The Rain Man of vintage bikes
Lonnie Isam had an idea
Have you heard about the Motorcycle Cannonball scheduled to take place in September? A bunch of nuts—I mean vintage motorcycle devotees—are set to ride their pre-1916 scooters from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, California. Anyone who scoffs at the idea of this ancient iron making the coast-to-coast trek needs to have a chat with Lonnie Isam, Jr., the man behind the event. Two minutes into the conversation and you, too, will be a believer.
Isam is a man who loves motorcycles. But not in the conventional way that most of us do. He lives and breathes motorcycles. Vintage motorcycles, to be exact. The pre-1916 versions, to be precise. They consume his days. They fuel his passion; his life revolves around them. He knows the pedigrees of his personal machines, as well as those of the motorcycles his friends own. He carefully researches antique bikes, labors over them and restores them. He can spout dates of historical motorcycle events, engine sizes and changes the factories made to a particular model, and specific design flaws and stats like a man possessed. He is the Rain Man of vintage motorcycles.
As owner/operator of Jurassic Racing in Sturgis, South Dakota, Isam spends his days at his shop. When he isn’t working, painstakingly restoring his beloved machines, he dreams of riding those same machines. It was those dreams that led the 40-year-old Lonnie to his current undertaking—putting together a motorcycle rally of historic proportions. And while his dreams started out as a shared idea among 15 or 16 close buddies to just go for a ride on their antiquated contraptions, he recently found himself knee deep in paperwork and possibilities when he dared to make his dream public. The result was the Motorcycle Cannonball.
It runs in the family
Not one who enjoys the spotlight, there is nothing in Isam’s background that prepared him for the rigors of becoming a promoter. Motorcycles, however, are part of his heritage. His maternal grandfather, who still resides in the Seattle area, owned a Harley-Davidson dealership in the state of Washington for years. Though no longer in the family, that dealership is still in operation. His paternal grandfather was a drag racer who died in a crash while racing before Lonnie Jr. was born. Isam’s uncle owns the largest private collection of American antique motorcycles in the world—a collection that includes over 300 machines.
Isam’s father, Lonnie Sr., raced nitro-fueled Harleys until just a couple of years ago and still owns and operates Competition Distributing Company, a business that is well-known in the vintage motorcycle industry. The company manufactures and distributes replacement parts for pre-1929 Harley-Davidsons and other early American motorcycles.
As for Lonnie himself, well, let’s just say it’s been rumored that 50-weight courses through his veins, and the word “gearhead” comes to mind as he speaks. “When I was a kid, Stephen Wright’s book, The American Racer, was like my bible. I loved that book, and it was written from all first-hand accounts. I feel he single-handedly gave board track racing back to the world. Stephen is the premier authority on pre-1916 bikes.” Lonnie was 10 years old when the book came out.
When asked if he had a particular hero as a kid, besides his dad, he instantly responded with, “Yep. Steve McQueen. I was still riding dirt bikes and eating dirt when this crusty old guy showed up and my dad said, ‘By the way, that’s Steve McQueen.’ He was pretty cool.”
He went on to tell the story of the time Oliver Stone hired the Senior Isam to deliver 12 bikes to Dallas, Texas, for the shooting of Stone’s movie JFK. In his early 20s at the time, Lonnie shared that it was pretty cool to be hired to help his father with starting up the bikes for the riders and keeping the bikes running, until it was discovered that few knew how to ride and an extra ran one of the cherished bikes up under a car. “We never did that again,” he said.
Besides organizing the event, Isam is also participating in the 3,325-mile journey on a motorcycle that was designed over 50 years before he was even born. And while his first love is the cherished antiques, Lonnie does also own some modern-day motorcycles. “They’re not as much fun,” he says.
Whether he’ll be able to physically handle the complete ride, well, that’s a real concern. The unassuming Isam says, “It’s going to be a tough ride. The most I’ve ever done on a pre-1916 is about 50 miles in a day. I think we’re all pretty concerned about our motorcycles and our physical abilities. It’s going to be pretty interesting.” In true Lonnie fashion, he follows with, “What’s even more interesting is seeing the builds some of the guys are doing for this ride.”
And let’s face it, it’s not like a rider could just go down and purchase a qualifying motorcycle to enter, or even find some of the necessary parts needed to put a bike together. A lot of the parts will be fabricated, and there are strict rules that govern what will be allowed.
As of this writing, there are 61 riders entered in the event and several are in the process of putting bikes together specifically for the event. Everyone from a plumber to museum owners, European men and women, and even a 70-year-old gentleman are scheduled to make this truly historic transcontinental ride.
Go to www.motorcyclecannonball.com for more information, including the route for this pack of vintage riders and to follow along with the progress of the various builds.