Riding Into History: A Show Apart

Despite the similarity in name, the Riding Into History Concours d’Elegance is no Pebble Beach. And that’s not a bad thing.

Honda Fours at Riding into History

Honda Fours lined up on the boardwalk at the Riding Into History Concours d’Elegance.

Photo by Richard Backus

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Golf courses and Concours d’Elegance. The pairing has become a norm, evoking images of wealthy, elegantly dressed patrons languidly strolling across acres of painstakingly manicured greens with perfectly restored, ultra-rare vintage motorcycles or cars punctuating the scenery.

That image is perfectly mirrored at tony events like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and by name alone you’d be forgiven for expecting the same at the Riding Into History Concours d’Elegance (RIH), held annually for the past 16 years at what many consider ground zero for golfing, World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida.

The concours circuit has done much to elevate the profile of classic motorcycles, but it’s never really been my scene, leaning as I do toward homegrown street shows, or festivals like Vintage Motorcycle Days and Barber. Yet I’d been hearing great things about RIH for years, so this year I finally made time to head to Florida for the 16th annual event, held May 23, 2015.

Building up

The Saturday show begins for me two days before, on Thursday, when former RIH event chairman Walt Brown picks me up at the Jacksonville airport. In the first of many surprises to come, I learn I’ll be sharing the ride to World Golf Village with event Grand Marshal David Aldana and his wife, Susan. A four-time AMA Nationals winner, Aldana is famous for his signature black leather riding suit adorned with a white leather skeleton outline, a motif he adopted in 1975 when he became a privateer after getting dropped by Norton. Aggressive and fast, Aldana was nicknamed the “Rubber Ball” for his ability to bounce right back up after crashing. “People thought my crashes were spectacular,” Aldana tells me, “but it only seemed that way because I’d push the bike away when I knew I was going down. Hell, it’s not mine, I’m not gonna hurt myself to save the bike.” Enthusiastic and unassuming, Aldana possesses qualities that, I’ll learn, apply to RIH, as well.

The next day, Friday, sees Aldana leading me and a group of 60 other riders for the annual preshow Grand Marshal’s Historic Vintage Lunch Ride, a leisurely 80-mile round-trip ride through the Florida back country to Corky Bell’s Seafood on the banks of the St. John’s River in Palatka, Florida. As I’ll discover during Saturday’s Concours, many of the bikes on hand for the ride are there for the show, including the late Don Bradley’s personal 1961 BSA DBD-34 Gold Star. For 11 years Bradley, an internationally acclaimed motorcycle artist, created RIH’s signature artwork, exhaustively detailed flights of fancy depicting barely clad, often pixie-like women on vintage motorcycles. For 2015, Bradley’s subject for his final RIH poster (he passed away in March) was, aptly enough, a BSA Gold Star.

Aldana continues to impress me with his unpretentious personality, an impression forged in iron during the ride as the lovely T140 Triumph Bonneville he’s riding sneezes and hacks, occasionally dropping to one cylinder while the bolts securing its license plate spit themselves out, one by one, down the road. At one point I’m riding behind Aldana and he reaches down to the Bonneville’s engine, bringing up with his hand one of the air filter assemblies, which has torn loose from the carburetor. I blast up alongside him, point to my bike’s tank bag, and he nonchalantly passes the assembly over to me for safe keeping. A mile later he signals me with another raised hand, this time clutching the filter assembly’s clamp. Another pass-off and he’s moving down the road, laughing through his helmet and apparently enjoying every minute of it. A diva, Aldana is not.

The evening has us gathering for the Grand Marshal’s Dinner, with Aldana in the spotlight, regaling the assembled with stories from his heyday racing for BSA in 1970-1971, and later Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda. AMA Hall of Famer Brian Slark, a former Norton employee and now head of restoration for the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, gets in a few words, along with fellow Hall of Famer and legendary motorcycle mechanic Nobby Clark, who wrenched for the likes of Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini and Kenny Roberts. The audience is in rare company, and they know it.

This is not Pebble Beach

It’s hard not to feel like something of a slacker watching the volunteers who make RIH work spring into action. A 501(c) not for profit, RIH has no paid staff; everyone working the event is a volunteer. By the time I’m working my way toward the show at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, volunteers including outgoing chairwoman Marina Alley have been at it for hours, tending to the hundreds of details that must be addressed before the first attendee steps foot into show central, the 1.25-mile boardwalk that rings Kelly Lake in front of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

The show bikes set up on the boardwalk, displayed around the lake’s perimeter and arranged by class. The staging is unique, providing a new and unforgettable experience. Unlike a golf course concours, with bikes clustered here and there in their respective categories, at RIH it’s just one steady stream of motorcycles, unfolding in front of me class by class as I walk the boardwalk. The arrangement makes it hard to miss anything, because if I just keep walking I come back to where I started. I walk the show at least five times, every time picking out more machines I’ve missed, adding them to my mental file cabinet until I feel like I’ve seen every one of them. A record 310 vintage and classic motorcycles are on hand, and, I later learn, so is a record crowd, with more than 5,000 enthusiasts filling the boardwalk to take in the selection of classic American, Japanese, British and European motorcycles.

The diversity of bikes is impressive, and Japanese classics are particularly strong (almost a third of the total field). Bob Ream’s 1962 Honda CR110R race bike is fantastic (it later walks home with the Grand Marshal Award, bestowed by GM Aldana), and there are dozens of perfectly preserved and restored Kawasakis, Suzukis, Yamahas and Hondas. I find myself drawn to Floyd Webb’s 1980 Suzuki GS1000E, a bike I’d noticed during the Grand Marshal’s Ride, and learn it’s an all-original, 125,000-mile machine, bought new by Webb himself and lovingly maintained — and ridden — since.

There are scores of fantastic American, British and European machines, with American classics like Norman Nelson’s 1911 single-cylinder Reading Standard (completely original and appropriately picked for the event’s Preservation Award) and Robert Batsleer’s similarly spectacular 1922 Ner-a-Car on display. Both are runners, a quality shared, it seems, by just about every bike on hand. The Hollingsworth Race Team from St. Augustine has pulled out the stops, bringing 11 vintage Harley-Davidson race bikes, including an outrageous 1959 XLCH Sportster in full dirt drag racing form. Better yet, the crew from Hollingsworth routinely fires it up, its raucous, unmuffled, fire-breathing V-twin drowning out any conversation. My favorite bike in the Hollingsworth stable is the achingly beautiful 1983 XR1000 racer, built by team namesake Al Hollingsworth for the 1987 Battle of the Twins at Daytona and raced to third place.

On the British side, the legendary Dubble Trubble, a twin-engined Triumph drag bike — and the first twin-engined drag bike ever — built by Bud Hare in 1953, shares the boardwalk with a 1932 350cc New Hudson Model 34, one of only five known and the only one in the U.S. Triumph Bonnevilles abound (including not one but three 1977 Triumph T140 Silver Jubilees), with Ariels, Vincents, BSAs and Nortons filling out the ranks. British bikes grab three of the top five honors, including Chip Doherty’s 1938 Triumph Speed Twin (Best of Show), Donald May’s 1953 Triumph 5T (Best British) and Tim Iver’s stunning 1958 Ariel Square Four (Chairman’s Award).

BMWs dominate the European class, but there are plenty of lovely Moto Guzzis and Ducatis on hand, plus a fabulous 1973 MV Agusta 750S and a very rare 1977 Laverda Formula 500. Competition bikes round out the scene, and there’s even a special display of antique bicycles.

By the time the awards ceremony comes around, I feel like I’ve established an intimate bond with the event and its participants. I’ve seen most of the bikes a few times over, stopping and admiring many of them and learning about their history from their proud owners. Riding Into History is much more than just a show, I’m learning. Uniquely accessible and engaging, it’s a true celebration of motorcycles and motorcycle history. It’s also a powerful fundraiser, with all proceeds going to K9s For Warriors, a non-profit dedicated to supplying service dogs to injured American servicemen and women. This year’s event raised $40,000, enough to train and supply three dogs.

Flying out of Jacksonville Sunday morning, I look to the south out my airplane window for any sign of St. Augustine and World Golf Village. I can’t see it, but it doesn’t matter, because having been once, I know I’ll be back. The 17th Annual Riding Into History happens Saturday, May 28, 2016, with the Grand Marshal’s Ride and Dinner on Friday, May 27. See you there. MC