On any other cross-country road trip, replacing an entire engine might be terrible news.
But when Kenny Sweeney had to switch out the one in his 1934 Harley-Davidson, “it was so worth it,” he said.
The Seymour, Indiana, resident was one of about 100 riders on antique bikes who took part in the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, which started Sept. 5 in Daytona Beach, Florida, and ended Sunday in Tacoma.
Motorcycles in this year’s ride had to be from before 1937.
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“These bikes are constantly trying to seize up, burn up or blow up,” said Dan Kraft, a surfer from Santa Cruz, California, who made the trek on his 1934 Harley. “I always said my bike could make it to New York and back. This was my chance to show off.”
He said the ride was the longest he’s ever been away from his wife, whom he’s been married to for almost 50 years. She flew up to meet him at the finish line, at the LeMay-America’s Car Museum.
“It’s excruciatingly difficult mentally,” he said of the roughly 4,000 miles covered. “I’m used to going to bed at 7:30.”
Support crews also made the trip, though they could help only at the overnight stops, not in between.
Dave Mello, an auto body repair shop owner from Santa Clara, California, helped look after Kraft’s bike and one other.
His trailer was filled with “everything known to man,” he said, including a spare engine, a transmission, tires, and all manner of tools.
The 1936 Harley he helped with broke down three times before they finally had to overhaul the top end of the engine in Denver, which took seven hours.
One team member searched online for parts as Mello drove around the city to buy them.
“These old bikes aren’t run much anymore,” said Doug Feinsod, also of Santa Cruz, who rode his 1920 Henderson coast to coast. “We’re re-creating and proliferating what it takes to make these things go. This information is on the verge of being lost. We’re spreading it to the next generation.”
This year was an easy ride for him, he said. Last time, his engine blew out the first day. He’s run all three cannonballs, which have been organized by the Antique Motorcycle Club of America every two years since 2010.
“It’s very challenging, but we build good friendships,” he said. “When we roll into small towns, people give up everything they have. They feed us, they support us. And that’s very humbling.”
The stop on the route before the LeMay museum was Destination Harley-Davidson in Fife, where the store hosted a party as the riders rolled in.
Owner Ed Wallace thought about 600 people were there at the peak.
The motorcyclists got a lunch of pulled pork sandwiches, corn, coleslaw and sweet tea, as their bikes parked outside were juxtaposed with the latest Harley models inside.
“Just riding from Yakima to here is a big deal, for some bikes that won’t go freeway speeds,” Wallace said.
Then the bikers rode to the LeMay for the finale, where they talked about their machines to curious onlookers.
And antique bikes got some company on the field outside the museum.
The Seattle Cossacks team put on a stunt show with their 1930s and ’40s Harleys.
The Cannonball riders might not have been performing tricks along the way, but they still impressed the Cossacks.
“These guys are riding (antique bikes) all the way across the United States in 17 days,” stunt rider Andrew Nicholson said. “That’s amazing. I hope they’re going to see what we can do with these old girls.”
Riders expected to learn at a banquet Sunday night who finished first for each class of motorcycle, based on the checkpoint criteria.
Some riders were there to win, but many didn’t seem to care about times or places. Some said they sacrificed speed to stop and help fellow riders. One group said they took time to swim in lakes and rivers along the way.
Most said they hoped to do it again.
Sweeney said he’d like to ride in the 2016 cannonball, but his 1934 bike won’t cut it.
He’s heard the next ride is only for motorcycles made before 1917 — a requirement he hopes he’ll be able to meet by then.
“If we can find one,” he said.