ROCKINGHAM — They have come to the county and spent one weekend here for the last seven years.
If it wasn’t for the rumble of their motorcycles, most people wouldn’t even know these visitors were even here.
That is just how Greg Scheuer, or “Edge” to most people, and Rockingham Dragway owner Steve Earwood want it. They like knowing the thousands of bikers roar into Richmond County and the Sandhills, spend millions of dollars and then disappear almost as quickly as they appeared.
The 16th annual Smoke Out Rally has followed this blueprint for the last seven years it has been at “The Rock.” This has been what Edge has been doing since starting the event on a whim after meeting 75 people in a hotel parking lot in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
They embrace being an oxymoron — being the quietest, loudest group to ride into Richmond County.
Unfortunately, that was changed a little bit. Early Sunday morning two pedestrians were killed while attempting to cross U.S. 1 in Southern Pines. Richard Panarra, 49, and Michael Napolitano, 54, both of Jackson, New Jersey, were crossing the road near the entrance to Sizzlin’ Steak or Eggs when they were hit in the far outside southbound lane.
“It’s a tragedy. It’s awful,” Earwood said. “I feel for the families.”
Event heads to the Sandhills
After starting in Tennessee, the Smoke Out Rally has called a handful of places home.
“We started in Pigeon Forge and then we went to the Indian reservation,” Edge said. “The Indian reservation was a dry reservation…that didn’t turn out to be a great fit. Then Salisbury and then Farmington and now to Rockingham. We really feel like we’re home.”
The rally, in Edge’s words, is all about the riders who build their own motorcycles or spend their time working and tinkering on them. They are a “subculture of the motorcycle culture.”
“It’s not just Harleys. It’s mainly all about the home builder,” Edge said. “The garage guy that is out there after work 11 at night, midnight, scraping his knuckles and creating a piece of artwork.”
Even though organizers declined to reveal the number of attendees at last year’s event, Smoke Out attracts people not only from the area, but the nation and world as well.
“We have people who have flown in from England, New Zealand,” Edge said. “We have all kinds of people from California…it’s very far from regional. For three years in a row, we had people ship their bikes in from New Zealand and ride to the event cross-country.
“It’s also unique in the sense that so many motorcycle rallies people trailer to, you won’t see a lot of trailers here unless they are camping and need it. We never had good attendance on Sunday because people actually ride their motorcycles and they leave Sunday to get back to work on Monday. It’s a Friday and Saturday show.”
More than just a motorcycle rally
While motorcycles are the stars of Smoke Out, there is more things than just showing it off or racing a buddy down the drag strip. There are bands, roller derby and countless other things that Edge claims aren’t organic, but are all part of the show.
“We want to have the persona of planned chaos — it should look like chaos but it’s actually unbelievably scripted and planned,” Edge said. “The idea is we want to have three things going on all the time and we want everybody to leave missing two or three cool things that happened and say, ‘Man, I wished I seen that, but did you see this? I got to come back next year.’”
Impact on the Sandhills
Earwood said he visited several restaurants in the area this weekend and saw they had several Smoke Out visitors inside. Area hotels were also filled because of the event as well.
“There are easily 400 people out here working. I’ve never gotten the tax revenues from this county, but Farmington said they collected tax revenues on an extra $5 million,” Edge said. “We sell out hotels an hour from here.”
Earwood said in addition to the restaurants and hotels, the event helps grocery stores and other businesses with the added foot traffic.
“This is a great event, if it doesn’t come to Rockingham, it’s going to go somewhere. So why not Rockingham?” Earwood said. “Why shouldn’t we benefit from this many people coming to town and filling up our hotels, filling up our restaurants, buying gasoline at our gas stations, shopping at our Walmart, shopping at our independent shops downtown? So it’s worked out great for us.”
Returning for years to come
Edge said Smoke Out seems to have found its home in Rockingham and “The Rock.”
He added there have been some cities that believed the event was more trouble than it was worth, but realized things weren’t as it seemed and wanted Smoke Out to stay.
“We were having some issues with Farmington because they thought we were going to be crazy bikers that would tear everything up,” Edge said. “They sued us to stop the rally and none of what they thought was going to happen was true or was ever true. They never talked to the previous place that had the rally. We decided to move to Rockingham before we ever did Famington. Halfway through Farmington, they apologized to us and asked to stay, but we already talked to Steve Earwood. Rockingham was such a great fit.”
Earwood agrees and is happy to have Smoke Out back year after year.
“It’s a fun event, it’s a unique event. I’m a racing guy and it’s a little bit away from racing, it’s more of a lifestyle event,” Earwood said. “This is what we have to do. This why I worked so hard to get Rugged Maniac here this past year. They had a great experience and they’re coming back twice next year. The more events we can like this in our community, the better for everybody.”
Edge wrapped things up by saying Smoke Out organizers have no plans to leave Rockingham as long as they are wanted here.
“If the people want us here, I don’t ever see us leaving. If the political climate is good, there is no reason to leave.”
Reach managing editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 and follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.