History of Laconia Motorcycle Week
(The Gypsies) During parades and rides of the pre-World War 1 period , flags like this (17″x8″ with a 2′ pole) were mounted on the handlebars of early Harleys and Indians. This particular flag came from a 40-mile rally from Greenfield, Indiana to Greensburg, Indiana, on the historic Indiana National Road.
1916 was the very first year of the Laconia rally, but it was an unofficial gathering of about 150 riders.
In 1917, the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) sanctioned its first official Gypsy Tours. A Gypsy Tour was an overnight event, with organized road rides and other activities of interest to motorcycle enthusiasts, where groups of riders would converge on a favorite destination. The term Gypsy was used because the riders would travel long distances, and often sleep in tents around a campfire along the way, much like the Hollywood stereotype. Gypsy Tours were held in various parts of the country, and typically occured on the same weekend every year. The “National” Gypsy Tour referred to the whole series of these events.
The purpose of the Gypsy Tours was to provide a good time for the riders, and favorable publicity for their sport. An article in the June, 1922 of the Harley-Davidson Enthusiast detailed these goals as follows :
First—To promote good fellowship among the riders of all makes of motorcycles and to give them a pleasure tour worth talking about until the time for the next annual tour rolls around.
Second—To give the general public a convincing demonstration of the practical transportation and pleasure possibilities of the motorcycle. The more tours there are and the more riders there are in each tour, the more effective the demonstration will be.
For Laconia, 1917 was considered the “First Annual” Gypsy Tour, even though an informal, unofficial gathering the year before had preceded it. Below, a photo of the 1917 rally. The rally came to be known as the New England Gypsy Tour.
PLAN BIG EVENT • Motorcyclists Are to Go on Gypsy Tours • Arrangements Made for Trips on June 17 next
What is expected to be the greatest open event of motorcycling history has been arranged by motorcycle manufacturers and dealers, in cooperation with motorcycle clubs, in all parts of the country, for June 16 and 17. The event will be national in scope and will embody tours starting from every city and town of any importance.
The name Gypsy Day Tours, which has been chosen for the event, is thoroughly descriptive, as the plan is for the riders to strike out from their various starting points and tour to places of interest. It is expected that on the days in question, the country will be crossed and criss-crossed in all directions by companies of motorcyclists participating in this National event.
In organizing the tours the country has been divided into six sections, each section under the general supervision of one of the the principal motorcycle factories. These sections have in turn been divided into smaller sections, each with headquarters in a city or town from where one of the tours will start, and each in charge of a tour manager who is prominent in local motorcycling affairs.
In conducting these tours every effort will be made to arrange them in a manner that will insure general motorcycling pleasure and comfort for the novice as much as for the seasoned rider. The pace throughout will be moderate and the length of the trips will not be extended unreasonably. It is the aim of the tour managers to gain the participation of every motorcyclist in their territory, regardless of whether he is an old or a new rider.
Registration for the tours is already progressing rapidly and marked enthusiasm is being shown by riders in all six sections into which the country has been divided. Considerable friendly rivalry has sprung up as to which section will make the best showing for the event, and this rivalry has been deepened by a similar friendly contest between the tour managers in the different sections, each manager trying to obtain for his district a better representation than can be shown by his brother managers in neighboring cities.
Joe Campbell, who has been appointed tour manager for this district, is therefore anxious to make the tour which will start from here larger and better than those from our neighboring cities and towns. Every local motorcyclist is invited to register for the tour and Mr. Campbell will be glad to give full information to all who will get in touch with him at 15 Harcourt St, or complete information can be had from any motorcycle dealer in Greater Boston.
A “secret” brake test would be conducted by a race official “…secreted in the bushes and with him was a green flag. As a rider would come up to this point, the official would wave the green flag, which was the signal for the rider to down brakes and come to a stop…Quite a few contestants succeeded in fulfilling all of the conditions of this test, although some of them failed because they had but one idea and that was to get to the next checkpoint as soon as possible……after a time some of the country boys got wise to the situation, and in the goodness of their hearts backed down the road a bit and notifed each approaching rider that there was danger ahead in the person of the official and his green flag…the result was that the official had to give it up at this point and try the secret brake test elsewhere..”
Typically, the “survivors”, those who were able to complete the endurance run, received bronze medals; riders with high, but not perfect scores, received silver medals; while the riders achieving perfect scores received gold medals. The rider with not only a perfect score but also the “most consistent riding” and/or “neatest appearance” would receive the coveted diamond award.
Some endurance runs, such as the New York-Chicago, were as long as 1200 miles. With the typically absurdly low speed limits in effect at the time (20mph country and 10mph city) these runs could last for over a week! Clearly it was not just a race, but a skills challenge, with not only riding skills but maintenance skills involved as well!
Motorcycle manufacturers would tout their machines favorable finishes in these endurance runs as a sign of the high performance and reliability of their products.
In later years, “Merit” or “Tour” awards supplanted the Perfect Score award. The newer awards were given out for some other reason than points in an endurance run – perhaps, some combination of attendance at the individual Gypsy Tours, ridership skills, and appearance. In 1952, the award – a glass ashtray – was simply given away to anyone who registered at the AMA booth at any Gypsy Tour and showed their AMA membership card. As the amount of metal and workmanship in the award declined, from elaborate belt buckles and watch fobs, to simpler, less expensive items like patches and pins, the awards became souvenirs, sold to anyone with the cash.
During its 16 years of existence, the FAM achieved many of its objectives: “…to encourage the use of motorcycles and to promote the general interests of motorcycling; to ascertain, defend and protect the rights of motorcyclists; to facilitate touring; to assist in the good roads movement; and to advise and assist in the regulation of motorcycle racing and other competition in which motorcycles engage.”
An article from the March 13, 1919 issue of the Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated magazine detailed the objectives and rules for the Gypsy Tours. The objectives were first, “to provide a good time for the riders, and theirs wives, sisters, and sweet-hearts”; and second, “to create a more favorable public opinion of the motorcycle and motorcycle riders.”
These early Gypsy Tours were quite organized, almost in military fashion, with a “Tour Master” and two aides leading a large group of riders sectioned into “companies” of 10 riders and a captain; and “pathfinders” scouting out and marking the route up ahead. The riders wore visible numbers and were supposed to ride in numerical order, with the sidecars taking up the rear of the company. The riders were also required to carry documentation; these “checking cards” were reviewed each morning by the Tour Master or his aides.
It is interesting to note that in 1919, a good day’s ride was considered to be between 75 and 100 miles; today, that same distance can be covered in a little less than two hours.
My Lady’s Gypsy Tour Observations
By “Ione”, Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated, July 17, 1919
An abrupt plunge into the sport of motorcycling which speedily converted me to as eager an enthusiast as any of the scores of girls who may be seen on New England roads either in a sidecar, or perched behind the driver, was the recent 150-mile Gypsy tour from Springfield, Mass, to “The Weirs”, N.H. Admittedly an amateur whose qualms regarding both the pleasure and safety of such travel were yet to be overcome, and without any preliminary about-town riding to allay such uncertainties, anticipation of the long trip were slightly ringed with doubts as to its real enjoyment. Once on the road, however, with the speed of the brand new Indian, the “feel” at the power which took me up hill as if the engine itself were enjoying the climb, and the consciousness that “v-twin” couldn’t be beat in good order to any we might have, swept away everything but intense enjoyment of the ride.
Just From the Factory
Our machine was just out of the factory, gorgeous red in color, equipped with all modern improvements, including a little top for the side car which allayed all doubts in my mind of the efficiency of the outfit; regardless of a few pessimistic suggestions from friend husband that the new motor might not run well. He had come home a few nights previous to the date of starting at the Gypsy Tour with the cycle, and a few short hours of riding about town, where the traffic and the dust gave little hint of the joys of the open road, were my last introduction to motorcycle riding.
The long trip came as a revelation. After watching threatening storm clouds at intervals during the night before, we found the weather still threatening at 5 o’clock Sunday morning; but as the rain was not falling we made the start.
“We must elect ourselves honorary members of the Neat Riders Club” Friend Husband had said when the machine arrived, and with that in mind, a neat khaki suit, which in other days had done duty in the less exciting sport of biking, was taken from its box, and quite the newest thing in riding booties was purchased from the store.
The Route of the Tour
Our route lay through Worcester, Fitchburg into Nashua, N.H. and from there to Concord and Laconia, and there to “The Weirs”. Springfield was the most distant point from which any riders undertook the tour, and all but three machines made the start and hummed along at 40 miles an hour to the first rendezvous in Worcester, where the tour actually began, as far as members are concerned. Considerable secret worry on my part lest I should be the only girl in our party, for the rest of the riders from Springfield were men, was greatly relieved upon reaching this first stop to find several women accompanying the drivers. From this point until the hotel was reached, the number of riders swiftly increased, and at Nashua the big contingent from Boston made an appearance.
We plugged along at a slow and steady pace, allowing swift speedsters as felt the necessity to rush along the road with throttles open, go by us at will and were rewarded for forbearance by overtaking these same speedsters at intervals busily engaged in making repairs by the roadside. The ride through the early evening air, through cities, past farm houses, along smooth state roads or ordinary dirt roads, was truly exhilarating, quite different from any other sport which I had ever undertaken. But one objectionable feature entered the trip to “The Weirs”. This was the tar which was thrown up by the wheels while riding along freshly oiled roads.
The good fellowship of all riders was one of the most vivid experiences made upon me. Any rider who passed us or whom we passed, invariably offered a salute, a wave of his hand, or a shout, rarely neglecting some sort of greeting. This was true not only of the members of the tour, but of local pleasure riders in every village and city, who most politely directed us on our way. So fast sped the miles and so swiftly the hours of the ride, that we seemed to be eternally stopping for gas and oil, though I was repeatedly assured that we covered 40 miles to a gallon in our sidecar machine.
Aa enthusiasm for the sport increased, I watched the various outfits with interest, and noted that they were as many in variety as the sections of the country from which they came. It was not the variety of machines, for all the standard makes were there in equal numbers, but the getups of the individual outfits which showed how a motorcycle can be made to almost all requirements. A good many were sidecar outfits, like our own; equally many were solo machines, and still others were provided with a seat in back of the driver for a passenger. But such oddities as the outfit by a Quincy, Mass dealer, where a man rode on the right and a girl on the left of the machine proper; in a specially designed seat over which a large umbrella was placed, offered delightful diversions in the ridership of the general type. Our outfit, painted like a checkerboard, made a gay splash on the landscape as it dashed by.
A first view of “The Weirs” was a sight to make one gasp. We were among the late arrivals, owing to some slight difficulties with our machines, and as we drove into view of the lake and the hotel where the tourists were staying, hundreds of motorcyclists were to be seen parking in the roadway before it, while fully 500 men and girls, in as outlandish a set of costumes as I ever hope to see, were striding among them.
My sense of modesty which I had always prided myself was broad, certainly was strained at some of the costumes which girl riders had seen fit to don. Of course, the way was long, and dainty clothing even for sidecar riders was impossible, but as in every other sport, some of the women had seen fit to go to the extreme of manliness. Scores of women who came in sidecars were fittingly arrayed in khaki suits or dark clothing, as nearly dustproof as possible, and many of the girls who rode astride behind the driver had found divided skirts were comfortable.
Modesty is Strained
Fully 50 of the girl riders, however, had put on trousers for the occasion. Not the neat riding costume with petties and long coats, which horseback riders make use of, but out and out army trousers and special leggings, with a sweater for a blouse, and topped by a rakish cap. No doubt these togs were comfortable on the road, but two nights and portions of three days were spent at the “The Weirs”, and such clothing had to be worn without change throughout this time. Imagine girls in trousers and petties upon the dance floor! Yet dancing was the principal diversion of the evening hours. In the dining room, as well, trousers were in evidence. Of course, such an outfit made its appeal to comparatively few, but criticism not only by other women and of the men on the tour was voiced, but guests who were not motorcyclists found in such clothing a point of criticism against the entire sport.
Ready for Home
However, in mid-forenoon, the sun burst forth while the rain was still falling, and in a trice, everyone was packed up and ready to start for home. Except for frequent small showers, the journey back to Springfield was uneventful, and I arrived in town feeling very much a veteran motorcyclist and altogether delighted with our craft and the sport.
In 1991, the term Gypsy Tour was officially revived by the AMA. However, by that time the individual events had all gone their own way in naming themselves. In 1953, or perhaps even earlier, Laconia first called its event ” Motorcycle Week”, and that term has stuck to the current day.
The various Motorcycle organizations, and vendors who came to these events, have been selling souvenirs since the earliest years of the Laconia rally. Souvenirs specifically marked “Laconia” can be seen here. Many other souvenirs were marked “Gypsy Tour” but were not tagged with the Laconia name. These generic souvenirs were sold not only at the Laconia rally but at other Gypsy Tours as well. For a historical look at many more generic AMA Gypsy Tour souvenirs, dating from the 1925 watch fob seen below to the present, please click here. For more about the history of the AMA, please click here.
Even though the back of the 1925 reward was engraved with the words “Perfect Score”, no “Perfect Score” in an endurance run was required. The June, 1925 Harley Davidson Enthusiast magazine noted that the 1925 award would be presented to any registered AMA rider or sidecar passenger who completed the Gypsy Tour. The award was also versatile. As noted, “…If you do not care to use it as a fob, then file away the strap loop and you have a dandy emblem, provided with three holes to mount on your motorcycle or sidecar.”
Everybody’s Going –Are You? “SURE–LET”S GO! To pique riders interest, a variety of events are held. A September 1-2, 1935, Pomona CA Gypsy Tour program lists regular races and hill climbs, plus Ladies Three Legged Race, Kick the Can Race, Austrian Pursuit Race, Boots and Cap Race, Barrel Race, assorted “Dig Out” Races, and awards for Neatest Looking Rider and Machine; Oldest Rider at Rally; Oldest Machine Ridden To and From Rally; and Longest Distance Rider.
Another promotional Gypsy Tour article in the Harley-Davidson Enthusisast magazine by writer “Uncle” Hap Hayes
In 1938 motorcycle racing began at the Belknap Mountain Recreation area in Gilford. Fritzie Baer, who was instrumental in bringing the race to Laconia from Old Orchard, stands hidden, 3rd from the left. The 1938 National Championship race was unusual in several respects. It was the first official Laconia race. It was the only 200 mile race ever held at Laconia. And it was held in September rather than the usual June. The “TT”, captioned in the photo, literally means Tourist Trophy and was based on the Isle of Man TT race, an annual road course motorcycle race that began in 1907, and which is still the most well-known and challenging road race held in Europe.
Official 1939 program cover and (incomplete) list of racers.
The rally became tightly associated with the racing in Gilford because of the many non-race activities that took place at the Belknap Recreation Area in the late 40’s and 50’s. Now, only a very small percentage of motorcyclists who visit Laconia for the rally actually attend the races, now located in Loudon.
Official program and list of racers
World War II. There was no Gypsy Tour in Laconia.
1943 – 1945
World War II. There were no Gypsy Tours anywhere in the USA.
Gypsy Tours Top the Sports Program for Motorcycling Enthusiasts (from Indian Motorcycle News, May-June, 1946 issue)
The fun and excitement … awaits motorcycle riders at Gypsy Tours all over the country….for motorcycle fans this Gypsy Tour proposition is no mere rumor…it’s the real thing. Take that event up at Laconia, New Hampshire, being planned by the New England Dealers’ Association on June 22 and 23. It’s another of those big two-day motorcycle programs dropped right in the middle of one of Nature’s real beauty spots.
Laconia could be typical of one phase of outdoor America, with an endless variety of scenic views, picturesque lowlands, ragged mountains, and inviting lakes. It’s ideal motorcycle travel country. Well-kept main roads help one cover the miles, and there are plenty of those winding, interesting roads so enjoyable on a motorcycle, where you can “bend” into a turn and come sweeping out of it to see a new panorama unfolded before you. Paugus Bay, part of Lake Winnipesaukee, sweeps up to the back door of Laconia, and from innumerable cottages around the lake there is swimming, boating, fishing, and the other tourist pleasures, such as the boardwalks at the Weirs, to lure the visitor.
Right in the middle of this setting we find a big banner, “A.M.A. Registration Booth”, being set up. The purr of an occasional motor builds up to the sound of hundreds as motorcyclists begin to arrive.
After registration, the tour calls for a field day at the Belknap Recreation Area. Field events on motorcycles and on foot, shoe scrambles, potato-grabbing contests for guys and gals, plank riding events, and stake races for the participating sportsmen, and all to the amusement of the crowd.
Saturday night, the big dance at the new Recreation Building, and awarding of trophies for the best dressed gal and the best dressed boy motorcyclist, to the girl and the boy riding a motorcycle the longest distance to attend the Tour, and to the best dressed club.
The competition riders have their meeting where final arrangements for the Championship Race are gone over, rules explained, and the all-important starting positions drawn. And at all times the echo of husky motorcycle engines bringing new riders into town, riders going here, going there, coming back, meeting old friends, and looking up the rest of the gang. It hardly ever quiets down.
Then Sunday! Some of the early birds out at the Belknap Area race course setting up their pits, taking a few laps just to get the “feel”, and checking the gear ratio and those vital brakes.
This year promises to be the biggest and best Gypsy Tour season of all, with all the gang just itching for action. More competition and bigger prizes to shoot for seems to be the keynote, and the New England event is right in line with a lusty purse of $2,5000 for the racing motorcyclist. There’s a 100-mile National Championship Road Race for Expert Riders, and for the new rider who feels he can whip his bike through the turns, up the straightaway and around the sweeping bend, and down the Belknap Hill just a little better than his buddy, there is a 25-mile Novice event in which he can win his spurs.
…And now to give that booklet about New Hampshire a good looking over. If you don’t mind a suggestion, drop a post card to the New Hampshire State Planning and Development commission, and ask them to send you a copy of the booklet and a map. You’ll be letting yourself in for the time of your life!
The article below, from the May/June 1947 issue of Indian Motorcycle News, is titled “Red Letter Days for Cyclists in ’47”. As the article notes, “Each year the motorcycling calendar has seen more and more important events being scheduled, and the old standbys increasing in scope and appeal…’Where to Go’ is no longer the cyclists’ question – it’s ‘Which one will we go to’!…The increasing popularity of motorcycle events can be attributed to the interesting and varied tours planned by clubs and dealer groups, and to the exciting professional motorcycle race shows which have attracted ever increasing crowds of spectators…The New England Tour, on June 21 and 22, more familiarly known as ‘Laconia’…is famed for its vacation attractions, such as mountains, lakes and rivers, with their respective sport possibilities, and you can always find something to do. Just riding your cycle around the excellent roads in the Laconia country is a treat that will give you a wonderful store of memories.”
The 1948 program below showed a drawn map of the race course. Also below, the May, 1959 issue of New England Cycle Sport described the aerial photo on its cover as “The World Famous One Mile Road Course at the Belknap Recreation Area, Laconia, NH, scene of the 1959 Gypsy Tour.” The photo is flipped in the opposite orientation of the 1948 program. The Band Stand is in the lower left of the photo, at one of the two “hairpin” corners of the race course. Photo by Norm Brady.
Note: There is some disagreement between the cover of the official program and the Mayor’s proclamation on page 1 of the program whether the 1953 event lasted for just the three days of June 19-21, or for the whole week of June 15-21. The 1953 guidebook listed only 3 days of official events, but clearly, the city of Laconia sought to entice Motorcycle visitors to stay over for the whole week.
In the foreword of the 1955 program, Fritzie Baer boasted, “There is no doubt in the minds of any motorcycle rider in the United States that Laconia today is synomonous with the greatest Gypsy Tour and motorcycle race to be held anyplace in the country.” Unlike today’s racing, limited only to professionals, Fritzie pointed out that “…This is a beautiful set up whereby the racing fraternity from the novice rider through the amateur and into the expert class all have an opportunity of racing on this world famous mountain track.”
Note: Once again, there was some disagreement between the cover of the official program and the Mayor’s proclamation on page 1 of the program whether the 1955 event lasted for just the three days of June 17-19, or for the whole week of June 13-19. We will go with the Mayor’s proclamation! Actually, the official guidebook tended to list only the days when actual racing was going on, even though the festivities stretched over a whole week. (In 1959, and then again in 1960, the Mayor’s official proclamation and the cover finally agreed.)
In 1956, at a cost of $16,000, the five-sided race course at Belknap was newly paved, thus providing the nationally known motorcycle racers and the AMA “a track that has no equal in the United States” -Fritzie Baer
The 1957 program featured on its front cover a poster child for the March of Dimes charity. The charity’s purpose was to raise money for polio research and to care for those suffering from the disease. The organizers of the 1957 rally hoped to raise a “Mile of Dimes”, equal to $7,392, for the charity. Even today, many charities raise funds during Motorcycle Week.
Despite this being the 43rd annual rally, rally organizers called this year the Silver Anniversary, as it had been 25 years since the first National Championship road race had been held at Belknap, in 1938. However, since no racing had occurred for the four years of World War II (from 1942-1945), this was actually the 22nd edition of the race.
Apparently, in 1964, there was no motorcycle rally, at least from an official point of view. There was definitely no motorcycle race. The 1963 guide, above, was for the 43rd annual tour, while the 1965 guide, below, was for the 44th annual tour. Perhaps the reason was the lack of a race course.
Racing had begun in 1938 at the Belknap Recreation Area with a 200-mile course. From 1939-1963, a 100-mile National Championship road race was held every year at Belknap (except during the war years from 1942-1945, when racing was suspended.) In 1965, the first motorcycle race at the Bryar Motorsports Park in Loudon, NH took place. Racing has continued at this location until the present day. In 1990, when the old Bryar racetrack was replaced by the New Hampshire International Speedway, the first professional race held at the newly opened facility was the 67th Annual Loudon Classic, held on June 17 of that year. On November 2, 2007 the track was purchased by Speedway Motorsports Inc. and renamed the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Loudon Classic now occurs on the first Sunday of Motorcycle Week.
Little did the rally organizers know what was in store for them during 1965, the year of the infamous Weirs Beach riot. Or perhaps they did. Anticipating trouble that year, a week before the rally, two state laws were enacted. One allowed police to arrest riders loitering in groups of 3 or more, while another provided for fines up to $1000 and imprisonment up to 3 years for persons who led a disturbance or caused property damage during a riot. Also, a contingent of 200 National Guardsmen were stationed nearby the downtown Weirs Beach area. This set the stage for such a tinderbox atmosphere that perhaps the 1965 riot was inevitable.
The effort included several bold moves. Among them were restricting traffic and parking on Lakeside Avenue to Motorcycles only, which began in 1993; new traffic patterns to smooth the traffic flow; lengthening the rally from a weekend-only event back to a full week (the length the rally had been in the 1950’s); scheduling many new events; and reviving the publication of an official guidebook and widely increasing its distribution. The bold moves paid off, increasing rally attendance from around 50,000 Motorcyclists in 1990 to over 350,000 today.
LENGTH IN DAYS
An informal gathering of about 150 riders at Weirs Beach precedes the 1st officially sanctioned “Gypsy Tour”
|*In 1918, the National Gypsy Tour occurred on Saturday & Sunday, June 15-16; but in Laconia, the Bay State Motorcycle Club (see the photo above), did not drive up until Sunday, and returned on Monday.|
|* National Tour Date; Laconia date unknown.|
|* National Tour Date; Laconia date unknown.|
|1953||June 19-21||33rd||3 (or 7**)||Fri-Sun|
|1955||June 17-19||35th||3 (or 7**)||Fri-Sun|
What is the rule for determining future Motorcycle Week dates?
There is a popular misconception that Motorcycle Week always ends on Father’s Day weekend. While this is generally true, it is not always the case. Since the event became a two-weekend event, the actual rule for determining Motorcycle Week dates is as follows:
Motorcycle Week always begins on the second FULL weekend of June.
In years when June 1st lands on a Sunday, the weekend of May 31-June 1 is not a full weekend, but the weekend of June 7-8 is, so the event will start a week later than normal, resulting in Motorcycle Week beginning on Father’s Day weekend rather than ending with it. When June 1st lands on any day other than Sunday, Motorcycle Week will end on Father’s Day weekend, as usual.
In recent years, in 2008 and 2014, June 1st was on a Sunday, and the event started on Father’s Day weekend. (In 2003, June 1st was also on a Sunday, but the event ended on Father’s Day weekend. However, the event began so early in June there were complaints, so the new rule came into effect.)
1988 & 1989
(Gypsy Tour Patches). In 1988-89 the Laconia Rally was known as Motorcycle Weekend. This was the next to last year before the Rally resumed to a full week-long event.