Couple keeps biker rally's engine running
ROT event has transformed into one of the nation's largest.
Inside a small, Spartan mobile home on the grounds of the Travis County Exposition Center, Colleen Bragg talked on the phone to a man who has a parking lot at his disposal. It didn't matter where, exactly, the parking lot is or how much it would cost to rent it out.
Just then, with rain crashing on the ground and a miles-long backup of RVs huddled on FM 3177 as they awaited entry to the Expo Center in eastern Travis County, the important thing was to secure a lot. Eleven hundred RVs were expected to roll in, and suddenly many of their spots were compromised by muddy conditions.
"We kind of have a situation with the RVs," she said sweetly, and understatedly.
With nearly 40,000 attendees, the Republic of Texas Biker Rally may be among the largest leather conventions in the nation, and at the heart of the fun, the debauchery and the roaring engines are Colleen and Jerry Bragg. The married couple own the copyrights and are the organizing intellect that informs the convention known simply as ROT, and they spend most of their time during the rally trying to make sure things run as smoothly as a well-oiled Suzuki.
"We were planning this one before the last one was over," said Colleen Bragg, 53 and pony-tailed, with an orange "ROT Staff" T-shirt and a white ROT 2010 ball cap.
But as established as the ROT rally has become, its roots are actually as a kind of spontaneous splinter group and, in a sense, a challenge to the constellation of Harley-only motorcycle conventions. The snafu with the RVs would require the kind of improvisation and freethinking that shaped the first ROT rally in 1995, which attracted fewer than 4,000 people.
"We go to Plan B every 30 minutes or so," cackles Jerry Bragg, 67, who wears a buzz cut and glasses. Back in 1994, the big Texas rally, held in a different city each year, was still under the thumb of Harley corporate headquarters in Milwaukee. Representatives of Texas Harley groups from around the state would meet in Austin and decide which city would host the next HOG, or Harley Owners Groups, convention. To attend, you had to ride a Harley and be a card-carrying member of a Harley group.
Jerry Bragg and a friend, Jim Henry, members of the Dallas club of Harley riders, pitched Austin as a place to hold the next year's rally. The members agreed, but Bragg and his friend soon found themselves bristling against Harley's top-down manuals, sent from Milwaukee, that detailed what organizers were forbidden to do.
They were not allowed, for example, to have vendors sell their own T-shirts, bikes or tires, since Harley sold all those things.
"We had a T-shirt with a picture of an old dude with a long beard on a chopper, and Harley said, 'We don't sell choppers,' so we had to remake it as a bagger," Bragg said. For those accustomed to four wheels: Chopper is the word for one of those tall-handled bikes from "Easy Rider," and bagger is parlance for a less muscular touring bike.
But they diverged from convention where they could, adding an entertainment director and some brand-name music, like bringing Willie Nelson to play.
The weekend was a success: 3,800 people that first year, far more than any other Texas Harley convention had attracted. The next year, Bragg and Henry did it again, pulling in 7,200 attendees.
It was while preparing for that 1996 convention that Colleen and Jerry met.
She was a single mother in Dallas with a 14-year-old son and "in between boyfriends" when an acquaintance recommend she meet Jerry.
She had never been on a bike, never dated anyone with a tattoo, and when the acquaintance told her to wear jeans, she purposely wore shorts and hiking boots.
"He thought I was with Greenpeace," she says.
By that afternoon, they went for a ride on his 1992 Harley.
She was on hand when ROT broke off in 1996 from Harley. At the annual meeting in Austin, headquarters said it wanted to move the Harley rally to other cities, to satisfy Harley dealers elsewhere in the state. In the parking lot afterward, Bragg and Henry, who is no longer involved with ROT, told the members of the Harley groups that they would promote a rally — on the condition that it could be open to everyone, Harley owner and Honda owner, Suzuki enthusiast and nonbiker.
"My mind is where the rubber meets the sky," jokes Jerry Bragg.
"Out of respect," says Bragg, they got the permission first of the Bandidos, the outlaw motorcycle group whose motto is "We are the people our parents warned us about," and then city and county officials.
Open to everyone, and with Austin as an attractive backdrop, the rally drew huge droves of motorcyclists.
The attendant infrastructure of ROT is impressive. They have hired 28 people to pick up trash. Rubber Duckies, a Colorado company, ships in mobile showers. Lights have to be set up to illuminate Gallagher, the headliner on the comedy stage, still smashing away. Organizing the rally has become the Braggs' full-time job, and so committed are they that they moved to the Bee Cave area five years ago.
Each year the Braggs want to do something innovative, and this year, improbably, the ROT rally is "going green," Jerry says earnestly.
A riding buddy of his from Dallas, Steve Inmon, who calls himself a garbologist, has parked something called a high-density compact extruder on the Expo Center grounds. The machine can reduce the amount of trash sent to the landfills by about a tenth, Inmon says.
Jerry Bragg says he likes to think of ROT as combining the riding of Sturgis — a South Dakota rally now in its 70th year, with several hundred thousand riding through town each August — with the partying that accompanies the Daytona 500.
Colleen's parents no longer make sandwiches for ROT workers — they have grown from about a dozen in 1994 to around 300 today — but the convention still has the feel of a family affair. Colleen designs the merchandise herself, or commissions artists to make it, and her sisters sell the stuff — beaded bandanas, fancy caps, T-shirts, blankets, pins, patches, chairs — an homage to the materialism of badassedness. Jerry owns five bikes, but most of his time on the weekend is spent driving in a golf cart around the hundreds of acres of the Exposition Center, where he waves to his brother, and his son and son-in-law, each driving golf carts of their own.
It's now "a lot of work," Colleen says. "It's a business, a responsibility we have now, to our attendees, to the city and to the county."