DAYTONA BEACH – John Henry Rice has been coming to Bike Week for 16 years, but he’s having a better time this year than ever before.
People-watching on Tuesday along the row of vendors that stretched in front of the newly renovated grandstand at Daytona International Speedway, Rice applauded the organizers of the 75th edition of Bike Week. The annual event, among the biggest motorcycle rallies in the country, is expected to draw 500,000 riders to the Daytona Beach area during a 10-day run that concludes March 13.
“You can see that the future here is going to be even better,” said Rice, a retired electrical engineer from Huntsville, Texas, attired in his 70th anniversary 2010 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally T-shirt. “They aren’t just saying, ‘Come to Bike Week,’ they are doing something to make you want to come.”
Among the changes this year is the new exterior design and landscaping at the Speedway entrance on U.S. Highway 92, where Bike Week vendors and thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts gathered for the first time this week since completion of the $400 million Daytona Rising renovation earlier this year. While ATV riders ripped through the dirt track inside the Speedway in a prelude to Saturday’s Daytona 200, the crowd outside strolled and rolled.
With wide sidewalks capable of accommodating both pedestrians and motorcycles, riders no longer needed to hike from far-flung grass parking lots to stroll among the wares. The presence of grassy fields, palm trees and brightly colored picnic benches almost evoked the atmosphere of a public park.
A noisy one, that is, with the rumble of throaty exhaust pipes a droning bass accompaniment.
“This is a 110 percent improvement,” Rice said of the renovated space. “All the bikes are parked right here within walking distance. There are pretty trees; you can stay in the shade if you want, watch all the bikes go by.”
Anthony and Renee Taylor, of Harford County, Maryland, also were impressed by the access, compared with previous years.
“You had to walk miles just to see stuff,” said Anthony, 44. “Now you just park where you want, to see what you want to see.”
Mainly, that was motorcycles. Hundreds of them lined the sidewalks where riders parked them, not to mention others continually arriving and departing, still more out on demonstration runs on compact test courses or being fitted with custom gear.
And, oh, the range of accessories: helmet stickers, saddlebag gun holster kits, chrome medallion mounting plate covers, cowboy hats, patches, bungee cords, bandanas, sunglasses. When a breeze kicked up, the faint scent of exhaust fumes mixed with the smell of leather chaps.
On a grassy concession area, visitors could order a half-dozen oysters ($9), gator bites ($12) and cheeseburgers ($7.50) or buy a drink at a mobile bar equipped with 4 TVs tuned to ESPN.
Eddie Murray, 53, was shopping for a windshield and exhaust parts for 2009 Yamaha V-Star. Joined by his friend Randy Baron, 56, Murray is making his 20th visit to Bike Week from Buffalo, N.Y.
“It seems to get bigger every year,” he said. “I see more motorcycles every year.”
Not Murray’s or Baron’s, though, as it turns out.
“Our bikes are actually at home,” Murray said. “There are so many bikes here and we take them to so many bike shows in Pennsylvania, it’s kind of a break not to bring them.”
Looking at Tuesday’s crowds, it’s not likely they will be missed.