Living the dream at motorcycle rally

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 18, 2013

The bells of St. Lawrence O’Toole had just rung out the noon hour on Friday and Gene Sweeney was waiting for customers.

“The bad part is when we have downtimes but we work on little projects,” said Sweeney, owner of Great Western Bike Seats from Fort Myers, Fla.

At that time probably no more than 100 were at the makeshift rally headquarters at Depot Square checking out biker gear or getting a Bahama Mama. In the evening and on Saturday then big crowds roll in.

Email newsletter signup

But already the aroma of black leather, frying oil and onions permeated the air.

“A friend first told us about the rally,” Sweeney said. “We were in Sturgis, S.D. It was supposed to be a good rally and I’m always looking for a new stop.”

As he was already heading back to his home in Florida, Sweeney thought he would take in Ironton’s Rally on the River.

For the past two and a half years the Long Island native has taken his bike seat upholstery business on the road. For nine months he and a couple of guys from his shop in Fort Myers travel across the country in a 20-foot box trailer or a 30-foot trailer if it’s a long haul.

A few days after the New Year, Sweeney maps out where he will take his “have sewing machine, will travel” enterprise across the country.

In the auto upholstery business for 28 years, Sweeney admits “my first rally was disastrous. I lost my butt. But I knew there was money to be made. I told my wife, ‘Have patience, I believe there is a future. It does get old, but when you have a good day, it’s a turnaround.”

Sometimes the trio stays at a motel and sometimes they camp out.

“We bring our own generator and compressor (for the shop),” he said. “We can set up in a cornfield, which we did once. The box trailer has a refrigerator, a microwave, a bed and AC.”

Folded length-wise on the metal shelf of his trailer were 140 different kinds of synthetic fabrics, about 100 yards worth of material. There was ostrich, rattlesnake, eel, stingray and tiger print.

“Rattlesnake is the new hot item,” Sweeney said.

Recovering a bike seat takes a two-to-three-hour turnaround. At the large rallies like Daytona Beach, Fla., that pulls in 1 million people in a week, or Sturgis that attracts about half that, work is constant. At rallies like Ironton there is more downtime, but that lets Sweeney enjoy one of his hobbies.

“I’m a people watcher,” he said. “That is one of the coolest things. The biker community has changed so much. There are a lot of women riders and middle-class people. Who is going to be able to afford a $30,000 bike if they don’t have a job? There is not the stigma anymore that it is all nasty clubs. They are weekend warriors.”

As a heavy-set biker, do rag in place, walks up to the counter fingering some of the fabric, Sweeney gets up to wait on him, looking around at his trailer.

“This is our Shady Tree Lounge.”