Subtle bike culture growing in Newton
Chaz Allen backed a deep purple Harley-Davidson Night Train out of his garage in a northeastern Newton neighborhood. The Great Western Bank personal banker and Newton mayor was prepping the cruiser for a fuel injector cleaning. He turned the ignition key and revved up the motorcycle’s V-Twin engine, which reverberated off the collection of homes throughout the cul-de-sac.
“It’s a big bore kit,” Allen said with a grin. “It’s an insane bike.”
The cycle was rebuilt, repainted and re-chromed by Allen’s best friend, James “Brian” Chamberlain, who died of cancer in April 2011. He left the Harley to his wife, Tracy, and Allen has been entrusted with getting the bike ready to ride. Chamberlain was a Newton resident for many years, owning a lawn care service. But, according to Allen, bikes were Chamberlain’s off-hour passion. Following a visitation in Newton, the motorcycle enthusiast and member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was escorted to his final resting place by more than 100 bikes led by the Patriot Guard Riders of Iowa. Nationwide, the veterans’ organization has nearly 250,000 bikers and boasts 2,000 in Iowa.
Riding is one of Allen’s first memories of Newton. It was the way he first explored the city he would one day lead. Allen said it was July 13, 2000, when Chamberlain gave him an unofficial tour on their Harleys.
“My first day in Newton we go get the bikes and went cruising around in Newton, in Baxter and in the county,” he said.
Bikes are a subtle subculture in Newton. Allen always rides his 1982 Harley-Davidson Sportster in the city’s annual Fourth of July Parade. Also, the Patriot Guard Riders escorted a group of 156 Jasper County veterans to a send-off ceremony in October with bikes and onlookers lining the streets from the Iowa Speedway to Newton Senior High School. For the city of 15,254, bike culture is a way to celebrate camaraderie.
“It’s just the freedom. It’s almost like a cowboy thing,” Allen said. “Riding in the wind, it’s awesome. My deal is, when I go to Sturgis (a South Dakota motorcycle rally), for 30 miles you’re still thinking about work and everything going on around you. But about 30 miles later, it’s all gone. You’ve forgotten everything.”
On a sunny Saturday, Newton’s downtown square can be lined with dozens of choppers, roadsters and soft tails stretching from The Manhattan bar past Pappy’s Antique Mall. With that many motorcycles located in the Jasper County seat, bike builder and machinist Todd England wagered a performance shop would prosper.
England opened Revolution Cycle in 2004 with his wife, Lynae, in Baxter, 13.5 miles north of Newton. The shop is all-encompassing, manufacturing parts, performing rebuilds, servicing existing bikes and building trikes. England began the business years earlier in Cedar Rapids, but it was when he returned to his childhood home of Baxter to start a family that the business grew from an 800-square-foot building to a 4,800-square-foot retail and machine shop.
To England, the popularization of bike culture due to television programs like the Discovery Channel’s “Orange County Chopper” has defined motorcycles as “no longer a greasy biker thing.” He explained that Jasper County’s proximity to urban centers, combined with the open rural space, allows riding to take a foothold in Newton and central Iowa. The demographic for England’s business tends to skew toward riders in their 40s to 60s. England says these people have reached an established point in their careers and can afford the $25,000 price tag that goes with owning a new Harley-Davidson.
“When something costs more than a family car, it’s definitely an investment,” he said. “But it’s a culture in its own, really. People will do what they call circuits. They’ll even go to different bike nights far away. It’s many, many people there with the same life concept. Riders usually go to hang out with other like-minded people, eat, maybe drink a couple cocktails, listen to music and show off your bike.”
A quadratic series of those rallies is coming soon to the Newton’s downtown square. Thunder Nights in Newton is the brainchild of Newton Dairy Queen franchise owner Bob O’Brien. He and the Thunder Nights Committee recently were granted approval by city and county officials to host four events on the county courthouse lawn, closing the square and inviting motorcycle lovers to show off their rides on May 11, June 8, July 26 and Aug. 10. The events will showcase vendors, bands and, he anticipates, hundreds of bikers from around the state.
Allen currently is working on getting another bike tuned up for this summer’s bike events — the “old iron head” that belonged to his brother, Keith. Although he lived in Russell, Allen said his brother would ride with him in Newton nearly every weekend. He died in a motorcycle accident last September, leaving Allen his bike.
“It means everything, it absolutely means everything,” Allen said about taking on his brother’s motorcycle. “I went to his barn to get his bike out because we were going to ride it in the funeral. And I got down to the barn and there were tools all around it, and I thought, ‘Oh no, what have you taken apart?’ or ‘What have I gotten into?’”
But the danger inherent in the riding culture does not deter Newton enthusiasts from getting on their hogs, and it hasn’t slowed Allen.
“It changes the way you think about life. It just takes a second and everything changes,” he said. “I don’t want to lose my sense to ride, which I don’t think I have. But it changes your perspective on everything.”
Mike Mendenhall can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.