LACONIA — The Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, now marking its 25th anniversary, traces its roots back to the Lakes Region Sharks Motorcycle Club and the club's effort to bring back the glory days of the original Gypsy Tour rallies at Weirs Beach, which dated back to 1917.
Motorcycle events had been held in the Lakes Region for decades following that first rally and the Belknap Recreation Area (now Gunstock) hosted its first AMA Championship Race in 1938. What was known as the Laconia Classic became one of the top cycle races in the country for many years. But relationships between bikers, local communities and police deteriorated in the early 1960s and Gunstock ended the races and camping for cyclists at the area following the 1963 race. In 1965 a riot at Weirs Beach brought two decades of hostile relationships in which cyclists were not welcomed with open arms in the area and the races had moved to Loudon and Bryar Motorsport Park and was renamed the Loudon Classic.
The week-long rally was actually banned by the city for a year, 1966, and then was limited to what came to be known as Motorcycle Weekend.
Charlie St. Clair, executive director of the association since it's inception, grew up on the corner of Oak and North Main Street in Laconia. He says that one of his best memories from the 1950s was of motorcycles lining up at Opechee Park for a big parade through Laconia and on to the races at Gunstock.
''I always wanted to see that come back and that there was a great opportunity for the area,'' says St. Clair, who has been riding motorcycles since he was a teenager and was a member of the Lakeside Sharks.
He says that a September 2, 1990 article in Boston Globe's New Hampshire Weekly section, which described the club's trip that summer to the renowned Sturgis, South Dakota Motorcycle Rally, was one of the key elements in helping to start the ball rolling to form an association to promote the really.
The article, written by Royal Ford, carried the headline ''Motorcycle revival in Lacona?'' and discussed the economic impact of the week-long Sturgis rally on that small Black Hills city, estimated at $100 million by the local chamber, and how the Sharks were calling for a week of expanded activities in the Lakes Region.
''Bob Lawton at Funspot read the story and called me and asked what we could do to bring back Motorcycle Week and volunteered to let us use Funspot as headquarters for the rally,'' said St. Clair.
He said that was most significant was that Lawton and his bother, John, had experienced the 1965 riot at Weirs Beach and had for many years closed Funspot on the weekend that bikers came to town.
''I sat down and worked with Bob and his daughter, Sandra, to organize a schedule and get more people interested. They were great. They gave me a lot of support and everything I needed to work with. Without them, I don't know where we'd be today.''
The Laconia Rally and Race Week Association was established in 1991 and the initiative received strong support from Paul Fitzgerald, who was elected mayor in November 1991 and went to the Sturgis Rally in 1992 courtesy of the Lakeside Sharks, who bought a ticket for his flight to Sturgis and arranged for a loaner bike from Harley-Davidson during his visit.
''It was fascinating to see the level of organization and how the event welcomes motorcycle oriented vendors,'' Fitzgerald recalls, saying that he was impressed with the overwhelming economic impact on the community.
'We brought back a lot of material and presented that to the City Council and talked with Gunstock and the track about adding more activities to cover a whole week. The enthusiasm level got quite high very quickly,'' Fitzgerald said.
In 1993, Gunstock revived the hill climb event, which had always been a popular draw in the 1950s and 60s, and opened up its campground to bikers. New events were added, including tours throughout the state, merchandise vendors were encouraged and vintage races brought back to the area. The rally gained state and local support as well as from businesses that saw the benefit of having the event promoted nationally.
''We had phenomenal, explosive growth and that helped make the Laconia Rally one of the three biggest in the country, right up there with Dayton and Sturgis,'' says St. Clair, who along with Jennifer Anderson has been promoting the event on a year-round basis through marketing at rallies and motorcycle shows around the country, soliciting and working with corporate sponsors and publishing and distributing the Rally News magazine.
The association has had financial issues in recent years, which led to an increase in the board's membership and an increase in the annual membership dues paid by municipalities and businesses, from $2,000 to $5,000.
St. Clair says that the growth slowed in recent years due in large part to the recession, which started in 2008, but also to the growing competition from other motorcycle-related events. ''When we first started there were about 50 motorcycle events. There are over 600 now and competition is fierce. Bikers can pick and choose where they want to go and spend their money. So it's more important that ever that we get out there and convince them to come here,'' he said.
He will soon be leaving for Daytona as part of his job in promoting the rally and has already been to Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis at motorcycle events.
''A lot of people think this just happens. But it doesn't. It takes a lot of work year-round to keep it going,'' says St. Clair.
Fitzgerald says that the effort has paid off with national recognition for the event. ''I was in Austin, Texas a while ago and stopped at a Harley-Davidson dealership for a rental. When they saw my license and that I was from Laconia they were really impressed and started asking all kinds of questions about it.''
He said that it is important for those who benefit from the rally to recognize the important benefit they receive and step forward to support the association.
St. Clair says that both the Daytona and Sturgis rallies have been stepping up their marketing efforts and that it is important that businesses in the state which directly benefit from the event contribute to efforts to continue to attract crowds of people to the nation's oldest motorcycle rally.
Laconia Mayor Paul Fitzgerald and Laconia Motorcycle Week Executive Director Charlie St. Clair at the 1992 rally headquarters at Funspot. (Courtesy photo)