The Dirtbag Challenge – there’s nothing like it: nichts, nada, Ничего. To my knowledge (a modest caveat) this moto-happening in the San Francisco Bay area has no counterpart, anywhere. Also known as the “Low Rent Chopper Build Off,” it’s a high-octane blast.
The “challenge” is simply stated: build a motorcycle, in a month’s time, for less than one grand, and then ride it 90 miles. Simple to say, not so easy to do. But just that challenge has attracted 20 to 30 participants every year for nearly a decade and unleashed the imagination and creativity of folks not blessed with the budget of, say, Orange County Choppers. Speaking of the OCC, there’s an exclusion clause in this otherwise inclusive event – noHarleys. It’s there to level the playing field, with no offense intended. Judging by the number of Harley riders who show up for the Dirtbag post-ride party, there’s none taken.
The Dirtbag was born in a bull-session 12 years ago when Poll Brown and friends were hanging out in their shop in the gritty industrial barrio that is Hunters Point and lamenting what they were seeing on the tube – the big-bucks build off. “Why couldn’t we do something just as good, more fun, and much cheaper – like build a chopper in two weeks for under five hundred?” That was the first Challenge, and it produced four bikes, three of which ran. They did it again a year later and had six bikes. When the limits were increased to a month and $1,000, the event really took off. Brown, the remaining founder, has never looked back, though at times he grumbles about organizational headaches as the Dirtbag’s reputation has grown.
October 16, 2014 – a notice goes out on Facebook that this year’s Challenge will be on November 16: start building. While the event is typically in the fall, the exact date is kept secret and announced only one month in advance. By 9am on this lovely Sunday morning there are bikes scattered around, outside Turk’s shop on Revere Street, leaning against forklifts, storage containers, razor wire, and abandoned machinery – the same conditions in which the Dirtbag was born. Just before 10am, Poll climbs on top of a loader and sets everybody straight in the blunt language of his English working-man’s heritage.
“Ride your own ride. Be safe. Keep in a pack. Look at what the guys in front of you are doing because their brake lights and all that shit probably don’t work worth fuck. Half these bikes only have one brake and …” Lesson over, 24 registered Dirtbags line up and head down Revere Street in a cloud of smoke, emoting sturm und drang, to exit the City for the Pacific Coast Highway south.
Well, not everybody exits the City. Attrition sets in early for a few bikes that were finished in the wee hours and are now on their first test run. Just past 3rd street a two-stroke pulls over, coughing and spitting. Farther on, an Easy-Rider knock-off chopper is on the side of the freeway with a cluster of helpful riders on their knees peering at the motor. Down the coast, just south of Pacifica, Brian Wright’s ’81 Yamaha XS650 chopper is on the side of the road and he’s fumbling with his cell phone. Ran out of gas! On a ‘low-rent’ ride, there’s no chase truck.
At the Pescadero grocery and gas-up store, where the route turns north back to the City, 17 surviving Dirtbags are congratulating themselves and are looking over each other’s creations. The infant mortality phase is over, at least for most of them. From here it’s inland, up into the Peninsula hills to the next stop, at Alice’s Restaurant, and then back to Hunters Point and Quesada Street where the party is already in progress in a vacant courtyard between two warehouses.
Around 2pm we hear them coming down Quesada, approaching thousands of people milling in the street. Poll, in the lead, slices through the crowd, parting it like Moses in the Red Sea. The Dirtbags all park against one wall. Smoke rises from the first burnout.
Beer, bands and burnouts pretty much sums up the rest of the day, which continues well past sunset. Beer is not sold at this event, but a $5 donation gets you a pint of something good in a plastic cup. The bands play on a makeshift stage, flanked by banks of industrial-strength speakers raised on steel racks that do not shake when the beefy amps hit their limit. Some six bands, with names like Swamp Angels, Büezlung, Thee Merry Widows, Whiskey Pills, Fiasco and Party Force, offer up a steady diet of punk rock and are scheduled so that volume and level of angry sound gradually increases as the afternoon wears on. Earplugs are necessary, but hardly sufficient if you are standing within 100 feet of the booming black boxes. Conversation? Fugeddit.
At the Dirtbag, burnout becomes art. There’s the up-against-the-wall mode, which has the advantage that the “rider” doesn’t have to worry about the bike mowing down spectators if it should get away from him. He can focus on producing maximum heat, smoke, smell, and the utter destruction of the rear tire in record time. The donut or circular burnout has its own drama, as it’s performed center-courtyard within a large ring of people holding up smartphones in video mode. Concentration and finesse are required to complete 360 degrees without a glitch. One photographer gets too close to the action and the pipe of the rotating bike smacks his fish-eye lens. The straight-pipe decibels of a burnout compete with those from the bands, so they request that burnouts be performed between rather than during their numbers.
The party brings together an eclectic mix of Bay Area motorcycle aficionados and freaks, making people-watching a major activity. Persons of all ages, from pre-schoolers to greyed geezers, all sizes, shapes, and hair color are to be seen and savored, attired in all manner of protective to hardly-protective gear. The ladies do inspire, and alternative model Ashley Russel, a Dirtbag regular, is resplendent in her finest fish-net and black electrical-tape pasties. And some of the bikes brought by the partygoers are as eyebrow-elevating as the Dirtbags’ choppers. We spot a 50cc mini sidecar rig buzzing through the crowd and a Craig Vetter streamliner looking for a parking spot.
The variety of people is matched by the diversity of Dirtbag bikes, which ranges from mechanical inspiration to innovative recycling to wacky folk art. That’s the beauty of it all. Starting with a donor bike’s motor and wheels (typically ’70s and ’80s vintage), the Dirtbag aspirant can make whatever suits his or her fancy, is mechanically possible, and comes in under the $1K budget. Hell, there are bikes here that cost less than a hundred bucks – and look it.
Prizes are awarded in a variety of categories, such as cleverest, prettiest, sketchiest, coolest, all the way to “people’s choice.” With the exception of the last, only Dirtbag participants vote for determining the winners – peer review in finest form. The trophies themselves are works of art – motorcycle helmets festooned with objects such as an enormous light bulb, a circular saw blade, a paintbrush, a planetary gear from a truck differential, and brake rotor. The winners are ecstatic, with Julian Farnam and Duff Ryan doubly so because they each carried off two trophies. For Duff, a first-time Dirtbagger, this is through the roof.
The crowd thins after the awards are presented and it’s getting quite dark. But the band keeps going, beer keeps flowing, and shenanigans of various sort commence: there’s a drag race between Casey Miller’s Suzuki-powered Dirtbag and a spectator’s Honda CBR. Someone sets off skyrockets and cherry bombs. You get the picture.
An amazing event, the Dirtbag Challenge – it builds a community among motorcyclists that’s hard to match. It’s a big crowd today, but polite and friendly. Nobody gets hurt, everybody has a good time, and the SFPD gives a friendly wave during a slow drive-by. A bunch of derelict motorcycles are resurrected and now live in new, custom bodies. Pretty awesome? Totally cool? You pick the superlative, because picking the best one is a real challenge.