discussed the pros and cons of the idea, the possible pitfalls and the fact that it was most certainly going to cost us both a lot of time and, in his case, money. The thought of a couple of weeks of soaking up Americana lit my lights so I signed on as media director, but “girl Friday” would have been a better title since my job description changed on a daily basis and covered everything from hell to breakfast. Heavy on the hell. My first task, however, was to convince my new boss that his being invisible was no longer an option.
Lonnie was a quiet, passive guy who loved old stuff, particularly old motorcycles. He spent his time wrenching and restoring aging machines but struggled with communicating and letting people into his very private world. He confessed early on that he was a shitty promoter, but I corrected him. “You’re not a bad promoter,” I assured him. “You’re an inexperienced promoter and the only way to change that is to be a promoter.” And he was good with that until I started talking about shining a spotlight on him.
When I explained the importance of publicizing the run, which included introducing him to the world, he balked. It was an often-visited topic as he ignored the subject and I continued to nag. “You need the press. Who’s going to want to follow some guy they don’t know all the way across the United States? We need to let people know who you are and what you’re about so we can get sponsors. What you’re trying to do is a big deal and the world is going to want to know, and to be involved.” Since we’d not met in person, I asked him to send a photo of himself and I’d write up press releases for publishing. After weeks of badgering the guy, I finally received a package in the mail. Inside were some cool black and white photography books and a high school-age photo of himself. I immediately called him up.
“Um, dude, what the hell?” I laughed. “What do you expect me to do with this? A picture of you with a bong? Really?” He was silent for a few seconds before I heard a chuckle. “I wasn’t sure you would know what it was,” came the reply. We laughed a while and our relationship grew from there as we set about learning each other’s quirks while laying out an experience like the world had never known.
I quickly discovered that Lonnie was very clear in his vision that spanned the breadth of building the Cannonball from the pavement up. I learned to negotiate and articulate my own vision for the run and we both learned to compromise. He didn’t like words like vintage or ancient; he preferred antique, but would tolerate geriatric. He wasn’t thrilled with pedigree; he preferred provenance, but heritage was OK and the word circus, or anything remotely related, was strictly forbidden. The Cannonball was to be about class and a certain elegance. And integrity. A gentleman-and-woman-sport of motorcycling while sharing the elements, distance and terrain of our country on time machines from a bygone generation of relics with those who understood the spirit of the brotherhood was what he was striving for. There was to be no sugarcoating of the hard facts regarding the difficulty of the journey but he also learned that strategy is necessary in parlaying a great idea into a viable event.
He preferred that I handled publicity by keeping him out of the spotlight while he wrangled the various personalities of the riders and we learned how to shore each other up through the craziness. One night during the run I found him outside the hotel with his back against the wall, fuming over the antics of a particularly difficult rider. He unloaded with a stream of cuss words as his face turned absolutely purple with rage. I patted his leg and pointed out that the guy was just one chromosome away from being an oatmeal cookie so he really shouldn’t get so upset. Lonnie sat straight up, threw up his hands and blurted out an incredulous, “What?!” He asked me to repeat myself and we both laughed till we cried, mostly from sheer exhaustion.
Over the course of those first two years, with the guidance of route master John and the computer skills of web guy Ken, the four of us brought Lonnie’s vision to life and the Motorcycle Cannonball eventually grew into an event with a worldwide following. Since 2009, we’d been through all kinds of adversity and extremes and we’d managed to laugh, or cuss, our way through it all. By the time my boss and beloved friend passed away this last August, he’d gotten better at communicating and figured out how to be a great promoter, but he never knew what a shining star he really was.