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Dennis Rogers: Ray Price wasn’t just a motorsports legend – he was family

Ray Price in his race prep shop at Ray Price Harley Davidson in Raleigh in February 2015. The portrait is part of series by Christer Berg recognizing and celebrating people who contribute positively to our community.
Ray Price in his race prep shop at Ray Price Harley Davidson in Raleigh in February 2015. The portrait is part of series by Christer Berg recognizing and celebrating people who contribute positively to our community. Courtesy of Christer Berg

He wasn’t a legend then, back in 1982 when I first met him. He was just a Johnston County mechanic with grease on his hands, dreams in his heart and hope in his eyes.

But something clicked when I shook hands with Ray Price that day in October. We were in his shabby little shop in a run-down strip on Capital Boulevard north of the Beltline. I had come to feed the passion that strikes a lot of men when they turn 40: I wanted a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and I wanted it right then.

Never mind that I’d never ridden a motorcycle of any size – that 50 cc scooter from Sears back in 1968 didn’t count – this was my damn midlife crisis and I was going to make the most of it. A man only turns 40 once.

That day I became the proud owner of a black and chrome 1981 Wide Glide that I had no idea how to ride and friend to two of the nicest people I’ve ever met, Ray and his sensational wife, Jean. I had clearly lost my mind, and I was the happiest man in Raleigh.

Ray died Wednesday night at 78.

Jean took care of the books and in those pre-computer years of paper, pencils and adding machines, each customer had a specific number based on when they’d bought their bike.

I was Number 8.

The shop grew as Ray’s business increased, but some things never changed. If you rode a Ray Price bike, you were family. If you broke down on a run, there was someone to fix the problem and get you going. Meanwhile, the rest of the group waited patiently. I blew a rear tire on the way to Maggie Valley and everybody stopped while a mechanic pulled a replacement out of a truck and fixed it. A broken clutch cable would have left me stranded in Spivey’s Corner had I not been riding with Ray. We didn’t leave people behind.

We were not a motorcycle club with officers and insignia in those days. We just called ourselves “the group.” But there was brotherhood and sisterhood and there was Ray and Jean leading the pack. Our wild times at rallies most often were going out to dinner together and then coming back to the motel and hanging out with the Prices. Yes, we were customers and willingly gave them our hard-earned dollars, but they were friends.

Much has been made of their charitable efforts, from highly publicized Toys for Tots rides to the 100,000 or so folks who jammed downtown for Bikefest each September to raise money for charity. But there were other, more private kindnesses. When our daughter was killed, Ray and Jean were there to help with her daughters’ scholarship fund. Twice a year we organized an unadvertised ride to the Free Will Baptist Children’s Home in Middlesex, where we put on a Christmas Party (with Santa on a Harley) in December and a cookout each summer.

Ray became an important and successful Harley dealer, the largest in the Southeast. The executives who ran the international company often sought his counsel. His success enabled him to step back from the business side and pursue his true passion: riding like a bat out of hell down a drag strip.

Overall, he won more than 40 drag racing championships. He set more than 50 speed records and was heading wide open for middle age when he crashed at 218 miles per hour in 2003.

We thought we’d lose our friend, mentor and godfather, but those ol’ boys reared on Johnston County tobacco farms were tough as a cob. Ray fought back, and although his drag racing days were done, he never lost his love for speed or his knack for business. He became the King of South Saunders Street, a workingman’s boulevard where Ray and Jean’s beautiful store shines like a homecoming beacon. It is an unofficial clubhouse where the coffee is always on, you’ll always see someone you’ve ridden with before, and the hugs from Jean and Ray were free and plentiful.

My wife, who knows a thing or two about good hugs, said, “When you’ve been hugged by Ray or Jean, you know you’ve been hugged.”

Words like “community” get overused a lot lately, but no word better describes what Ray and Jean built from the ground up. We lived, laughed, cried, got mad and got over it, fell in love, fell out of love, buried some friends, made new ones and went places we never dreamed of, all in good company. Rumbling down a pretty road on a perfect day, following Ray Price to some new adventure or just down the road for an ice cream cone was an unforgettable experience.

So here’s to you, Ray. Some night, when it’s quiet and I’m alone with my memories of the past, I’ll hear a distant Harley winding through the gears, and I know I’ll think of you.

Rest in peace, my friend. It was a great ride.

Dennis Rogers: dennis.rogers.nando@gmail.com

Ray Price, 1937-2015

▪ Johnston county native

▪ Won 46 national racing events and 51 national racing records.

▪ Inducted into the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame.

▪ Mayor Nancy McFarlane called Thursday “a sad day for Raleigh as we mourn the loss of a legend.” “Ray Price was a local business and community leader known not only for his achievements in motorsports but also for his community leadership and generosity.”

▪ Charity events included Toys for Tots run, Ray Price Easter Basket Ride and Capital City Bikefest.

▪ Survived by his wife, Jean; daughter, Robin; and grandchildren Rebecca and Jordan Richardson.

▪ Services will be on Sunday. Visitation at Ray Price Harley-Davidson, 1126 S. Saunders St., from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; motorcycle ride from dealership to Red Hat Amphitheater, 500 S. McDowell St., from 1-2 p.m.; memorial service at Red Hat from 2 p.m.-2:40 p.m.; motorcycle ride from Red Hat to Montlawn Memorial Park, 2911 S. Wilmington St., from 2:40 p.m.-3 p.m., graveside services at Montlawn, 3 p.m. All are open to the public.

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