Daytona Bike Week: Waiting for the Sun

The sun finally came out on Thursday, but it rained again on through the weekend. Attendance was sparse.

An almost solid week of rain put a damper on the annual Daytona Bike Week in 2003. As a result , attendance at American motorcycling's annual rite of spring, Daytona Bike Week, was to be well below previous years, and the cornerstone of the event, the Daytona 200 roadrace was postponed until Monday.

Even before the week began, some sources were predicting a lower turnout than in previous years, when more than a half-million motorcycle enthusiasts have shown up for the ten-day motothon, which includes demo rides from most motorcycle makers, hundreds of entertainment offerings, venders for everything motorcycle, dozens of professional and amateur races at Daytona Speedway and other venues, hundreds of thousands of like-minded motorcyclists, and, usually, the promise of balmy weather. However, the weather has been wet for the most of the week, relently only on Thursday. Other factors, such as the threat of war, a slow economy, and high fuel prices also seem to having an impact. An upstart bike week in nearby Orlando was predicting that it would attract as many as 100,000 motorcyclists, some of which have chosen to go there in reaction to soaring hotel room prices and tougher laws in Daytona Beach.

Though Daytona Beach Bike Week has netted local merchants something on the order of three quarters of a billion dollars in past years, new laws put a damper on the week for some visitors. This year showing skin on certain carefully defined portions of the body (more is allowed on the beach), will net revelers a $106 fine, which one woman referred to as the "thong tax." That's also the amount be levied under a new anti-noise law for a rider who chooses to run noisy pipes or gets a bit too enthusiastic about revving his engine at a stop. "What are you going to do if you gotta set of pipes on your bike?" several riders asked, and many seem to hope that there would be some backlash, such as people staying away. "They don't want Bike Week anymore," groused one rider who said he narrowly avoided being ticketed for his very loud pipes.

"We'd rather they put mufflers on their machines and join the fun," said one local cop. "But if they have to run loud pipes, we'd just as soon they stay home. Daytona Beach residents are tired of the noise. We welcome motorcyclists, but we aren't going to tolerate illegal exhausts." Over the first weekend, when record rainfall put a damper on motorcycle activities, Daytona Beach police reportedly wrote about 350 citations, about 50 of them for loud pipes. Some attendees see it as just part of the cost of coming to America's biggest motorcycle event. One riders with straight-through pipes told us, "Hey, that's less than half a night in for my crummy hotel room." That's true. The biggest single gripe we have heard is the excessive costs for lodging in the greater Daytona area, which at an average of around $200 for a nothing-special room and often a five-night minimum, makes most fines a mere surcharge. The fine for an open container of alcohol in public is $53, the same as it was 30 years ago, and riding without your headlight illuminated or without eye protection will set you back $44. You'll pay a similar amount for handlebars over 15 inches high or no turn signals. There is no helmet required for adults, however--providing you can produce evidence of $10,000 in insurance.

Lack of a helmet may have contributed to the week's first of only two motorcycling fatalities on Saturday night. Thomas Stiffey, 55, of Kittanning, Pennsylvania, was headed for the Cabbage Patch when he reportedly overtook other vehicles at high speed approaching the end of a street and was then unable to stop before running a stop sign and hitting a power pole. Alcohol was also cited as a factor in that accident. A week later on the final Saturday night, the event saw its second fatality, when a 53-year-old rider died and his passenger was seriously injured. Several other motorcyclists suffered serious injuries during the weekend. On Thursday we read a report of a rider who was knocked off his bike by a deranged man who said he thought he knew him and was trying to climb in the bike (at 35 mph). That unhelmeted rider suffered severe head injuries. Still, the fatality tally was the lowest in recent years, due in some part to the low attendance and the damper that the rain put on riding.

Meanwhile, the 60 or 70 motorcyclists who typically sustain serious injuries during Bike Week may face a new problem in the future. Trauma surgeons at Halifax Medical Center, the only level-two trauma center in the area, are not renewing their contracts because of the escalating cost of malpractice insurance. They have agreed to stay until the end of March, to care for victims involved in Bike Week and Spring Break incidents (which may constitute as much as 20 percent of their year's case load), but the trauma center will then close unless the cost of malpractice insurance is addressed. Since Orlando's trauma center recently closed for the same reason, the nearest trauma center to Daytona will be in Jacksonville or Gainesville.

There was one more piece of disturbing news reported by the local paper (www.news-journalonline.com). Motorcycle theft seems to be on the rise, with a few dozen bikes stolen and even a trailer full of bikes disappearing.

The Daytona 200 was finally flagged off on Monday morning, and at its end turned into a close brawl between three Honda riders--Miguel Duhamel, Ben Bostrom, and Kurtis Roberts. At the flag, which also signaled the end of of the most sparsely attended Daytona Beach Bike Week in recent memory, it was Honda rider Miguel Duhamel by about half a whisker.

Rain or shine, there is still that ride-on beach.
The message finally seems to be getting across: If you can't be quiet, don't come.
There were fewer bikes than previous years but more swampland.
It's one of those weeks when you spend more time cleaning your bike than riding it.
Adverse weather or not, this is still America's biggest bikefest, and there is plenty of fun to be found.