When Johnny Valdez was 25 years old, he heard a motorcycle rally was going to be held in La Plata County.
A lifelong Ignacio resident and avid biker who cut his teeth riding dirt bikes as a teenager, he was eager to volunteer at the inaugural Four Corners Motorcycle Rally, which in its 23rd year expects thousands of attendees from all over the country.
Now 48, Valdez owns the rally – and the debt that comes with it. Valdez coordinated the Labor Day weekend event for the past three years, but eight months ago he purchased Four Corners Motorcycle Rally for the steep price of its debt, which has racked up to about $100,000 over the past two decades.
The business exchange relieved the Ignacio Chamber of Commerce, which operated the rally since 2006.
Last year’s rally logged more than 9,200 paid admissions. About 12,000 paid attendees are anticipated this year, and the new owner expects enough to cut into the debt by at least 20 or 25 percent.
“We made in the realm of $25,000 last year in profit that went toward past debt,” he said. “With extra effort and time, we can break even.”
Valdez said the rally was headed downhill in recent years as the chamber considered giving it up, volunteers were scant and debt piled up. The chamber was making money only through T-shirt and beer sales, so Valdez approached them.
“I said you can go bankrupt, continuing running it or have someone buy it – and I didn’t even consider buying it myself at that time,” he said.
The social aspect is what initially drew Valdez into biker culture and what he suspects draws thousands to the rally each year. He views the event as a party among friends that also benefits charities such as Blue Star Mothers as well as local school basketball and cheerleading teams.
The long-standing stigma about biker culture that conjures visions of leather, long hair and chains has become farce.
“I think the culture has changed by the idea that so many more people understand what (bikers) are. We are normal people with normal problems. People recognize that,” he said.
That’s evidenced by event sponsors, from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Thriftway, to “a bunch of people you wouldn’t associate with bike rallies,” Valdez said.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the culture “really exploded,” and Valdez doesn’t recall any negative connotations surrounding biker lifestyle in La Plata County in those days, nor when he was growing up.
“At that time, it was just a cheap and easy way to get from point A to point B.”
Now, Valdez has traded the dirt bikes of his teenage years for a 2015 Indian Scout, similar to one of four motorcycles a few bikers stand to win this weekend.
Rally aside, the Southwest has long been a Labor Day destination for motorcyclists, said Jeff Grigsby, who has owned Indian Motor Works, an antique motorcycle shop, in Bayfield for 39 years.
“In the mid-2000s, the rally was a nonevent,” Grigsby said. “No one owned it, but Labor Day was still a big deal for bikers. It’s the old adage: It’s not the destination but the journey. Everyone loves coming here.”
Politics, noise complaints and accusations of gang-like activity created pushback from locals in the last decade, but Grigsby said business owners like himself don’t mind the traffic, which fills up the county’s hotels, restaurants and retail shops.
Jeff Murray, general manager at Durango Harley-Davidson, said Labor Day weekend is his “biggest weekend of the year” and reports an uptick in sales two to four times that of a normal day.
Both Ignacio Chamber of Commerce board member Emily Meisner and Town Board Trustee Tom Atencio said Ignacio’s gain from the rally is not solely profit. Earlier this year, Valdez presented the board with $5,000, which Atencio said went toward expenses.
“I don’t speak for the board, but I’ve always thought it gives the town great exposure and some revenue,” Atencio said. “The town doesn’t benefit what with the expenses of cops, porta-potties, etc. We raised the vendor fee last year to try and help the chamber out.”
Bob Kunkel, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office, said the rally had its heyday in the past and numbers are not as high as they were five years ago. In 2010, Fort Lewis College business students conducted a study that estimated a $2.3 million economic impact on the Four Corners, with vendors contributing more than $30,000 to that and attendees contributing about $1.4 million.
Going forward, new events each year is the only change rally-goers can expect under Valdez’ ownership, he said. Events, musical sets and contests have grown from about 30 in the rally’s beginnings to 57 in 2015. Many of those veer toward lewd and bawdy.
Contests like “Pin up Girl,” “Stripper Pole” and “Fake Orgasm” stand out on the event schedule, which Valdez says are not derogatory because both men and women participate.
“It’s for either sex – we’ve seen men enter a bikini contest,” he laughed. “I think there are a lot of people who have their opinion about how things should be, but I don’t consider that. We put on a show and organize the events. I try to leave the judgment to other people.”