Protected only by leather and fiber glass, riders in the Daytona 200 are ready to challenge each other elbow to elbow at speeds of 180 mph. They are the stars of Motorcycle Speedweek, and rightfully so. But there are myriad other events that go to make up the most important seven days on a cyclist's calendar, and by the time it is over, a week from this Sunday, it will seem as if each of the 50,000 enthusiasts on hand will have had a part in putting on the show. Daytona offers something for everyone to participate in, from motocrosses and enduros to tours and the ceaseless parade of glittering custom bikes on the beach.
Riding to the Sun
No one is more frustrated than a motorcycle addict gazing out his window at ugly gray March slush. There is, however, a seven-day cure: Daytona. The hardy ones ride their motorcycles; others trailer their bikes behind standard sedans. It's Spring Break for grown-ups, and snowbound motorcyclists cross off February on their calendars one day at a time waiting to bust loose in Florida.
Since it was first run 36 years ago the Daytona 200 has become the world's most important motorcycle race. And the week leading up to the 200 at Daytona International Speedway has become the world's most important motorcycle week. There are now half a dozen official Speedweek activities and so many others that are fast closing in on official status that someone trying to take them all in would run the gas tank on a Moped dry. There are manufacturers' shows; "poker runs" (road tours, ridden mostly by sedate, over-40 couples in matching clothing); a full day of amateur road races; professional motocross races; short track and speedway races on a quartermile dirt oval at nearby Memorial Stadium; the Alligator Enduro for dirt bikes in the swamps northwest of the giant Speedway; impromptu drag races at night on the backstretch. And an endless concours d'élégance for "choppers" in front of the Rat's Hole, a shop near the boardwalk where many of those outré custom creations were born.
March 14, 1977
Some of the bikers are as far out as their bikes. Like the Man of 100 Taillights, a little fellow from Washington. D.C. who parks his huge Harley-Davidson by the front door of the Plaza Hotel and sits almost lost in a soft leather seat about as big as an easy chair. As the inevitable crowd gathers, he nonchalantly watches a portable television set on the back of the "hawg," as the big Harleys are called, pretending to pay attention to the Tonight Show. Then, when the time is right, he flips a toggle switch. The 100 taillights blink on...for a split second. Then—crackle-bzzt—all the fuses of the overloaded electrical system pop. blowing Johnny Carson back to Burbank. It happens every night of Speedweek, and the blackout has become so much a part of the Man of 100 Taillights' act that he carries extra fuses in a flashy box, the same way some people carry fancy cigarette cases.
The week ends on Sunday at the Speedway, when a howling pack of 750-cc. motorcycles swoops around the banked oval, the riders rubbing elbows at 180 mph. The 200-mile road race draws some of the most daring athletes in the world: Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto, defending champion in the 200; Italian Marco Lucchinelli; Barry Sheene of England and Hideo Kanaya of Japan, the one they call Kamikaze; Kenny Roberts, Gary Nixon and Steve Baker of the U.S., three of the toughest 5'6". 140-pounders the world has ever seen.
On Monday morning, one week to the day after it begins, it's over. The motorcycle freaks load their Sportsters and Golden Wings and Commandos in their U-Hauls and head back to Altoona and Peoria and Zanesville. Daytona has made the last few weeks of winter endurable. And now it's the remaining days in March that get crossed off the calendar, until April and motorcycling weather arrives again.