St. Paul, Minn., Apr. 2–3—The long line of people started at the ticket booth, snaked around the lobby and stopped short of the escalator. It seemed that everyone wanted to be among the first to enter the St. Paul RiverCentre exhibit hall for the 29th annual Donnie Smith Bike & Car Show Saturday morning, and with good reason, because in the next hour or so the show would be packed.
As soon as the clock struck nine, everyone rushed down to the lower level of the convention center, with some folks heading toward the rows of vendors and others to the bike displays. But many heard the siren call of swap meet goodies emanating from the 40,000-square-foot space adjoining the main exhibit hall. Back in 1998, this show began as a regional swap meet, and although it has branched out to offer more attractions, it’s stayed true to its roots—to kickstart the riding season with a gathering of like-minded motorcycle devotees.
This is where many Midwestern folks find just the right parts to complete their winter projects, or inspiration to start new ones. With everything from frames to fenders, rollers to running bikes, attendees were seen making multiple trips from the show to load up their vehicles and return for more. And for those just customizing or upgrading their rides, I saw buyers trekking back and forth with exhaust systems, wheels, and, this year, Tour-Pak luggage racks, which seemed to be a big hit.
Smack dab in the middle of the 70,000-square-foot main exhibit hall was the display booth for Donnie Smith Custom Cycles. This is the week that Donnie and his longtime paramour Dawn mark their birthdays, which fall around the date of the show, and the celebration continues throughout the weekend. In fact, the show seems like a big birthday party with the man himself holding court, autographing posters, posing for photos, and chatting with friends and fans.
Sharing the main floor were numerous aftermarket companies and manufacturers such as title sponsor Dennis Kirk, show sponsor Amsoil, Arlen Ness Parts, Biker’s Choice, Kuryakyn, Dakota Digital, Progressive Suspension, Blackmore Manufacturing, Condor Wheel Chocks, J&S Jacks & Lifts, Khrome Werks, REDA gas containers, Duane Smith Custom Seats—they showed up with some very cool seat skins—and more. Vendors such as Wizards and Spit N Shine showed off the latest bike cleaning products. Painters and powder coaters TJ Design, S&J Custom Paint and Adrenaline Customs Powder Coating were also on site. House of Kolor had a big display touting their 60 years in business, and in their booth was paint magician Ron “Flea” Fleenor laying down some cool pin-stripe designs on metal panels.
Motorcycle manufacturers, speed shops and custom builders were well represented, with some new shops added into the mix. Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities had an expansive exhibit, St. Paul Harley-Davidson set up shop with bikes and apparel, and SS Trike displayed their big-front-wheel trikes. Lee’s Speed Shop, the Dyno Guys Speed Shop, Ward Performance, Weston Choppers, Half Breed Custom Motorcycles, Fury Motorcycles, DD Custom Cycle, Deadline Customs, Vanilla Cycles, Bikeman Hellbent Industries, Ballistic Cycles, Hofmann Designs, American Thunder, and new exhibitor Union Speed & Style all featured their custom bikes, with most of the aforementioned shops also entering their builds into the judged bike competition.
Upstairs in the lobby were plenty of vendors as well as nonprofits promoting charity runs and raffling off motorcycles. Campgrounds and event promoters, motorcyclists’ rights and veterans’ organizations, motorcycle clubs and more were represented. Insurance company GEICO, one of the show sponsors, also made an appearance.
Once again, the National Motorcycle Museum was present, while the Sturgis Buffalo Chip stepped up its presence this year, not only sponsoring the annual Buffalo Chip Challenge but also erecting a mini-stage for photo ops with one of the Miss Buffalo Chip contestants and a chance to win a specially-designed Epiphone guitar commemorating the Chip’s 35th anniversary in August. And upstairs in the hall leading from the car show, the Viking Chapter of the AMCA had a dozen rather unusual vintage bikes on display.
Now in its third year, the car show portion of the event featured some very cool trucks and automobiles that covered pretty much every era from the 1920’s to the present. Many models were restored to pristine condition while others rocked their original patina. Cash and trophies were awarded for the best antique, chrome, classic, display, engine, interior, paint, street rod, and wheels, as well as judges’ choice, along with first- and second-place plaques in 22 classes. The car show has grown each year, and it’s developing a style of its own. According to promoter Neil Ryan, “We’re not looking for specific styles or genres; we take ’em as they come in. We’re looking for a participating market that’s built around the same thing that we did with the bike show. Every year has been good quality, and every year the quality will improve.” Vendor presence in the car show has increased as well, with plenty of interesting products available.
In 2011 a Saturday evening happy hour was added to the mix, in effect extending the bike show’s closing time from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and each year drawing more and more people. The Donnie Smith show is not just a bike and car show; it’s a social event that many consider the kickoff of the Midwest riding season, and the happy hour just adds to that ambience. Neil told me that in the years prior to the happy hour, only a few hundred tickets sold at 4:00 Saturday afternoon. Now 4:00 p.m. ticket sales are in the thousands.
Show sponsor Budweiser had a bar set up and there were plenty of tables arranged in front of the stage where local favorites, the Lamont Cranston Blues Band, performed. Once the show closed for the day, we headed to The Whiskey Junction in Minneapolis to continue Donnie’s birthday celebration with the Babble-On band.
After another late night in the Twin Cities, we were grateful for the somewhat later opening of the show at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday. Radio station 92KQRS was broadcasting from the show and giving away prizes from the stage. There was so much going on that I didn’t get a chance to see all the vendors, cars and bikes the day before. But this day I was able to speak with some of the people that had entered the competition. Jeremy Starin from Big Lake, Minnesota, restored his dad’s ’56 Panhead that had been sitting in boxes for years. “My old man bought it when he was 16,” Jeremy explained. “He worked at the Harley shop in Fergus Falls. It got traded in and he’s owned it ever since. When it got worn up and used away, he passed it onto me. By then it was rusty pieces and parts in boxes, so I ended up redoing everything and putting it back together.”
One fabulous vintage specimen was the 1914 Excelsior Twin owned by Bill Lykken from North Dakota. The bike is 100-percent original, and he acquired it about a year and a half ago, although he’s had his eye on it for 16 years. Finally the owner was ready to sell it and Bill jumped at the chance. He thinks the bike hasn’t been run since the 60’s, and tells me, “I haven’t started it yet, but I plan on it.” Later that afternoon, the Excelsior was awarded Best Antique of the entire show. Watch for this beauty at a future AMCA meet!
On the other end of the spectrum was Tim Droeger’s 2014 Street Glide that was given the Perewitz Special Paint Award by famed builder and painter Dave Perewitz. Why that particular bike when there was so much great paintwork to choose from? Dave explained, “The paint job on that thing is really cool. It’s not overdone at all. There’s a lot of really neat subtle stuff in it. There’s some ghosting in there, but there’s a lot of detail, and it’s all about the detail.” I asked Dave about trends, and he responded, “The big-wheel bagger thing is still on top of the heap here.” Dave’s daughter Jody, also a builder and painter, replied, “I think the flat paint, and the matte satin paint is getting pretty big. And I think the next big trend is the FXRs and Dynas. I love my Dyna; I think it’s a great-riding bike and I hope the show has more next year. And it’s cool to bring back older generations of bikes, too.” Donnie added, “The young guys are into nostalgia. What’s happening is that they want to find choppers from the 70’s era.”
The bike show was actually split into two competitions, the Pro class which topped out at 20 entries—10 baggers and 10 customs—and the Open class, which held well over a hundred. The Pro class, with special display lighting, carpeting and stanchions, featured over $7,500 in cash, prizes and trophies given to the winners. This class actually consisted of two categories, Baggers and Customs. First place in the Bagger class was awarded to DD Customs for their “All Steel” bike, while Paragon Customs won first place in the Custom class for their “Twisted Pan.” In the open class, special awards of cash and plaques were given for the best paint, display, lighting, antique, bagger, bobber, chopper, pro street, sport bike and the overall judges’ choice. Open class also included 35 categories for which plaques were awarded to the first- through fourth-place winners.
Near the end of the day, Donnie remarked, “I think this is one of the better years in the overall quality of the bikes that I’ve seen here.” Neil commented, “The bikers are really, really a loyal group. I feel that they’re loyal to our show; they support the show because we give ‘em a good show to come to.” And next year, the 30th anniversary, will be even bigger and better: as part of the show, Neil and Donnie are presenting their inaugural Tattoo Expo! Dates for next year’s show are March 25–26; go to donniesmithbikeshow.com to find out more as the dates draw closer.