What has become of the famed Thunder Beach Rally?


In September 2017 I picked up my first Harley and rode right into the biker culture by way of my first bike rally in Panama City Beach, Florida- the Fall Thunder Beach Rally. I recall being nervous, excited and exhilarated before and during the ride down with my son-in-law, both of us on Street Glides on a cool autumn day. We met up with my buddies and they introduced me to bike rallies and riding new territory. We checked out multiple venues and had a wonderful time meeting riders from other parts of the country, sharing stories and food & drink while checking out the latest offerings from an amazing list of vendors.  

My, how times have changed.

My riding brothers and I returned from the 2024 Thunder Beach Rally on Sunday May 5 and after much consideration, I have to say it will most likely be my last. This year’s spring rally seemed to be doomed from the get-go. A month prior we started hearing of and confirming that all of the big name music acts had canceled their shows. Then there were reports of massive construction on State Road 98 (AKA Back Beach Road) which included the areas in front of the Indian and Harley-Davidson dealerships as well as the areas near the entrances to Frank Brown Park and Pier Park, popular rally destinations. Being the eternal optimists and remaining undeterred (it’s our love of the ride), we loaded up and rolled out at 8AM Wednesday, May 1 to head south anyway.

A pair of cool bikes, in entirety different ways, upon our arrival in PCB.

Following an uneventful 350 mile ride south, we noticed portable digital signs stating traffic will be impacted for an air show on Saturday and Sunday as we rolled into town on Hwy 79 from Ebro around 4PM. Interesting. An air show at Pier Park during the rally? Not sure if the PCB City Council thought that one through. I also noticed there are fewer bikes for Day 1 than previous years. I thought it was a bit strange but since we were staying way west of the normal hot spots (Pier Park, Harley, Indian etc.) I didn’t think much of it. After unloading at our nice little rental house (if you ever do go, rent a house with an empty garage and a pool- incredible) we determined dinner at Nick’s Pizza was just the ticket.  We caught Front Beach Road and had little difficulty getting to Nicks at the Hutchinson Blvd split, finding bike parking right out front. Traffic was light but we felt it would get worse as the weekend approached.

It didn’t.

The crew as we rolled around PCB.

Here’s where it gets interesting- we roll back to the house and one of our crew decides to chill so three of us roll back out to check the usual spots. Riding down Front Beach Road we are held up due to an accident investigation right in front of the Grand Panama Complex. Police have cameras out and the yellow tape is up. We saw a 6 passenger golf cart missing a wheel and a motorcycle was parked nearby so we weren’t sure if a bike was involved. We keep rolling east toward Thomas Drive and the road is now completely blocked by more emergency vehicles turning traffic around. Finally at Ms. Newby’s, we notice a pretty light turnout so we grab some liquids and roll back to the house. The next day we hear reports that a Georgia man on a Harley lost control of his bike and later died of his injuries. 

That was sobering.

Thursday morning one of our guys needed to roll by Indian so we hit the Pancakery next door for omelets the size of a motocross seat and then hovered at Indian for a few hours. The construction, uneven pavement and concrete barriers along Back Beach Road (98) were visibly and logistically dangerous for bikes- a bit unnerving to be honest. We hit up H-D to see what’s going on over there and I check in to visit with the Panhandle Law Tigers crew.

Some shots from around the Indian and Harley shops, and our friends from Law Tigers.

Leaving H-D we end up riding behind a group of about 8-10 riders on a variety of bikes, including a custom stretched Harley Bagger, a super fast crotch rocket and a few other tourers and cruisers. Due to construction, the Harley dealership routed folks out the back behind the fire station, and to reach Frank Brown Park we were then routed west on Bay Parkway. You know how you can tell people are just lost? Yeah, the group we were following was clearly lost. Long story short, these hooligans end up needing to turn left across four lanes of traffic at the 79/98 light and proceed to rip through traffic at 60-70 mph with no helmets to get to Frank Brown Park.

You know, doing things that I’m certain the local residents and politicians despise.

The Frank Brown Park Bike Show. Found a Janus motorbike in Florida!

Our crew met at another vendor venue on Front Beach Road for Nate to get his annual PCB oil change. A few of us checked out a custom bagger audio contest. The sun was out and getting quite warm so we decided we’ve had enough and rolled back to the house to cool off in the pool. Following a great dinner at Inlet Beach we planned for a full day of riding on Friday.

A few of the wild baggers in the bike show and audio contest. It was a loud here, to say the least.

Following breakfast we headed east around 7:30 AM rolling through Panama City, Tyndall AFB, Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe, stretching our normal ride past Apalachicola and ending up at Alligator Point for lunch at the Tiki Hut. We attend these rallies primarily to ride new local roads and this route didn’t disappoint, even with a few stops for road construction.  On our way back we caught westbound Back Beach Road and just west of Jackson Blvd in front of Starbucks we saw blue lights and two bikes down (hard) shutting down all eastbound traffic on Back Beach. It seemed obvious the construction on 98 was hindering riders and cagers alike. I’m not sure of the details causing the accident but I do know two or more bikers were hurt badly. As we continued heading west, the eastbound traffic backed up for approximately seven miles. 

Not a great start to the rally weekend, but our 240 mile day ride was epic.

Whatever the rally conditions, its always worth it spending time with good friends. “Relationships are everything.”

With the air show happening, police had Front Beach Road shut down 4 blocks east and west of Pier Park. Following a few killer Thomas Donuts, two of our guys had to go back to the Indian dealership for more service issues (sorry Polaris, but it’s true). Riding around all these blocked roads is brutal on a 65 year old clutch hand so Nate and I met up four blocks east of Pier Park and rented a couple of chairs and an umbrella on the beach and prepped for the air show. With the crew back to 4 strong we watched two thirds of the show, scarfing down lunch on the beach. Temps rose so we ended up rolling back to the rental to hit the pool and watch the rest of the air show from there. Fortunately for us, we got off the roads because we heard of more multi-vehicle crashes on Back Beach Road Saturday evening.

Thunderbirds- beachside and poolside.

Again, the overall biker traffic seemed much lower than previous years and I couldn’t help but speculate this was a result of concerted efforts by Panama City Beach tourism and officials and thus by design to discourage rider attendance. I think the musical acts were asked to cancel or someone used leverage to ensure the concerts didn’t happen. Thunder Beach Rally brings a huge economic investment to the area but it just feels like the locals and city council are done with the accompanying unruly behavior, drinking and reckless riding, and loud music from those inconsiderate riders who feel the need to be noticed. Why in the world would PCB officials think scheduling an Air Show and shutting down roads all over would be a good thing for thousands of motorcycle riders?

Either they’re not thinking through their yearly event calendar planning, or they’re trying to gradually dwindle rally attendance to eventually shut it down altogether.

Just my speculation, of course.

By contrast, Daytona Beach Bike Week and the Sturgis Rally promote their event almost year round, and the locals are all-in promoting the events.  Daytona holds a Spring and Fall rally and they spread the venues out across three different towns ensuring the revenue generated positively affects as many local businesses as possible. Sturgis Rally promoters and venues such as the Buffalo Chip sell concert tickets to locals and visiting bikers alike, fostering camaraderie ad community between both groups while enjoying big name artists for the entire nine day event. 

Thunder Beach just seems to be going backwards following this year’s event. 

Recent hurricanes have done a number on Florida homeowners’ insurance rates and several areas of PCB are run-down or abandoned and in need of fresh investment. Many attractions have been bulldozed and plenty of commercial land is for sale. I’m sure COVID didn’t help and maybe that made the residents realize they like a quiet week in early May.

The consensus among our crew was that the hospitality folks were great as usual but the infrastructure construction and additional events planned during the rally made it seem unwieldy and difficult to get around. We go to ride the beautiful panhandle coastal areas but locals continue to make it difficult to get around which is a shame. I do have some great memories from the last 7 years that I will cherish for a long time. The final tally was 13 major accidents and 5 deaths during the rally.  I’m not sure what the future holds for Thunder Beach Productions fall and spring 2025 rallies but this moto journalist won’t be around to find out.

So long and best of luck with the locals raining on Thunder Beach.

Phil G.


Post Script:

Like anyone else, journalists can get wrapped up in a story and sometimes let personal opinions and assumptions take over, and we at Road Dirt try to steer clear of this phenomenon. After posting the above article we felt uneasy and thought more about the speculations made, so we decided to do some digging. In doing so we uncovered several facts that needed to be shared around what actually caused some of the issues mentioned in the article so we offer the following:

We discovered that the air show happened the same weekend because it was the only weekend the Air Force had open. Apparently they put on an air show every weekend of the year. They reluctantly agreed to have it the same weekend as Thunder Beach Rally so that they would get back in the rotation of hosting it in Panama City Beach. Our sources shared that the stacking up of events won’t happen again and PCB is trying to get an early April date in 2025. 

Regarding our closing comments on accidents and fatalities- at the last city council meeting, PCB City Manager Drew Whitman (who happens to be a past Police Chief) stated that there were a total of 3 deaths during Thunder Beach – not 5.  

Concerning the concert cancellations, a simple Google search using the prompt “Thunder Beach Promoter” shed a lot more light on the concert situation.  We understand that rally attendees should expect live music to return to Thunder Beach by the 2025 Spring Rally, if not the 2024 fall event. 

Due to the positive local economic impact of this event we felt it in the best interest to share these details. There is no way we can speak for the PCB residents like or dislike of the event, but we do know as motorcycle enthusiasts that random, isolated hooligan behavior can’t be helping the promoters or the lives of bikers, (with or without helmets).

We also discovered that Harley-Davidson of Panama City Beach sold 207 bikes in 4 days of the rally, a new record for them.

Best of luck completing the 98 construction before the Fall Rally.


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