LA CROSSE, WIS., JUNE 21-22–For most, family comes first. This assertion certainly rings true for Viola, Wisconsin-based S&S Cycle and its family of more than 200 employees. What started with a passion for speed in 1958 has grown to become a leading force in the V-twin aftermarket industry, at drag strips across America and the Bonneville Salt Flats. To celebrate, S&S threw a rockin’ party for thousands of friends, fans, employees and their families at the Oktoberfest Grounds in honor of 55 years of “Proven Performance.”
George J. Smith Sr.’s need for speed and domination of the Chicago racing scene in the 1950’s led to the founding of S&S Cycle with partner Stanley Stankos in 1958. Their first products were aluminum pushrods that converted hydraulic tappets to solid lifters, allowing stock engines of the time to operate at a much higher rpm. Smith Sr. and his wife, Marjorie, bought out Stankos’ shares the following year and started business operations in the family’s Blue Island, Illinois, basement before relocating the company to Viola in 1969.
In the late 70’s, son George B. Smith Jr. joined the company, along with Smith Sr.’s two sons-in-law, upholding the family ties to the operation. Smith Sr. suffered heart failure and passed away in 1980, and many credit Marjorie for leading the company while showing steady growth through the early 90’s. Marjorie passed away in 1992, and the second generation of the Smith family assumed responsibility for the company. In 2004, a second facility was opened in La Crosse.
Gates opened at the famed Oktoberfest Grounds on Friday afternoon at 4:00, and ubiquitous emcee Jay Allen officially kicked things off shortly after with a welcome ceremony and party in the pavilion. Allen introduced Smith Jr., current chairman and CEO, who thanked everyone for coming despite the forecast, which called for severe weather both days along the Mighty Mississippi. Smith Jr. then introduced company President Stephen Iggens, who thanked his family and the employees in an emotional welcome that set the tone for the weekend. It was clear the 55th Anniversary Celebration was about honoring the S&S family of employees and racers, both past and present.
“We talk about being family and a team constantly at S&S,” said Iggens, “and all we try to do is set expectations and exceed them every day here in La Crosse and Viola. The employees are the heart and soul of this company, and without them we can’t do anything.”
After the welcome it was time to party, and if live music is your thing then this was the place to be. S&S went over the top for the 55th bringing in musical acts to entertain ears all weekend long. The bands Peacheaters, New Black Seven and the Outlaws rocked the Oktoberfest Grounds Friday night. On Saturday, The Dave Rogers Band kicked things off in the afternoon, followed by Last Call and The Eric Tessmer Band before Foghat absolutely brought the house down amidst a downpour and spectacular light show courtesy of Mother Nature in the open-air, but (thankfully) covered, pavilion.
Before all that rockin’ began on Saturday, S&S fueled attendees by hosting a pancake breakfast courtesy of the Kickapoo High School Track Club at their facility in Viola. Two rides departed from the La Crosse S&S facility at 8:00 a.m., giving participants the option of taking the “River Route” via Great River Road, Wisconsin’s only National Scenic Byway, or the “Wildcat Route” comprised of sweeping, two-lane county roads through Wildcat Mountain State Park and the upper Kickapoo region.
During the breakfast in Viola, S&S also hosted the Racing Legends Roundtable Meet and Greet. Attendees could rev up on caffeine and flapjacks while listening to a panel led by Smith Jr. that included S&S engineers, 16-time land-speed record holder Warner Riley, Chris Rivas who piloted the “world’s fastest bagger” to 201.707 mph at Bonneville, Mike Witt and Jim Fischer of the “Grey Ghost Project” and retired multiple top-fuel championship title winner Pete Hill, among many others.
After the roundtable discussion fans were offered guided tours of both the facility and the newly remodeled museum, which was the centerpiece of the plant tours during the weekend, according to Smith Jr. A historical timeline display telling the story of S&S Cycle from the Blue Island basement through today, the museum offered a glimpse at the technical evolution of the company’s V-twin performance products. On display was Smith Sr.’s “Tramp” race bike from the early 50’s, every powerplant S&S has designed and manufactured including the first X-Wedge prototype ever produced, the Bonneville streamliner, drag bikes, photographs, awards and much more.
“This 55th was more intended to focus on Viola here,” said Smith Jr. “We wanted to showcase the new museum, the employees and the tours so that people can find out what’s really happening here at S&S. It’s a little bit more about the nuts and bolts instead of glamour. The employees are what make this company; they are the heart and soul of S&S. So far the turnout is good considering the circumstances; the problem has been the weather. After the 50th, it was a tough act to follow; we had 50 builders from all over the world, which brought in a lot of people.”
Smith Jr. was referring to the 50 builders invited to compete in a bike-build competition for the 50th Anniversary. This year, S&S took aim at the future builders of America by inviting chopper classes from Eden High School (New York), La Crescent-Hoka High School in nearby La Crescent, Wisconsin, Kennedy High School from Bloomington, Minnesota, Perham High School in Perham, Minnesota and PowerSport Institute (PSI) from Cleveland, Ohio, to compete in the Student Bike Build Challenge. Most of these schools have competed in the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge held annually during the Donnie Smith Bike Show in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I was here for the 50th, and I think they’re making the right choice moving towards the kids,” said Donnie Smith, prior to the unveiling. “That’s our future and it’s great what S&S is doing with them. This along with what we do at the annual Chopper Class Challenge is more about just highlighting the kids. We’re highlighting the teachers; builders who are sharing their knowledge with kids that really want to learn.”
Steve Jones, the Eden High School Chopper Class/Engineering instructor, shared his thoughts on his students and the chopper class curriculum: “This has become a big part of the culture in the school and has been around for seven years now,” said Jones. It’s a big part of these kids’ lives and they put a lot of spare time into it—weekends, holidays. They’re absolutely thrilled and honored to be invited to the 55th. We’ve been out of school for over two weeks now and they’re coming in every day, eight hours a day, to wrench and get the bike done. I’ve been teaching a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that’s as personally rewarding as this.”
For the 55th, each class was given an S&S X-Wedge engine to power their build for the Challenge, and all five schools delivered with show-quality specimens that were unveiled during a blowout presentation in the pavilion on Friday night before Jay Allen introduced country music favorites the Outlaws who rocked the stage.
“I’ve been a part of the S&S family for more than a decade now and to me this is more important than the Harley 110th,” said Allen. No disrespect to Harley, but to me S&S is my Harley-Davidson. Thanks to them I’ve been a part of 19 land-speed records and an amazing family that goes back 55 years making great products and doing it the right way keeping it here in America. I just wanted to be here. What they’re doing with these young builders is also great. I’m just honored to be a part of it.”
Foghat closed out the big bash on Saturday night, and those who left with their ear buds still intact moseyed over to Howie’s in downtown La Crosse for an after-party where the Eric Tessmer Band rocked the remaining buds to bed.
It was clear that highlighting the S&S “family” of employees was the focus for the two-day bash, and suffice it to say most there felt they were part of it, if not just for the short weekend party. The countless employees roaming the grounds in the S&S-blue T-shirts were out to make sure all attendees’ needs were met. The history on display in the museum and public plant tours welcomed guests into the last 55 years of that “family.” The top-notch music and vendors, great Wisconsin beer (New Glarus Spotted Cow—highly recommend it) and the overall feel of a party atmosphere made for a great celebration. And, as we all know… folks in Wisconsin know how to party. Now, how the hell are they going to top this for the 60th?