St. Paul, Minn., Mar. 29–30 — Bearded bikers, moms and dads with infants in strollers, clubs sporting colors, teenagers, run-of-the-mill motorheads—all mingled together in the long line streaming into the St. Paul RiverCentre early Saturday morning. It was an eclectic mix to be sure, but all were there for one reason—to attend the 27th annual Donnie Smith Bike + Car Show and Parts Extravaganza.
For over a quarter-century, folks have flocked to the biggest, and what many consider the best, bike show in the Midwest. Although most of the vendors and manufacturers at the event have been exhibiting there for years, each show brings new attractions, and this year followed the successful template of giving the people what they want, along with changing things up just to keep things fresh.
Something old, something new
On the street level of the convention center, the lobby was filled with exhibitors touting bike products, accessories and apparel, as well as representatives from rallies and touring destinations. Riding schools, motorcyclists’ rights organizations, veterans’ and military groups along with charities were also well represented. It costs nothing to peruse these lobby exhibits, but there’s a method to this madness. The tempting lobby array results in most people paying the $14 admission fee to enjoy all the show has to offer. And it was made all the sweeter with free admission for kids 12 and under.
Down the escalator to the lower-level main show floor were many more vendors and manufacturers spread across the exhibit hall. There were leathers, pins, patches, helmets, do-rags, riding eyewear, jewelry, boots, handbags, cleaning and polishing products and other bike-related products. House of Kolor had a display set up, as did painters, airbrush artists and pinstripers. The National Motorcycle Museum had an exhibit to get folks interested in old iron, as did the Viking Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, with a dozen of their members’ vintage bikes on display.
American motorcycle manufacturers were well represented, with St. Paul Harley-Davidson, Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities, Miles Outland Indian and Victory and a large co-op exhibit representing a dozen Victory dealers in Minnesota that were running a show special if customers wanted to buy a Victory that weekend, or even within the weeks that followed. Custom shops such as Fury Customs, DD Custom Cycle and Deadline Customs all made return appearances this year, each with several bikes entered into the judged competition. For those who prefer three wheels, Roadsmith and SS Trike were on hand to display their trikes and trike conversion kits. And for riders who want to travel in style, several manufacturers showed off their tow-behind trailers.
In the center of the main exhibit hall, Donnie Smith held court in the midst of a large display of some of his fabulous customs where he greeted family, friends, fans and fellow Hamsters. At Donnie’s booth, Dave Perewitz and his daughter Jody could also be seen thoroughly enjoying themselves, chatting with the crowds and enjoying the spectacle of the show. Title sponsor Dennis Kirk and other major sponsors Route 65 Classics and Amsoil all set up exhibits as well. And let’s not forget Budweiser, another major sponsor that had a pop-up bar in the middle of the main show floor. Other premier companies included S&S Cycle, RideWright Wheels and Wizard cleaning products while BAKER Drivetrain made its first appearance at the show, much to the delight of both the crowd and the BAKER crew.
In the adjoining exhibit hall, a gigantic swap meet took place with vendors offering everything from tanks, fenders and wheels to complete rollers, as well as all sorts of apparel, tools, books and other bike-related gear and supplies. Signs pointed people up the escalator into the Roy Wilkins auditorium, where a brand-new feature was taking place—a 22-class car show featuring vintage cars and monster trucks, muscle cars and gassers, hot rods and rat rods, and even a full-on dragster. Vendors of interest to both car and cycle enthusiasts lined the perimeter of the auditorium, and the crossover continued into the car show, with some competitors also displaying bikes at their exhibits as well as entering bikes into the Open or Pro classes. There were 64 cars and trucks in the show, an impressive number for a first-year event.
Friends and family
Back in the main exhibit hall, Mike and Carolyn Tomas of Kiwi Indian Motorcycles had some of their custom reproductions on display. The one I was most interested in was owned by a guy named David from the Minneapolis area. David had met Kiwi Mike at last year’s show, and told him that he wanted to get his dad’s ’46 Chief in running order again. David’s dad had passed away and the bike had been in storage for a long time. According to Mike, “It was in pretty sad shape; thoroughly worn out. We stripped it down, went through it methodically and rebuilt it to make it safe and roadworthy.” The amazing thing about the story is that David did not know how to ride motorcycles, and just now learned so that he can ride the old Indian. Mike says, “It seems to have given him a new lease on life.” What a wonderful way for David to honor his dad!
The raison d’etre of the show was, of course, the judged bike competition for the Pro Class and Open Class. Some very cool trophies custom painted by Deadline Customs and Dave Perewitz and a total of $4,000 were awarded to the winners of the Pro Class with plaques and $3,500 being split among the Open Class winners. The Pro Class was limited to 20 bikes, and 10 of this year’s entries were baggers! In keeping with this trend, vendors like Tommy Baggers with their custom bagger parts and Ballistic Cycles with their high-end 30” hubless wheel catered to the bagger and big-wheel crowd. And the Pro Class was split into two competitions this year—Pro Bagger and Pro Custom. But just to prove Pro Streets are still in the game, Michael Vruno won first place in the Pro Custom competition with a long-and-low custom powered by a TP big-inch motor. And the Pro Bagger class was claimed by a stunning big-wheel custom built by Curt Hofmann of Hofmann Designs.
The Open Class competition filled up its 35 classes with more than 120 entries ranging from antiques to late-model motorcycles. Knuckleheads, Panheads, Ironheads and Shovelheads were extremely popular, and several father-son teams had worked together on some of these vintage bikes to get them road-ready and show-worthy. One such team was Bruce and Dan Gervais from Stacy, Minnesota. Dad Bruce bought the ’38 Knuck on display when he was 17 and has had it for about 40 years. He says, “I rode the hell out of it for about 30 years, and then it sat in the garage for about 10.” When Dan was 23, he said to his dad, “I want your first bike to be my first bike.” So father and son tore it all down to “bare nothing.” They went through everything mechanical, and then made the fender and fender struts using Dan’s grandpa’s twisting machine that he used to twist steel and wrought iron. Donnie Smith actually built the front end 30 years ago, and Donnie thinks he may have made the handlebars as well. Dan said, “We have about five years into it. We work on it when we can. After this show, it’s going down the road.”
Another cool story involved Dave Gooden, his sons Dave II and Eric and a ’94 Sportster. Dave runs a one-stall shop, Hepcat Choppers, at his home in Virginia, Minnesota, where he does builds for family, friends and a few select customers. Son Dave II came up with the idea to build a chopper for his brother Eric. Dave II’s daughter found a ’94 Sportster in a shed, and the two Daves used it as a donor bike for the front end, half the frame and the engine, and fabbed most of the other parts. They started the build in October and finished up the Saturday before the show. Eric never even saw the bike until it was time to load it on the truck to take it to St. Paul, but thought nothing of it until the boys went outside for a smoke break and Dave II handed Eric the keys along with a “Happy birthday.” Eric was beside himself with excitement. Both boys grew up riding, but it was Eric’s first bike since he was a little kid.
A wild dual-motor machine built by Crazy John Markwald of Andover, Minnesota, has an interesting history as well. The bike was supposed to be built by Donnie Smith for a good friend of theirs who became “financially challenged” when the economy went bad. The guy began to sell the parts and had gotten rid of everything except the frame and front end when John asked, “What do you want for it?” The guy tossed out, “I’ll take $100 for it.” Then he thought about that careless comment and said, “Wait a minute. I need two sheets of stainless for behind my store.” Crazy John’s business is metals, so the deal was done. The entire bike was made out of scrap—stuff that John usually throws away—and he horse-traded with friends for various parts, spending only a few hundred bucks here and there. It’s got many special features, such as a Downdraft Weber carb, a 9-gallon fuel reservoir and a nitrous oxide tank in case he wants to race (John was ranked #1 in top fuel dragsters in 1991). He worked on the monster bike over two winters: “It kept me out of the bars and it was just as cheap to build as it would have been to go drinking.”
Spreading the gearhead gospel
A good part of the show is dedicated to passing down the garage-build gene to future generations. The kids from Sturgis Brown High School had their Open Class prize-winning bike on display. The high school students that competed in the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge impressed visiting Ruben Brown, former NFL star, so much that his June 21 Orchard Park, New York, motorcycle run for the Ruben Brown Foundation will raise funds for the Eden High School chopper class, which is located near his current hometown. (Check out www.rubenbrownfoundation.com for run details.) And first-time show visitor, the esteemed and talented Sugar Bear, found mutual inspiration with the kids from Kennedy High School who had several bikes entered in the Open Class.
Promoter Neil Ryan says that the show experienced record attendance on Saturday, and overall, the weekend’s turnout was better than last year. He told me, “The director of the building and head of sales called me at noon on Saturday and said, ‘Hey; we gotta meet. You got a minute?’ I thought, ‘Uh-oh; how did I screw up?’ I’ve only met the director three times in the 13 years I’ve held the show here. When I did meet up with him, he told me that we put more people through the door by noon on Saturday than any other event in the history of the venue.” It was one of the top two Donnie Smith shows in history, and according to Neil, it probably would have been the top show had Sunday not been 67 degrees. “With the winter we had, everyone was out riding!”
Jody Perewitz, who’s been in business with her dad for some years, in addition to setting and breaking land-speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, was quite impressed with the show. She said, “I haven’t been here for about five years. There’s definitely a younger generation here now; younger builders, younger vendors, younger audiences. It used to be me hanging out with my dad and his buddies. Now it’s my dad and his buddies and me and my buddies. It’s one of the best shows we go to.” What bikes did Jody think stood out? “There are definitely some really nice bikes. Some cool baggers; they definitely stepped up their game as far as custom bikes. It’s not just your local customs. There’s a lot of nice stuff here. I don’t really have a favorite bike, but I like the old bikes—Knuckleheads, Panheads. I loved Dan Rognsvoog’s 1913. There are only so many that exist, and I love to see them still around.”
Donnie was thrilled with this year’s show. “The cars amazed me. There were some outstanding cars, and people that are in the show are already asking me, ‘What are you doing next year? I’ve got more cars…’” Donnie tells me that St. Paul is a hotbed of vintage car activity, with the Minnesota Street Rod Association’s “Back to the 50’s” meet and the Car Craft Summer Nationals both taking place in the city. He also liked the mix of bikes: “A good cross section of a lot of bikes, but the baggers are real strong. However, our overall winner, Michael Vruno, had a Pro Street that he pretty much built all on his own and he did a damned good job.
“We’re really trying to keep it family oriented, and attract a young crowd,” Donnie continued. “Our Saturday night Happy Hour has been very successful; I’ve been going to bars and seeing the Lamont Cranston band for 30 years.” Neil added, “Our Happy Hour was off the hook! We sold out the vendor spaces, but that’s happened for the past several years. We had 1,274 kids 12 or under come into the show with their parents. Looking at the overall numbers, that means about 25 percent of the adults at the show were 35 or under, and that’s our future.” And what about the future? “The 2015 show will be March 28-29. We’ll grow the car show, but next year’s gonna be a steady-as-you-grow type of year. Why mess with success?”
(This article Passing Along the Passion was published in the June 2014 issue of Thunder Press, North edition.)
Pro Class Winners
1) Curtis Hofmann of Hofmann Designs, Hanover, Minnesota
2) Deadline Customs, Forest Lake, Minnesota
3) Jesse Schmitt, Shakopee, Minnesota
1) Michael Vruno, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota
2) Dan Rognsvoog, Franksville, Wisconsin
3) Paul Lovas, Stillwater, Minnesota
Open Class Special Awards
Best Display: Billy Wesp, Crystal, Minnesota
Best Paint: Robert McCormick, Lakeville, Minnesota
Best Lighting: Jeff Widgren, Osceola, Wisconsin
Best Chopper: Mike Dahmes of Fury Motorcycles, South St. Paul, Minnesota
Best Sport Bike: One Stall Customs, Fertile, Iowa
Best Antique: Dan Rognsvoog, Franksville, Minnesota
Best Pro Street: Curt Kuenzi of JMC Custom Motorcycles, Savage, Minnesota
Best Bobber: Charlie Estep, St. Michael, Minnesota
Best Bagger: Tim Kerkhoff, Morton, Minnesota
Judges Choice: Dan Coates, Forest Lake, Minnesota