By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Like flies to honey, they swarm into the Sonic Drive-In on Northwest Highway near Garland Road, revving their high-performance motorcycles as if to announce their "Hey, look at me" arrival. Some ride their sport bikes solo, others travel in packs, a few have passengers draped across their backs. No protective gear is required among these die-hard libertarians. Riders dismount wearing full leathers and full-coverage helmets, bare heads and blue jeans, big grins and bigger egos as they socialize with friends and strangers for their regular Thursday-night show-and-tell. Tales are told--some taller than others--about bikes bought and sold, about street racing and freeway stunting, about cop chases and crashes, about fortunate near misses and others not so fortunate.
It's early yet, not even 9 p.m., but the place is packed with more than 200 machines. The heavy June rains have kept riders close to home, but tonight's clear skies have many of these bikers jonesing to play in traffic. It's a friendly crowd really, young "squids" (squirrelly ass kids) right out of high school schmoozing with seasoned motor heads who actually have lives; whites, Latinos, blacks and Asians coming together because they share the same connective tissue: the sport bike. Don't expect to find many Harley-Davidson owners here; their brand-name arrogance and patriotic machismo make them downright dismissive of these faster Japanese imports. Yet own one of these "rice burners" made by the likes of Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda, and you may gain access to a subculture in Dallas that is thriving, close-knit and often bordering on the illegal.
"In the '60s and '70s, Harley riders gave motorcycles a bad name," says a 40-something rider. "Now it's the sport bike riders who are getting the same bad rap." Movies such as Biker Boyz and even The Fast and the Furious (original or sequel) don't help by glamorizing the shadowy side of the street-racing culture. They may incite impressionable newbies to push their bikes to the extreme--whether that means spooking traffic by racing en masse at 160 mph down the freeway or stunting on the street by popping wheelies with an attitude that discounts danger to others.
But many bikers will tell you that reputation is undeserved, that a few hooligans are ruining it for the law-abiding many. The sport bike is built to go fast (the most powerful can reach 200 mph) and corner sharply, they argue. It pitches the biker forward in an aggressive riding position, and the whiny buzz of its engine can antagonize even in the lower gears. Police reports are replete with incidents of auto drivers road raging against riders who pop wheelies beside them; and riders will frequently trade stories of pissed-off police who profile them as outlaws, stopping them without cause. Of course, cops might consider that preventive detention: Many speed junkies make a sport out of running from the law, particularly since it is virtually impossible for a squad car to catch a "crotch rocket."
Some locals such as Carla Ulrichherring (a.k.a. Blue Goose Carla), who maintains a sport bike-friendly Web site, are relentlessly attempting to put the sport bike community in a more positive light. "Ninety percent of our people don't get involved in extreme riding," says Ulrichherring, a financial consultant. "Most just want to feel the freedom of the wind and the open road."
But whether it's Tuesdays at the Addison Blue Goose Cantina, Thursdays at Sonic or Saturdays at the Whataburger on West Northwest Highway, these bikers like to go fast. Tonight at Sonic, some of them will go fast and do stunts--wheelies, endos, burnouts. For the moment, however, their need for speed is being sublimated to their need for tater tots. Four police cars flank the drive-in, primed to stop any insanity that might spontaneously combust. Riders have been known to pop wheelies in front of the Sonic on Northwest Highway, to the awe of cheering onlookers. On freeways, they might crank wheelies at speeds exceeding 100 mph, challenging the pavement and each other. Defying gravity and the law, these bad-boy antics have given rise not only to an underground culture but also to a new sport: sport bike freestyle.
Although born in the streets, this sport hopes to legitimize itself by bringing stunting into controlled venues, much like motocross and skateboarding have. Stunt groups, promoting themselves through homemade videos and Web sites, have become some of the hottest hooligans since Tony Hawk began mass-marketing himself to 8-year-olds. Dallas has its share of pro-caliber stunters, who belong to groups such as Point of Balance, Strictly Vertical and SportBikeHype. One local stunter, Patrick Stephens, is considered among the top five in the nation. But there still exists a tension between those who want to turn the spectacle into a sport, hopefully bringing it into the popular X-Games where stunters might be judged based on the execution, variation and degree of difficulty of their stunts, and those who want to "keep it real" (and illegal) by keeping it on the streets.
Working the Sonic crowd Tuesday night is SportBikeHype's Dwayne Rush, who along with Stephens founded the first stunt group in Dallas. Rush is pitching a SportBikeHype event to a bunch of squids, attempting to convince them to attend so they can learn their extreme riding from his group within the safer environs of Texas Motor Speedway. "Fifteen dollars and you can ride around the track all day," says Rush, a large man who isn't a stunter himself.