West Coast Thunder

15th Annual West Coast Thunder

Continuing The Tradition
Riverside H-D’s new owners fulfill their promise

by PJ Hyland
Riverside, Calif., May 26-

As I pull into the entrance for the Soboba Casino and cast a gaze toward the southwest end of its extensive parking area, I can tell by the number of lanes needed to accommodate all the bikes that the number of registrants for this year’s run easily outstrips last year’s tally. My media pass, provided by Sharon Bridges, the executive director for West Coast Thunder (WCT) at Riverside Harley-Davidson, got me through security with a nod and a smile.

I made my way into the amphitheater where I got to hear The Cadillac Three from Nashville perform an acoustic set. Earl Chadd, the commander of the WCT Color Guard, then led his unit as they marched into the parade grounds section of the amphitheater with appropriate military pomp and circumstance. Following a rendition of our national anthem, the color guard presented the “Ultimate Sacrifice,” a rifle wedged muzzledown between a pair of combat boots and topped off with a set of dog tags and a helmet, mounted on the back of a black Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic. A recorded version of “Amazing Grace” played on the bagpipes resonated throughout the arena and was followed by a rifle salute performed by members of VFW Post #2266 from San Jacinto, which in turn was followed by “Taps” played by the WCT bugler. Two Color Guard members then fired up the black Ultra Classics and rode off to the side of the presentation area while Chadd led the rest of the contingent out of the area. As you can imagine, it takes more than a few minutes for many of us to regain composure after the presentation each year.

After the presentation, country singer Rodney Atkins took the stage and played a bunch of his hits including “It’s America,” “Watching You,” “Take a Back Road” and closing with “If You’re Goin’ Through Hell.” About halfway through his set, Rodney introduced his guitar player and sauntered over to the side of the stage while the longhaired string bender tore into iconic guitar riffs from classic rock tunes like “Pinball Wizard,” “Smoke on the Water” and a few more. As he segued from one to the next, the hardrockin’ biker crowd went nuts. I got to spend a few minutes with Mr. Atkins backstage, and if I were to offer my impression of the man in one word, I’d have to say, “Genuine.”

Earlier that day at Riverside Harley-Davidson, Bronze Star recipient General Mock delivered inspiring words to the gathering, as did Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey and U.S. State Representative Mark Takano. As she has done in past years, Karen Davidson, daughter of Willie G. and Nancy Davidson, and the creative director of general merchandise for The Motor Company, did her usual great job when she addressed the throng. Following the tradition established in the earliest days of WCT to honor victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing, at precisely 9:11 a.m. the lead vehicles took off from Riverside H-D and headed east on Indiana Boulevard.

Later that day, backstage at Soboba Casino, I spoke to Chadd after the traditional Jack Daniel’s toast following the presentation of the Ultimate Sacrifice. The wizened commander told me that he was gratified to see such an exceptional turnout over the course of the parade route through the residential neighborhoods of Riverside. “It looked, to me, like people stationed on the side of the roadway were standing two, three, and sometimes more, deep during several stretches of the ride,” said Chadd. “The large crowds of spectators remind me that our efforts touch many more people than I would have thought.”

Once again this year hundreds of military families with members both living and dead, many from far-flung regions across the Southwest, chose to participate in WCT as their way of memorializing loved ones who served with honor. Each year WCT is honored to include many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as participants; some only recently recovered from their wounds, some still in the process of recovering and some who will never fully recover.

When you factor in all the hard work put in by Sharon Bridges, in conjunction with a legion of volunteers, without the support of its sponsors it wouldn’t be possible for WCT officials to donate in the range of $50,000 annually to the Riverside National Cemetery Support Committee (RNCSC). “It takes anywhere from 300 to 500 volunteers to pull this event off every year,” said Bridges. “This year we had a contingent of soldiers, as well as a contingent of sailors, who came out to volunteer. This year Vision 2 Victory introduced their traveling ‘Wall of Remembrance’ here at WCT. People will be encouraged to add the name of a loved one who died in service to our country, right on the wall.”

Sharon went on, “I’d like thank my husband, Jim. He has a way of talking me down when I get frustrated during the course of coordinating all the facets of such a huge undertaking. I’d also like to thank David Baggerly, the marketing director at Soboba Indian Casino, for all his help and cooperation. But most of all I want to personally thank Mike Veracka and the Veracka family, the new owners of Riverside Harley-Davidson. Mike promised Jay Dabney, the dealer principal of Skip Fordyce Harley-Davidson, that when Jay turned the keys to the dealership over to him, he would continue to support WCT in its mission to donate funds to the RNCSC. All of us who have poured our hearts and souls into this project could not be happier with the support and encouragement that the Veracka family has shown our cause, which has now become their cause as well.”

Rick Binkley, Sgt. Maj. U.S. Marines (ret.), was writing the name of his father, who was also a Sgt. Maj. in the Corps, on the Wall of Remembrance. Rick told Thunder Press, “Memorial day is about all the guys that have either passed after they got out, or the ones that never came home. There are still a lot of them buried in other places in the world that we couldn’t bring home, but today it’s all about remembering those that aren’t here anymore. I had a lot of good buddies in Iraq and Afghanistan that were brought home in boxes. I wish they could have been upright like me when I came home. But, hey, it’s a great day. I’m glad we’re all here celebrating what it means to be free.”

Kevyn Major Howard, who appeared in the movie Full Metal Jacket, is the founder of “Fueled by the Fallen,” an organization that helps support the survivors of fallen military and civil servants. They raise donations by displaying and racing memorial race cars. Mr. Howard explained, “We have five ‘9/11 Angel Camaros’ that list the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing and tell the complete 9/11 story.”

After Rolling Thunder in Washington D.C on the Sunday preceding Memorial Day, WCT is the next largest Memorial Day weekend motorcycle memorial run in the country with an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 bikes making the ride annually. Unfortunately, about half of that number are tag-a-longs who, for one reason or another, don’t pay the registration fee.

The Veracka family continued a tradition started by the Dabney family by donating a bike as a raffle prize, a Black Denim Iron 883 Sportster, and Ed Minkler of Moreno Valley, California, held the winning ticket. This year the Miller Brewing Company also donated a bike as a raffle prize, and Bryan Procko of Lake Matthews, California, couldn’t believe it when Frogman Tommy and Pepper from KFRG 95.1 FM called his name. When I caught up with him, Bryan was in the saddle of his new Hard Candy Gold Flake Harley-Davidson Softail Slim.

Of course Riverside Harley-Davidson not only acts as a sponsor, but also offers the dealership for the start of the ride. Stater Bros. supermarkets was joined once again by 5-Hour Energy to defray the cost of the entertainment. Soboba Casino donates their facility and also provides the sizeable security force, and country music station KFRG 95.1 FM books the entertainment and donates significant amounts of airtime to promote the event each year. Wings and Rotors Air Museum donates the use of a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, which provides air escort for the parade each year. The SoCal Dealers Association and the Law Tigers also figure prominently as sponsors. The WCT staff would also like to thank Cal, owner/operator of Cal’s Crane in Riverside County, who donated the use of his equipment, his flag and his time so that Old Glory could fly above the parade route.

West Coast Thunder, the actual run, caps off a weekend of festivities at Riverside H-D. The WCT organizers in cooperation with the staff at Riverside H-D like to offer riders in town for WCT some activities to keep them on the streets, so to speak. On Friday the usual bike night that features a bike show and a beer garden was renamed “Military Appreciation Night.” On Saturday there was a poker run and a very successful bikini bike wash, followed by another fundraiser on Sunday.

Over the years WCT organizers, with considerable financial help from Skip Fordyce H-D, have donated over $350,000 to the RNCSC. Completed projects in which WCT donations have played a major role include construction of the National POW/MIA Memorial (dedicated in 2005), repairs to the Medal of Honor Memorial, financial support to the RNC Memorial Honor Detail, and funding each July of the Concert for Heroes. Plus WCT funds have been used to honor indigent and unaccompanied homeless veterans buried each month with the placement of a bouquet of flowers and the presentation of an American flag for their final resting place.

Riverside H-D has made the commitment to carry on the tradition and support WCT going forward. For more information about the volunteer-based RNCSC, please visit www.rncsc.org.