Road Hogs: Arkansas Businessmen Find Big Motorcycles Are the Ultimate Stress-relievers

by Jon Parham  on Monday, Feb. 28, 2000 12:00 am  

As soon as Frank Cox became a teen-ager, he promised himself two things he'd do when he grew up.

First, he would stop eating those vegetables his parents always made him eat. Second, he would buy a motorcycle.

Well, he actually learned to like some of those vegetables.

But he did follow through on the second promise.

These days, if the weather is nice, you might see the president of Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods advertising and public relations firm cruising to work on his new Honda Valkyrie. It's the latest in a line of four motorcycles he has owned.

"It's such an escape," he said.

Not bad for a guy who was once grounded for sitting on a friend's parked motorcycle. The key wasn't even in the ignition, for Pete's sake.

Bryan Pitts, chief executive officer of Beach Abstract and Guaranty in Little Rock, said his motorcycle fascination has been about his need for speed - as well as a little rebellion. While most of these bike-riding professionals have larger touring motorcycles, he has a racing motorcycle, a Yamaha R1 that can go as fast as 180 miles per hour (although he said he's never driven it that fast).

There are quite a few motorcycle enthusiasts in the Arkansas business community - including trucking magnate J.B. Hunt, long known for his interest in motorcycles, and Acxiom Corp. CEO Charles Morgan, who revved up his interest in racing with motorcycles. TCBY's Frank Hickingbotham owns the Harley Davidson dealership in Little Rock.

"It's amazing how many guys 40 and older are into motorcycles," said Jim Johnson, a co-founder of CJRW who in his mid-60s still loves to cruise down the highway on his Harley Davidson.

Shelby Woods, CJRW's board chairman, is the third member of what could be called the agency's "motorcycle gang." He just returned from a weekend at the Daytona International Speedway, and he took his bike because it was more convenient for weaving through the traffic than a car.

"It's great being outside and being able to see the country where you don't have to look through a windshield," Woods said.

Get Your Motor Running

Motorcycles have never been a parental favorite. Cox, Woods and Travis Bailey, president of Beach Abstract, all said they wanted motorcycles when they were growing up, but their parents forbade it.

Much as BB guns were taboo because "you'll put your eye out," motorcycles equaled danger on wheels to parents who had visions of Junior wrapped around a tree.

"My parents were adamantly against it," Cox said.

Woods had a motor scooter in his youth, which he used for delivering newspapers, but he had never ridden a motorcycle.

So some of this motorcycle fancy later in life may be leftover rebellion against parental authority. Others attribute it to the simple thrill of cruising down the highways and byways of Arkansas and the United States with the wind blowing in their face.

"It's one of the best stress-relievers I know of," Bailey said. "I just like the freedom of riding."

Bailey got his first bike while he was in the Army in the early 1970s. "I had always wanted one and never could have one before, so I was just going to get one," Bailey said.

He got his Harley, probably the most famous motorcycle, last year. He said he was urged to get into motorcycles by his brother, who had always ridden a Harley.

Others had friends who pushed them to realize a childhood dream. Woods said Jim Gaston, owner of Gaston's White River Resort near Mountain Home, suggested it to him.

Pitts said Jim Lawrence, owner of Powerhouse Gym in Little Rock, let him ride his Harley a couple of years ago. He fell in love with the loud engine and the romanticized rebel-biker image.

Jim Johnson, who bought his first motorcycle at 50, found a different inspiration. Originally, he bought some trail bikes so he and his sons could have some bonding time together.

Eventually he sold those bikes, but in 1986 he saw the movie "Top Gun." The images of Tom Cruise racing along on his Honda Ninja were too much to resist.

"I could picture myself as a 50-year-old Tom Cruise," Johnson joked.

Johnson said he is attracted to the thrill of being out on the road. He said he loves being "completely alone" listening to the roar of the engine as he cruises down Arkansas Highway 10 west of Little Rock.

One reason the purchase of a motorcycles may be delayed is the cost. Pitts' 150-horse power Yamaha R1 runs around $11,000. The much heavier Harley Davidson touring bikes and cruisers favored by Woods, Bailey and Johnson can range from $18,000 to $25,000.

The price on a Honda Valkyrie like Cox's ranges from $13,000 to $16,000, according to Honda's Internet site. After owning two Harleys, Cox bought the Honda and is still getting grief from his "Harley friends" - including Johnson - for "leaving the family."

Head Out on the Highway

Highway 10 is a popular strip of pavement for many of the local motorcycle riders. Johnson said it's not unusual to see several bikers out on a Saturday afternoon on the winding rural highway if the weather is nice.

Riding on the open road is a release, Pitts said. No matter how stressful a day at work gets, he said, it's all washed away by the engine's roar and the concentration motorcycle riding requires. An armadillo on the highway, for example, might as well be a brick wall to a motorcyclist who isn't paying attention.

Pitts said he coaxed his hesitant wife onto the back of his bike with promises that he wouldn't drive fast. But he just had to speed past those cars on the highway, he tried to explain to her later after she angrily hit him on the back with her helmet when they stopped.

Pitts' memories tend to run more on the mischievous side, so maybe that's why he rides sport bikes rather than the touring bikes.

For Woods, there is nothing that compares to longer rides across the countryside. He and some of his motorcycling friends - some are old college buddies - try to take a couple of longer rides each year.

His journeys have taken him on the highway that follows the California coastline, through Colorado, to the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Races in South Dakota and into Mexico.

His favorite trips, however, may be in Arkansas, he said.

"It's a great way to see the country because you'll realize all your senses," he said. "You ride through the Delta during harvest time and smell all the rice and cotton being harvested, or riding through south Arkansas and smelling all the pine sap.

"After sitting in these offices all day long," Woods said, "it's just a great feeling to be outside."

Cox remembered one memorable, and frigid, trip from Little Rock to Memphis. He bought his first bike after graduating from Hendrix College in 1976, and shortly thereafter he had to make a nighttime drive to Memphis where his band was playing.

Cox, who still plays guitar for The GroanUps, said he left Little Rock about 2 a.m., wearing as many layers as possible against the 40-degree weather. He had to stop in Rose City, Lonoke, Carlisle, Forrest City and every place he could to warm up, rolling into Memphis about 5:30 a.m.

"I have never been as cold in my life," Cox said.

Though juggling family, work and the band doesn't leave much time for long rides now, Cox said he has taken some pleasant trips across the state. Going to Harrison up scenic Highway 65 is a nice ride, he said, with a return trip down Highway 7 through Russellville, then back over Pinnacle Mountain to Little Rock.

Bailey, who hasn't had his latest motorcycle long enough for any extensive trips, said he enjoyed taking part in the recent Toys For Tots charity event for cycling enthusiasts that brought out about 400 motorcycles.

These motorcycling businessmen readily admit the hobby can be a dangerous one. Bailey said he had a couple of minor accidents in his early cycling days, but they report nothing serious.

They gave credit to their caution when riding. As Pitts said, "You have to assume that all other motorists don't see you."

When Woods was getting into cycling, he took a safety course and a defensive driving class. For the most part, they said, they always wear helmets.

Pitts said that on short trips he will sometimes not wear his helmet, but most of the time he does.

Despite the risk to life and limb, there are no regrets.

"It was somewhat of a life-changing experience," Woods said. "It taught me to enjoy life to the fullest."

Bailey said he plans to continue riding until he can no longer swing his leg over his bike.



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