DAYTONA BEACH, Fla, Feb 28 (Reuter) - Leather-clad motorcyclists roared along boulevards and beaches on Friday, the first day of ``Bike Week,'' the yearly gathering that draws a half-million motorcycle fans to this Florida resort city.
Bikers have descended on Daytona Beach every winter for more than 50 years, drawn to a town best known for its motor speedway and the fact that holiday-makers can drive their cars onto the beach for convenience while lolling in the sun.
The leather-clad masses' annual visit, held typically in late February and early March, has come to be known as ``Bike Week,'' although it usually lasts nine or 10 days. It has spawned a host of imitators across the United States, with a motorcycle event held somewhere nearly every weekend all year.
The mostly loud and grungy hordes who visit Daytona spend much of their time cruising along the Atlantic oceanfront, choking the atmosphere with exhaust fumes, tying up traffic and carousing until dawn. Generally oblivious to ordinances banning public nudity and alcohol consumption, the bikers nonetheless have become a favourite in Daytona, as they inject an estimated $282 million into the local economy.
In comparison, the Daytona 500, the most important race at the speedway, and the two weeks of NASCAR races leading up to it draw 450,000 tourists who spend an estimated $240 million. Spring break, a Daytona ritual that draws an estimated 200,000 college students each year, accounts for only about $90 million, local convention officials said.
Bike Week has not always been so popular in Daytona. When biker gangs first started showing up in the 1940s, the scene was much wilder. ``It could get really dangerous,'' said Donald Burgman, a former county commissioner whose family has been involved with tourism since John D. Rockefeller wintered here. ``One year they tore up all the wooden park benches to make bonfires in the streets. People felt like they were being held hostage.''
In the 1960s and 1970s, organised biker gangs, notably the Outlaws, allegedly committed atrocities that turned Daytona Beach into what some local police officials called ``the dismemberment capital of North America.''
Forensic anthropologists said it is still not unusual to find sawed- or chopped-up human remains in isolated areas around the city, mostly of people who disappeared during biker visits. Several Outlaws are on death row for murder.
But things began to change in the late 1980s. Motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson re-emerged as industry leader and motorcycles began to attract a new following as doctors, plumbers, medical technicians and other taxpayers joined gang members with their ``old ladies'' on the backs of their bikes.
The Chamber of Commerce, committed to cleaning up Bike Week without losing its revenue, began advertising in magazines and newsletters for motorcycle hobbyists, even those geared toward senior citizens and born-again Christians.
``Things really changed,'' said Henry Jordan, a local jeweler who came for Bike Week almost 25 years ago and stayed. ``It went from being kind of a biker, Outlaw, freelance thing to a festival thing, like Mardi Gras.''
Not that the hard-core bikers have disappeared. They are just more subdued and say they are not bothered by a less-intense Bike Week ambience.
``Naw, I don't mind it a bit,'' said a 50ish biker who called himself Red Razor, parked outside the Boot Hill Saloon on Main Street. ``I land in jail maybe two, three times a year, chicken s--- stuff, but never during Bike Week. ... It's just too many people for that kind of fun.''
Local merchants, aware of competition from other cities, want word that Bike Week has softened to get out. For the first time in more than 10 years every hotel and motel in town was not booked a month in advance of Friday's Bike Week start.
``We're starting to see a lot of other cities coming after our business,'' said Janet Kersey, director of tourism for the area convention and visitors bureau. Arizona held a bike week and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had a motorcycle event this week intended to siphon off some Daytona traffic, she said.
Copyright© 1997 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication and redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.
SEE ALL OF MY WEB PAGES
E-mail, Address, Fax, Phone, NetMeeting
HENRY JORDAN - Daytona Beach, Florida
© Copyright 1997