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Rolling Thunder Prepares For Final Ride In D.C.


Hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists from all over America ride to Washington, D.C., every Memorial Day weekend to honor veterans. The event is called Rolling Thunder, and it's a tradition that has been going on for more than 30 years. As Mikaela Lefrak from member station WAMU reports, organizers say this weekend's event may be their last.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: The Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership in Fairfax, Va., is roaring with activity, literally. Staff members are driving motorcycles around the showroom trying to make space for more merchandise. They expect to sell a lot this weekend.


LEFRAK: Kevin Hardy is the store's marketing director. On Sunday morning, he says about 5,000 local bikers will convene at the dealership. They'll ride together to the Pentagon to meet up with the rest of the Rolling Thunder crew.

KEVIN HARDY: I mean, there's people just lining both sides of the street. And it's just parked motorcycles going back and back and back.

LEFRAK: Many of the riders wear leather jackets and have American flags waving from their bikes. The highways are shut down for them. And they get a police escort to the Pentagon.

HARDY: You can almost, like, smell the patriotism, like, in the air and all that. It's really good. You can really - it's palpable. You know, there's flags everywhere. And it's so many people.

LEFRAK: The ride routinely attracts more than 500,000 bikers. Its executive director, Sergeant Artie Muller, says the decision to cancel was a tough one.

ARTIE MULLER: Thought about it and thought about it - it's a shame that we're stopping it. And I'm sad in a way. But in another way, I'm glad.

LEFRAK: He says the ride's gotten more and more complicated to organize in the past few years. Plus, the leadership is getting older. Muller's 74. He founded Rolling Thunder in the late 1980s to pay tribute to veterans and prisoners of war. He's a Vietnam veteran. And when he came back, he was shocked by how civilians treated him and his fellow vets.

MULLER: We weren't going to put up with anybody being treated the way we were - spit at, called names. People really blamed us for everything.

LEFRAK: Despite its popularity, the ride is expensive to stage. Last year's cost about $200,000. Their biggest expense is to the Pentagon, which charges them about $52,000 to rent its parking lot and pay for security, toilets and cleanup. Muller thinks that fee is too much. But Pentagon spokesperson Sue Gough disagrees.

SUE GOUGH: Just keep in mind that effective preparation for an event the size and scale of Rolling Thunder ride is a complicated and lengthy process, especially for security. And Rolling Thunder is exceptionally large.

LEFRAK: Muller says, next year, he wants Rolling Thunder chapters across the country to organize their own Memorial Day rides. He thinks those local rides will do more to raise awareness about veterans and prisoners of war than one, big national event. Regardless, this year's ride is very much on. And it's fast approaching.

Back at the dealership in Virginia, Kevin Hardy is busily setting up Rolling Thunder swag all around his store.

HARDY: The T-shirts, the pins, the patches - like you said, this might actually be the last ride. So actually, on this year's shirt, we have the final ride of thunder.

LEFRAK: He holds up a black T-shirt emblazoned with those words and an American flag. He says he wants that slogan to turn out to be wrong.

HARDY: What we're hoping is that somebody either picks it up, or it's able to continue in some form or fashion. We hope it goes a little bit longer.

LEFRAK: But right now, he can't think much farther ahead than this weekend. He's got about 5,000 very patriotic motorcyclists heading his way. For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS' "OUTFIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mikaela Lefrak is WAMU’s Arts and Culture reporter. Before moving into that role, she worked as WAMU’s news producer for Morning Edition.