World Center of Racing, Daytona Beach | Megaphone

It was 20 years ago today ...

Like the subhead says, it had been precisely 20 years since my last visit to the World Center of Racing, Daytona Beach, Florida, during Bike Week. A couple of months before the '06 event, El jefe grande Boehm thought it might be edifying if I took a look-see to find out if anything had changed with the passage of two decades, and then, if I had the requisite still-functioning gray cells, to write a column about it.

Well, of course, things had changed. Nothing stays the same that long except for maybe a bad marriage and alimony. There was one particularly noticeable difference, however, that stood out in sharpest relief against the background of my last trip to the Sunshine State, and of any other motorcycle race or rally in the nation. It wasn't just the massive increase in the clone armies of identically black-clad, unsmiling and grotesquely unskilled riders, either.

It was the "Bikers Welcome!" signs.

There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, in front of every hotel/motel/no-tell, from the oceanfront Luxo Lodge to the Side O' Sea; every 7-Eleven, every classy restaurant, every upscale yuppie tavern and every Main Street dive had them too. "Bikers Welcome!"

Let me assure you, I do know the difference between bikers and motorcyclists. Perhaps the owners of Daytona's otherwise enlightened businesses don't. But I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Besides, if all you've got out front is a little two-row sign that barely holds 18 letters per row, then it has to be "Bikers Welcome," not "Motorcyclists Welcome." Either way, I can tell you I have never seen such wholesale acceptance-no, welcoming-from any other city, town, burg or hamlet in this whole country.

Unless you have a pretty long motorcycling history, the signs might not seem particularly remarkable. But for the older, wizened, arthritic and perpetually rheumy among us, such signs, let alone such a multiplicity of them, strain credulity to near-oblivion.

Because after 1953-when Marlon Brando's The Wild One came out-we motorcyclists used to scare people dribbly without doing anything. We didn't have to be legitimate bad guys like '60s-era Hells Angels or their archenemies the Bandidos. Anyone astride the plainest, most mild-mannered Honda CB350 could pull up next to a civilian at an otherwise deserted stoplight, and the driver would look the rider up and down ... and then pointedly lock the doors. Some businesses wouldn't let us in their doors if we were wearing a full-face helmet. We had to take it off completely, and sometimes even show them our driver's license so they could properly I.D. us later in the police lineup after we'd robbed their till, pistol-whipped them within an inch of their life, killed any witnesses and raped the cat on our way out ...

Over the years, that attitude got mighty old. It appeared as if the stigma from The Wild One-the first feature film to look at outlaw motorcycle gangs in the U.S., and which led to the demonization of every motor-cyclist-would never fade away. But apparently the process has started. Some of us thought we'd never see the day.

Now, you can entertain whatever theory you think is behind this fundamental shift in attitude toward us. I certainly have a few ideas of my own. Right now, though, I'd rather bask in the recent memory of it all. I'd like to Feel the Love again, as they say.

Mind you, I'm under no illusions about this newfound attitude being able to sweep the nation, or that it lasted particularly long after the last race on Saturday, the 200, got the checkers. But it was a rare, totally unexpected and exceedingly pleasant feeling to be welcomed-and by people's attitudes too, not just by a bunch of signs-most every place I went, just because I ride a motorcycle.

Maybe-just maybe-I won't want to wait another 20 years before I go back.