The spring Harley-Davidson bike rally in Myrtle Beach was one of the country’s hottest biker destinations in its heyday, but attendees and vendors say it has yet to recover that status since its popularity plunged six years ago.
In 2008, Myrtle Beach officials enacted a helmet law, noise ordinances and other restrictions within the city limits that angered many who attended the rally. Although the helmet decision has been reversed, the event has fallen off the must-do lists of many bikers, who say they no longer hear rally buzz in their respective states, or remain upset over the city’s “keep out” atmosphere.
“Of the beach rallies east of the Mississippi, Myrtle Beach used to be No. 2 behind Daytona [Beach, Fla.],” said Randy Gracy, editor of Southern Biker Magazine, “but when they changed the laws there and said they did not want bikers there anymore, there was a huge backlash – [bikers] didn’t want to deal with it anymore.”
Crowds at the Myrtle Beach rally in the early 2000s had been estimated at up to 500,000 participants, numbers that approached those of South Dakota’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which most bikers and vendors name as the No. 1 rally that’s in a class all its own. More than 600,000 participants descended on Sturgis in 2003, according to the rally’s website. Attendance dipped in 2009 to 394,000, but rose in 2013 to more than 467,000.
“Sturgis even has some problems to overcome, but it’s the Mecca – it’s on your bucket list,” Gracy said. “It’s not an every year trip. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, but there are the hills to ride through, there’s Mount Rushmore – it’s once in a lifetime.”
Sturgis is a rally in a class by itself, said Bill Palladino, who has a space at Barefoot Landing for Cruiser Caddie, an automatic loading system for motorcycles. The Pottstown, Pa., native owns a condo on the Grand Strand and said he has come to the Myrtle Beach rally about seven years and has been to Sturgis three times.
“Sturgis is tremendous,” Palladino said. “You can ride all day, and the sightseeing is phenomenal. My wife doesn’t like bike rallies, but she even loved it.”
Gracy said Daytona is the largest rally outside Sturgis right now, and the No. 2 beach rally is in Panama City, Fla. He said the average income of his readers is $78,000 per year, and many areas are trying to draw bikers, who spend a lot of money at rallies. Panama City is successful, he said, because bikers know they are welcome and find that the city’s police force is very helpful to bikers – as long as they are polite – rather than on point to ticket them for every minor infraction.
Don Atwood, a vendor with California Custom Cruisers, said Myrtle Beach had been one of his better shows when he was able to set up at Broadway at the Beach. He said he took a break when the rally controversy erupted but returned last year, setting up at Barefoot Landing and doing very well, but it will be hard for the rally to build itself up when it is so evident that bikers are not welcome.
“It’s kind of disturbing that they still don’t want us,” said Atwood, who said so many accommodations in the area prohibit motorcycles, and that he was ticketed at the condo he rented last year by the homeowners association when he didn’t know about the rule.
Many vendors, including Atwood and Palladino, said things seem to be slowly improving and are hoping the rally can be shored up.
“This is the first time in about three years that we’ve been here, and the crowd has thinned, but we’re doing very well,” said Paul O’Keefe, sales manager with NightRider Jewelry, which specializes in handmade biker designs. “With how they were regulating things, there wasn’t enough reason to drive 3,200 miles across the country [from Arizona] and spend the money, but I think Myrtle Beach is on the upswing and will be worth the trip.”
Regular rally participants said vendors are a big part of the rally experience, and improving their conditions – as well as rolling out the welcome mat in Myrtle Beach proper – would help set things right again.
“Bikers – 95 percent are not Hells Angels,” said Tommy Wallace, a truck driver from Rockingham, N.C., who regularly attends Strand rallies with Tammy Brigman, a registered nurse, although they stay out of the city of Myrtle Beach. “People have been turned off so long, they won’t even bring their families back. I wish they could go back in time to 10 years ago.”
Brigman – who has been to the Daytona rally just to say she’s done it – said she remembers when the Myrtle Beach Convention Center was full of national vendors, and they need to be embraced again.
“But once you lose people, it’s hard to get them back,” she said.
Gracy said his magazine gets calls from riders in states around the Southeast who ask about Myrtle Beach because the rally was a destination event people wanted to attend every year, but they don’t know what it’s like now.
“It’s on the radar, but it just got on there again,” Gracy said. “It’s a blip.”
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.