January is generally a ghastly time of year when many, north of the Mason Dixon, ache for saddle time while their wheels sit comfy inside the warmth of a garage. Of course, we know there are those among us who laugh in the face of frostbite. But for us average Joe’s who detest the frosty side, Ol’ Man Winter simple squashes most attempts to hit the open road. So, when the call came in to head south toward the sunny skies of Florida, for what could best be described as a traveling carny bike rally, we jumped at the chance. Warm temps, perfect sunny skies, some top notch entertainment and a little biker accouterments shopping were just what the doctor ordered.
Gibtown Bikefest was held January 11 – 13 in Gibsonton, Florida on the grounds of and hosted by the International Independent Showman’s Association (IISA), just a short jaunt from Tampa/St. Pete. Not a bad place to be in January. The IISA in Gibsonton is better known as a seasonal showman’s retreat. It is a winter haven for the folks that celebrate the Carny lifestyle. Consequently, with a pedigree such as that at its roots, it’s no wonder this curious mix of motorcycles with a splash of sideshow carnival has been labeled the most entertaining bike event in the country. As testament to Ron Long, IISA ex-president and founder of this gathering of mixed oddities, 2019 marked 16 years for the charity event. To this day, they do not charge admission for entry, parking, concerts or shows and have still managed to raise hundreds of thousands for local charities over the years. The attendance has grown from a simple one-day poker run with a handful of riders, to over 15 thousand biker-friendly folks gathering together for a three-day biker carnival.
The intrepid Steel Horse Audio crew rode from Atlanta down to Gibtown and that meant logging around 470 miles to get there. Naturally, that also meant we needed tunes to accompany us. I was using Steel Horse Audio’s ST400 motorcycle speaker system on my Softail while my wife was using the ST200 classic system on her Dyna. Our friend Bill has a throaty exhaust on his Road King and went for the full boat ST600 Platinum speaker system to blast the sounds as we took the road south.
Upon arrival, it was hard not to notice that Gibtown is a smaller rally compared to many. Size wise it compares to some campground rallies I’ve attended. However, this is where Gibtown’s experience shines bright. In about the same space, there are more vendors, more stages (inside and out), stunt shows, sideshows, three ride-in bike shows, a Harley dealer tent filled with all the new models along with tons of used bikes for sale and a learn to ride experience. Add to that a full size carnival-style Ferris wheel and a helicopter pad for rides along the Alafia River. It’s plain to see these guys have been doing this a while. And not just here at Bike Fest.
As we studied the layout and schedule for the weekend’s festivities, a blaring announcement, with an old fashioned carny flair, echoed throughout the property, summoning the masses to view the crazy stunt antics of Johnny Rockett’s Cycle Circus Stunt Show Spectacular. It didn’t take long for the small space in front of the Circus Big Top facade to get packed elbow-to-elbow. While the Ringmaster bellowed to his audience, a giant clown face that provided the backdrop for the whole scene, started belching BMX and motocross riders. They promptly took flight and started flipping and flying through the air in true X- games fashion. A pretty young jester twirled on a makeshift high wire as three riders squeezed into the caged globe of death and fist bumped as they circled inside the cage in perfect syncopation.
As the Cycle Circus wound down their performance, a gentleman sporting a vintage pinstripes and derby getup, started barking, “Come see the freaks, fire breathers and the headless women” attempting to steal the crowd before they headed back toward the bar. Just a few yards away from him sat a wrestling ring with two oversized behemoths engaging in a WWE-style smack down. It was quickly apparent that Gibtown isn’t your typical bike rally.
Local and national bands put on outstanding performances this year. DeCarlo with Tommy DeCarlo, current front man for legendary rock band Boston, put on a spectacular show on Friday and Great White drew a big crowd as Saturday’s headliner. Local favorites Bobby Friss and The Greg Billings Band were joined by The Black Ties, Come Back Alice, Dirt Road Rodeo, Stonegrey along with a dozen other artists rounded out the weekend’s musical entertainment schedule.
Speaking of music and sound, Bill entered the loudest stereo contest and smoked the competition thanks to his ST600’s 900watt Rockford Fosgate motorcycle amp and four super clear Kicker motorcycle speakers. No brag, just fact. Day three brought us the master builder awards, one last chance for a go around on that Ferris Wheel and the bold southern country rock sounds of Soul Circus Cowboys sent everyone on their way with some renewed bounce in their step.