Seven Questions for Las Vegas Harley-Davidson’s Don Andress

With a new Harley-Davidson store set to open near the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, the 18-year franchise co-owner talks about growing up on two wheels.

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

When did you become involved with motorcycles, and what was the bike culture like in Las Vegas then?

I had a bike I rode when I was 12. It was a Villiers Dot, a British bike. I rode that for a while. Then I had a Triumph Tiger Cub 200cc small bike. My first Harley was in 1966. It was a Sportster XLCH. It was an 883. It was still nice to ride in this area, because there wasn’t much traffic.

The Harley store at that time was, I think, 711 First Street, which would have been a few blocks south of Fremont. It was a little shop, probably 2,000 square feet. It was actually a duplex. There was a cleaner on one side and the Harley store on the other side. The building is still there.

My original exposure to Harley-Davidson was the first one was built across the street from my grandfather’s Chrysler/Plymouth dealership. The Harley store was literally—you might have a shed in the back yard? That’s what it was. Dirt floors. It was right where the California Hotel is today. I used to run around over there when I was a little kid. It was pretty rustic.

Growing up around the dealership, were you a car guy or were you more into bikes?

I’ve always loved cars. I’ve always had way more cars than I needed. I had a bunch of hot rods. My dad had a race car. They used to have a racetrack where the Silver Slipper was—now it’s nothing. They called it the Sportsdome. That was a quarter-mile circle track in the late ’40s, early ’50s. That was before NASCAR.

Did you do any racing yourself?

I did some off-road racing. Mostly cars, though. We used to ride motorcycles through the desert a lot, but not racing.  I think I finished three or four Mints in the ‘70s. There was a race called the Sonoroa 250, which me and my partner won. We had a car for four or five years. [The racing] didn’t last that long. I had to start going to work and making money.

With Shelby American being in the same area of your new dealership, did you consider  you were creating a little cluster for motor tourism?

Not really. I think Shelby having the ability to put it where it is was probably a good idea, but it doesn’t cross over much. Some people love bikes and cars, but most weigh more on the car side or the bike side. Some people, all their vacations are consumed by motorcycle trips.  A lot of the rental customers we have are renting bikes from Europe in Vegas, and they’ll take a 30- day trip all over the United States. They can leave the bike here and fly back [to] wherever. We get a lot of people from France, from Germany and England, but we get a lot from Asia now. Japan is huge. I think they’re more passionate about Harley than the Americans. The Japanese dealers, they go crazy.

Is there a road trip from Vegas that’s exceptional on a bike compared to a car?

There are four or five rides from Las Vegas to Utah that are day rides. You can go up to the Grand Canyon and back. You can come back through St. George or Cedar City. You can go to the coast in four hours. You’ll probably stay overnight. Even if you don’t go real far north—if you go up to San Simeon and back to Vegas, that’s a nice loop. Or you can go from San Simeon up through Big Sur, Carmel into San Francisco and up into Northern California by the Redwoods. The Redwoods are really a cool bike trip.

There are a lot of good roads in Southern California, too. I used to go up the Ortega Highway. You can go all the way to the Palm Desert, or you can stop at Lake Elsinore It’s like 80 miles round trip, and it’s like 10,000 turns. All the crotch-rocket guys go up there. They have a place called the Lookout where all of a sudden there will be 300 bikes and everybody sitting around talking.

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

Summers here aren’t an ideal time to ride. How do you handle the heat?

Most people go early in the morning. The Germans, however, love to go to Death Valley in the middle of the summer with all their leathers on. Big smile on their face. I guess it rains and is so cold there all the time. I was sweating. It was 120 degrees. Those guys were just laughing and having a blast.

Harley has been touring an electric bike, the Live Wire, around the country. Will electric bikes take off like electric cars have?

[Co-owner] Tim [Cashman] and I were original investors in this bike called Lightning. There are several electric bikes out there now. I think Harley’s done a good job of bringing a new idea to market. Having the customer input is a very good thing. We’re trying to get that Live Wire at the grand opening [Nov. 1]. Hopefully we can get it there and let people take test rides as part of the grand opening. Once they get the distance and the battery life for electric bikes [figured out]—the last thing you need to do is be pushing your bike down the road because you didn’t have any juice.

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