Zak Jewell is a 13-year-old Spokane boy who’s been watching “American Chopper” since it started airing in 2002.
So he’s got a pretty good handle on the main reasons for the show’s popularity.
“I like the bikes,” he said, “and I like them themselves.”
“Them” are the entertainingly bickering Teutuls – Paul Sr., Paul Jr., and Mikey, the stars of the popular reality show and a tour de force of publicity and marketing. They’re bringing some of their custom bikes to Spokane this weekend as part of an event expected to be the largest three-day gathering ever held at the county fairgrounds.
Thousands of people are expected to attend the show by the Orange County Choppers crew – crowd expectations range from 45,000 to 55,000 – and that’s only one of the events expected to draw big crowds in the next few days.
Skyfest is returning to Fairchild Air Force Base, and organizers are preparing for 100,000 visitors in two days. Free fireworks, theater and musical performances will cap the Royal Fireworks Festival and Concert on Saturday and Sunday, and roughly 30,000 people typically attend that event.
On Sunday, 1,000 people will compete in the Dragon Boat Festival on the Spokane River, and bleachers will be set up on the Division Street bridge.
Police and fire officials are bracing for the crowds, working extra shifts and developing a coordinated response system throughout the region.
If the arrival of the boys from Orange County Choppers is a big deal for the Spokane area, it’s even bigger for Jewell and fellow members of Spokane County’s Boys & Girls Club. OCC selected the 7-year-old club to benefit from the show, and the club could receive more than $200,000, if it meets its goal, from sales of donated items and tickets.
“This is absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Dorothy Laymon, special events coordinator for the club. “It’s the only time our club will ever have this opportunity, and it’s come at the perfect time for the club.”
The club offers after-school programs, meals and other activities for youth at its center on East Providence.
Jewell, who will be an eighth-grader at Salk Middle School in the fall, is one of the club’s members who put together artwork to be sold over the weekend at the OCC show. He said he’s been a regular viewer of the show for years, and his favorite bikes include one built in honor of the 9-11 firefighters and one designed for 7-Eleven.
“The tank is like a Big Gulp cup,” he said. “It was awesome.”
The Teutuls’ low-slung, custom bikes will be just one part of this weekend’s festivities. Billed as a “three-day celebration of motorcycles,” it will include music, a live stage show and a motorcycle competition, as well as displays by other custom bike builders. Advance tickets start at $30, with a weekend VIP pass running $300.
Dolly Hughes, fairgrounds director, said she doesn’t expect stereotypical biker rowdiness. In fact, the popularity of the OCC crew is one example of the way biker culture has shifted from outlaw to mainstream: Easy Rider all grown up, with a mortgage and a bald spot.
“This is really a family function,” Hughes said. “They’re geared very much toward being entertaining for families.”
Still, local police and fire officials are taking extra steps to deal with the influx of people. Regional agencies have formed a “major area command” that allows them to coordinate their responses among agencies and events – a first that should allow more flexibility and responsiveness, officials said.
“All these events are going to have a tremendous impact on the Spokane city and Spokane County region,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said at a news conference Thursday morning.
Among the concerns is high fire danger, with hot temperatures, dry conditions and wind anticipated over the weekend. Fire officials urged people to remember not to throw cigarette butts out the window, be cautious with recreational fires and follow general fire safety guidelines.
The Spokane Valley Fire Department and county Sheriff’s Department will each spend roughly $6,000 to provide the additional security, officials said.
Orange County Choppers has become a reality TV phenomenon since “American Chopper” debuted in 2002 on the Discovery Channel. The custom motorcycle shop – based not in California but in Orange County, N.Y. – has since become a marketing phenomenon as well.
The OCC Web site offers a huge assortment of gear, ranging from traditional fare such as DVDs, T-shirts, sunglasses and coffee mugs to more surprising offerings such as “infant hats” in blue and pink and an OCC cologne, “Full Throttle.”
Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” Wednesday night, where they unveiled a new bike – and the new series of Pez dispensers with Teutul heads.
Josh Bryan, who builds custom motorcycles at his shop in Spokane, said he was excited the Teutuls were coming to town, partly because it may help bring attention to his own upcoming motorcycle event, the “100 Years of Motorcycles” gathering in Rosalia on Aug. 18-20.
“That’s a cool deal, man,” Bryan said. “I think it’s really cool.”
Bryan designs custom bikes of about three-quarters size, for older or younger riders, or those who want an entry-level bike, he said.
He lives in Rosalia and started the event last year, bringing about 10,000 people to the tiny town. It was one of several recent motorcycle-related events in the region that have drawn a lot of visitors and a lot of money to the local economy.
State safety officials called in reinforcements from all over Washington for the Rosalia event and wound up spending almost a quarter-million dollars for crews that reportedly handled one drunk, one case of dehydration and one wreck.
Bryan described the event as a success and said he’s excited about this year’s gathering.
“It’s amazing to see all the people from across the country,” he said.
Bryan said he probably won’t be able to make the OCC events because he’s got too much work to do. He’s watched the show, though. “I think everyone has,” he said.