History of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Rally
The Laconia Motorcycle Week rally is often mentioned in the same breath as events in Daytona, Florida, and Sturgis, South Dakota. After all, these are three of the most popular motorcycle rallies in the country, drawing in over a million riders and motorcycle enthusiasts, combined, every year.
But Laconia (New Hampshire) can make a claim that the other two cannot. Often referred to as the Oldest National Motorcycle Rally, these roots reach back to the summer of 1916, when a Gypsy Tour gathered for several days at Weirs Beach on the southern shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.
In the early 1900s, Gypsy Tours were organized loosely and unofficially as a way for riders to gather and enjoy other related activities of interest including races and hill climbs. In other words, it was a way for motorcycle enthusiasts to share in their passions together. Each year, typically around the same summer weekend, riders would travel long distances, sleeping in tents and swapping stories around campfires, to converge on a favorite location. A year after the Gypsy Tour’s first Laconia stop, the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) made it official. Gypsy Tours became overnight events promoted by the like of Harley-Davidson and Indian, and that year, 1917, the first annual – the first official – Gypsy Tour was hosted at Weirs Beach in Laconia. And Weirs Beach remains the rally’s home base all these years later, affecteonality known by locals and visitors alike simply as the Weirs.
In an article from the March 13, 1919 issue of the Motorcycle and Bicycle Weekly magazine, the Gypsy Tours objectives and goals were detailed clearly: “To provide a good time for the riders, and their wives, sisters, and sweet-hearts” and “To create a more favorable public opinion of the motorcycle and motorcycle riders.” While the times have changes somewhat, and wives, sisters, and sweet-hearts are sometimes riders themselves, the rally continues to honor those tenet sentiments.
In 1924, the American Motorcycle Association was officially established, and took over sponsorship of the Gypsy Tours. With growing interest and financial capabilities, the number of events quickly expanded from only a handful of races and shows to over 200 separate events. One of the most defining additions to the New England Gypsy Tour was a road-racing event at Gilford, New Hampshire’s Belknap Mountain Recreation Area, where a popular hill climb also took place. In 1938, Fritz Baer was instrumental in bringing the annual Gypsy Tour Race from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, to Gilford. Interestingly, the first race occurred in September of 1938, rather than during the usual June gathering. Over the years, as motorcycling increased in popularity, riders arrives earlier each year to enjoy the many scenic routes and country roads the Lakes Region and beyond have to offer. As a result, the rally became a week long event wrapping up on Father’s Day, with local businesses happily catering to guests during the relatively short tourist season.
In 1962, the hills climb event at Belknap Recreation Area was discontinued, and in 1964, the road race was moved to what is today known as the New Hampshire International Speedway. However, this didn’t stop visitors from flocking to the Weirs from as far as the Western United States like the Carters from Prescott AZ, featured in some of the photos. In fact, it greatly expanded the area of the rally, while Weirs Beach remained the heart and soul of it all. More and more events began to pop up across the Lakes Region and its popularity continued to grow. Due in part to the sheer size of the gatherings, and the word “gypsy” falling out of favor, the event soon became known as the New England Tour & Rally, and eventually, the Laconia Motorcycle Week we all know and love.
In the forward of the 35th Annual New England Gypsy Tour and 100-Mile National Championship Road Race, Fritz Baer wrote, “There is no doubt in the minds of any motorcycle rider in the United States that Laconia today is synonymous with the greatest Gypsy Tour and motorcycle race to be held anyplace in the country.” That was 1955. We like to think Mr. Baer would say the same thing today.