ST. PAUL, MINN., March 23-24–It was opening time for the first day of the 26th annual Donnie Smith Bike Show and Parts Extravaganza, and the line snaked from the show entrance all the way to the exit doors. The two-day event, held at the colossal St. Paul RiverCentre, has long been acknowledged as the biggest and best bike show in the Midwest, and each year the organizers have upped the ante, providing an ever-increasing depth and breadth of motorcycle-related offerings.
This year, though, was over the moon, with the show moving well beyond a regional event and cementing its reputation as a national showcase. For the first time, in addition to seeing all the Midwest motorcycle stalwarts, show attendees were able to experience a flavor of both the East and West Coasts with Indian Larry Motorcycles out of Brooklyn, New York, and Kiwi Indian Motorcycles based in Riverdale, California, setting up displays. Every year, top-name builders have graced the exhibit halls, and this year, show newcomers John Shope of Sinister Industries from Phoenix, Arizona, and Eddie Trotta of Thunder Cycle Design based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, paid a visit to check out the latest custom builds. And the bike competition itself has been transformed with a new class arrangement this year.
Swap ’n’ shop
The event itself is actually several shows within a show. On the street level of the convention center, the entire lobby is taken up with various vendors, manufacturers, dealerships and charitable organizations. There is no charge to peruse the merchandise, and folks spent quite a bit of time checking out pull-behind motorcycle trailers, new bike models, fur hats, leathers, and other biker paraphernalia. Motorcycle safety schools, veterans’ organizations and charities promoted their organizations, some with bike raffles. Others were acquainting visitors with their campgrounds and vacation spots. It was great to catch up with my friends Dan and Brandy Vuich, owners of the Blue Highway Motorcycle Lodge, and find out what’s happening at their little slice of heaven in rural Wisconsin.
The lobby is always crowded with a sort of cross-pollination that occurs, with several events taking place in other areas of the convention center. The Mary Kay Career Conference has, for the past decade or so, been held the same weekend as the Donnie Smith show. This year, the Red Baron WCHA Final Five and Minnesota Wild hockey games took place both days of the convention, as well as the Minnesota Roller Girls match on Saturday and a Rihanna concert Sunday night. The result of all this was a fascinating juxtaposition of red business suits, hockey jerseys, spike heels and black leather, which strangely melded quite well, even when some of these passers-by spilled downstairs into the lower level of the show.
As per my usual custom I took the escalator downstairs to the main show floor and hightailed it to the swap meet that populates 40,000 square feet in a hall adjoining the main exhibit area. Apparently it’s everyone else’s custom, too; almost as soon as the show opened, the swap meet was mobbed with backyard builders picking over the displays of new and used parts, looking for that perfect front end, wheel or fender to complete their winter projects. It is far larger than any swap meet I’ve seen in the Northeast, and every year vendors must be turned away because the space fills up so quickly.
In the main exhibit hall, every bit of the more than 70,000 square feet of space was packed with all things motorcycle, and then some. Custom painters, powder coaters, pinstripers and artists dazzled the eye with examples of their colorful craft. Craftsmen like Dan Weller of Parts Reincarnated displayed unique lamps and clocks made out of repurposed bike parts. Leathers, helmets, eyewear and apparel drew in serious riding gear shoppers, while jewelry, pins, patches and other trinkets proved popular with others.
Major show sponsor Dennis Kirk had plenty of parts and accessories on display, including a Switchback adorned with Küryakyn goodies. One of the Dennis Kirk staff handed me a Küryakyn accessories sheet especially for the Switchback, and I entertained myself for a while checking out what had been installed on the bike, as well as peppering the staffer with questions about the other parts listed. I could easily see an L.E.D. headlight, and maybe taillight, in my future.
Other nationally known companies that had displays set up included major show sponsor Amsoil, J&P Cycles, Drag Specialties, S&S Cycle, House of Kolor and Wizards cleaning products. Other exhibits included motorcycle jacks, pull-behind motorcycle trailers, sound systems and other products geared toward the riding public.
A few ABATE chapters set up displays, as did Shriners and several motorcycle clubs, offering information on their organizations, as well as future runs, events and fundraisers. There was no lack of raffles in case you wanted to take a chance on a new bike and support a worthy cause at the same time. The Antique Motorcycle Club of America, Viking Chapter, had a dozen fascinating antiques on display. And at the National Motorcycle Museum exhibit was its smiling board president John Parham. It’s always cool to see John there because he actually founded the show as part of a series of Midwest shows a quarter-century ago. Since then it changed hands and finally Neil Ryan took it over some years ago and brought in Donnie Smith to help create the world-class event it is today
In 2004, Kevin “Teach” Baas, manufacturing technology/engineering instructor at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, founded the Kennedy High School Chopper Class, and the next year the kids displayed their first custom creation at the Donnie Smith Bike Show. The year after that, other schools that had started their own chopper classes began to compete in the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge. More high schools created chopper classes and came from all over North America (including Canada) to compete, and the Chopper Class Challenge quickly became one of the brightest spots in the show. The chopper classes have captured the attention of the entire motorcycle trade, and many parts manufacturers have donated various components to help these self-funded efforts succeed. After all, these kids are the future of our industry.
This year brought two other high school builds to the show, as well. In honor of S&S Cycle’s 55th anniversary, five high school classes were invited to build custom bikes powered by S&S-supplied 117″ X-Wedge engines. Displaying their handiwork at the Lil’ Evil Inkorpor8ted booth were some of the kids from the Perham High School class from Perham, Minnesota. Lil’ Evil, owned by former S&S employee Kurt Peterson, helped with the design and construction of the bike. The custom, called Lethal Injection, started with an X-Wedge and a Baker Drivetrain RSD 5-speed stuffed into a Daytec Raptor 300 Softail frame. Lots of customization ensued to integrate components donated by many industry leaders. The students worked on the bike for 90 minutes every day during breaks, plus after class, for 13 weeks, with an estimated 350 to 400 combined hours put in. The judges recognized the effort that went into the bike because it scored Best Radical in the Open Class competition.
Another group of high school guests invited to the show came from Sturgis Brown High School. Four years ago, the high school students were “commissioned” by the Buffalo Chip to build a bike to be auctioned off for the Chip’s Legends Ride held during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Each year industry leaders mentor the current crop of kids, and this is the second year that Keith Terry of Terry Components, along with Randy and Nick Cramer of Dakota V-Twin, have worked alongside Instructors Chad Hedderman and Bill Johnson to help them construct the Student Build Challenge Bike. With their mentors’ help, the kids customized a stock 2012 Road King, spending 377 combined hours on the project. It was also the contributors—the list read like a who’s who in the motorcycle industry—who made the build possible. Rod Woodruff, owner of the Buffalo Chip, was present to show his appreciation and congratulate the kids for winning first place in the Full Custom Bagger category, as well as the Overall Best Display for their Western-themed setup. The bike will be auctioned after the Legends Ride on August 5 this year.
Meet and compete
Custom and performance shops such as Deadline Customs, DD Custom Cycles, TJ Design and Two Eight Customs vied for the crowd’s attention by showing off their latest builds. Route 65 Classics and Fury Motorcycles provided alternatives to buying new. Roadsmith Trikes and Chopper City/Boss Hoss appealed to the three-wheeled crowd. American Thunder, the shop owned by promoter Neil Ryan, had set up a display, and Donnie Smith Custom Cycles exhibited some of their latest creations while Donnie himself played host to both friends and fans, in between autographing posters and T-shirts and posing for photos.
Osseo Powersports displayed their Hondas at the show for the first time this year, and all 12 Victory Motorcycle dealers in Minnesota were represented, offering a show special of $1,000 off the purchase of a new bike. Indian Motorcycles of the Twin Cities increased the size of their exhibit this year, adding Triumph to the mix and encompassing Kiwi Indian Motorcycles with their display. The companies complemented each other nicely, as Mike “Kiwi” Tomas provides parts and support for vintage Indians and is one of the top experts today on vintage Indian technology. (Join Mike and dealership owner Art Welch for the 2nd annual Indians Only ride on August 17 this year.)
This was also Indian Larry Motorcycles’ first time at the Donnie Smith show. In fact, it was their first time exhibiting at a show in the Midwest, as the crew generally attends events on the East Coast, West Coast, or in Europe or Asia. Bobby and Elisa Seeger brought several Indian Larry-inspired customs to exhibit, as well as setting up shop for Genuine Motorworks, Elisa’s business that features American-made apparel. I happened to be hanging out at the booth when a guy named Nick from St. Cloud, Minnesota, showed off his Indian Larry tattoo to Bobby and Elisa. At the show I’d noticed a number of tattoos that featured the famous winged question mark, and I asked if the Seegers were surprised to see so many Midwesterners, many of whom had never met Indian Larry, inked with the iconic logo. Bobby just smiled and said, “We see this all over the world.”
The centerpiece of the show, however, was the judged bike competition. This year, the Baddest Bagger category was introduced by American Bagger magazine, who also did the judging. Each of the top four winners received cash and a trophy created by Deadline Customs, with additional prizes donated by Baddest Bagger sponsors Milwaukee Baggers, Legend Air Suspension, RC Components, NAMZ Custom Cycle Products and others. Fourth place was awarded to Curtis Hoffman for his 2012 Road King, third went to John Bryant for his 2007 Street Glide, second was taken by Isaac Coursolle for his 2008 Road King and Marshall Starrett earned first place—and a $5,000 Deadline Customs paint job—with his 2010 Road King.
The Donnie Smith Bike Show’s Open Class competition occupied a huge portion of the exhibit hall, with about 125 competitors entered into 35 classes that were also eligible for 10 special awards. I can only guess that the creativity involved in some of these customs was a result of those long Minnesota winters when builders let their imaginations run wild. Theme bikes were, as always, quite popular, some enhanced with elaborate, lighted displays. I saw everything from military scenes to fantasy fiction painted on tanks and fenders, and every brand and era, both professionally and home built, that one could imagine.
Hanging around the bikes in the Open Class, I met some of the more interesting folks at the show. One such individual was Jeff Bertheld of Frozen Tundra Cushmans who buys, restores, customizes and sells Cushmans out of his garage in Princetown, Minnesota. Jeff and his wife Dana had on display a ’63 Cushman Eagle that sported all original factory options for that year, and on Sunday we learned that it took first place in the Special Interest class. Jeff is a past national president and past Minnesota president of the Cushman Club of America, and organized the National Cushman Club Convention in Sturgis in June 2010. Who knew? The club is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Cushman Motor Scooters, which were manufactured between 1936 and 1965. Check out www.cushmanclubofamerica.com to find out more about the club and this fascinating era of American scooter history.
This year the Pro Class had been transformed into the Premier Class, which had a limit of 20 entries. Customs in the Premier Class are exhibited in a special high-profile display area that’s carpeted and surrounded by stanchions. Premier Class entries each receive a personalized display plaque, and each of the top five winners is awarded cash and a limited-edition Donnie Smith show trophy. The judges didn’t seem partial to just one style, either. First place was earned by Brent Law of Cycle Boyz Custom out of Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, for his 1979 FLH named Lucille, which was handmade and manually machined. The intricate engraving on the motor and other metal was done by the amazingly talented Heather New from New-Line Engraving in Alberta, Canada. Second place was a wild—and extremely lengthy—trike powered by two 383 c.i., 620 hp blown Chevy engines and automatic sprint car transmission owned by Jackie and Gary Ries of Hastings, Minnesota.
Over $7,500 in cash and awards were given across the Open and Premier classes. Guy Ohland, one of about 10 experts on the judging panel, observed, “This year was by far the hardest to judge. The caliber has been stepped up one more level.” He went on to share a little insight as to what the judges looked for: “Continuity, quality of workmanship and detail, detail, detail.”
Promoter Neil Ryan commented, “The show is a whirlwind that keeps on changing year after year. It’s what people want to do; what people want to see. This show is so popular because not only does it have a bike show, swap meet, and different types of vendors, it’s also a social event. People come to have fun.”
Adding to the social scene, Donnie’s birthday is always around the time of the show, meaning plenty of celebrations with parties. On Saturday at 5:00 p.m., a happy hour took place right on the showroom floor. Major show sponsor Budweiser had a serving station set up in the center of the show floor, and tables and chairs were set out in front of the stage. The Lamont Cranston Blues Band from Rockford, Minnesota, rocked the exhibit hall, and their kick-ass performance held the crowd until the 7:00 closing time. The band was a national act from 1976 to 1982, and one of their hit songs, “Mississippi Shakedown,” is still played on the radio in this region.
Tradition calls for grabbing dinner after the show and then heading for the Whiskey Junction in Minneapolis for a continuation of Donnie’s birthday celebration. I now know better than to declare, “I’m just staying for an hour and then I need to get some sleep.” Fortunately the show opened an hour later on Sunday morning.
Sunday afternoon, when I asked Donnie what he observed this year, he responded, “People are real tired of winter. Politics have settled down and people are working with what they’ve got and are ready to get back onto their bikes. Our shop is starting to see an upturn in business. Ya know, we’re always trying to get more value for the dollar for the show. And the vendors yesterday thought the show rocked. Everybody I talked to said it’s the best they’ve done in the last four or five years.” Neil Ryan added, “Some of the vendors told me that their numbers rivaled that of major rallies where they set up. People still bought tickets after 5:00 p.m. yesterday because there was so much going on, with the band, happy hour, the vendors and the swap meet. This year’s attendance nearly equaled that of our best-attended show five or six years ago, before the industry tanked. And our numbers are real, not estimated!”
How will they top this year’s event? Neil sees the Premier Class blossoming in the coming years. And Donnie revealed, “Next year, we’ll have a bike and car show. It’ll be named the 27th annual Donnie Smith Bike and Car Show. We’re looking for street rods; we’re expanding the show to 200,000 square feet for 100 cars and even more vendors.”
The next show will be held March 29–30, 2014. Keep an eye on www.donniesmithbikeshow.com for more details in the coming months. 4
Donnie Smith Bike Show Premier Class Winners
1) Brent Law of Cycle Boyz Custom, Brandon, Manitoba, Canada: 1979 Custom FLH
2) Gary Ries, Hastings, Minnesota: V8-Powered Custom Trike
3) Dan Rognsvoog, Franksville, Wisconsin: Custom Ironhead
4) Nick Popa, Forest Lake, Minnesota: 2007 Custom Road Glide
5) Rey Bordhauser, Red Wing, Minnesota: Lucas Oil-Themed Big Twin Custom
Open Class Special Awards
Best Paint: Brandon Larson, Nelson, Wisconsin
Best Display: Sturgis Brown High School, Sturgis, South Dakota
Best Lighting: Billy Wesp, Crystal, Minnesota
Best Antique: Bill Lykken, Grafton, North Dakota
Best Bagger: Robert Dirisin, New Market, Ontario
Best Bobber: Charlie Nash of Enough Said Customs, Forest Lake, Minnesota
Best Chopper: David Polgreen, Shoreview, Minnesota
Best Pro-Street: Perry Rosentreter, Minnesota
Best Sport Bike: Josh Headlee, Coon Rapids, Minnesota
Judge’s Choice: Isaac Coursolle, Prior Lake, Minnesota