This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Donnie Smith Bike Show held at the St. Paul RiverCentre. Donnie has been part of the custom motorcycle scene for several decades and continues to build bikes and support the industry. The hall-of-fame master builder has also helped to bring the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge into existence.
It started a few years ago when Kevin “Teach” Baas, an instructor at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, was spotted having students in his high school shop class work on motorcycles. Teach then took their builds to the Donnie Smith Bike Show as a way of showing off their accomplishments. Soon other schools were looking to see how they could do the same. Since then there have been at least eight schools that have build teams working on custom cycles for what is now called the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge (DSCCC). Teach has since removed his Kennedy High School class from the challenge so they could have a little more freedom on what they are showing, including bikes that are still in the build process. Teach is a great supporter of the DSCCC and works with other schools, teaching them how to gain sponsors to raise money, and even by donating some of his signature parts he has developed.
Each school that chooses to participate gets a set of guidelines from Scottie Ard, the DSCCC coordinator. She works at keeping the show fresh and keeping the schools involved. Each build team is required to keep records, including a financial accounting of their build, while also logging their time spent on the build. This makes it more than just about cutting and welding; it teaches students about the business aspects of running a custom bike shop. Some schools have the class as part of the regular curriculum while others offer it as after-school clubs. Most classes have no school funding, either. It takes volunteers, donations and sponsors to keep them rolling.
The three schools in attendance this year were Eden Junior/Senior High School out of Eden, New York, Mitchell Technical Institute from
Mitchell, South Dakota, and La Crescent-Hokah High School in La Crescent, Minnesota. Each school did an excellent job of representing themselves, while also showing what the chopper challenge is all about. The students had to stay near their build and “sell” it to the potential voters for the people’s choice award. Explaining where they started and how they got to the finished product was a big deal. With so many novice judges (most of the show attendees, in fact) it was hard to pick out the small things that each class did to customize their bike. Some of the schools have as many as 30 students eager to learn about custom motorcycles, but each school is allowed a maximum of eight students to represent their build at the show, regardless of how many students are in the class or helped build the bike.
Mitchell came well prepared with their build that was brought to them as a near-totaled Kawasaki Vulcan 900cc. They managed to integrate parts from a Honda, Triumph, Harley and even a Schwinn before their build was done. Oddly enough, the bike’s radiator shroud looks like a chain guard from a Schwinn bicycle. One of the most notable modifications to their bike was the indented gas tank, which took over 200 hours to create. They were very proud of that accomplishment, as they should be.
Eden was equally prepared with their custom 1979 Sportster. The work they put into the build shows their ability to overcome challenges. Starting out with sheet metal, tubing and a Sportster engine, they ended up with a very respectable machine. The transmission was cracked so they cut it off and fabricated a Baker six-speed Frankentranny to it. They also logged some time on the fuel tank trying to make it fit their plans. It was cut in half, widened and lowered, and now one side holds gas and the other side oil. The wheels came from a 2009 H-D Rocker, and they machined custom five-star rotor mounts to give it a modern spool wheel look.
La Crescent-Hokah had a new cast of crew members but the teacher, Scott Martin, is a veteran at the show. For the past two years, Martin had brought students from Caledonia, Minnesota, to the show with good results. He is now teaching at La Crescent-Hokah and the school is really on board with the chopper class program. He is hoping to make it part of the regular school curriculum next year. They brought a Yamaha XS650 bobber to make their debut, which included a hardtail rear section, Sportster tank and custom pegs added by a past chopper class student.
Teach brought a couple of bikes his classes are working on and entered them in the show’s Open Class. He currently has around 25 students in his classes, including some girls that can show the boys a thing or two.
Overall the DSCCC is a great program to help develop students that need something extra to hold their interest in school. Being able to build a complete custom while learning to work as a team gives them skills they might not find in standard classes. Generally, each school sells their previous build to help pay for the next one as a way to keep the costs down.
In the end, all the chopper class students are winners for daring to do what others don’t. It is a challenge to keep these chopper clubs going, so please reach out and help a school if you can. The future of custom bikes might be right in your backyard.
To find out more, go to www.facebook.com/donniesmithchopperclasschallenge and if you’d like to donate parts or cash contact Scottie Ard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This year’s awards are:
Eden: Overall show winner and the Design and Innovation award
Mitchell: Technical award and the Traveling award
La Crescent-Hokah: The 3R award (rebuild, reuse, recycle) and People’s Choice 4