Thousands of motorcycles and their riders snaked their way from the Travis County Expo Center to downtown Austin last night for the annual Republic of Texas Rally parade. It’s become an Austin summer tradition, but it could be going away.
Jerry Bragg had already started and sold two businesses when his Dallas-based motorcycle club was approached by Harley-Davidson to host a rally in 1995.
“We wanted to do it where it’s more fun," he said. "So, we decided to do it in Austin, which was a first for Harley, having a group out of one city do it in another city. So, it was very, very successful.”
The 5,000 attendees at that first ROT event beat Harley’s largest regional-sponsored rally by nearly 50 percent. The following year was even bigger. By then, Harley-Davidson was ready to move on, but ROT ralliers were not.
Bragg said attendees told organizers that they didn't want to leave Austin and asked if they could keep the ROT Rally going.
"We said, ‘We’ll do it one more year,’" he said. "Well, that’s turned into over 20 years. We’re still here, still doing it. And we hope to continue doing it for another 20.”
The twice-retired Bragg and his wife, Colleen, have turned the ROT Rally into a behemoth festival: four days and three nights of music, camping, food, vendors and, of course, motorcycles.
The Braggs start cooking up ideas for each rally more than a year in advance – deciding on the right mix of vendors, what attractions to add and even improvements on the Expo Center grounds.
They’ve built a flat track for motorcycle racing. The third and fourth leg of the AMA Supermoto National Championship Series will take place this weekend in the middle of ROT.
There’s a tattoo expo, roller derby and custom bike builders on site.
Colleen Bragg is expecting this year to be one of the biggest, especially with ZZ Top as the festival’s headliner Saturday.
“We’ve been trying to get ZZ Top for about seven years now," she said. "It’s what our customer wants to see. There’s just been conflicts with their scheduling, so we finally got 'em after seven years of trying and it’s paying off.”
As promoters of one of Austin’s biggest festivals, Jerry and Colleen Bragg have managed to keep the ROT Rally and their relationship going.
“It’s not easy, being married and working together 24/7, but if you love each other, you make it work,” Jerry said.
“And we know our strengths and our weaknesses," Colleen added. “We know what he’s good at that I’m not. I mean, I do some great things that he doesn’t do. So, it works. It is tough. We’re married. Marriage is tough.”
“She’s really the backbone of the rally," he said. "She keeps everybody’s focus on making it right.”
“You know, it’s not hard to do," she said. "We’ve got a great team. I’m just kind of the orchestra leader.”
Friday night's parade is what Jerry Bragg calls a gift back to the city. But as the rally grows, so do costs and security concerns. He says organizers pay nearly $50,000 for road closures and security. As that number gets higher and higher, it cuts into their ability to pay for other things, like staff, musicians and attractions.
Bragg says there’s support on the City Council for Austin to take on some of those costs, but the parade’s future outside of the Expo Center is anything but certain.