You’re driving on a lonesome highway somewhere between here and there. In your rearview mirror, you see a swarm of two-wheelers and helmets.
Your heart starts racing and thoughts of menacing motorcycle gangs fill your mind. Will they buzz around you, force you to stop, pull you out of the car and beat you senseless for the $23 in your pocket and the change in your ashtray?
Shake it off. You watch too many movies.
There are about 40 of them who ride together, but they do not evoke visions of a plundering wild gang – more like a bunch of goofballs who will smile and wave at those who glance their way.
They are the Minions, a Spokane-based scooter club.
“You actually have to be tougher than the average guy to ride one of these. You also have to be friendlier, because people will want to ask questions,” said Minions vice-president Scott Leiner.
“And seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve done 70 mph on 10-inch wheels.”
As for the group’s name, founder Rick Hastings explained: “I was kidding a friend of mine who, at the time, was employed by a prominent family in the area. I called him a ‘Minion of the Imperial or Inland Empire.’ Minion does sound a bit like the name of a motorcycle group, even a bit menacing.”
Hastings, an avid cyclist, bought his first scooter, a 1971 Vespa Sprint, about five years ago.
“I found that a scooter had more range than a bicycle,” he said. “The countryside is really beautiful in this area.”
Hastings began networking online and designed a Web site. The Minions became official four years ago.
They are indeed a swarm, many of them riding a type of scooter designed in Italy in the 1940s called a Vespa – an Italian/Latin word for wasp, chosen for either the original body design or the buzzing sound it produced.
Early models traveled more slowly than the newer ones.
“People see scooters and think 35 miles per hour,” Leiner said. “That’s not the scene anymore. They go much faster now.”
The speed of a scooter depends on the engine’s cubic centimeters (cc). A scooter with 50cc will only travel up to 35 mph; 150cc up to 50 mph; 200cc over 60 mph; and 250cc will get up to 80 mph.
To be a Minion, a rider has to be able to maintain at least 50 mph and have a motorcycle license endorsement.
The group has weekly rides where members meet at various locations and then hit the road for a 30- to 50-mile ride. A social gathering follows as they congregate at a locally owned eating establishment.
“We think locally,” said Minions president Mark Selzler.
The club also goes on weekend excursions, has an annual rally in September, and plays scooter games that include “Ride and Seek” – in which a list is posted and riders photograph themselves with their scooters at a specified location – and geocaching.
The Minions range from 20-somethings to 50-somethings, both singles and couples, with professions that include corporate vice-presidents, accountants, entrepreneurs, retirees, medical professionals and beverage distributors.
“The group is so extremely diverse, and I wasn’t sure how that would work in the beginning,” said Hastings. “It turned out to be fun to get to know different kinds of people brought together by a passion and a hobby.”
Brian Johnson, who has a 1979 Vespa as well as a 2005, rides as early and as late as the weather permits and enjoys the social networking the club allows.
“It’s a diverse crowd, quirky but cool,” Johnson said.
Michael and Melissa Carpenter joined the Minions two years ago. He drives a Vespa and she has a Kymco; his Vespa is the “date mobile” because they ride it together.
“It’s the first hobby that we do together,” Michael Carpenter said. “It’s about keeping cars off the road and a love for scooters.”
He went on to joke that one has to be “conceited and secure to ride a scooter.”
“Riding a scooter is a public display of the person riding it,” he said. “People can hide in a car.”
He added that when gas prices were at their highest, other drivers were not as friendly toward scooter riders: “I think it’s because they felt guilty, and guilt often breeds hatred.”
Scooter sales have increased locally in the past few years.
Rick Manfred of Dollar Car Sales, 2405 N. Division St., is the only Vespa dealer in the area. He started selling the scooters four years ago.
He’s gone from 34 sales the first year to more than 100, and the trend is growing. This year he began renting them.
The Minions promote scooter riding year-round and are working with the city of Spokane to add parking slots for scooters and motorcycles.
Asked why they chose a scooter over a motorcycle, many Minions members said that it’s more practical to “scoot” around town, and that the stereotypes of motorcycles are a deterrent.
“We don’t need leather chaps, and scooter riders have more varied lifestyles than motorcycle riders,” Selzer said.
Leiner rode motorcycles for years but finds a scooter more practical; it’s lightweight and more maneuverable.
Sitting on a scooter is more like sitting on a chair, with feet firmly planted on the floorboards and back straight. It’s more conducive to taking in the scenery, smiling, waving and talking to strangers.
“I can get to Sandpoint on a motorcycle in an hour, but on a scooter one tends to dilly-dally and the same trip might take three hours,” said Manfred, who rides both.
Minions member Robin Flood rides a 1984 Vespa with 200cc. It is decorated in the traditional “mod” style with lots of mirrors, chrome and the British flag.
He said that scooter riders are a different culture with a different mentality.
“A couple of bikers pulled up next to me one day and they questioned my sexuality,” Flood said. “It’s important to have a sense of humor.”
Johnson admits that people sometimes yell out “get a real bike,” but most just smile and wave.
Still, other drivers don’t always necessarily see scooter riders.
Said Selzler: “We survive by believing that we’re invisible and that everyone is out to kill us. It’s a safety thing.”