Panama City Beach, Fla., Apr. 30–May 4 — Bikers as a group can be a stubborn lot; adventurous and independent thinkers. At least that is my assessment of those who braved the weather to attend the 16th iteration of Thunder Beach in the Florida Panhandle town of Panama City Beach. Nearby Pensacola was deluged with more than 18 inches of rain within 24 hours. Five of those inches fell within one hour. And PC Beach didn’t fare much better.
On Tuesday prior to the rally, the Gulf Coast was pelted with rain and hail as the skies were lit up for more than three hours with as many as 60,000 lightning strikes within one hour. A second hour had more than 40,000. This left the ground covered with enough light to resemble a mall parking lot at night with the thunder never being distinct in its impact because it became one continuous nonstop rumble. The entire Southeast experienced similar weather along with tornados. The death count at press time was about 20 people.
But the stubborn nature of bikers and a never-say-never attitude drove thousands to fire up their bikes and head directly into the potential abyss. We had been shut-ins for long enough. The cold, snow and icy winter had us all a bit stir-crazy. Screw the weather and the economy; riders were ready to ride. I stopped at a red light in Dothan, Alabama, next to a couple from mid-Georgia who were making the run down. He said he had made an earlier declaration to never head to Florida for the rally again because of the weather, but this year something just drew him to Thunder Beach despite the inclement conditions.
Frank Brown Park is the largest venue at Thunder Beach. It became a water park on Tuesday and a mud bog on Wednesday due to the torrential downpour that inundated the entire Panhandle. The entire grassy park that would normally sustain the largest of the big rigs was a green, muddy mess. This required some quick thinking and managerial tap dancing to salvage the venue. Logistics manager Chris Anderson and venue manager Andy Wise of Thunder Beach Productions leapt into action with the assistance of PC Beach parks and rec personnel and overnight revamped the layout. They had Frank Brown up and running by late Thursday and early Friday, relocating to the western asphalt portion of the park that would normally provide parking for the ball fields and swimming pools. Ski Light did yeoman’s work to move all of the required electrical components to the new location.
For first-time Thunder Beach vendors like David Uhl Studios, it was an eye-opening welcome to the Florida Gulf Coast. Greg Rhodes, sales manager for Uhl Studios, was happy with the traffic despite the late setup. David’s Harley-Davidson-inspired art was introduced to many new potential buyers that may have never seen it up close and personal previously. Corporate executives from several of the large manufacturers and suppliers to the industry also dropped in for their first view of Thunder Beach.
Street traffic on Front Beach and Back Beach roads at times resembled Main Street Daytona on steroids. The stop-and-go traffic always seemed headed only in one direction—the direction I was travelling. The opposite lanes were usually flowing freely. This probably stems from my observation on the trip down from Atlanta on Thursday. I passed more groups of bikers that day than I had in the last five years of the rally. The intersection of U.S. 231 and Ross Clark Circle in Dothan, Alabama, is the home to two restaurants popular with bikers. The parking lot of Dobbs BBQ and Hunt’s was a multi-colored sea of motorcycles. I had not observed this scene in years. It was a good indication of a successful upcoming rally.
The Kick Start Party was to be held at a new facility on the beach, but last-minute complications necessitated a change of venue so Hammerhead Fred’s stepped up to the plate. Since they were to host the second night of the Miss Thunder Beach contest, it was a no-brainer that the first two eliminations and party be held at Fred’s. Buck Wild rocked the house each night with their biker party music. The house was full each night with bikers partying like they were on spring break. The back lot of Hammerhead Fred’s hosted a swap meet Thursday through Sunday for those looking to sell, buy and trade parts.
Rock’it Lanes featured two tribute bands and $2 Bloody Marys at the Shoppes at Edgewater. Highway to Hell (AC/DC tribute band) and The Petty Hearts (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) were the bands rocking the bowling lanes every night. Serenity House is always set up at Edgewater, and Kenny once again did a great job selling opportunities to win a Harley-Davidson with trailer, all to raise money to help our military veterans. His brother was set up at Frank Brown with a second rig.
Club LaVela was another of the large venues with dyno tuning, footwear, clothing, patches and other biker vendors. LaVela featured music by Nuthin’ Fancy on Thursday (a Skynyrd tribute) and Jack Russell’s Great White on Friday night. To complete the busy schedule, the finals of the Miss Thunder Beach contest were held poolside Saturday night.
Harley-Davidson of Panama City Beach was the location to find Performance Machine, Mustang Seats, Progressive Suspension and Küryakyn. Each vendor not only sold parts, but also provided installation onsite. The dealership has one of the largest tent sales during Thunder Beach that you will find anywhere. You can pick out a new or used bike, have your trade-in appraised and your bike financed on the spot. Good service has been a hallmark of the dealerships of Gary Bang and Preston Farrior, who now own a group of five dealerships in Florida.
The Boardwalk Beach Resort had a full slate of activities and music throughout the weekend. Ruthless Cycles was in charge of the burnout pit and let anyone who felt the need to melt down rear rubber on their bike participate. If you stepped up you got a $20 food voucher at the Boardwalk. It doesn’t go very far replacing a $200 tire, but hell, it’s fun anyway. Where’s that bikini bike washer to clean the rear fender when you need her?
The King Cotton Band provided great cowboy blues to complement the Paint n’ Body Contest held at the Boardwalk Pavilion. It takes a lot of self-confidence to walk out all but naked wearing little more than a layer of paint. The young lady representing the Ruthless Cycles bike backed out at the last minute, so as a consolation, the proprietor received a photo shoot with the other girls. (Guess he won after all.) The Boardwalk also hosts a wet T-shirt contest each night in the Anchor Bar with $200 going to the lucky winners. Undercover Betty also entertained at the pavilion.
It so happened that several vendors were celebrating their 10-year anniversary of attending Thunder Beach. I talked with four in a row about their experience during the weekend, and all four told me it was their 10th time at the spring rally. That is more than just a coincidence.
One such company was Sew Right based out of Tampa. They specialize in automotive upholstery and motorcycle seats. You can bring your bike to Frank Brown Park and have a new seat cover made to replace the old one while you are taking in the rest of the vendors. If you send them your old seat pan or carcass after selecting your leather or exotic material, their turnaround time is 24 to 48 hours. It takes more time shipping the base back and forth than it does to complete the seat. They are reasonably priced and you can find them on Facebook.
For a different perspective of the event, Panhandle Helicopters will take you aloft for a bird’s-eye view of everything up and down the beach. Take pictures or just enjoy your first helicopter ride. A number of the hotels and condotels provide wash stations to clean the salt “air” off your bike. But if you were in leisure mode and had given up the DIY mindset for the weekend, several bike washes featured attractive and young bikini-clad ladies who would gladly perform the dirty work for you.
Harley-Davidson, Boss Hoss and Star were in town with their demo fleets. Hopefully the traffic wasn’t a deterrent for those wanting to try a new bike on for a fit. There were poker runs on Thursday and Friday to benefit various charitable causes with stops at Sharkey’s, Sugar Sands, Buffalo Wild Wings, PCB Harley-Davidson and Wicked Wheel, among others.
Many of the favorite bars and clubs were slammed during the week. Coyote Ugly, Miss Newby’s, Sandpiper, The Salty Goat and Hammerhead Fred’s had overflow parking problems every night. The Wicked Wheel had the best crowds I’ve seen since they opened. The LawBike.com Best of the Beach Bike Show at Pier Park gave away thousands of dollars in prizes and the best of the best walked away with $1,000 cash from LawBike to put down on his next project. This show had several of the best-looking radical baggers I’ve ever seen at Pier Park.
I wanted to send out a big thank you to the Boardwalk Condominiums for their hospitality and to tell everyone to keep their fingers crossed that the Fall Thunder Beach in October will be blessed with good weather all weekend. The last thing this event needs is another flood. But I’m certain that dogged independent nature will persevere no matter the weather. See you in the fall.
(This article Searching for an Ark was published in the June 2014 issue of Thunder Press, North and South editions.)