Special Thunder in the Valley section
June 24, 2010
as "Thunder a Template for How Successful Rallies Should Be Run"
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
For over a hundred years, the valley embracing the city of Johnstown thundered with the sound of steel and iron. Hard times silenced the mills in the ‘80s, but starting in 1998, the valley once again thundered, this time with a different kind of steel and iron.
Thunder in the Valley, or in local shorthand, “Thunder,” began as a modest gathering and has grown into one of the premier motorcycle events in the eastern United States. Attendance at this June event has climbed to over 200,000, quite an accomplishment for a city a tenth of that size. It’s like hosting every man, woman, and child from Richmond, Virginia or Montgomery, Alabama for the weekend. Neighboring towns, like Somerset and Ebensburg, seeing the financial bonanza, have chimed in with their own events, spreading the spirit across two counties.
The benefits to the community have been substantial. Although a full-blown economic impact study has never been done, Lisa Rager, who heads the Thunder team at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, conservatively estimates a payday of $20 to $30 million. That’s a lot of coin to an economically distressed area.
In addition, Johnstown’s profile is raised in the eyes of the visitors, nearly all of whom leave with a very positive impression of the city and her people. Cruising just a few of the plethora of motorcycle lists on the Internet, one finds uniform praise for Thunder, and for Johnstown, flowing from those who have been here.
Thunder in the Valley has been popular for not only attendees but residents as well. Some cities merely endure their rallies. Johnstown embraces ours. The annual incursion is recognized for the economic benefits, and for bringing a few days of color and excitement into the life of the community.
Bikers from across the country have put Johnstown on their summer schedules, even with the country in somewhat less than rosy economic conditions. There are numerous rallies across the country every summer. But what is it about Thunder that makes it such a unique event?
First of all, it’s fun. A lot of venders, factory demo rides, live music, food, and a wonderful feeling of community. And every day, groups of riders spread into the surrounding countryside, drawn by the picturesque scenery and mountain roads in the Laurel Highlands. Motorcycles fill the parking lots at the Johnstown Flood Memorial, Allegheny Portage, Fort Ligonier, Fort Necessity, Fallingwater, or booming along roads lined by fragrant Mountain Laurel. In many ways, the best of both worlds.
And, of course, the sacred pilgrimage of every American biker: the Flight 93 Memorial.
Secondly, it’s safe. Thunder is not only a motorcycle rally; it is also a family event. Visitors bring their children in, and locals bring their children out to walk, awestruck, amongst the leather-clad crowd and their shiny machines. Most of the riders who come here are tremendous ambassadors for the motorcycling community, and the local people who welcome them are eager ambassadors for Johnstown. Each group seems determined to outdo the other in acts of hospitality and friendship. In addition, drivers here seem to be far more motorcycle aware than other places, especially during Thunder. Consequently, riders at this rally have been able to avoid the terrible and sometimes tragic accidents, injuries and fatalities that mark other events.
Thirdly, except for the thunderous din of tens of thousands motorcycles, it’s peaceful. In the thirteen years of Thunder, Johnstown PD has never felt the need to call on reinforcements to handle the rally, although the Pennsylvania State Police does contribute mounted units to help with traffic control. Part of that is due to the skillful and efficient professionalism of the local gendarmerie. But mainly, the kind of drunken debauchery and violence that has marked some rallies, and sometimes led to their extinction, doesn’t happen here. While calls are higher than normal, police blotters are still amazingly quiet for such a huge gathering. It’s not quite a Quaker picnic, but still a nice place to be.
Fourth, for the visiting riders, it’s an affordable weekend. Although motel rooms are at a premium for 50 miles in any direction, rates generally don’t skyrocket for the event. Fuel is relatively cheap and available, and entertainment is mostly free. Even the pay events are reasonably priced. While the normal rally cuisine is cooked up daily around the biker mall, Johnstown’s restaurant community also find their dining rooms filled with road warriors.
Motorcyclists are a highly sociable crowd. They will gather at the drop of a hat. As far as rallies go, if you build one, they will come. However, Thunder is unique; a kind of partnership between an eagerly hospitable community, and a crowd of enthusiasts determined to have a good time, respect the town, play by the rules, and return the warmth and friendship of their hosts.
Thunder in the Valley is the template for what a motorcycle rally should be, certainly one that other organizers probably look to with a twinge of envy.