There’s an old guard of motorcycling advocates that formed in the 1970s to fight anti-motorcycle legislation and persuade state and federal governments to roll back mandatory helmet laws.
They are the ones who responded when the AMA established its Government Relations Department in 1971 and who have continued responding through the years to calls to action by the AMA and other groups seeking to protect riders’ rights.
But those who were in their 20s in 1971 are now in their mid-60s. And those who joined them in the 1980s are in their 50s.
So who is picking up the baton to continue to promote the motorcycle lifestyle and protect the future of motorcycling? Where will the next generation of motorcycling advocates come from?
“Those 50- to 80-year-olds got the bug when dirt bikes were simple and cheap and access to riding areas wasn’t an issue,” says Steve Salisbury, AMA government relations manager for off-highway issues. “Today, the expense of getting into the sport is higher, and kids have a myriad of alternatives competing for their attention.”
Marie Wuelleh, AMA recreational riding and volunteer manager, says the success of the AMA and other motorcycle rights groups has bred complacency among many riders.
“The AMA and other motorcycle organizations have had a lot of success since the 1970s, when there was a string of anti-motorcycling legislation introduced,” Wuelleh says. “But that success only came from the strength of our membership and their willingness to get involved at the grassroots level.
“With the generation that had the bulk of that early success getting older, many of them are at an age where they are giving up the ride. So, if the next generation isn’t paying attention, these old issues will resurface, and the fight will be harder and more costly than the first time.”
The AMA and other groups are actively recruiting and training volunteer advocates and are reaching out to ever younger riders to foster their love of the motorcycling lifestyle.
AMA EAGLES Program
For Michael Marino, political action is part of his DNA.
The 33-year-old AMA member from Delaware, Ohio, was interested in politics well before he took up motorcycling.
Marino started riding in 2006 and has covered nearly 100,000 miles since then. He is the road racing reporter/social media coordinator for iHeart Media’s Two Wheel Power Hour Motorcycle Show while he pursues a doctorate in American history with a focus on transportation.
“One of the first things I did when I started riding was join the AMA,” he says. “At the time, I was trying to learn more about the sport, and the information for new riders on the AMA website proved to be very important to getting me into motorcycling the right way.
“As I read American Motorcyclist magazine and reviewed the AMA’s position papers on motorcycling issues, it became apparent to me that motorcycling is facing tough challenges in the public policy arena on several fronts.”
Marino says that when he learned about the AMA EAGLES program, he “immediately realized the potential to put my ideas into action.”
The AMA EAGLES program, which teaches AMA members basic skills necessary for influencing motorcycle issues, meeting with candidates and getting involved in campaigns, is suitable for anyone high-school age or older, Wuelleh says.
Those completing the AMA EAGLES program help the AMA fulfill its mission to promote the motorcycle lifestyle and protect the future of motorcycling. They do that by volunteering at AMA events and telling others about the benefits of AMA membership.
Beyond those steps, AMA members can work directly with the AMA Government Relations Department on issues important to them, from local government actions to federal legislation and regulations.
For Marino, the EAGLES program fits nicely with his broad interest in politics and his love of motorcycling.
“Once I get my Ph.D., I will become very politically active and will begin my career in elected politics,” he says. “However, the more important issue here is furthering the AMA’s goals of protecting our freedoms to both ride and race.”
He wants to ensure his efforts “are making the biggest impact they can for the motorcycling community.”
“By developing a presence in the political arena, one of my goals is to bring together members of both the motorcycling and political communities, on an as-needed basis, to foster the development of effective public policies that affect the motorcycling community,” Marino says.
Motivating Even Younger Riders
Relatively few people who come to the AMA share Marino’s longstanding interest in politics, especially as they relate to motorcycling.
Salisbury, Wuelleh and others agree that the key to cultivating the next generation of activists is to instill a love of riding in children and spark a protective response in them when this activity they love is threatened.
Lori McCollough is executive director of Tread Lightly, a national initiative to protect and enhance recreation access and opportunities through stewardship. Her organization’s strategy includes programs specifically tailored to young people.
“The answers aren’t easy,” she says of initiatives to entice young people to become vocal on the issues. “Advocates aren’t born. But the younger you can start them, the better. It’s much easier to shape behaviors than to change them.”
The primary component for Tread Lightly’s youth outreach is the Tread Trainer program, which features continuous engagement by participants, who are tracked and encouraged to stay active.
“We count on them to help spread the word,” McCollough says. “That’s the key to our future.”
ABATE of Indiana tries to interest kids in motorcycles at an even younger age.
The Children’s Motorcycle Adventure featuring the Tiny Tots Riding Experience started 20 years ago.
The event is a closed course where adults teach kids the basics of throttle, brakes and steering, then let them try out a bike.
The Indiana program isn’t intended to train kids to ride, but to let them experience the thrill of riding a motorcycle.
“We have a safe, controlled environment and provide supervision and enough direction for the new rider to operate the machine,” says Jay Jackson, ABATE of Indiana executive director. “If they catch motorcycle fever, we direct them to the dirt bike school, where we can enroll children as young as 6.
“We know that we have to create and motivate the next generation of motorcyclists, and there are plenty of other activities competing for their attention,” he says.
Getting Involved Through Clubs
Jack Cutts, a 22-year-old AMA member and enduro racer from Tabernacle, N.J., says riders usually won’t get involved until an issue directly affects them. He has been racing enduros for five years.
“Every year, more and more hurdles are put up for us to jump over to host our event, due to land issues and different political groups trying to keep us from riding our dirt bikes in the woods,” says Cutts, who is a member of the South Jersey Enduro Riders and co-chairman of the East Coast Enduro Association Enduro Committee. “These hurdles keep my fellow racers and myself from riding, racing and having fun. They have a direct effect on what happens to our events. So with that, I have been forced to become more active in the political process.”
The enduro riders, like other groups, were eager for Cutts’ participation.
“It was very easy to get involved,” he says. “I just talked to the president of the ECEA and other board members, expressing my interest in getting involved. I like to think I can bring some good ideas to the ECEA and help the future generations take riding and racing to the next level.”
The changing political scene, coupled with advances in motorcycling knowledge and technology, should prompt younger people to get involved, Cutts says.
“We always need new, innovative ideas from anyone and everyone who is willing to give them,” he says. “We are the next generation of racers. We need to be active in the political side of things if we want to see the racing we love flourish and be passed on to generations forward.
“If you want to see something happen, like I did,” Cutts says, “the best way is to ask ‘What can I do and how can I help?’”
One of the obstacles is getting young riders to understand how political decisions affect them or how they might affect them in the future.
“The threat of something unwanted seems to be the best motivator, even more than the prospect of something sought after,” Jackson says. “While the motorcyclists’ rights movement has had countless successes over the past several decades, we seem to do best when we’re on defense.
“We can throw the touchdown pass, but we excel at keeping the other team out of the end zone. When people take something personally, they tend to get more involved.”
Jonathon Stone, a 33-year-old AMA EAGLES graduate from Gillette, N.J., took his first political action this past summer, calling a state senator to protest a proposed hike in the gasoline tax. His action was prompted by an alert from ABATE of the Garden State.
In addition to his AMA and ABATE affiliations, Stone is checking out local road riding clubs.
“Hopefully, one will be a good fit,” he says. “I am on a planning committee for a charity run that the company I work for is planning called The Dignity Run, which will benefit individuals living with developmental disabilities.
“I also hope to be able to work toward increasing the amount of land open to public access for off-road riders,” Stone says.
To help recruit members and initiate young activists, ABATE of Indiana stages an annual “ABATE Kids’ Day at the Statehouse.”
“We give them a Statehouse tour, distribute historical and educational information, issue a quiz, hold a mock general assembly and have legislators speak with them,” Jackson says. “It’s a lot of fun, and their teachers back at school are always impressed by what they learn.”
As young people become active themselves, they can help build the ranks of advocates simply by sharing their experiences and encouraging their peers to follow them.
“I am part of the younger generation of racers at enduros, so I know a lot of people my age who ride and race,” Cutts says. “When discussing events and issues, I always bring up our need for younger faces on the ECEA board and Enduro Committee. It is hard to explain to some folks why we need people and how they can help, because it isn’t always easy to see what goes on in the background to get an organization like the ECEA running like it does.”
Jackson says ABATE members are “mentoring their children, or grandchildren, to be advocates, and we have high hopes for these legacies.”
Riders in their 20s and 30s demonstrate a willingness to embrace both parts of the AMA mission statement. Along with protecting the future of motorcycling by fighting political battles, these riders take seriously the role of promoting the motorcycle lifestyle.
“Yes, I want to become more involved and help protect riders’ rights in the political ring, but I also hope to be able to introduce new people to the world of motorcycling,” Stone says. “I didn’t have anyone to help me get started with my motorcycling journey. I hope to be able to open the door into our world for other people looking for a start in this lifestyle.”
Jackson says promoting the lifestyle actually comes before political activism.
“If the motorcyclists’ rights movement is to continue, we need to make sure motorcycling continues,” he says. “In the beginning, we want to get them interested in motorcycling. Then, we can try to identify who will become the activists.”
Marino believes that motorcyclists must bridge the gap between riders and nonriders.
“We, as a community of riders across this country, are faced with a wide range of challenges,” he says. “Many of those challenges are from sources that do not hate motorcycling, but simply do not understand it.”
Environmentalist groups that want to close access to public lands, for example, “need to understand responsible off-road riding on those lands, in general, does not pose a threat to their conservation practices.”
“Similarly, towns and villages that pass so-called ‘bike bans’ need to be educated about motorcycling and be provided with counsel about developing policies that address the issue of excessive motorcycle sound without punishing all motorcyclists for the actions of a few riders,” Marino says.
Attracting non-riders is not a strategy for convincing them to start riding, he says. It is a strategy of mutual understanding.
“Those who want to curtail our freedoms to ride and race often know very little about our lifestyle or passion,” Marino explains. “We, as a community, may want to look at building alliances with other groups whose freedom is also under attack.”
No Experience Needed
Becoming a motorcycling activist is as simple as saying, “I want to,” Wuelleh says. It requires no special knowledge, no specific skill set and no secret handshake.
“You don’t need to know people or have special connections to get in,” Cutts says, “You just have to be driven and be eager to help.
“If you are a young rider and you think you don’t know enough about the issues, that’s OK. That can be learned. The biggest thing is participation, having support and having everyone with different ideas. When you bring them all together, the possibilities are endless.”
“You do not have to be a big name lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to make a difference on the issues that affect the motorcycling community,” he says. “If we can grow the AMA EAGLES ranks and equip more AMA members with the knowledge and skills to advocate for motorcyclists’ interests, and we can each make even one inch of progress on the issues the motorcycling lifestyle is facing, just imagine how fast and how far we can advance and protect our freedoms to ride and race.”