A tower of smoke marked the burnout pit on the Harley Rendezvous grounds Friday.
Crowds of deep-tanned, gray-haired bikers and women in various stages of undress gathered as a great hog idled into position.
The pit is built to hold a motorcycle steady while the rider squeals the back tire till the heat blows it from the rim.
“Don’t get behind the bike,” said Peter Prescott, who runs the pit. “It kicks out molten rubber, which hurts like you would not believe if it gets you.”
A 30-yard piece of ground was cordoned off behind the platform, the reason apparent when the first bike, a 3-foot-wide chopper, rolled up. The bike roared and noxious white smoke filled the air before the clap of ruptured tire brought the engine sputtering back down to a normal idle.
Prescott stepped through the receding smoke with tattooed arms raised and the crowd let out its held breath in a cheer.
“If you don’t do something like this, they’ll just set up boards and burn out their tires in the field with no supervision at all,” said Frank Potter, who runs the event. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Riders must sign a liability waver for the pleasure of burning rubber. The best burnout, an honor measured by applause, is awarded a winner’s purse of $1,000.
But there’s much more to the Rendezvous than squealing tires.
Potter pointed out vendors, makeshift bars, and a field of campsites between greeting old friends from the seat of his golf cart. He owns the 200-acre Indian Lookout Country Club, covered this weekend with nearly 5,000 bikers and all the worldly luxuries they attract.
It’s an eclectic crowd. Young men with tank-top sunburn lines laughed over drinks with bearded grandfathers sporting faded tattoos. The air smelled of beer and tobacco smoke, and many of the women ditched their shirts, or more. One strolled confidently Friday wearing only a stuffed pink flamingo hat and feather boa.
But the crowd is different than it first appears.
“People who aren’t here don’t realize it’s harmless,” Potter said as he steered his golf cart along the dirt paths. “Nobody here tolerates violence or disrespect. They’d bust your balls if you touched a lady.”
Men in “Security” T-shirts with the sleeves torn off rolled along on four wheelers keeping a watchful eye.
“I don’t even lock the doors on my house,” Potter said. “Some of these people might even be thieves, but there’s love and respect here.”
Paul Lambert, who showed up with his grandson in the back of his 1960s Ford truck, made it out to be positively family friendly.
“I’ve come here for 28 years,” he said. “There are three Paul Lamberts here today. Me, my son and his son. I’m training them up to take over for us seniors.”
Lambert wore a blue bandanna over skin made pale by a recent bout of cancer.
“It’s a miracle he’s even here today,” Potter said. “He’s a good friend.”
Potter talked of a bond of friendship that forms through the tire smoke and beer. At least one couple has found a stable relationship.
Jerry Conklin and Lori Crane of Sidney have been a couple since he first asked her to the Rendezvous four years ago.
They arrived this year with a 30-foot cabin cruiser on a trailer, which makes for comfortable sleeping quarters. They brought a motorcycle, too.
“She’s my wing man,” Conklin said with his arms around Crane.
In its 34 years, the Rendezvous has faced local criticism for the loud engines and indecent exposure.
Potter has to get mass gathering permits and hire his own security and paramedics to avoid police involvement, but he chalks the critical public eye up to ignorance.
“Americans have a right to celebrate,” he said, “but whoever you are, there’s someone to find fault with you. That’s what this event is about, the freedom to have a great time and show that no one’s getting hurt.”