Daytona Bike Week: A history of beer, bikes and ‘rowdyism’

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

DAYTONA BEACH — Bike Week, now marking its 79th year, may not be your grandfather's — or even your great-grandfather's — bike rally. A gathering for motorcycle race fans, a drunken party, a biker brawl or a family vacation destination, Bike Week has been a lot of things over the years.

It’s our Mardi Gras, our Fantasy Fest, our Carnival. It’s a portable, 10-day street party of motorcycles of all kinds, eye-popping costumes, bikini-clad women, sidewalk vendors, parades, Clydesdales, beards, tattoos and alcohol. Bikers and locals alike go to nonstop concerts and bike shows, go on long rides or just stay on Main Street for days watching it all go by.

READ MORE: Revelers at Daytona Bike Week shrug off coronavirus fears

It all began in 1937 when almost a hundred daredevils on motorcycles raced each other on the road and packed sand of Daytona Beach in the first Daytona 200, launched by a group that included not-yet-NASCAR-president Bill France. About 15,000 fans watched Ed “Iron Man” Kretz ride his No. 38 Indian Motorcycle to the win before heading to Main Street to celebrate.

In the next four years crowds and entries doubled and things at the “Handlebar Derby” got a bit wilder. In 1939 a News-Journal article reported that "the party got so rough that city firemen had to be called to dampen the crowd's spirits with a little cold water" and the National Guard had to be summoned.

City leaders attempted in 1941 "to limit, if not eliminate the rowdyism" by organizing activities for fans, including field events, a 100-mile race for novices, a parade of motorcycle clubs, and "the presentation of trophies to the best dressed woman motorcyclist."

In 1942 the race was put on hold for five years while the country fought in and recovered from World War II, which is why we're celebrating the 79th anniversary this year instead of the 83rd. But some locals and visitors continued to show up for the party every year anyway, race or no race, for an unofficial event that became known as Bike Week.

France kicked things off again in 1947 and Daytona Beach was "jammed to the rafters," according to a Feb. 21 story that reported every available hotel room and apartment was rented. Most places were "only charging moderate rents," an average of $4 or $5 for a double room without a private bath.

But things reportedly got so out of control that a Chamber of Commerce committee was formed to come up with a plan in 1948, endorsed by the American Motorcycle Association, for "preventing unbridled rowdyism." The plan included checking mufflers at all approaches to the city and handing out lists of rules for behavior to all visitors to help limit the influx of what the AMA referred to as "one-percenters," as compared to the "99% of the motorcycling public" who are "law-abiding."

Did it work? Not right away. A tear gas grenade was used to quiet the crowd in 1949 when some motorcyclists insisted on racing on Main Street, which had been blocked off for a street dance.

"We have plenty more grenades if we need them," the sheriff was quoted as saying.

The Mild Ones

Bike Weeks in the ’50s were, comparatively, sedate. The 1950 event was described as quiet, orderly and "the most successful racing weekend in Daytona Beach history." And by 1951, the "Wild West" atmosphere was deemed a thing of the past.

This was likely helped along by the officers from 70 out-of-town police forces brought in by the city leaders to help control the crowd and lay down the law that year. But wholesome fun was still encouraged: An "entertainment program for the diversion of motorcycle enthusiasts" was slated that included a "contest for the best uniformed police squad."

It also didn't hurt that Marlon Brando and James Dean were on the big screen a few years later making bikes, white t-shirts and leather jackets look cool.

By 1961, France moved the motorcycle races to his newly-built Daytona International Speedway but the party stayed largely on the beach. Gradually, the "Wild West" returned.

Bike Week everywhere

It also started spreading. Over in Samsula in 1967 Olga “Aunt Ollie” Weber, daughter of the town’s co-founder Joe Sopotnick, took over the neighborhood gas station and general store he’d built in the mid-’20s and gradually turned it into a bar and, twice a year for Bike Week and Biketoberfest, a biker haven where visitors could hang out, bet on illegal drag racing and camp in the old cabbage field next door.

Years later, in the late ’80s, it became even more of a must-see destination when Ron Luznar, Weber’s nephew and the bar’s new owner, noticed that “wrestling” events involving bikinis and gooey ingredients were becoming popular. Rather than having women grapple in mud or whipped cream he stayed on-brand and coleslaw wrestling quickly became a notorious, world-famous attraction at Sopotnick’s Cabbage Patch.

Meanwhile, a smaller Bike Week was forming. Tommy Asberry, a black biker from Atlanta, was ticketed in 1971 for parking his Harley-Davidson on Main Street and found a more hospitable welcome, along with many other shunned black motorcyclists, in Daytona's Second Avenue area (since renamed Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard) to enjoy Black Bike Week, a major event in the local African-American community to this day.

Over in New Smyrna Beach in 1981, Gilly Aguia, owner of Gilly’s Pub 44, took a stand against the trade deficit of the day by inviting everyone to bash a Japanese bike for charity, and that immediately became a popular annual event.

Depending on what you thought Bike Week should be, the 1970s and ’80s were either the event’s Golden Age or a decidedly unfriendly, uncontrollable invasion. A popular motorcycle magazine suggested there shouldn’t even be a 1981 event.

Newspapers reported disorderly conduct and women exposing their breasts. Trouble with rival motorcycle gangs began to get the attention of the law enforcement community. Daytona Beach police were on overtime to assure crowd control. A former Orlando motorcycle gang leader was sent to prison for murdering a Daytona Beach biker.

Even the Boot Hill Saloon -- long since a world-renowned biker bar icon -- famously stayed closed during its first Bike Week in 1974 because new owner Dennis Maguire "didn't want any problems with bikers," as he told the Sun-Sentinel years later.

No colors allowed

Locals feared that tourists were starting to stay away and law enforcement and city officials were unhappy. The Bike Week Festival Task Force was formed in 1988 to bring some formal organization to the event. Alan Robertson, the original owner of Main Street's Beach Photo & Video, served as chairman and relentless Bike Week supporter.

Karl Smith, a.k.a. Big Daddy Rat, long one of the forces of nature of Bike Week, was one of the first to see the commercial potential. Big and burly (but with a degree in fine arts), he sold airbrushed shirts from The Rat’s Hole and his other shops, organized motorcycle shows in Daytona and around the world, and helped spread the message that Bike Week didn’t have to be a slugfest.

Daytona Beach police began cracking down more harshly on gang members while welcoming peaceful visitors. The Boot Hill was reportedly one of the first bars to ban colors (gang patches) to reduce rival fights, a practice that quickly spread. And over the next 20 years, Bike Week slowly evolved into a more family-friendly, if still rough-edged event.

Not everyone was happy with a softer Bike Week. In the late 80s the Iron Horse Saloon, a rough and tumble Main Street staple, moved to U.S. 1 on the north end of Ormond Beach to avoid Daytona’s planned decorative renovations.

Throughout the ’90s and into the 21st century, police and bikers got friendlier and local tourism agencies began marketing family activities to draw in vacationers.

Bike Week attractions continued to spread out from the beach. A welcome center with vendors across the Halifax River on Beach Street drew off some of the Main Street crowds. Auto dealer Bruce Rossmeyer, who opened a successful Harley-Davidson dealership on Main Street in 1994 that kicked off his chain of Harley locations, moved it 20 years later to the new 150-acre Destination Daytona complex he built along Interstate 95 near Ormond Beach to give bikers more restaurants, bars, shops, a hotel and condos to go to.

Riding into the future

These days there are activities, concerts and attractions all over the area for visiting bikers. Biker-friendly bars are scattered up and down U.S. 1. The bucolic city of DeLand holds a bike parade every year. Bikers looking for a quieter (if still raucous) place to go head to Flagler Beach. Many visitors come down just to ride the Loop in Ormond Beach, a scenic, 34-mile ride through twisting, tree-lined roads in largely undeveloped Florida.

Black Bike Week, traditionally held the second weekend of the larger 10-day event, brings thousands of people of all ethnicities to enjoy the street-party festivities at Joe Harris Park in Daytona Beach.

One Daytona, the location of the event’s official daily welcome center, will also be hosting car and bike shows and live music.

And, of course, at the Speedway there’s the Daytona Supercross, and the Daytona 200 that started it all.

It’s not the racing-based party where it began or the crime-ridden bacchanal it became. Bike Week in Daytona, like many of the regulars, has matured over the years into a somewhat mellower mix of people looking to have a good time, ride through some beautiful scenery and enjoy the company of other bikers from around the world.

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This story originally published to, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.