It’s a family affair
Rolling out the red carpet
La Crosse, Wis., June 27–29—When George Smith Sr. set a land speed record at Bonneville in 1954 racing a motorcycle with a modified Knucklehead equipped with homemade pistons and cylinders, and followed that success by starting up S&S Cycle Equipment in partnership with Stanley Stankos four years later, he probably never imagined that the international motorcycle community would help the Smith family celebrate S&S Cycle’s 50th anniversary at one of the biggest celebrations of its kind.
The motorcycle media, as well as the general public, had been fed bits and pieces of information for more than a year, when planning for the S&S Cycle 50th Anniversary began. The anticipation was almost tangible, and the topic of many conversations leading up to the event. We were promised the party of the decade. We weren’t disappointed.
Howard Kelly, communications manager for S&S said, “The idea for this event was to do something very unique, bigger, and more global than anything we’d ever done before.” S&S typically works with five builders every year to showcase its products. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the field was expanded to 50 builders in what S&S referred to as the world’s largest build-off.
Three days just isn’t enough
The event took place over a three-day weekend, and in the midst of the worst rains and flooding that the Midwest has experienced in 15 years. The multiple downpours, including a flash flood on Friday, barely slowed down the crowds lined up to enter the South Side Oktoberfest festival grounds where the build-off took place. Dealers, builders, customers, and riders who wanted to pay tribute to one of the top Harley aftermarket companies in the world flocked in from all corners of the globe.
Did I say three days? There were so many events at various venues around the city that the celebration actually started a day early, on Thursday, and spilled over into Monday. With the estimated 30,000 visitors who showed up, the event was more like a mid-sized motorcycle rally than a family birthday party. Unlike what happens at some other bike events, the charming city of La Crosse greeted these tens of thousands of bikers with open arms. The police and hired security were friendly, helpful, and definitely not looking to hand out tickets. Hotels, restaurants, and other retail establishments went out of their way to make us feel welcome. And somehow S&S managed to arrange motorcycle-only parking along every street within a quarter-mile of the Oktoberfest grounds.
La Crosse Speedway, another S&S anniversary venue, played host to a weekend full of activities. Street drags and stunt shows were scheduled on Friday evening, with stock car racing Saturday night. The Teresi Dyno Drags were set up for those who wanted to test their bikes’ horsepower under more controlled conditions. The exhibition building housed live music on Friday and Saturday nights after the races, and for those camping out at the track. The Horse, in conjunction with S&S, held a ride-in chopper show on Saturday afternoon with nearly 200 bikes competing. Unconfirmed reports state that the first-place prize of the winner’s choice of a new S&S P- or SH-Series motor was awarded to Tha Nutz from Minnesota for his wildly-painted ’61 Panhead set in a VL frame.
If you still didn’t get your fill of stunts and speed, Bubba Blackwell performed his Thrill Show at La Crosse H-D during the dealership’s open house. For those who desired a much slower pace, builder celebrity cruises took place on paddlewheel vessels Julia Belle Swain and La Crosse Queen. These relaxing cruises gave folks a chance to meet and hang out with their favorite builders, and to enjoy the lovely riverbank scenery. It was also a wonderful opportunity to listen to the Smiths tell tales of the early years at S&S.
S&S gave tours of its La Crosse and Viola facilities during the weekend, and also taking place were trolley tours of the historic downtown district, self-guided Historical Society scenic rides, La Crosse City Brewery tours, and Pearl Street Brewery Tours and Tastings. In honor of the S&S 50th, Pearl Street Brewery announced its special brew for the weekend, Proven Performance Ale, that sported a label featuring the X-Wedge engine!
Several other businesses set up events to complement the anniversary weekend. One of the best hangout places we found was Rudy’s Drive-In, a 50s-style restaurant that still has roller-skating car hops and those old-style food trays that clip to your car window. We even saw a tray balanced on a motorcycle seat! Thursday night was Rudy’s 75th Anniversary American Graffiti night where we enjoyed checking out the old cars and bikes set to a musical background of the BeeGees and other bands from that era. When I met owner Gary Rudy, third-generation owner of Rudy’s, he told me that the 6th annual Knucklehead Reunion would take place there on Saturday. So I made sure to stop there again late Saturday afternoon, dragging a bunch of folks with me. Sure enough, the show had some of the coolest vintage bikes I’d ever seen in one place. I have no idea who won—we went back and forth across the street to hang out at Chuck’s several times during the evening—but each bike was a splendid example of old iron. I must have had a good time that night because by the time I was ready to leave, the lights at Rudy’s were turned out and my bike was the only vehicle left in the parking lot.
Accolades all around
The official start of the weekend began on Friday morning with the opening ceremonies under the builders’ tent. S&S president Brett Smith introduced many of the Smith family members, including his dad George B. Smith, a second-generation Smith and S&S chairman of the board, and his uncle Ken who’s been working at S&S since 1971.
By the shape of the tarp covering something in front of the stage, it was obvious that a motorcycle unveiling would take place. Sure enough, Ken Smith and S&S sales director Charlie Hadaiya pulled back the tarp to reveal a running reproduction of the original Tramp motorcycle, just like the one that George Smith Sr. raced at Bonneville in 1954.
Next was the presentation of some very special paintings. Stefanie Aziere-Sattler of Sedalia, Missouri was named the official artist of the S&S 50th Anniversary, and she unveiled a painting of some of S&S’s land speed racers at Bonneville, a portrait of a young George Sr. sitting astride his Harley, and a rendering of all six S&S engine series. Another surprise was when Ron Hutchinson of H-D Racing presented George B. and his son Brett with a plaque in honor of their company’s anniversary.
To kick off the festivities, Brett asked all the builders to go to their bikes, start them up, and rev them as loud as they could. The noise was deafening, but not loud enough to drown out the cheers of the crowd. What a difference from other bike shows where builders have been asked to leave for starting their bikes inside the exhibit hall!
Besides organizer Howard Kelly and the S&S crew, the hardest-working guy of the weekend had to be Michael Lichter. Michael and his assistant Steve Temple had set up a photo studio in the middle of the builders’ tent and were busy shooting every one of the 50 bikes for a book commemorating the occasion. Howard, who’s authoring the book, says that it should be in print by November.
That evening, Stefanie and Michael hosted a gallery reception at the Pump House Regional Arts Center where their works were being displayed. And smack dab in the middle of the front exhibit hall was a six-foot heron! Okay, so it wasn’t a real one, rather a statue—one of the 35 placed around the city as part of a public art project to promote arts and tourism. This one, however, was special. The heron was garbed in black leather and goggles, riding a racebike on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The helmet, jacket, and bike were festooned with S&S logos honoring the company’s anniversary.
A Festive Atmosphere
The Oktoberfest festival grounds was ground zero of the event. The build-off exhibition tent had thousands of people streaming through it non-stop throughout the weekend. A number of major manufacturers along with several builders brought their rigs to exhibit bikes and bike components in the trade show area of the park. S&S had two huge displays—one featuring each of its six engine classes, and the other displaying historically significant bikes from the S&S museum.
The beer hall was packed, and bands played throughout the day. Outside the beer hall was a huge stage, tons of picnic tables, and food and drink vendors. Live music could be heard day and night there, as well. OCC The Band played on Friday afternoon, and surprisingly, the guys were pretty good! The main musical event was Saturday night when Jackyl took the stage after leading a rainy, all-day ride through the Coulee Region.
Probably the biggest drama of the weekend was the pounding rain on Friday afternoon, resulting in a flood on the Oktoberfest grounds. Folks were told to move their bikes from Front St., the road between the park and the river, because the water had risen knee-high. Eventually it stopped raining, and shortly after that, the water drained away. As soon as the sun came out, the festival grounds were packed with people once again.
The build-off awards presentation took place on Sunday afternoon (see Jack Ryan’s sidebar). Festivities continued throughout the day, culminating in a La Crosse Symphony Orchestra Pops Concert in the neighboring town of Onalaska, and then a fireworks display. Wait! It’s not over yet! S&S rented La Crosse Speedway all day for the S&S Day at the Race Track on Monday. It was tempting to stay, but it was a two-day ride home so I reluctantly took my leave.
The weekend was so much fun that I can only hope that S&S puts on a repeat performance. It’d be too much to ask for another extravaganza like this in 2009, but we can always wonder how the S&S crew will celebrate its 55th anniversary.