Rally just another spoke in wheel for "Brother Speed"
To call his bike custom would be a slight understatement. Coated in coins, police badges, a Princess Leia action figure and his mother’s dentures, 68-year-old lifetime biker John Finlay’s life truly is where the rubber meets the road.
“My mom calls my home a storage center,” he said with a grizzly laugh through his chest-length white beard. “I leave just after Valentine’s and don’t get home until sometime in October.”
Finlay, or “Brother Speed” as he’s known in bike circles throughout the U.S., rolled into the Iowa Speedway’s Iowa Grand Motorcycle Rally Tuesday off a two-day ride from his home port in Charleston, S.C. to do what he loves most — talk bikes.
In front of the S&S Custom Cycles tent on the speedway concourse, Speed talks about his personal modifications to what he says “used to be” a 1948 EL Birmingham, Ala. police bike.
“When I took it home in 1969 it still had the sidecar mount, three speed reverse transmission and had a single spring front end,” Speed said. “Of course we all rode choppers back then, so I jumped up, drove ahead and made it a damn chopper. I was just telling the boys at S&S there, we made the left side 17 inches long and made the right 17-and-a-half inches long. I let go of the handle bars and it goes straight into traffic.”
Speed stopped to take a photo with a couple of passing female fans checking out his bike, then continued telling the early days of his motorcycle.
“We didn’t know anything about bikes back then,” he said. “We were just welding and drinking and having a blast.”
Every piece on his bike has its own story, but the memorabilia laden motorcycle began in New Orleans in 1970 with seven silver dollars. Speed rode from Birmingham, Ala. to Daytona, Fla. and was told by the other bikers chopper riders were unwelcome. So Speed traveled to Mardi Gras.
After he arrived at the festival, Speed said he was sitting at a Western Union Office between 3 and 4 a.m. when a Jefferson Parish police officer told him he needed to find a hotel. If he could not afford a hotel, Speed would have to pay the $7 ticket price to stay at the local mission. He said the officer informed him if he didn’t have at least $7 at all times, Speed could be arrested for vagrancy. From that point on, Speed’s bike carried seven silver dollars as insurance.
Pointing to a police badge fastened near the engine’s right side, Speed tells the tale of a Charleston, S.C. police officer that he encountered many times over the years.
“This is a Charleston County police badge,” he said. “That man there chased me for 30 years, and when he retired there in 2000 down there in Charleston, S.C. I took him to Sturgis with me.”
Born in the panhandle of Idaho, Speed was a military brat. He said his father couldn’t find work outside of the local paper mill, so he went into the military after World War II. The Charleston biker has an impressive list of former addresses, including Tokyo, Japan; Hawaii; Moses Lake, Wash.; and Biloxi, Miss.
For the last 7 years, Speed says he’s worked quite a few bike rally’s throughout the country, and for much of that time he’s worked at the Broken Spoke Saloon in Sturgis, S.D. – employed by Iowa Grand rally EMCee Jay Allen.
“I met that man back there (Allen) in the 80s or something, 84 or 85 at Sturgis. And he said ‘man I’m going buy the broken spoke saloon,’ and said if you need any help you let me know,” Speed said. “Well next thing I now that man jumped up and made me the night watchman.”
Speed turns 69 on Sept. 10, and he shows no signs of depleted energy.
“I’ll tell you, when I die the government is going to tear me apart to try to figure out how I lived so long,” he laughed.
The rally continues today through Saturday at Iowa Speedway.
Mike Mendenhall can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at email@example.com.
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