Kyle Steen first experienced the gentle rumble of a BMW motorcycle 13 years ago, long before he started liking girls, growing chin hair or working as a nurse at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
The trip was only about 200 miles, but 10-year-old Kyle started falling asleep, forcing his father to continuously keep tabs on the youngster to make sure he didn’t fall off the 1990 BMW 375 S.
“When he could reach the foot pegs, I let him ride,” said Dick Steen, 55, a Tri Cities resident.
On Thursday, Kyle Steen rode that same BMW 375 S into Spokane, joining his father and a few thousand others for the 32nd Annual BMW Motorcycle Owners of America International Rally. About 6,500 BMW motorcycle enthusiasts will call Spokane County home through Sunday, enjoying each others’ company and pouring millions of dollars into the local economy.
This year’s rally, titled Northwest Passage, marks the group’s return to the region. The annual event has twice been held in Missoula. Redmond, Ore., played host in 2001.
Motorcycle enthusiasts visiting the area will spend at least $3.15 million this week, said Mina Gokee, vice president and director of sales for the Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau. That sum will likely end up being about 6 percent of the estimated $52 million in convention spending this year.
“I’d say it’s going to serve the county and the Valley very, very well,” Gokee said.
The average member of the BMW club earns $75,000 a year, Executive Director Ray Zimmerman said. The 38,000 registered members probably own 100,000 motorcycles – at about $15,000 a pop, on average – Zimmerman estimated.
Most of the group’s members have college educations and are married. More than 90 percent of riders are male, and the average age is 47.
“There are different types of motorcyclists. We don’t consider ourselves bikers, OK?” said Zimmerman, noting that Spokane’s streets won’t be overtaken this weekend by clans of leather-clad cruisers.
At the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, where the event is being held, more than 100 vendors from across the country have set up shop. Dave Gibbs, owner of Helmet Runner in the Spokane Valley Mall, is one of the local sellers hoping to capitalize from the group’s visit.
“I’ve had a lot of people come by and say, ‘I didn’t even know you’re there,’ ” said Gibbs.
Aside from merchandise vendors – who sell GPS tracking systems, helmets, clothing and the like – the group needs space for children’s activities, bathrooms, food services and seminars.
Camping areas are also a big concern because about two-thirds of attendees pitch tents.
The Spokane County Fair and Expo Center was offered to the group’s elected officials back in 2001, and they announced its selection in July 2003.
“We’re enjoying Spokane, and the people here are friendly and easy to work with,” said the group’s president, Larry “Hawk” Hawthorne. “We’re enjoying the hospitality.”
For those who own BMW motorcycles – which have been in production since 1923, a few years before BMW cars – distance is of no consequence. In fact, a willingness to hit the open road is probably the defining characteristic of BMW riders.
A quick scan through the parking lot revealed just how far these individuals are willing to travel. One could see license plates from Florida to Alaska, with just about everywhere else in between.
“A group for BMW riders is three – that’s a big group,” said Sabrina Summers, who rode by herself from Alabama.
Summers is a 59-year-old self-described “gear head” who started biking again after giving it up 30 years ago. Since 2001, she’s owned as many as seven bikes at a time.
Dirk Paseman, 48, who moved to the Spokane area eight years ago, has owned three BMWs in the past 20 years.
“Around here, you’ve got all the Harley guys,” Paseman said. “But it’s not like they’re going to get on their bikes and go 700 or 800 miles in a day.”
“BMW riders are pretty hard riders.”
That’s an accurate description of 74-year-old Dave Swisher, a legend in BMW folklore.
Swisher’s been to 31 of the 32 rallies, including each of the first 10, meaning he’s achieved “Pioneer” status. The only rally he missed was in 1989, and it took a serious trip to the hospital to keep him away.
But it’s not how many rallies he’s attended or how many bikes he’s owned that makes the West Virginia resident so well-known.
Of the group’s 38,000 members, Swisher is one of four who has ridden more then 1 million miles on a BMW.
“It wasn’t something that I set out to do,” said Swisher, who’s been riding since 1973 and has logged more than 1.2 million miles. “It’s just happened as time went by.”
Over the years, Swisher has had three lower-back surgeries and one neck surgery. He can’t find a comfortable chair in his house. But, he said, his ailments have nothing to do with all the miles he’s traveled.
“I feel my best when I’m on that bike,” he said.
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