The biggest birthday party in Texas
Variety equals quality at the Capitol
Austin, Texas, June 11–14—Many moons ago, two riding buddies decided that a state as great as Texas deserved a quality bike rally that was big enough to truly represent this expansive chunk of Southern real estate. They considered many locales: San Antonio, Houston, D/FW, Corpus, El Paso. But out of every major city, none stood out quite like the Lone Star State’s own capitol, Austin. Located in the heart of Texas and adjacent to the fantastic roads of the Hill Country, Austin is the acknowledged “Live Music Capital of the World” and just his year, the University of Texas placed 7th in the rankings of the best party colleges in America (UT consistently places in the top ten). This combination of quality riding, outstanding music and over-the-top partying simplified their decision. And that’s where the Republic of Texas Biker Rally landed. Little did they know what they were starting.
In the beginning, founders Jerry Bragg and Jim Henry staked out the Travis County Exposition Center on the far east edge of Austin as the ideal rally site. Back then the Expo Center had been developed as a premier equestrian facility, with a show barn, horse stalls and a rodeo arena. Since that time it has evolved into an expansive 128 acres and has handled formal banquets, dog shows, car shows and even a circus. It is also now the permanent home to the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo. But mention the Expo Center to any Texas biker and they recognize it for only one thing—the ROT Rally. And for good reason, since ROT surpassed Austin’s other big event a few years ago, the huge South by Southwest (SXSW) music, media and film festival extravaganza held each March. According to the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, the 2009 ROT Rally provided an estimated $35 million economic impact for the city. And even though Texas is faring well in these gloomy times when compared to other states, that much money tumbling into the coffers cannot be ignored as being a significant boost to the city. And it’s provided by a bunch of bikers. We are the heroes of Austin.
I met with Jerry Bragg and his lovely wife, Colleen, a few months before this year’s ROT Rally for lunch in downtown Austin. Jerry and Colleen now are the sole owners of ROT, with Jim Henry bowing out a couple of years ago to pursue other interests. Since ROT would be celebrating its 15th birthday this year, I quizzed the pair about what they had in mind for spicing things up a notch. Jerry was quick to let me know about their plans to give away a second bike, along with the Military Bike Give-Away that they’ve held for the last three years. The Military Bike Give-Away has been ROT’s way of honoring the soldiers who protect our freedom and is open to any current or past member of the service, with all branches of military being eligible. But this year, after the urging of numerous non-military attendees, the Rally added a second bike giveaway to anyone who pre-registered for the event. To ratchet it up even tighter, the bikes would be supplied by Knievel Custom Cycles, who would also have a trailer display set up this year. The bikes being awarded were to be consecutive serial numbered bikes of a limited production run (only ten) that carry the signature of the late Evel Knievel.
One of the highlights of ROT for the last five years has been the Big Texas Chop-Off, an invitational bike show designed to promote up-and-coming builders. Jerry told me that this year the bike show had been relabeled the Big Texas Chop-Off of Champions and would feature the top place finishers from the 2004–2008 Chop-Off series. He also informed me that they had elected to eliminate the Roller Derby girls that were present last year and replace them with… the Micro Wrestling Federation. That’s right, midget wrestlers. The XFC Cage Fighting matches would also return and they had a staggering list of top-notch music acts they were in the process of securing. And then… a little secret that I couldn’t reveal since it hadn’t been finalized. Jerry and Colleen were hoping to present a motorcycle jump by Robbie Knievel in front of the State Capitol after the traditional Friday night parade from the rally site to Downtown Austin.
While the official rally site is the Expo Center where there is an admission fee, much of the action happens in downtown Austin where the streets are cordoned off on Friday and Saturday night, restricting traffic to pedestrians and motorcycles only and resulting in the largest party in Texas, with an estimated 200,000 participants showing up. And attendance downtown is free—no admission, no wristband—all gratis. And this year the promoters were attempting to toss in a motorcycle jump by Kaptain Knievel at no charge to the public. Jerry and Colleen certainly know how to throw a birthday party.
A stormy start
I rolled into the Expo on Thursday afternoon to a packed parking lot in front of the registration building. Despite hard economic times, I could see no apparent downturn in attendance for this year’s event. A final tally of registered guests later showed a slight increase over last year’s numbers, which surprised me since a new 18-years-and-older-only policy had been implemented for the first time. That’s right, this is no longer a family event and strollers are verboten. And it’s about damn time—bike rallies are no place for kids and I applaud the promoters for taking this stand even though it certainly cost them some day-trippers’ bucks.
Within a minute of cruising into the rally site, I had a near collision with a runaway golf cart (maybe we can work on restricting these abominations next). The thing was loaded with gals (who all appeared to be loaded with something) as it came racing down a hill and crossed the road, violating my right-of-way. The driver shouted, “Sorry, ain’t got no brakes.”
“Then why don’t you park it until you do?” I replied while thinking, “Ain’t got no language skills either.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” she asked.
“The dumb sum-bitch you almost ran over,” I spat back.
“Do I need to call my ol’ man?” she challenged.
“Only if he can fix your friggin’ brakes,” I said. They flipped me off and laughing, continued to roll on down the hill, apparently in search of potential road-kill with slower reaction times.
I hung around the rally for a few hours, visiting with friends, and then headed downtown to get ready for an evening of frivolity. (This was the first time in years that I didn’t camp, staying in plush accommodations downtown instead. That probably won’t happen again. I miss the late night rowdiness and the endless parade of bikes and people riding the “loop” around the Expo. I even miss the free cold-water showers provided in the horse wash racks—all a part of the rally’s flavor.) Before I could depart for the pub-crawl, a massive storm swept the area. A line of severe weather was moving across Central Texas, dumping hail, producing lightning and spawning several tornadoes. One tornado was spotted south of the nearby town of Round Rock just as their 911 system went down in the midst of a power outage that affected more than 15,000 local residents. At the Expo Center, the on-site Emergency Action Plan was implemented by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office working in conjunction with MSET, a medical first responders organization. They immediately established a command center and provided shelters for many of the campers (especially those tenting it), concert spectators and partygoers who didn’t have enough sense to stop partying and get in out of the storm. No injuries were reported.
It’s a dry heat (you wish)
By Friday morning the savage weather had abated and the only storms still brewing were the hangovers from the night before. Soon the skies were cloudless and that hot Texas sun began to hit us with a fury, reaching 102 degrees with a 120 heat index. That’s getting warm, even for Texas. Some retreated to the air-conditioned comfort of the Texas Thunderdome that featured the Skyline Bar, the collection of Chop-Off bikes, more than half a dozen celebrity bike builders (who also served as judges for the Chop-Off), a smattering of vendors and the midget wrestlers.
The Micro Wrestling Federation is based out of South Carolina (somehow that’s not unexpected) and if you think the antics of the pro wrestlers in the WWE are beyond belief, these guys put them to shame. Their credo is summed up by the slogan on the T-shirts they hawk—“I Support Midget Violence”—and by their promoter, Jack, when he stated, “Get up close and bring a cold one. Cause the more you drink, the better this shit is gonna look.” The team of wrestlers put on several shows a day, each culminating in a Gran Royale featuring six “little people” in the ring at once. “Demo” was highlighted as the world’s smallest wrestler at 3 feet 4 inches, while Meatball was touted as being the world’s largest midget, standing 4-foot-6 and tipping the scales at a whopping 290 pounds. And the crowd savored every body slam, leg lock and atomic drop, pushing and shoving during each show to get the best view.
Others chose to beat the heat by taking to the Hill Country and riding to great destinations like Luckenbach and Fredericksburg. Six self-guided tours were included in the rally’s pocket guide and varied in length from just over 100 miles (circling Lake Travis) to well over 200 miles (scaling the Devil’s Backbone). One of my favorites was the Hot on the BBQ Trail loop that introduced the rider to no less than seven of the finest barbecue joints in Central Texas. Someone must have had a great time conducting the research for that ride.
RV’s have become as much a part of the ROT landscape as motorcycles with somewhere around 900 spaces available. They sell out every year with many past participants requesting the same location as previous years, creating mini-RV Gypsy villages where you anticipate partying with the same neighbors as before. Several years ago, inflatable pools began sprouting up in these communes and now they dot the RV spaces like miniature oases, complete with scantily clad ladies enjoying an afternoon dip. It’s all a matter of survival under the blistering sun.
In the shadow of the Capitol
The traditional Friday night Parade of Bikes runs 11 miles to downtown Austin and is the kickoff to the block party. This year an estimated 15,000 bikes roared onto Congress Avenue near sunset, crossing Town Lake as 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats took flight to forage for their evening meal. (The Congress Avenue Bridge is the home to the largest urban bat colony in North America and their nightly departure is one of the most spectacular and unusual tourist attractions in Texas.) Governor Rick Perry had been slated to lead this year’s parade (he also lead last year’s) but unfortunately broke his collarbone a few weeks earlier in a bicycle accident and was unable to participate. This was the largest ROT parade to date, no doubt due to Kaptain Robbie Knievel’s performance in front of the State Capitol as part of his Farewell Tour. The ROT team had pulled it off.
Saturday was loaded with a huge lineup of events including the final judging for the Chop-Off of Champions (Ron Peck with Jaw Droppin’ Customs netted $7,000 for his first place win), a ride-in bike show for us mere mortals, live music throughout the day, more wrestling and some spirited competition during the bike rodeo. Later that evening, the XFC presented a series of bouts, the bike give-away winners were announced and an appearance by Bocephus himself, Hank Williams Jr., brought the official proceedings to an end. But the rally was far from over, as late night pool parties ran until dawn.
Despite the storm on Thursday and the heat during the following two days, this was the best ROT Rally ever. The promoters went all out to ensure we had a good time and we obliged their efforts. With everything the Republic of Texas Biker Rally has to offer, it’s easy to understand why this event consistently scores heavy on the calendars of thousands of riders. It will be interesting to see what they have planned for next year.