Harley riders recall days past as 75th rally revs up

Jerry Ellis met his buddies from Pittsburgh at a Harley rally in Myrtle Beach way back when.

He was on the street near a stop they wanted to make, and they asked him where they could park for just a few minutes. They wanted to buy some T-shirts.

“Park right here,” he told them. “I’ll watch your bikes.”

Now they get together at every rally, an embodiment of what Ellis said has held the event together for 75 years.

“It’s the camaraderie,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

The 75th rally officially kicks off Monday and runs through May 19, though many bikers got an early start this weekend. Some say this rally is expected to be bigger than last year. Ellis, a former D.C. cop, came to his first rally in the 1980s and has been at every one since he retired and moved to Socastee in 1990. He calls Myrtle Beach’s attempt to get rid of the rally “that little incident,” and says that the event hasn’t been the same since.

But, Harley riders had seen rough times before and they still made an annual spring trek to the north shore of South Carolina.

The Piedmont (N.C.) Harley-Davidson Dealers Association started the Grand Strand rally in 1940, when Harley riders from North Carolina got together at the horseshoe in North Myrtle Beach for a couple of days and rode their bikes on the beach. The rally survived World War II and kept going through the 1970s gas shortage, the Vietnam War, the Gulf wars, that “little incident” and the economic plunge to stand today as the second oldest Harley rally anywhere.

The rally in Laconia, N.H., will mark its 91st year during eight days in June.

Sonny Copeland, owner of Myrtle Beach Bike Week, LLC, said the Grand Strand rally has recovered from the days of the Myrtle Beach helmet law, an ordinance drafted in 2008 requiring all riders to wear helmets within Myrtle Beach city limits. The law was overturned in 2010 by the state Supreme Court because it preempted South Carolina law, which does not require helmets for riders older than 21.

“The only ones that ever mention the helmet law is the locals,” he said. “Let it die. It’s the past.”

Mark Krom, who owns, disagreed and said the rally in terms of size still hasn’t matched pre-2008 numbers and said he’s not sure it ever will, though he said attendance has been on the rise in the last two years.

Krom said he expects about 125,000 bikers to visit Myrtle Beach during this year’s rally.

‘Hell of a ride’

Copeland said he first came to the rally in 1976 and started developing events for the week in the mid 1980s. He said a lot has changed, particularly the landscape of Myrtle Beach.

“Bike week has been one hell of a ride,” he said. “It’s an awesome event.”

On his first trip from his North Carolina home, Copeland said it was a two-lane road all the way to town.

“It wasn’t nowhere near built up to what it is now,” he said.

But Copeland thinks the rally has survived for so long simply because it’s on the Grand Strand.

“It’s a destination,” he said. “It’s the beach, the sand, the surf, the sea in your face.”

Krom said tradition plays a role and said part of the expected rise in attendance this year is likely due to this being the event’s 75th year.

“People like coming to the beach,” he said.

And, it seems, a noticeable number like to ride motorcycles to the beach in the spring.

Terry White, North Myrtle Beach City Councilman and Realtor, remembers when the bikers converged on his city. White was a North Myrtle Beach police officer and he said that in the 1970s, the event was much more low key than it has become. He couldn’t remember if the bikers were still allowed to ride on the beach as in earlier days, but they congregated around and cruised North Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard, as they did until a few years ago in Myrtle Beach.

“(The bikers) were pretty well-behaved,” White said.

When there were problems with any of them, they were handled differently in those days.

If a biker got out of hand, White said the police would have a talk with his chapter leader and they settled things back down.

John Finley, better known as Brother Speed, first showed up at the Grand Strand rally in 1969. He had been to the rally in Daytona Beach and his trip to North Myrtle Beach was his second rally. Since then, he has intermittently ridden the rally circuit from Daytona to Myrtle Beach to wherever to Sturgis, and he’s back in Myrtle Beach for this one.

“There definitely wasn’t as many people,” said Speed, as most people call him, or John Finley to those who have known him from his late childhood near Walterboro.

But even then, there were some locals who just didn’t cotton to people on motorcycles. He said bikers could pull up to some businesses that put out “closed” signs as soon as they showed up.

Big growth

The rally really began to change between 2003 to 2005, Speed said.

Those were the years the rally started expanding northward by adding venues at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, Broadway at the Beach and the Harley dealership in North Myrtle Beach, said Phil Schoonover, owner of the Myrtle Beach Harley-Davidson dealership since 1998.

He said the rally was growing steadily since his first ride to it in the mid 1970s.

“It was a long weekend with a bunch of motorcycles in town,” he describe his early trips. “Then it became a little more organized.”

Schoonover recited how the Piedmont (N.C.) Harley-Davidson Dealers Association, the rally’s originator, became the N.C. Harley-Davidson Dealers Association which morphed into the Carolinas Harley-Davidson Association after South Carolina dealers joined the group in the 1990s. The Carolinas association kept an official presence at the Myrtle Beach rally until 2012, when it moved its spring rally to New Bern, N.C., where it lasted just one year.

Schoonover remembers that one of the main attractions of the rally in the 1980s was a Motorcycle Asphalt Racing Series at the Myrtle Beach Speedway. This year, the Speedway will again be open as a rally venue, and riders are to complete five laps around the oval there as part of a poker run.

Schoonover said the growth of the Myrtle Beach rally was helped by the growth of the rally in Daytona Beach, Fla., because it promoted bike riding and bike rallies.

“It helped the whole industry,” he said.

Another boost came from the aging of the Baby Boomers.

As they got older, Schoonover said, “they got that Harley-Davidson they always wanted.”

Myrtle Beach’s attempt to institute a helmet law caused the big sponsors to flee the event.

“We lost all of the major sponsors,” he said. “The major motorcycle manufacturers didn’t come here. The major suppliers didn’t come here.”

They still haven’t returned.

At about the same time, Horry County cut venues to a maximum of only 20 percent of the vendors they had the previous year.

As a result of the combination of events, attendance dropped from an estimated 400,000 in 2007 to 25,000 in 2008, Krom said.

The rebound year?

Bill Barber, general manager of Suck Bang Blow in Murrells Inlet, believes this year could be a significant step back for the rally. He’s predicting that 300,000 will be here for the rally’s 75th year.

“Our phones have been ringing off the wall,” he said. “Our Facebook went nuts.”

Schoonover agrees with Barber’s prediction and Copeland said he thinks this year’s rally will be the largest yet.

But, it won’t be as crowded as it sounds. Schoonover said most riders come to the rally for three days and then are replaced by another group the same size for the middle three days and a final group for the last three.

Barber said he thinks the cold winter much of the East and Midwest has suffered through will spur more to want to ride to the beach as the weather warms.

This will be SBB’s 17th year, and the first spring rally since it closed SBB Four Corners, a location across U.S. 17 from Inlet Square Mall that it had for several years. The bar has done some spiffing up for the 75th, added a few things and will still have the only burnout pit on the Strand.

Barber said he first heard of the Myrtle Beach rally in the 1950s, when his father rode down from Wisconsin for the event. His own first rally was 1978, the year his family moved to Myrtle Beach. U.S. 17 Bypass was under construction then, he said, and the trip to SBB in Murrells Inlet was all two-lane.

‘Kind of like family’

Barber and his wife are champion shaggers, and he described the Harley crowd just like that of the shagging community.

“It’s exactly the same,” he said, “kind of like family.”

That family now is large, and includes everyone from doctors and lawyers to free spirits like Brother Speed, who last year was inducted into the S.C. Bikers Hall of Fame.

Speed feels the same sense of brotherhood with his fellow riders as others describe, and the same willingness to help others in trouble.

He describes his job of night security at SBB as making sure there are no fires and covering roomless riders who happen to be there late into the night.

“To tell you the honest truth, I kind of like Sturgis the best,” he said of rallies around the country.

There are so many good rides in southwestern South Dakota such as those to the Black Hills National Forest, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and Mount Rushmore that seem to hold an almost romantic allure.

At 70, Speed is nearly as old as the Myrtle Beach rally. And the life he’s had, while pocked with ups and downs, is overall good, just like the Myrtle Beach rally.

“I got to go to some of the greatest rallies in the world,” he said, “and I probably got kicked out of more countries than most people have been to.”