A Backroad Trip to the Honda Hoot and CW Rolling Concours—From The Archives

Go for a ride, look at other motorcycles, and hang out with people who like them as much as you do

peter egan standing in front of b-17
Peter EganJeff Allen

How would you like to come down to the Honda Hoot in Knoxville this year," Editor Edwards asked me, "and be a judge in our Cycle World Rolling Concours?"

I rolled my impressive captain-of-industry desk chair around on its small, squeaky wheels and studied my huge wall map of the USA.

Knoxville looked to be about 800 miles away from my home in Wisconsin, and smack dab in the middle of some of the most beautiful riding country on Earth. Hills everywhere–the topography on my map looked like wrinkled aluminum foil–and a classic jumping-off point for the Smoky Mountains.

“I’d love to ride down there,” I said, “but I don’t own a Honda. I’ve had at least 17 Hondas in my life, but I don’t own one right at the moment.”

“You don’t need a Honda to go,” David assured me. “All brands are welcome.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said, “but the other minor problem is that I don’t have a classic bike ready to ride in the Rolling Concours.” I explained to David that I was negotiating on an old BSA 441 Single, but it was too scruffy to bring along without some restoration work. The rusty wheels looked like they’d been dredged up from a shipwreck. I’d be the laughing stock of the vintage bike movement.

2005 honda hoot ladies in period gear
Period gear, Wheels Through Time Museum.Jeff Allen

“There’s a big group in Knoxville called the Time Warp Vintage Motorcycle Club,” David said. “Good guys. I’m sure one of them could lend you something.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Then I could ride down there and make a nice road trip out of it, instead of driving my van with an old bike in the back. I really need a good road trip. I’ve been typing too much lately.”

“Typing” is an old-fashioned term for “word processing,” and it still slips out now and then.

So, dark and early on a hot, muggy Monday in June, I loaded the saddlebags on my big, rain-cloud-gray BMW R1150RT and hit the road. By noon I'd quickly disposed of northern Illinois and part of Indiana on the Interstate, then turned south on Highway 231 and an endless succession of rural two-lane roads and small towns that would take me all the way to Knoxville.

bultaco tss street racer static side view
Rolling Concours, Bultaco TSS street-racer.Jeff Allen

Heading south through Indiana, the roads got better and better, and by the time I stopped for the night at Tell City on the Ohio River I’d done about 200 miles of nothing but dips, rises and switchbacks through beautiful green forest and hills. Indiana Highways 43, 450 and 145 follow a verdant spine of national forests whose roads have to be among the finest in motorcycling.

The last stretch of 145 was closed for construction, but I rode impulsively around the barriers, betting I could get through, and 14 miles later encountered a missing bridge. Inhaling deeply, I successfully took my RT down a dirt bypass, across a rocky creek bed and up the other side to the highway.

Most people don’t realize what a great dirtbike the RT is. That’s because they’re dead. Or recently drowned in a creek.

sidecar motorcycle at the honda hoot
WTT’s Walksler gets Egan in the air again.Jeff Allen

Every cross-country trip needs a secondary theme, and mine, this time around, was Abraham Lincoln. I'm reading a good Lincoln biography right now, so I stopped at his birthplace and boyhood home (two different sites) near Hodgenville, Kentucky, visited the local museum and then rode south on ever more winding roads.

When you look at their little patch of bottomland in its shady valley, you can see why the Lincolns gave up farming in Kentucky and moved to the fertile prairies of Indiana and Illinois. The country in this part of Kentucky is scenic and romantic, but rugged and hard to clear, better for hunting than raising corn.

Around the border, the deep, convoluted valleys of Kentucky gave way to the more open and grand valleys of Tennessee–rural country and roads so beautiful they’d leave John Denver speechless. I rode through the little village of Pall Mall, home of Sgt. Alvin York, perhaps the most famous American hero of WWI. York picked off more than 20 German machine-gunners with his rifle and almost single-handedly forced the surrender of 134 troops who thought they were surrounded.

group of motorcycles at rolling concours event
Concours group portrait, lunch stop.Jeff Allen

And they were. By him!

What was it about this part of the country and marksmanship? When I was in the Army we had three guys in my company who couldn’t miss a target, at any distance. They were all from small farms in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. Maybe it was all that hunting, and not so much corn.

I looked at my watch. I wanted to stop and visit York’s home, but I had miles to go to get to Knoxville that evening.

Note to self: Leave an extra day for this trip next year.

Soon I found myself riding out of paradise and inching into Knoxville on a short stretch of Interstate clogged with rush-hour traffic and radiant road heat.

motorcycles at the rolling concours event
The Concours, Rolling.Jeff Allen

I found our hotel, the Knoxville Marriott, just off the Interstate, overlooking the Tennessee River. Walking into that air-conditioned Hanging-Gardens-of-Babylon lobby with its fountains and plants after a hot day on the road was like re-entering the air lock in a space station. Cool, quiet, calm. There I ran into our entire Cycle World gang, just checking-in after a flight from California.

We had dinner and a block party with the Honda folks–who were throwing this shindig for the 12th year–in Knoxville's nicely restored old downtown. Rows of bikes, mostly Hondas of all types, lined the streets, while Dust to Glory was being projected on a wall at an outdoor plaza. I met one of my off-road heroes, Baja 1000 legend Johnny Campbell, who was grand marshal of this year's Hoot. I told him I'd ridden the whole Baja 1000 race route last fall with some friends on XR400s. "We only took about a week longer than you did on your XR650," I explained.

Campbell laughed, but I could tell he was quietly impressed.

bsa gold star rocker static side view
Class-winning BSA Gold Star rocker shows off alloy tank.Jeff Allen

The next morning, we all rode out to the Tennessee Air Museum in nearby Sieverville, where event organizer Charlie Keller of the Honda Rider's Club had lined up rides on a genuine WWII B-17 bomber called "Liberty Belle" (with appropriate sexy nose art). I buckled myself into the starboard waist-gunner position, while others settled into the other battle stations around the aircraft. We took off for a low flight around the countryside, and were free to wander around the airplane after take-off.

I have to say that a flight in a B-17 is more than just an airplane ride; if you grew up on the books and movies of WWII, it’s like a trip to Gettysburg or Shiloh might be for a Civil War historian. The roaring engines, wind noise and beauty of the aircraft make you grin like an idiot, but the knowledge of where you are is sobering. It brings on a strange mixture of pleasure and sadness. About 100,000 young men climbed into these wonderful airplanes to be killed, wounded or captured, and a third of the 12,731 B-17s built went down. Today, there are 14 left flying.

Nearly everyone who took a ride had three comments: 1) The airplane is much more cramped and claustrophobic inside than expected; 2) the bomb bay looks small, considering the amount of hardware needed to deliver the bombs; and 3) the thin aluminum skin of the fuselage makes a poor flak jacket.

guy carrying rd60 special motorcycle
Moonshine winner and RD60 special.Jeff Allen

On Saturday we had a big group ride up into the Smoky Mountains to a small town called Maggie Valley in North Carolina, home of the famous Wheels Through Time Museum. This huge shrine to American motorcycles is the brainchild of one Dale Walksler, who has so much energy and knowledge about old motorcycles he makes the average enthusiast feel starved for brain oxygen and low on coffee. His collection is magnificent–full of great displays and background settings for the old bikes. A must-stop for anyone on a motorcycle trip in the region.

Dale gave me a ride in an old Henderson Four sidecar rig, and also in his 1949 Cadillac (which I needed to compare with my own ’53 Fleetwood) that used to belong to Steve McQueen. Then he guided us partway back through the mountains on his trusty ’36 Harley prototype flathead 80, which he rides almost as fast as a modern sportbike, tank-shift and all.

Our little CW editorial group was riding sportbikes borrowed from Honda–I was on a VFR800–and we were moving right along through the Smokies when Hoyer suddenly decided to ride off a cliff and disappear into the treetops while checking his mirrors. Luckily, he and his CBR1000RR landed in dense brush on an outcropping 6 feet below the road, and hardly any damage was done to either rider or bike.

A Ford 4x4 and a local named Dave pulled the bike back up to road level with a rope (see sidebar). Then we rode back to Knoxville and Mark had a margarita that night. We all did, and toasted his apparently unquenchable mortality.

norton logo on motorcycle
Art from England...Jeff Allen
yamaha fuel tank in black and yellow
and Japan.Jeff Allen

Saturday, closing day for the Hoot, was Cycle World Rolling Concours day, our seventh-annual event. Turnout and registration at the nearby Civic Coliseum in the morning was huge, and we ended up with more than 100 classic old bikes theoretically capable of doing a 46-mile ride into the mountains–and 42 miles back. A large number of the bikes came from the aforementioned Time Warp M/C. I would later talk to several members who claimed to have moved to this area purely because the riding is so good.

One member, Fred Sahms, was kind enough to lend me his nicely turned out 1969 Triumph Tiger for the ride. This was a very sweet-running bike, and as we swept through the green mountains I found myself reminded that light, simple, unfaired bikes always offer a kind of basic riding pleasure that lured most of us into this sport in the first place. It was also nice to ride without windflow from a fairing roaring around my helmet. No earplugs needed.

I followed Mark on his black & gold 1954 Velocette MSS and David on his 1962 BSA Spitfire Scrambler (poster bike for the event T-shirt), reveling in the mixed music of old Singles and Twins and the clacking of cams and pushrods, with the occasional random droplet of oil hitting my faceshield from somewhere.

peter egan riding a triumph motorcycle
Egan rides it like he borrowed it.Jeff Allen

We all stopped for a picnic lunch at the 4000-acre Keith McCord Farm, a little slice of paradise in the mountains, and ate the best pork barbeque I’ve ever had. Mr. McCord declined to reveal the ingredients in his secret sauce, so I guess I’ll just have to go back next year.

Only two bikes had mechanical trouble on the ride to the picnic, a Vincent Comet that mysteriously quit running (Mag? Generator? Timing mechanism? Could be anything.) and a Triumph T100C with a rear flat. Amazing. My borrowed Triumph ran like a watch, and I found myself wondering where the nearest copy of Walneck's might be purchased.

We all rode back to the Civic Coliseum after lunch, and there the difficult task of judging the Concours began. How do you pick the best of three immaculate CBXs or two unblemished Super Hawks? Or three perfect late-Sixties Bonnevilles? Is a Bultaco TSS roadracer with a license plate classier than a beautifully detailed Yamaha XS650 flat-tracker replica? Migraine headache time. There was hardly an undeserving bike in the crowd, so we fell back on the usual nuances of preparation, owner history, mechanical detail, rarity and blind prejudice.

We picked many class winners–the newest allowed being 1985 models–but our Best of Show was a stunning BMW café-racer done by Fred Zust from Greenville, South Carolina, based on a 1978 R100S. This bike had been featured as the "Rocker Boxer" in our July, 2005, American Flyers section, but photography did not do it justice. An exquisite piece of re-engineering and tasteful styling.

ducati 750 static side view
Two of the best: Tasty Ducati 750Jeff Allen
tea kettle suzuki static side view
And and immaculate “Tea Kettle” Suzuki.Jeff Allen

That evening we were all invited to a party at a place called the Time Warp Tea Room, an old downtown bar converted to a clubhouse by owner Dan Moriarity for the 70 members of the club, whose motto is a classic in itself: "We just wanna be free to ride our machines, drink our espresso and not be hassled by the man."

A great party, with food, live music, pinball machines and walls full of motorcycle posters. Every town needs a bar like this, and I was amazed that a city no larger than Knoxville (pop. 165,600) had produced such an epicenter of hard-core enthusiasm. It must be the mountains and all those great roads. You’d have to be comatose to live here and not think about the pleasures of motorcycling.

At 5:30 the next morning, I climbed on my BMW in the dark and headed home, watching the sun rise over the mountains behind me. At Monterey, I exited the Interstate again and took the backroads northwest, all the way through Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The weather was extremely hot–100 degrees on most small-town bank thermometers–but it was still a fine 1700-mile round trip on some of the best roads I’ve ever traveled.

I stopped overnight in Effingham, Illinois, then paused briefly in New Salem, the restored log village where Lincoln once lived. I tanked up on a gallon of Diet Mountain Dew (Lincoln’s favorite) then headed up the Illinois River toward home. I made it early in the evening.

kentucky bourbon award trophies
Kentucky bourbon or CW trophy? Both!Jeff Allen

Would I go to the Hoot again?

Sure. It’s a great event, where, as Hoot Honcho Keller says, “The whole point is to go for a ride, look at other motorcycles and hang out with people who like them as much as you do.”

If that isn’t a recipe for happiness, I don’t know what is.

Next year, however, I might take a vintage bike that can not only make the road trip without melting down, but be eligible for the CW Rolling Concours. It's a trip that deserves just the right motorcycle, and I'm already pondering what that might be. It's a question not to be taken lightly and may require months of careful research and precision daydreaming.

Best-of-Show Fred Zust, 1978 BMW Café-Racer
Classic I (pre-1959) 1. Les Josey, 1955 BSA Gold Star
2. Ron Vest, 1951 Vincent Black Shadow
3. Bob Cassedy, 1949 Vincent Comet
Classic II (1960-75) 1. Barry Hatter, 1973 Ducati 750 Sport
2. Bill Latoza, 1974 Norton Commando
3. Bill Potter, 1975, BMW R90S
American Classic (pre-1975) 1. Will Limehouse, 1947 Indian Chief
2. John Matthew, 1978 H-D Sportster
3. Tom Tryzbiak, 1963 Mustang Stallion
Japanese Classic (pre-1975) 1. Kent Trimble, 1973 Suzuki GT750K
2. Sergei Traycoff, 1974 Honda CB350F
3. Jeff Younger, 1966 Honda 305 Scrambler
Modern Classic (1976-85) 1. Dean Stuckmann, 1983 Honda CX650 Turbo
2. John Hitt, 1980 Honda CB650 Custom
3. Ron Covel, 1977 Honda Gold Wing
Street Specials 1. Jim Knight, 1972 Kawasaki H2 “Four”
2. Malcolm Young, 1979 Honda CBX “SS”
3. Mark Anthony, 1978 Yamaha XS650
Special Award Dallas Miles (age 14), 1973 Honda CB175
Special Award Doug Snavely, 1978 “Cyborg” Honda GL1000
Special Award Time Warp Vintage M/C
Moonshine Award Jack Parker, 1975 Yamaha RD60

Sidebar Part I

mark hoyer portrait
Mark HoyerJeff Allen

Mail Order Ride
Rolling my own at the Concours
By Mark Hoyer

In all the years I’ve been doing our annual Rolling Concours, I’ve ridden my own bike exactly once. Mad tweaks in the cosmos, bad financial planning (“Sure, I’d love to buy another vintage Jaguar!”) and other of life’s interesting twists had seen me ride a vintage-like 2001 Kawasaki W650, my own ’76 Laverda Triple (not strictly concours legal at the time) a Norton Atlas café-racer borrowed from the Chief and a CBR1000RR, definitely out of era.

Finally, this year, I got the right bike, a 1954 Velocette MSS, the elegant old British 500cc Single you see here. And it only took stacks of money, an engine rebuild and nearly 10,000 miles of shipping by land and air to make it happen.

If it were easy, everybody at the Hoot would have been riding an MSS bought while on vacation in New Zealand…

Yes, it’s true, rather than a $10 T-shirt or cheapo themed spoon, I picked up this beauty early last year whilst chillin’ in the Southern Hemisphere. My petrol-headed good friend Peter Robinson of Christchurch, who I met though the sale of my old Austin-Healey, took me to a vintage bike race for some fun. It was at the track I met his racer pals, among them Paul Ainsworth, an electrical contractor who runs a gorgeous 500cc Norton Manx.

“Always loved 500cc Singles,” I said. “Actually, I’ve been looking for a street-going Velo for some time. Not as exotic as your racer, mind, but wonderful old things nonetheless.”

velocette mss studio side view
Velocette MSSJeff Allen

“I’ve got an MSS I might like to sell,” said Paul.

He had me at that very moment, and unless the bike were bright pink and powered by a duct-taped-in lawnmower engine, I was buying. Turns out it was black and shiny, as a proper Velo should be. Never mind the rod knock and aged tires, Paul had done an extensive restoration of the bike in the ’80s and virtually everything was in good condition and correct.

The same local retired engine reconditioning man who had done the motor for Paul first time around agreed to give it the once over for me, and I’d have the bike shipped stateside after the work was done.

New Zealand being the Land Where Time Slows Down, it took long enough for the build that by the time it was finished, my next vacation had already popped up. So I took a 1000-mile vintage-bike tour around the South Island with Peter, Paul and a few other of his mates before air-mailing the bike home just in time to fill it with oil and gas, clean it lightly and load it on a truck bound for the Rolling Concours at the Honda Hoot in Knoxville.

The Velo was a glorious way to see the surrounding countryside. NZ or Tennessee, the memories it generated beat a souvenir T-shirt every time.

Sidebar Part II

mark hoyer looking at a crashed motorcycle
Mark HoyerJeff Allen

Crash & Burn (and itch)
Off-roading a CBR1000RR
By Mark Hoyer

There are some moments in life when you can’t help but think how wonderful things are. One such moment came to me as a gentle epiphany at the Honda Hoot while riding from Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, back to Honda Hoot HQ in Knoxville. I was riding a great motorcycle on a fabulous road after spending the day watching Dale run from one historic bike to another, start them up, tell us great stories about them and generally drinking in all forms of gasoline-powered Americana. The B-17 bomber ride the day before was icing. It was pure gearhead fantasy stuff.

Arcing though the initial corners of the first truly twisty tarmac of the trip was wonderful. Until I left the road in utter disbelief. I can think of many reasons that led me to this crash, but at the core was a simple fractional splintering of my attention that made it impossible to negotiate the corner. No sand, no rocks, no surprises, just an error.

"What the…?!" I thought as a narrow, grassy shoulder gave way to a steep downhill, to where the bike and I proceeded at speed. We snapped the barbed-wire fencepost and ended up in a thicket of vines and shrubs. I had no initial signs of injury and popped right up, so far down the bank I couldn't be seen from the road.

Not long after the crash, the shock wore off, some soreness set in, but I was unhurt and the bike was basically undamaged save for a few scratches and a sheared-off mirror and turnsignal. Twenty feet of rope and some locals in a pickup truck had the bike back up on the road, with a little help from me extracting it from the bushes.

There were a million ways this could have turned out a million times worse. Just 20 feet up the road, the shoulder was lined with 3-inch-diameter saplings. Farther along and the drop-off was startlingly more severe.

As it was, I rode the bike away, thankful for my good fortune. I got off scot-free.

Until the poison ivy set in two days later. I’ve also had plenty of time to think about what an ill-timed decision it was to relieve myself at the side of the road after the crash...

More photos from the Honda Hoot and CW Rolling Concours

custom bmw motorcycle static side view
Top-dog Beemer was super-clean, started out as a junkyard dog.Jeff Allen
engine details from best special motorcycle
Best Special shows off extra jug. Fourth cylinder was grafted on seamlessly.Jeff Allen
custom indian chief motorcycle static side view
Not your average Indian. Class-winning custom Chief probably would be tossed from a regulation concours.Jeff Allen
b 17 liberty belle airplane
B-17 “Liberty Belle,” Tennessee Air Museum. Half-hour rides $400 and worth it.Jeff Allen