The streets are roaring. At a corner near 17th Avenue Northwest and Leary Way in Ballard, bikes are rolling in—1970s Hondas, chrome-plated Harleys, Italian imports, new and old Triumphs, and custom three-wheeled creations fill the parking slots along a four-block stretch. As the low-hanging sun slowly slides toward the horizon on this late-July evening, the air fills with the smell of gasoline and beer. At the epicenter of it all is a blood-orange tent where three men are selling T-shirts off the hanger and handing pocket-sized pamphlets to anyone who shows interest as rock music plays from speakers. The night is loud and only getting louder.
It’s been seven years since Todd Werny, Sean Westlake, and Sean Dunlap started the Backfire Motorcycle Night, and each month it has gotten bigger. Originally a gathering of 30 or so bikes, the experiment has grown to become a 500-rider spectacle, the third Wednesday of each month. The original idea was simple enough: find a place where riders and admirers of cafe racers, rat racers, and all other aspects of vintage motorcycle culture could come together, talk shop, and share stories over a cold pint. No vendors. No lights. No corporate influence of any kind—just a group of men and women with a common interest in the culture that comes with riding an old customized bike here in the Pacific Northwest.
The romanticized image of the rebel astride a motorcycle still weighs heavily in the American narrative. There is Marlon Brando sweeping through a small town with a gang of Wild Ones in leather jackets and welding boots and the legions of lawbreakers from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, with Sons of Anarchy perpetuating the outlaw image for a new generation.
Bethany Maddox admires a bike. Photo by Todd Werny
Yet in the past 30 years, this anti-establishment symbol, like so many others, has softened. What once existed as a hallmark of hell-raising has turned into just another way of getting from Point A to Point B, a luxury item even for some to glide through a midlife crisis. Talk to the people who gather at Backfire, though, and they will quickly tell you a more complex story. Riding a motorcycle, any motorcycle, still very much represents freedom—from oneself and from others. There’s no other way of saying it. The moment you get on a bike, turn the throttle, and feel your weight shift from neutral to rear, you understand, they say. There is still a liberty in the motorcycle; all it takes to unlock it is a twitch of the wrist.
Who are these new rebels that roar into Ballard each month? Well, they are often younger and hipper than what many believe a motorcycle enthusiast to be. The difference between this new bike culture and the old was what brought the whole thing together for Backfire’s founders, who intended the event for riders of cafe racers.
Cafe racers, typically lightweight with small engines that can be self-wrenched in the rider’s own garage, aren’t just motorcycles. They are statements. Originally designed as a means of getting from one British cafe to another as fast as possible, cafe bikes today are seen as a symbol of solidarity to Seattle’s alternative communities.
“I met all my friends through motorcycles,” Werny says. “I met my wife through motorcycles. And not just any, but vintage and modified cafe bikes.” This isn’t an uncommon tale. Contemporary cafe culture is above all a culture of socializing. It exists not for the sake of the machines, but for what the machines do for their owners, enabling them to identify and stay in contact with others like them around the city.
Entrance into this community comes with a price, though.
For Peter Sundt, a newcomer to Backfire, the cost is clear: “Motorcycles want to kill you.” Understanding this reality is a requisite for any committed rider, but it’s the rider’s duty to do everything to make it not come true. And for vintage motorcyclists, the act of preserving the self starts with preserving the machine.
Riding a bike older than yourself is like being married to someone with amnesia: You’re familiar with your bike; you are comfortable with its temperament and preferences. But you can never be sure just how it’s going to react to your presence on any given day. Old bikes are complicated. They don’t follow rules. When they start in the morning, you’re elated. When they break down in the evening, you must be patient and understanding. That’s the difference between riders of vintage bikes and those who just bought them off the lot—vintage bikes have a way of teaching riders about themselves.
“You gotta learn to trust yourself” when riding an old bike, says Dunlap. “You gotta also learn to be patient and learn to go through your routine.” This routine is the one thing all riders who wrench their own bikes share. Sometimes it’s as simple as checking to make sure your tire pressure is on point. Other times it’s going twice over each and every bolt to verify that the previous day’s tinkering won’t get you an overnight stay at Harborview.
The relationship between rider and vintage bike is based on mutual respect; you need the bike just as much as the bike needs you. Without one, the other not only fails, it doesn’t get to live as it should. It is this aspect that the founders say they wanted to honor, creating a space for the grease-soaked home mechanic with the 1950’s Indian and the kid with the stripped-down, built-for-speed Japanese Honda CB-350—the quintessential cafe racer—to both have a place to go and share stories of life and parts.
“I didn’t want to make my dad’s motorcycle event,” says Dunlap. “I wanted to make my own.”
Backfire founders (left to right) Sean Dunlap, Todd Werny, and Sean Westlake man the merch booth.
In its seven years, Backfire has grown well beyond the cafe racers. These days it’s a total hodgepodge, a collection of all things motorcycle, where the aesthetic of the cafe racer is still cherished but the reality has moved far beyond this original focus. While cafe bikes continue to mold Backfire’s ethic, riders are given the freedom to show up on anything they like. As varied as the bikes are the riders themselves: old, young, male, female, black, brown, white, outlaw, yuppie, artist. Nothing gets left behind.
As I wander through Backfire’s four motorcycle-laden city blocks, I see riders in polished brown leather order drinks from barmaids in earrings the size of milk jugs. Of tonight’s four participating venues, not one is in short supply of thirsty customers. At The Shelter Lounge, the party is in full swing. It’s the same story down the street at Hilliard’s Brewery. Thanks to the abundance of flowing taps, open containers don’t seem to be a problem here—coolers remain at home and whiskey bottles in the liquor cabinet. Choosing the barstool over the sidewalk, riders and pedestrians alike happily patronize the surrounding venues throughout the evening. And with the exception of the man on the sidecar, who at the end of the rally takes it upon himself to perform wheelies for us few remaining spectators, there isn’t much in the way of grandstanding. Backfire is simply a collection of people who once a month find time in their busy schedules to come out, relax, and fawn over bikes of all varieties. The scene is a patchworks inspired by a century of cultures built around the motorized bike.
What Backfire does, greater than any monolithic motorcycle event, is allow a diverse group of people with a single interest to come together and bond over what they love most. Never mind if you ride up on a brand-new cruiser, a road-worn Harley, or a bare-bones, blacked-out 1973 Yamaha XS750: Backfire will give you a spot to park and a group to share a drink with.
Rat racer or polished cruiser, alone or in a pack, it’s all the same feeling of home. But when the sun goes down and the music turns minor, they all roll out.
Kyle Petterson has been attending Backfire since the beginning. His skin is bronzed and his muscles lean. In his professional life he works in waste management for the City of Seattle; in his personal life he’s a husband and father. I talk to him in the courtyard of Peddler Brewing Co., one of the event’s participating venues. He tells me it isn’t just the bikes that keep him returning to Backfire. Bikes are just bikes. Sure, they’re beautiful, and a hell of a good time to ride, and sound like a war march when you get a whole pack of them rolling down the road, but it was the instant respect that founder Westlake showed Petterson’s then-16-year-old son and his enthusiasm for vintage bikes that got the father hooked on Backfire culture.
“What they did was help my son understand different aspects of the bike,” Petterson says. Westlake in particular showed his son that bikes didn’t have to be big, testosterone-filled wild boars that cost $15,000. Through his own cafe bikes, Westlake and others like him show that bikes can be stripped-down and lightweight, yet still as fun to ride as the expensive choppers popularized in television and film.
Westlake is like that. He has a hyperactive way of getting others excited about whatever project he is working on. Be it The Fuse Box, his shoebox-size bar on Aurora just south of Woodland Park, or the newest Backfire T-shirt design, Westlake is sure to invite you along on his next creative undertaking whether you ask to or not. This enthusiasm is a holdover from his and the other founders’ days as members of Seattle’s underground music scene. And it’s contagious.
When Backfire first started, “We did everything you would have done to promote a show,” says Werny. This included flyering vintage bikes parked around town, stapling posters onto lampposts, and getting the word out both on MySpace and in person. From the deliberate absence of vendors to the intense focus on word-of-mouth promotion, this DIY approach has remained in the DNA of the event, even as it has grown into the large gathering it is today.
“The reason a lot of other events fail is ’cause all they are is vendors,” Werny says, referring to the businesses that usually proliferate at such events. “The whole idea of Backfire is that it’s about the bikes and the riders, not about the bike stores.”
That’s not to say vendors haven’t tried to tap into Backfire’s fan base. The event is, after all, the largest monthly cafe-racer-focused gathering in Seattle and perhaps the country. Vendors of everything from energy drinks to leather jackets to custom seats have attempted, and failed, to carve out a space for themselves. It’s usually the same story, Werny continues: People come from out of town and don’t do much research on the event, and when told to get lost do so begrudgingly but quickly enough.
At the end of the day, Backfire is a free event on public property and people can do what they want. But as Werny reminds me, it’s probably not in a vendor’s best interest to set up shop in the middle of everything even after they’ve been asked to leave.
“If you’re that good,” he adds, “show up on your bike and hand out business cards.” Let your fellow riders be the judge.
For all the good will and community Backfire brings to the streets of Ballard, there is also an ever-present, albeit minor, unease just below the surface. Outside what was once The 2 Bit Saloon, two dozen or so members of local Outlaw motorcycle clubs linger like wayward bees in leather jackets.
These are the types of bikers that drew scrutiny following a May shootout in Waco, Texas, between rival biker gangs that left nine bikers dead and 18 wounded. Afterward, television stations across the country—including here in Seattle—began to ask what possible menace lurked in local motorcycle culture.
They can be identified by a two-part patch stitched across their backs. The name of the club sits curved on top of the jacket, while the member’s locale is stitched onto the bottom. In the middle is usually an embroidered club-specific patch of some kind. For Outlaw clubs, the club-specific patch will be accompanied by both a smaller, diamond-shaped MC, an abbreviation for Motorcycle Club, as well as a patch containing “1%er”—a sign that the Outlaws are willing to skirt the regulations and expectations of the other 99 percent of motorcycle culture and society.
You’ll see these displays of tribalism stitched into either a black leather jacket or a faded blue denim vest. These signs provide the only information a person needs—or at least the only information a person is going to get, especially a reporter. Members of these clubs generally don’t talk to the press, and others at Backfire contend that the Outlaws tend to keep to themselves. The scene at Backfire on this Wednesday is no different: a group of men drinking beer and listening to music, with, at least from the outside, little more in common than the patches on their leather jackets and an appreciation for motorcycle culture—though not cafe racers, so much. These guys are partial to Harleys. The rest of the crowd, instead of making any noise about it and potentially ruining a good thing, chooses to just let it be. As Norton Norm, an old-timer in a weathered leather jacket, a matching pair of silver skull rings, and a perpetual cigarette between his choppy yellow fingernails, says, “They are minding their own business and not bugging anyone.”
According to Dunlap, himself the son of an Outlaw rider, Outlaw clubs have shown nothing but respect for him and other riders at the event since they started showing up. While some Backfire participants might complain to him from time to time about the lack of parking among the Outlaw bikes, or express general unease at their presence, to tell them they weren’t welcome would be no more acceptable than telling someone on a new Ducati to get lost. “I wouldn’t do that,” he says.
The seemingly remarkable Outlaws, then, are unremarkable: They keep to themselves, occasionally greeting one of their own with a hug or a smile, and everyone else proceeds to have a good time with or without them. Still, their presence is instructive: Clearly—and proudly—a minority, these outliers nevertheless continue to shape the general public’s opinion of bikers.
It’s now dusk and Backfire is winding down, the roar of bikes dwindling as taillights fade. I’m watching a tall man with a large blue-and-red Grateful Dead patch tell a story to a short man in the crowd. The storyteller is holding a leopard-print helmet underneath his right arm. He looks to be in his late 20s. His long hair is brown and his eyes are ready for anything. Like an impatient child, he is bopping up and down in place. He puts his helmet down and, arms outstretched, begins a pantomime. The short man looks on.
Fists clenched tightly, the tall man begins a road story: He is going down the highway. He is riding fast, his motorcycle cutting the air like a bullet shot from a cold barrel. He hits that sweet speed between fear and purpose. But then his bike begins to rattle. He grabs hold of the handlebars and attempts to steady the roller-coaster, but the bike keeps bumping. The short man looks on in anticipation, a wide smile on his face. The tall man continues, steering the bike through the speed rattle and into the safety of a highway pullout.
After a few seconds, the tall man lowers his arms and laughs in relief. The short man joins him. In the end, nothing happens—just another story of a close call. The moral, however, is that if you’re going to come out to Backfire Moto, you better bring something to offer—a story, a vintage bike, or just appreciation for the hard work of its three creators. Backfire is a culture of sharing. Without that, it’s not much more than a whole lot of crowded parking spots and a limited supply of barstools. Better come early.
The next Backfire Moto event is scheduled for Wednesday, August 19. See backfiremoto.com for info.