West Coast Thunder XIX

Heroes over hotdogs

Riverside, Calif., May 28—Memorial Day is an American holiday that was started to pay respect and give honor to those men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. It was originally known as Decoration Day, starting sometime after the Civil War then being made a federal holiday in 1971. However, it would seem as though a lot of American folks have forgotten or were possibly never taught the meaning of Memorial Day, completely failing to honor or pay respect in some way to our fallen military heroes. For some people it is just about a day off work, a barbecue or a party. I am proud to say that this American biker family of ours from coast to coast is by far the most patriotic and generous group of Americans where the love of our motorcycles and the love of our country lays the framework for unity in support of our fallen heroes on Memorial Day and pretty much every day, for that matter.

West Coast Thunder XIX

On the West Coast there are many biker events that honor this solemn day but for the last 19 years the West Coast Thunder event in Riverside, California, is unrivaled in every aspect. Prior to the big day, the lead-off was the WCT Rumble at Riverside Harley-Davidson. On Saturday, the dealership treated their customers to a barbecue, bikini bike wash, great deals at the dealership and a poker run. We were present when James Baxter won a $150 gift card for the low hand. The high-hand winner, 16-year-old Victoria Howard, a proud passenger on her dad David’s Road Glide, won a $300 gift card from Riverside Harley-Davidson. I heard her dad tell her, “See, it pays to come with Dad for the weekend.” At 16, they don’t readily want to hang out with parents but with these cool parents, Victoria, her dad and stepmom Jennifer, members of Inland Valley H.O.G., would all be part of the event on Monday. The poker run itself made almost $800 that will go to Riverside National Cemetery. 

West Coast Thunder Executive Director Sharon Bridges and her husband, West Coast Thunder Color Guard member Jim Bridges, have dedicated their lives to this premier event. Their efforts have already started for next year’s event, West Coast Thunder XX. Their tireless work as well as scores of volunteers and sponsors are commended for making this an epic event in honor of our fallen heroes. Over the years the destination venue has changed many times. Sharon tells us that it is hard to find a venue that can accommodate the huge number of riders, close to 6,000 every year, and the vendors, musical guests, etc. This year the venue may not have been ideal but then again it was not about the venue; it was about honoring this solemn day and our fallen heroes and the sacrifice they have made so that we have the freedom to ride our motorcycles, enjoy a good concert and hang out with friends and family.

Riverside Harley-Davidson and Russ Brown welcome riders from all over the west coast to West Coast Thunder
Riverside Harley-Davidson and Russ Brown welcome riders from all over the west coast to West Coast Thunder

The term “it takes a village” is an understatement when it comes to pulling off this event. I imagine that most folks don’t think about or understand the financial obligations and logistics involved in coordinating an event of this magnitude: the route security, traffic control, vendors, advertising, registration packages, social media and the most important coordination, porta potties. The Verackas, owners of Riverside Harley-Davidson, and their employees also put in a lot of time and money to make this event a special day for everyone. The volunteers were amazing and the sponsors were generous and supportive.  

As of the time of this writing, the proceeds generated for Riverside National Cemetery and the estimated number of attendees has not been finalized, but there were at least 4,600 paid registrations this year and vendor space was doubled over 2017. A car show was also added to the lineup, and it was pretty cool to see the hot rods on display at the final destination at the fairgrounds.

WCT Honor Guard presenting the symbols of our fallen heroes at the WCT ceremony
WCT Honor Guard presenting the symbols of our fallen heroes at the WCT ceremony

While this year they were unable to have the Ride With A Hero dog tags (dog tags with names of a different KIA hero to ride with them in the parade), there were still some amazing stories of years past. Chip Durham and his wife Stacey of Moreno Valley had two dog tags from the previous years. One tag had the name of a fallen hero whose wife he was able to connect with and she asked him to keep her husband’s tag so that he would always be honored and present for the ride. The other tag of a fallen hero was able to connect with his brother in Washington, D.C., and when his travels took him there last year, he and his wife were able to visit this fallen hero’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery and meet with his fallen hero’s brother. Chip gave the brother the commemorative dog tag which was in turn given to the fallen hero’s parents to place in their home in his remembrance. Chip keeps in touch with both families every year or more to tell them that their loved one is always remembered and honored by him, his family and the West Coast Thunder event.

One of the most moving and inspirational parts of this event is always the pre-ride commencement ceremony at the dealership where the West Coast Thunder Color Guard honors the fallen with a ceremonial flag being raised to half-mast and the ceremonial battlefield cross placed respectfully on the back of two Harley-Davidson motorcycles that would be part of the parade and post ceremony at the fairgrounds. For those who may not know the meaning of the battlefield cross, “The rifle with bayonet is downward typically into the ground is a memorial of a soldier killed in action. It also signals a time for prayer, a break in the action to pay tribute to our fallen friend and hero. Dog tags identify the soldier’s name so he or she will never be forgotten. The helmet is also a symbol of this great sacrifice. Combat boots represent the final march of the soldier’s last battle.”

National Anthem Singer Michael Austin and riding companion KFROG personality Pepper preparing to join in the WCT parade
National Anthem Singer Michael Austin and riding companion KFROG personality Pepper preparing to join in the WCT parade

The ceremony also included a bagpiper, Drew Mendonca, and bugler, Bryan Cantrell from Buglers Across America. Once again, we were blessed with a beautiful performance of our National Anthem by Michael Austin, 2013 The Voice contestant on Team Adam, a biker and a Navy veteran. Stay tuned; Michael just finished recording a new album in Nashville that will release possibly by the end of summer. Also, on hand at this year’s West Coast Thunder was Harley-Davidson executive Steve Mislick as well as many community dignitaries.

At precisely 9:11 a.m., the West Coast Thunder Color Guard led the parade and the various dignitaries in hot rods, antique and exotic cars followed by thousands of thundering motorcycles of all makes and models. They passed Riverside National Cemetery, giving those who wanted the opportunity to pull in and pay their personal respects to their loved ones or continue on the parade route to the fairgrounds. There were so many bikes in the parade that bikes were still leaving the staging area at the dealership as bikes were arriving at the fairgrounds. The community, as always, lined the streets and freeway overpasses, some waving the American flag or wearing patriotic attire, showing their support for the event and to honor those that paid the ultimate sacrifice. 

WCT Honor Guard Jim Bridges and his 10-year-old granddaughter, Jessyka Tate presenting the American flag at half mast in honor of all of our fallen heroes
WCT Honor Guard Jim Bridges and his 10-year-old granddaughter, Jessyka Tate presenting the American flag at half mast in honor of all of our fallen heroes

At the Perris Fairgrounds, the final destination, the crowds were treated to a concert by country singer and songwriter Granger Smith, WCT’s first-year car show, vendors and games for the kiddos. This year, Riverside Harley-Davidson not only hosted and sponsored the event, they also donated a 2018 Harley-Davidson Street Bob for the raffle. The big winner of this great bike was Richard and Angie Tapia of Moreno Valley, California. They have three sons and two daughters-in-law in Navy and Army active duty. One of their sons, Randy, an E6 Navy recruiter stationed here in California, will be the benefactor of the Street Bob. Way to go, Tapia family; we are grateful for your family’s service. 

Even though we have been part of this event for 15 years, it never disappoints; it is always humbling—a high honor and a privilege to be part of this event and pay tribute to our fallen heroes in such a big way.

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