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BMW Rally celebrates 27 years in Paonia

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Photo by Ben Lehman, www.lehmanimages.com Paonia photographer Ben Lehman shot this aerial image of the BMW rally's Black Canyon Ride from Paonia to Hermit's Roost. The plane was piloted by Larry Garrett of Paonia. Garrett also donated a scenic ride to the

The roughly 550 riders in Paonia last week for the BMW rally have been to many rallies, but the general consensus it that the BMW Motor Cycle Club of Colorado's Top O' the Rockies Rally in Paonia is second to none.

"This relationship that we have with the town is very different," said club president Michael Kilgore. A typical rally, he said, doesn't stay in one town for long, and doesn't involve the community like Paonia does.

This is the BMWMCC rally's 45th year. "To our understanding, it's the longest continuous rally in North America," as sanctioned by the Motorcycle Owners of America, said Kilgore.

In its early days the rally was held at Breckenridge, Winter Park and other resort towns. But once the club discovered Paonia, they wanted to stay, said Rally Master Matthew Baroody.

Some riders ended up moving here, said Scott Kellogg of Paonia, who for nine years has overseen registration.

The all-volunteer social/cultural non-profit motorcycle club currently has 343 members from across the country and runs entirely on volunteers. They host numerous events throughout the year, including the 100,000 Foot Ride that climbs more feet in elevation in a single day than any other ride, and an annual Graveyard Run on Halloween. "We're not exclusive BMW riders," said Kilgore. "We would welcome any motorcyclists."

Because of public perception and reputation of motorcycle gangs, club members strive to differentiate themselves from gangs, said Kilgore. "We're family-oriented, inclusive, and we fly no colors."

But what makes this rally really special, said Baroody, is the club's great relationship with the town. "It's been such a long, lovely relationship."

Locally, the rally is run by the Ellen Hansen Smith Teen Center board of directors. The board opens the teen center for the entire event, provides coffee, and maintains Town Park bathrooms and showers at Paonia High School where camping is also available.

The relationship developed between teen center and club has just been incredible, said teen center board member Bob Bushta. "Financially, it would not be an independent organization without the BMW rally." Because 2015 was a big success, the rally was the largest donor to this year's 70th annual Cherry Days celebration. The Cherry Days Committee also took over operations of the beer garden this year, which for the first time in four years will allow them to begin the 2017 celebration with money in the bank.

Other organizations also benefit. For the past 10 years the Lions Club has donated tables and sells pulled pork sandwiches. The Lions Club Scholarship Foundation received a generous donation from the rally last year, said Bushta.

The Paonia High School senior class raises funds by selling breakfast daily and sets up for the field events. Boy Scout Troop 477 helps with set-up, and the Young Women's Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sells ice to benefit its summer camp. Paonia Elementary School provides the sound system and use of its office.

In return, they all receive a donation from the club.

Rally-goers provide tremendous support, said Bushta. This year's annual Kids' Pasta Project dinner, which benefited the family of Mike Hillman, sold out. The annual benefit bake sale, which began about four years ago, raised money for Aaron Frazier, a husband and father who was injured in a four-wheeler wreck and faces heavy medical bills.

In the past the rally has funded a trailer for the PHS Marching Band, which loans it to the rally to store and secure equipment; trimming of park trees; improvements to the Miners' statue; improvements to the Town Park bathroom; and repairs to sidewalks.

The Town of Paonia supports the rally and provides the park. In lieu of a fee, vendors donate something to the annual drawing held Saturday night during closing ceremonies. At the ceremony the club recognizes everyone who makes it possible to come back year after year, including park maintenance manager Mikel Altenhofen, who just two weeks earlier was cleaning up after Cherry Days.

But talk to just about anyone involved and they will give the bulk of the credit to Ellen Smith. A longtime resident, teacher and event organizer, the teen center's namesake died in May of 2012, and is still remembered as the one who made the event a success.

While some things changed after Smith died, "She was the biggest part of why we stayed," said Baroody. "And every year, it's been such a wonderful time... It wouldn't happen without this relationship we've had for all these years."

Smith ran the rally for 22 years. "I can say with all the humility in the world that I'm sure a much better planner than Ellen ever was," said Bushta, who has led local organizational efforts the past four years. "However, it would take a dozen people to bring the heart and love that she would bring to a rally."

"Ellen's goal, always, with everything she did was to focus on the town youth," said Bushta. While the event's structure has changed, "That focus remains."

BMWMCC volunteers also make the event run smoothly. They provide their own 24-hour security, and "Officer Bob," a retired policeman from North Carolina, volunteers 16 hours a day for security detail and has the Paonia Police Department on speed dial.

They also bring their own entertainment, which this year featured Katy Guillen and the Girls, an all-female blues band out of Kansas City, and the Already Gone Band. "We always want the town to know they're more than welcome to come and watch the music and enjoy their park," said Baroody.

With highs in the 80s and very little rain, this year's weather was ideal. "Years ago they would always say that we would bring the rain to Paonia," said Baroody. "It's what the rally was known for."

At closing ceremonies, individuals were recognized for their contributions to the rally, prizes were given to the youngest (17) and oldest (86) riders, the oldest bike (1968 BMW R60), and farthest-traveled (three riders, from Vancouver, B.C., Washington state, and the United Kingdom), and a wallet found at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison made its way back to its rightful owner.

"You folks have always been a class act," said Paonia Mayor Charles Stewart, who called the rally "a wonderful tradition. It's just very much appreciated by the town." In describing what a great event the rally has become, Stewart referred to the wallet. He wish riders safe travels, and told them, "We definitely want you back again."

Photo by Randy Sunderland “Coon Dog” Carl Thomte, promoter for the BMWMCC, introduces the all-female blues band, Katy Guillen & the Girls Friday night during the annual Top O’ The Rockies Rally at Paonia Town Park. The rally provides its own entertainment and invites the public to join them.
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