Coasting the emerald
Panama City Beach, Fla., Oct. 25–29—Centuries ago, quartz crystals washed down from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf Coast. Along the way these crystals were ground, polished, and bleached. They were then deposited by the tides along the Florida Panhandle creating what is referred to as the legendary sugar sand of Panama City Beach. The area is known by several names with the most enduring being the Emerald Coast—turquoise waters in striking contrast to a diamond shoreline. This semi-tropical locale remains a premier southern destination for tourists from around the world. And bikers riding in for the Thunder Beach Autumn Rally were no exception.
Early Wednesday the rally began with factory demo rides provided by the Motor Company. The demos were based out of Pier Park and offered everyone with a license and appropriate riding gear a chance to test out the new Milwaukee-Eight engines and the highly-controversial, recently-released line of Softail monoshock bikes. Additional demo rides were on tap from Indian and Slingshot. Later that evening the Official Kick-Start Party clicked into gear at Hammerhead Fred’s with music being supplied by the ever-popular Buck Wild. This was also the venue for the first preliminary round of the Miss Thunder Beach Pageant held this night with the second round being held here on Thursday night. Open to any gal 18 years or older, the winners of the three preliminaries and the finale would walk away with a cool five grand on Saturday night. For those preferring to witness a more mature lady strutting her beauty, the promoters initiated their Ms. Thunder Beach Contest a few years ago. Open to any female 35 and older, this competition has proven to be just as enthusiastically supported as the other (must be all those graybeards we are constantly hearing about). Other official partner and sponsor venues that featured live music that evening were the Boardwalk Beach Resort with Geneva, the Boneyard with Mustang Sally on stage and Roadhouse Atlanta appearing at Sharky’s Beach Club.
The Thunder Beach Spring Rally was founded almost two decades ago and was followed just a few years later by the establishment of the Thunder Beach Autumn Rally. The timing of the fall event coincides with Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach to the East and the Lone Star Rally in Galveston to the west, falling midway between those two events. Three years ago, the promoters moved the rally from the first to the fourth week of October to entice those vendors in attendance at Biketoberfest to attend Thunder Beach while en route to Texas for the Lone Star Rally. That idea has proven to be effective with manufacturers Condor, Ciro and J&M Audio added to those attending the fall rally for the first time this year after hitting Biketoberfest. Additional industry heavyweights included Kuryakyn, J&P Cycles, Performance Machine, Mustang Seats, Rinehart, Renegade Wheels, Hawg Halters, Avon Grips, Sick Boy and Hellanbach Designs among others. The vendors are scattered over a wide area consisting of six vendor villages that run from Front Beach Road to Middle Beach to the PCB Parkway.
Thursday included much of what occurred the previous day—just a lot more of it. There was more live music (over 40 shows over the course of the event) along with three days of performances by Tim Dyson’s FMX Freestyle Moto-X Stunt Show at Frank Brown Park that began on Thursday. The main stage at Frank Brown Park also kicked off its Thunder Beach Concert Series this day with a “Kill the Keg” happy hour and music by Kelly and the Healers, followed by The Wildflowers performing a tribute to the late Tom Petty. The evening entertainment concluded with a rocking two-hour set by Jasmine Cain. Additional live music came in the form of Big Engine and Cowboy (a Kid Rock tribute band), both playing at separate beach resorts along Front Beach Road. It must be noted that while the Thunder Beach Rally is a free event, there is also no cover charge at any band performances including those at Harley-Davidson of Panama City Beach that featured live music all five days of the rally.
Although the weather tried to sour the event with intermittent showers and a dip in temperatures once the sun went down, that didn’t deter Friday’s Baddest Bagger Contest at Pier Park or the Bikini Bike Wash at Hammerhead Fred’s that utilized the contestants from the Miss Thunder Beach Pageant performing all the soapy work. While it was a difficult decision that evening whether to attend the LED Contest at Frank Brown or the Wet T-shirt Contest across town at the Boardwalk Beach Resort, the music selection for me that night was simple—Confederate Railroad followed by the Kentucky Headhunters serving up some of the best tunes during the entire event. It was the first time a country music night had been added to the concert series.
The size of the spring and autumn rallies differ about 20–25 percent with the spring rally always seeing a larger turnout. The fall event also sees a larger influx of local riders from the southern core while the spring event draws riders from across the nation. I actually prefer the autumn rally because of the smaller crowds (similar to Biketoberfest versus the madness of Daytona Bike Week) and because many of the local condos offer better lodging rates in the fall. Another sector that both rallies have going for them is the laid-back attitude and the southern hospitality that the community exudes to the riders. This is also true concerning law enforcement as Thunder Beach Productions (rally promoters) has a friendly and very productive relationship with the police, fire and code enforcement departments. It is often said that if you receive a ticket, or worse, during Thunder Beach then you deserve it. And according to the promoters the importance of both rallies to the city is unquestioned since they supply valuable revenue twice each year during the shoulder seasons with little to no negative effects (except for heavy traffic at times).
Saturday was the busiest day of Thunder Beach starting with the Sgt. Kevin Kight Memorial Bike Parade that morning. Sgt. Kight was a PCB police officer who tragically lost his life while conducting a traffic stop on Front Beach Road in 2005. The parade has seen as many as 2,000 riders participating with monies raised supporting the PCB Cops & Kids Toy Run. Later at Pier Park registration for the Best of Thunder Beach Bike Show began where for a $25 entry fee you had the chance to pick up a custom trophy in one of 11 classes while winners in the Editors’ Choice and People’s Choice classes each received a custom championship belt. If you were more interested in custom ink rather than custom paint, then the Men & Women’s Tattoo Contest at the Thunder Beach Saloon inside Frank Brown Park was the place to be that afternoon. This was also the day to select the winner of a 2017 H-D Softail Slim. The contest, ongoing since May, was sponsored by Harley-Davidson of Panama City Beach, required no purchase and you needed not be present to win. It don’t get much better than that. A total of more than 27,500 people registered for the bike but it was number 09004 that was pulled with Vince Smith from Tallahassee chosen as the lucky winner. Saturday night ended with the crowning of Miss Thunder Beach and a scorching performance by Skid Row.
After the rally, promoter Joe Biggs told THUNDER PRESS, “I want to thank the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau (VisitPanamaCityBeach.com) for their generous support of the Concert Series as well as supporting our marketing campaign. Dan Rowe, Richard Sanders and Jayna Leach were all indispensable.” And next year, May 2–6 will mark the spring rally’s 20th anniversary—plenty of time to polish that jewel of a bike and take a ride to the emerald and diamond coast.