Bike Week In Daytona

The 61st annual Daytona Bike Week celebrations and races are in the history books, and another 500,000 bikers have left another $400 million behind in Florida. They have ridden or flown home by now from what it the world’s largest celebration of motorcycling. After ten grueling days, it’s over. But the photographs, the digital images and the videotapes will be shown over and over again, and the 2002 event will loom even larger at home than it was in Florida. For nine bikers, unfortunately, it was a one-way trip.

This is one of those something-for-everyone phantasmagorias that you have to do at least once, like going to the Indy 500 or the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And, like them, it is addictive. There are more motorcycles and bikers to look at here than anywhere else on earth, year after year, undaunted by terrorism or the economy or anything else. It’s about freedom and joy and creativity, pride in craftsmanship, and contains within it the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world, the Daytona 200. We saw speeds there this year in excess of 194 mph from the Superbikes.

2002 Daytona Bike WeekThat’s what Daytona is about. Speed. And style. Leather and sweat. Malt in profusion. Thousands and thousands of knights of the road and their mounts, some in heraldic colors, most in black. Sticking a middle finger up to winter, riding on the beach, showing off in the sunshine. Riding on good roads overhung with trees dripping Spanish moss. Watching brave young men seek 200 mph in a race to fame and fortune. Watching the pure poetry of a string of racing motorcycles and their young riders snapping into and out of the corners, knees down and tires drifting.

If that’s not your cup of tea, there’s more. Lots more. How about bikini-clad young women wrestling in a large vat of cole slaw? Or the motocross race at the speedway on Saturday. Or the vintage motorcycle auction, the giant Harley compound on Beach Street, or the guy on foot leading the Clydesdale down Atlantic Avenue. Or the stately, quiet beauty of St. Augustine only fifty miles away, and the beach road that takes you there. Or the free custom, stock and restored motorcycle show on Main Street that goes on for eight blocks solid on both sides of the street for ten straight days. It’s all here, every March.

2002 Daytona Bike WeekSkin, and lots of it, skin art, body piercing, mechanomania, world record beer consumption. Down home American party food everywhere. Ribs, turkey legs, barbecued pork, Italian sausage with peppers and onions, and several other of the basic food groups are every half-block downtown. T-shirts of every shape and kind. Nonhuman animals riding motorcycles with their owners. The Volusia County sheriffs, who take no guff from nobody at no time. If you care about motorcycles, you just gotta go to Daytona.

So we did, for the fourth time in the past ten years, and we found it as exhilarating, as refreshing, as heartening as any event we go to during the long automotive year. Motorcycles sold at an all-time record pace of more than 764,000 units last year. Harley-Davidson and Honda lead all the rest in volume, and Daytona is a Harley kind of town during Bike Week, despite the presence of thousands of Hondas and others at the speedway. As the men in the U.S. industry point out, nobody really needs a motorcycle in this country where cheap transportation is plentiful. These are expensive toys, selling at a record pace, terrorism and the economy notwithstanding.

More motorcycle companies and major custom bike and customizing houses are doing business in the U.S. than in many a long year, despite some recent bankruptcies. Indian is back after a long hiatus, new engine and all. The Italian companies are in the fight. These are the quickest and fastest vehicles you can buy, most of them for well under $13,000. A stock Suzuki GSXR1000 sportbike will do the quarter-mile in 9.9 seconds at over 142 mph and top 180 mph. Great bikes are in every segment of this huge market. And people are in Daytona enjoying them, polishing them, and riding them until all hours of the morning. This is Daytona, an American institution in its seventh decade.

They come here from Western Europe and South America, from England and Canada. To ride motorcycles and be seen riding them. To talk about motorcycling all day long for a week. To see what the motorcycling world is up to. To ride the newest and best bikes on the market, free of charge. To stand in line for an hour at a restaurant and never cover the same conversational ground twice: all motorcycles, all the time. To lie down on a warm, sandy beach after four months in the freezer.

2002 Daytona Bike WeekThere’s a guy who comes every year with a motorcycle dressed up as a huge easy chair with its own reading lamp. There are guys who ride with parrots on their shoulders or dogs in their laps. There are paralyzed guys who ride in sidecars with their buddies. There are dozens of Chevrolet-powered Boss Hoss customs that sound like NASCAR cars. There are seriously tattooed ladies. Good-looking women are everywhere (Harley-Davidson reveals that fully nine percent of its buyers now are women). Older couples on enormous trikes come from six states away. TV star Catherine Bell of the popular JAG series announces she will be making a theatrical film about women in motorcycle racing when JAG goes on hiatus.

It is not all sweetness and light. Cops are everywhere in unmarked cars. They masquerade as bikers. People argue. People hit each other. People go to jail. People, unfortunately, die.

At the imposing Daytona 3.8-mile race track, hundreds of the best riders, tuners and mechanics work and slave and practice pit stops, trying to add that last ounce of performance with tires and shocks. To win this race is to go down in history. They race 250, 600, 750, and Superbike classes and there’s an amazing display of extreme riding at the Saturday motocross race. Riveting, non-stop action. Teenagers trying to find more speed on their superlight, superfast screamers. Luke Skywalker, the best fighter pilot in the fleet.

As it turns out, 20-year-old Nicky Hayden wins the 200-mile AMA Superbike finale on Sunday on what must surely be the scariest, most fun Honda in the world to ride. In this league, the crew can change two tires and add fuel in less than eight seconds flat.

After Sunday, the season is all downhill. The race and the rest of the Daytona craziness will be shown all during spring on cable and satellite systems around the world, because this is as good as it gets on two wheels.

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